Authors: Marissa Day
Heat titles by Marissa Day
THE SEDUCTION OF MIRANDA PROSPER
THE SURRENDER OF LADY JANE
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Copyright © 2012 by Sarah Zettel.
Excerpt fromThe Surrender of Lady Janeby Marissa Day copyright © 2011 by Sarah Zettel.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Fascinated / Marissa Day.
1. Magicians—Fiction. 2. London (England)—18th century—Fiction. I. Title.
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
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This book is dedicatedto my husband, Tim,as are all my happily ever afters.Table of Contents
The Surrender of Lady JanePrologue
“Well, speak of the devil and he appears.”
Edward Randall, Baron Carstairs, entered the Club’s common room and was greeted by a series of upraised glasses and upturned faces. The men occupying the dark-paneled and comfortably furnished chamber were an unusual cross section of London’s population. Not only were gentlemen and the nobility represented, but with them sat tradesmen, clerks and even a pair of brothers in the stout boots and corduroy trousers of the laboring class.
This remarkably egalitarian gathering was known only as “the Club.” Like many another gentlemen’s association, it provided bedchambers for members in need of temporary quarters, a common room, a library and space reserved for private meetings. It even had its own betting book for members with the urge for a little sport. But the Club had no brass plaque on the door; neither did those gathered there carry cards with its address engraved on them. Members needed no name for the organization, and thosewho were not members did not need hints or mysteries they might be tempted to puzzle out.
Each and every man in that room, whatever his rank or class, was a servant of the Crown. Each and every one was also a magic worker. Together they represented a thin line of defense for the Isle of Britain against the otherworldly Fae, a powerful and deadly enemy determined to conquer and rule the land. This house was one of the few places the secret defenders of the realm could let their guard down and relax for a few hours among trusted compatriots.
“Hullo, Rathe.” Carstairs settled himself into an unoccupied chair by the window and sent the waiter off for a whiskey. “Which devil are we speaking of this time?”
“You, of course.” Corwin Rathe was a tall, black-haired man with excellent taste in clothing and a deceptively amiable manner. One might easily take him for a bit of a fool, but he was among the most dangerous men in this battle-hardened company.
“Rathe was surprised you agreed to a party to celebrate your engagement,” said Marcus Addington from his post at the sideboard. He wore a simple black coat that could have marked him as anything from a vicar to a bank clerk. Addington was a powerful Sorcerer, but his acid-edged tongue had more than once gotten him into trouble.
“Her family insisted on a rout.” Carstairs shrugged. “Said it was expected. Myself, I did not see the need.”
“No need?” Rathe’s eyebrows went up. “No need to celebrate your impending marriage?” Like Addington, Rathe was a Sorcerer; one who could take the aetheric energies commonly known as “magic” and, via force of will, shape them into active enchantment. But to accomplish this, a Sorcerer needed a source of power.That was the role of those like Carstairs. Carstairs was a Catalyst. He was possessed of the ability to draw up the magic of the natural world and channel it to a Sorcerer. Most of the Club’s men were either Sorcerers or Catalysts. There were women with both gifts, of course, but society at large would frown on a social club, however anonymous, that admitted both men and women. So, a second, equally comfortable and discreet house, was kept a few streets away.
“All proprieties attendant the marriage will be observed,” said Edward as he sipped the smoky Scotch whiskey. “The contracts are being drawn up by serious and sober solicitors as we speak. In three weeks, the church will pray over them, a very large dinner will be consumed, I will see my wife comfortably installed in the house and we will both get on with the business of living.”
“That’s awfully callous, even for you,” rumbled Darius Marlowe. The large, leonine man leaned against the mantel, watching the whole room with his hard blue eyes. Even in this place, where every soul was a comrade in arms, Darius seemed incapable of relaxation.
“What, Marlowe?” Carstairs arched his brows. “You don’t imagine I’ll be cruel to her? Have I ever given a woman anything to complain of?” There were knowing chuckles all around the room. “Well, I shan’t start with my wife. She will have plenty of pin money and I’ve no need to fuss about the bills. There will be heirs to keep the estate and title intact, and we can call that a successful marriage.”
“What of love?” asked Rathe.
So that was it. Rathe was hoping to draw him out on the subject. Carstairs shrugged again. “Not all of us are as fortunate as you,”You, and Marlowe, and your Miranda,he amended, butonly silently. Carstairs had attended the very private ceremony where both men had pledged themselves to Miranda as her husbands, never mind what it said on the official marriage license. Still, even among friends this was not something to be spoken of lightly. “Marriage may have been instituted by God in the time of man’s infancy, but since then man has had his way with it,” Carstairs went on. “He’s made of it a way to determine who should get the money and the property and who shouldn’t. For most of us, anything beyond that is a matter of luck, and goodwill.” And love; love was a most dangerous thing for any man, but most especially for their kind. Their enemies worked upon love and the fascination of sex. He wondered if Rathe knew just how lucky he was to have found himself and Darius a woman who had already been tested against the enemy.
“And is your wife-to-be of your opinion?” inquired Addington, sipping his port judiciously.
“My soon-to-be-wife is practical,” Carstairs replied casually. “It’s the first thing I looked for.”
“Yes, but Alicia Hartwell?” cut in Roman Peale, a hatchet-faced man with the elaborately tied neck cloth and starched shirt points of a member of the dandy set. “If you must choose a wife for reasons other than the modern romantic sentiments, why not something the likes of Luella Sanderson? Fresh on the market and quite the stunner. You could have had her with a wink and a nod.”
“And what good does a seventeen-year-old beauty do me? I need someone to run the house credibly, raise the children and keep herself well.”And from whom a man’s mind can keep its distance.Edward considered the amber dregs of his glass. “Parents have no business thrusting such young things into marriage.They don’t know who they are yet, let alone what they want from life.”
“You were the one who just said marriage is nothing but a set of legal obligations,” Rathe reminded him.
“So it is, and before you enter into it, you should understand what those obligations are and how to carry them out. How the hell is anyone supposed to know that at seventeen?”
“So it’s the Honorable Miss Alicia Hartwell at twenty-five.” Peale folded his arms and leaned back in his chair. “Solid, practical and not inclined to raise a fuss at anything you do because she knows damn good and well you’ve rescued her from spinsterhood?”
“And so cold she’ll probably freeze your prick off,” muttered Addington.
Carstairs set his whiskey glass down with a click that was suddenly the loudest sound in the room. “Marcus, I don’t think I heard that properly. Would you care to repeat it?”
“Oh, it was nothing, old man,” Addington said quickly as he took in the expression on Carstairs’s face. He took a much larger swallow of port this time. “Nothing at all.”
“Good,” replied Carstairs. “Because despite the fact that I refuse to be a second Byron over the thought of marriage, the lady in question is my fiancée, and under my protection. I would very much hate to discover anyone had abused her name or character in any setting. Do I make myself clear?”
Some of the color left Addington’s cheeks. “Perfectly.”
“Good.” Carstairs got to his feet. “Well, I am off. Rathe, Marlowe, we’ll be seeing you tonight?”
Both men agreed they would be looking forward to it and Carstairs left the room amid a ragged chorus of good nights andgood wishes. He collected his stick and hat from the footman and stepped out into the clear June evening.
Whatever Rathe and Marlowe might feel about it, Carstairs himself was not particularly looking forward to the party. Society gatherings had never been much to his taste. The Hartwell family was fastidious about appearances, but not possessed of naturally festive natures. Indeed, they were a universally dull and staid lot. As a result, the party would be beautiful, but hardly stimulating. Still, they were right in that it was expected. Perhaps he could take this as an opportunity to steal a few minutes alone with his fiancée. As practical as she appeared, it would not hurt to give her a private assurance or two that he meant to treat her kindly and see her comfortable.
Thinking laudable, domestic and thoroughly unromantic thoughts, Carstairs strolled down the Mayfair Street toward his soon-to-be bride’s house.One
“Alicia, youcannotsneak away from your own engagement party.”
Alicia Hartwell looked closely at her cousin. Verity’s brow was wrinkled and she held her mouth in a decided frown, without the crinkling around her eyes that indicated she was holding in a laugh. Her disappointment was genuine, then.
“I’m not sneaking away,” Alicia replied levelly. “I need to go to the retiring room. Look.” She displayed the gold ribbon dangling from the end of her bronze satin sleeve.
“You’ve been tugging on the thread for at least an hour to get that to come off. Isawyou.” Verity spoke conversationally with a wave of her fan, and a slow glance around the ballroom. Alicia frowned again, running through the possible reasons for the difference between Verity’s stern tone and her casual gesture. Probably Verity did not want to attract notice, which was difficult as she was talking with one of the grand celebration’s two centers of attention.
The other, Lord Carstairs, was currently deep in conversation with Mr. Corwin Rathe, a man said to be very high up in government circles. Her fiancé’s preoccupation was why Alicia had chosen this moment to make her escape. Judging by the intensity of the discussion, it would be a while before Lord Carstairs noticed her absence.
“Verity, please.” Alicia’s fingers strayed to the cinnabar brooch she wore on the white velvet ribbon at her throat. It was a nervous gesture she’d never been able to break herself of. “I just need a breath of air. I’m exhausted from everyone staring.”
The ballroom overflowed with a glittering crowd that included most of fashionable London. It seemed that every one of them kept glancing Alicia’s way to measure and judge. Worst of all was her family: her guardian uncles and the entire flotilla of Hartwell cousins, but especially her three oldest aunts. Aunt Eugenia patrolled the edges of the ballroom like a palace guard, ready to pounce in with a covering remark in case Alicia said something untoward or did not remember to smile at reasonable intervals. Even foolish, amiable Aunt Mary had bustled up several times to remind Alicia to keep circulating among her guests. Aunt Hester, of course, just sat on her chair in the corner andwatched.
“They’ll think you’re going to meet someone,” Verity remarked.
“Is that what you think?”
“No, of course not.” Verity’s face crinkled. In fact, they both knew Alicia having any sort of lover—secret or otherwise—was as far out of the realm of possibility as her drinking the Thames dry. “But you know how people are…” Verity let her words trail off, and fanned herself furiously. Few members of Alicia’s family had ever taken action to try to make things easier for her. Part of that was a consequence of being just one among a huge cohort.Part of it came because no one quite knew what to do with an orphaned relative who was also utterly devoid of comprehension when it came to the feelings of others. Only Verity had ever tried to understand her.
“Don’t be too long,” said Verity at last. “If we have to invent a sick headache for you, the aunts will never let either of us hear the end of it.”
“Thank you.” Alicia started toward the retiring room again at what she hoped was a casual pace.
Had she been any other woman, tonight would have been Alicia’s moment of triumph. Uncle Gavin and Uncle Morris—her guardians since she was a child—had spared no expense. Verity’s older sisters had exercised every fiber of their cool minds and well-developed tastes to make sure each detail of the celebration was perfect. The ballroom had become a wonderland of light and color. Pink and gold silks hung on the walls, creating a shimmering backdrop for the profusion of scarlet roses and white orchids that filled every porcelain vase. Alicia herself had been dressed to coordinate with the decorations. Her gown of bronze, figured satin and gold ribbons had a train appliquéd with white orchids. Her hair, which was a tarnished gold color, was piled high on her head and dressed with creamy roses among the pearls and citrines. Even Aunt Hester, the oldest and sternest of her aunts, seemed satisfied. Girls who had tittered at Alicia behind their fans at their coming-out balls, and had swept past her on the arms of new husbands, watched her with faces pinched by jealousy. And they whispered, even as Alicia walked right past them.
“…look surprisingly well together, I thought, butstill…”
“…when he could have any woman in London…”
“…imagine such a man with Alicia Heartless!”
Alicia kept her eyes straight ahead, as if she did not hear a thing. The name, at least, was an old gibe, one which could do her no more hurt. Especially not now that she was formally engaged to Lord Carstairs.
“Alicia. What are you about?”
The iron-cold voice brought Alicia up sharply. She turned to see Aunt Hester standing poker stiff beside her.
Aunt Hester’s eyes were the pale, Hartwell brown and her hair was snow-white. She had never worn any colors but black and gray in Alicia’s memory, and had never shown pleasure in anything for that same length of time. Alicia sometimes wondered whether Aunt Hester was as devoid of sympathy as she herself was, and if it was her destiny to become this hard. It was an idea that nagged at her like no other.
“Well?” inquired Aunt Hester coolly. “It is nowhere near time for you to be leaving.”
“I’m going to the retiring room, Aunt,” she answered. “To have this ribbon pinned.”
Alicia’s nerve quailed as it always did when she faced Aunt Hester.She’s going to insist on accompanying me. It’s no good. It never was. It was true what she’d told Verity. She was tired. She was not used to so much attention. She needed to get away, to let her accustomed calm settle back over her again. She had planned her retreat with great care during dinner, while she worried at the loose thread on her ribbon. But if Aunt Hester did not agree, her plan was ended. No one in the Hartwell family—not Uncle Gavin, who was its head, not even Verity, who was its boldest member—defied Aunt Hester on any matter, great or small.
Aunt Hester’s needle-sharp eyes traveled up and down Alicia’s form, looking for flaws, or weakness. “Very well,” she said slowly.“But mind you return quickly. I will not have anything being seen as amiss this evening, Alicia. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Aunt.” She must have applied an acceptable level of obedience to her tone, because her aunt nodded, leaving Alicia free to go.
The retiring room was empty of all except the ladies’ maids, which made it possible for Alicia to walk straight through into the dim, quiet hallways of Hartwell House without having to stop and make conversation. Alicia made her careful way through side corridors and adjoining rooms to lessen the likelihood of being seen by such guests as inevitably wandered away from any society rout.
At last, she reached the conservatory that was Uncle Gavin’s pride and joy. She paused in front of the pocket doors, listening. The tension in her shoulders that had built from the pressure of all the stares in the ballroom had not eased. Was it possible someone still watched from the corridor’s shadows? But Alicia heard no rustle of breath or cloth as she slipped through into the conservatory.
As warm as the conservatory was, it was cooler by several degrees than the crowded ballroom, and blessedly quiet. Alicia drew the pocket doors shut behind her and paused again. A breeze touched the back of her neck. She turned, but saw nothing except the closed doors and shadows.
Alicia retreated farther into the darkness, inhaling the scent of greenery and citrus. Alone among the moonlight and carefully tended orange trees, she could breathe, and she could think without anyone watching to make sure her expression suited the occasion. When Alicia was not concentrating, her face had a tendency to go blank. A blank face was most emphatically not appropriate for a young woman at her engagement party, or so she had beeninformed by Aunt Eugenia a total of seven times this evening alone.
She had tried very hard tonight. Lord Carstairs did not seem to have noticed anything amiss during their two dances. He certainly had not said anything. But then, her impression of him was that he was a discreet and polite man; a gentleman rather than a gallant. That suited her. She did not want gallantry. A gallant would expect her to blush and flutter her eyelashes and perhaps swoon. Such a man would at least expect her to feel, and to reciprocate feeling.
No matter how hard she tried, strong feeling for any other person was as far beyond Alicia as the moon. She fingered her brooch where it pressed against the hollow of her throat. Her fingers traced its familiar, knotted carvings. People around her spoke of affection, of familial love, and—as she grew older—of passionate love. But Alicia found nothing she could recognize in their words, no answering chord of comprehension within herself. She had read dozens of novels passed to her by Verity, and had made a close study of Byron, Keats and Shelley, looking for clues as to what love must be. She watched the girls at the parties she attended. She saw them gaze into the eyes of their dance partners, saw them leaning together, and sighing, and helped them as they schemed for a few minutes alone with their chosen one.
And absolutely none of it touched her. Oh, she couldfeel.She knew frustration, anger and sorrow. But this other emotion, the sympathy that connected one human being to another…that was utterly foreign to her. It was as if other people lived in a world of vibrant color and warm light, while she walked apart through cold, gray mist.
It was the same when she looked at Lord Carstairs as when she looked at anyone else. She could see that he was handsome.He was tall, and an active life and active service had left him with a finely shaped body. His hair was a fine shade of chestnut and he wore it in a sailor’s queue that looked quite well on him. She found his weathered face to be aesthetically pleasant, especially his bright gray eyes. Added to this, he had a considerable fortune, and unlike some members of the nobility, he took his parliamentary duties seriously, which kept his mind active and engaged.
Alicia sighed. It was a shame, really. So much good fortune in a marriage partner should have been given to someone who had the ability to feel it. At the same time, it was those gray eyes that gave rise to the disquiet that had caused her to need to remove herself from their celebration.
When Uncle Gavin and Uncle Morris had called her into the library to inform her of the proposal they had received, they had made it perfectly clear Lord Carstairs was looking for someone to keep his house, raise any heirs and nothing more. The relief Alicia had known in that moment was, for her, intense.Here,she had thought,is a man with whom I will not have to pretend I am capable of comprehending love.She had agreed to the arrangement at once.
Since then, however, the little time she had spent with Lord Carstairs had given the impression that he was a man who was fully awake to the world. Alicia was accustomed to carefully observing those around her. Because it was so difficult for her to understand what they were feeling or what they meant, she needed all the clues she could possibly gather to navigate social situations. She feared Lord Carstairs’s alert gaze, the way he seemed to understand what a person was thinking before they spoke. Such a man could not long remain ignorant of the malformation of her character. What if he decided he did not want to tie himself to ablighted woman and retracted his offer? This, she knew, would bring much unpleasantness down on her, and on her family. While she might not possess a heart, she did have a conscience. A large number of Hartwell girls were coming out and courting. If Lord Carstairs cried off the marriage, it would make their lives difficult.
The long, low rumble of the pocket doors being drawn open rippled through the conservatory’s silence. Alicia froze. Contrary to what Verity might fear, Alicia was sensible to the delicacy of her position. She had left her own engagement party and isolated herself in the conservatory. People would, in fact, think she had made an assignation. There would be talk. Aunt Hester would be angry and Lord Carstairs would be embarrassed.
Fortunately, except for the patches of moonlight streaming through the arched windows, the conservatory was quite dark. Alicia slipped sideways to the shelter of a carefully contrived grove of potted orange and lemon trees. Surely it was only someone else looking for a moment’s respite from the ballroom’s crush. They would stroll about for a few minutes, then leave, and she could return to her party. This time she would work harder to put a smile on her face for Lord Carstairs. She had practiced the expression in front of the mirror. She could do it.
Footsteps pattered lightly across the tiled floor. It was not one person who entered the conservatory, but two. A young man led a young woman by the hand. The young woman clearly had no trouble putting a smile on her face. Even in the dim moonlight, Alicia could see how the slender, pale flower of a girl gazed raptly at her companion, a dark-haired fellow come fresh to manhood, to judge by his wiry build. To Alicia’s dismay, the pair moved directly into the curve of the little citrus grove, so only a thin screen of trees and greenery separated them from her.
But these two did not notice her. They had eyes for only each other. The young man wrapped both arms around the girl’s waist. As their bodies pressed together, levity deserted the couple.
“Julian…” the girl whispered.
“Hush, Melissa. I know.”
Julian cupped Melissa’s delicate face in both his hands, and lowered his mouth to hers. It was an open, heated kiss these two shared, unabashed and unhurried. Alicia stared, clenching her cinnabar brooch. Julian’s hands slid up Melissa’s back, slowly, as if he treasured each inch of netted satin that passed under his palms. Then he drew his fingers around to the side, brushing Melissa’s breasts so that she hummed low in her throat, even as her mouth continued to work against his.
At last they broke the kiss. Alicia thought they would leave, but they stayed pressed against each other, smiling into each other’s eyes.
“I need you.” Melissa laced her fingers into her lover’s dark hair. “Please, Julian.”
“Oh, my dear,” Julian breathed, and kissed her again, flicking his tongue lightly against her lips. “I want you so. But we should take care…”
“Please,” whispered Melissa once more.
Julian, it seemed, had no heart to refuse her. Again they kissed, and Melissa’s hands wandered freely over her lover’s body, touching everywhere; shoulders, chest, muscled thighs, and lingering especially over his taut buttocks. Julian sighed and growled and pulled Melissa closer, crushing her soft body against him, rubbing his hips against hers until she gasped.
Alicia knew she should close her eyes. She should back away. But she could not move.
Julian turned Melissa in the circle of his arms so that her back was to him. He ran his hands lightly down her front, pausing at her breasts, stroking them lightly but thoroughly, so that she shivered against him and he smiled wickedly. Then he leaned her forward, keeping one arm wrapped about her waist and his hips pressed firmly against her as he opened the tapes of her dress with his other hand. Julian was more expert at such work than Alicia would have expected a man to be, for in a matter of moments, he was able to draw Melissa’s shining ball gown over her head and lay it aside on the ironwork bench.
Melissa swung her arms up over her head and pirouetted on her toes to face her lover. The moonlight turned her chemise translucent, showing up her curved figure in clear silhouette. Julian went down on one knee and held out both hands. Melissa walked gracefully into his arms, fully aware, it seemed, of her own beauty in that moment.
Slowly, Alicia became aware of a strange sensation. The soft, gray mists that always seemed to cradle her thoughts had thinned. In their place came an awareness of confinement, as if she pressed up against the cold, mullioned windows of the conservatory, watching the lovers from the far side.
Julian wrapped his arms around Melissa, bringing her close, so he could rub his face against her belly. It was an intimate gesture, and the sensation of division, of the glass wall, inside Alicia’s mind strengthened. What was it these two had in them that she did not? She had searched and searched for answers to such questions, but her inability to comprehend had never seemed to her as monstrously unfair as it did in this moment.
Julian stood, dragging his hands up Melissa’s rib cage, holding her gaze with his own as he brought his hands to her slopingshoulders. She was breathing hard, and her eyes were half-lidded. Melissa arched her back, and Julian pushed her chemise down to bare her breasts to the moonlight and his flashing gaze.
“Is it not beautiful?” said a man’s voice.
Shock caused Alicia to shoot upright.
“Don’t worry, Alicia,” whispered the man, and now she thought she heard a smile in his deep voice. “It’s quite all right.”
Now she recognized the voice. Lord Carstairs, her fiancé, stood behind her, and very close. She could sense the warmth and solidity of his body, and catch his masculine scent of leather, spice and brandy even over the heady aroma of the orange trees.
It was not possible to expire of shock, not really, but in that moment Alicia wished she could. Perhaps she could manage a faint. Her knees felt weak enough to buckle credibly.
On the other side of the screen of trees and greenery, Julian murmured to his Melissa. He closed his hands over both her bared breasts, kneading them firmly, watching the delight on her face. She grasped his forearms, pressing herself toward him.
“I was leaving,” Alicia whispered, to Lord Carstairs and to herself, even as she watched Julian’s hands working against Melissa’s soft, white breasts. His fingertips grasped his lover’s ruched nipple and rolled it back and forth. Melissa pressed her hand over her mouth to stifle her moan.
“I was leaving,” Alicia said again.
“Shhh…” Lord Carstairs reached around and pressed two fingers lightly against Alicia’s lips. His other hand grasped her arm so that his palm rested against the small space of skin between her sleeve and the top of her glove. “Be patient a moment. I will get us both away.”
Lord Carstairs’s hands were warm. Somewhere, distantly,Alicia was aware of the warmth from his skin spreading down her arms to pool low in her belly. It was a gentle touch, but not soft. It would not be right if it was soft; she was oddly sure of that. Her lips felt callouses on his fingertips, perhaps from the ropes he’d handled as a sailor. Suddenly, strangely, Alicia wanted very much to take those fingers into her mouth.
Lord Carstairs removed his hand from her mouth, but slowly, drawing his calloused fingers across her lips, leaving trails of light behind.
Julian was murmuring to Melissa. Reflexively, Alicia leaned forward, straining to hear. Her left hand pressed tight against her own belly. Lord Carstairs showed no sign of moving, or of taking his heavy, broad hand from her arm. She should pull away. This was wrong of her, of them. If he would not take her out of here, she should leave on her own. What this other couple did, the way they now lay down on the tiled floor so Julian could kiss his way down the curve of Melissa’s body…This was indecent. But watching it, staring at it—that was worse. As Julian’s hands slowly pushed Melissa’s muslin chemise up over her thighs until he exposed the tangled nest of gleaming curls between them, Alicia knew she should at the very least turn away. This struggle inside her, this push of her awareness against the glass wall inside her mind, this was dangerous. She felt that instinctively. There was danger here. She must retreat, back into the safe, gray, distant place where she had always existed. Where she was safe.
What is this? Where do these thoughts come from?A shudder ran through Alicia and she clutched her brooch until its figured edges bit into her hand.
Slowly, almost reverently, Julian lowered his head to Melissa’s naked thighs. He kissed first one, then the other, as his handsshifted them apart. Melissa sighed against one hand while the other tangled in Julian’s hair, urging him closer. Despite her urging, despite her sighs, Julian moved slowly, kissing and licking, but at last he pressed his smiling mouth to those dark curls. Melissa’s hips lifted, and he tucked his hands beneath her, kneading and squeezing her buttocks as he had her breasts. He began to lick her there as well, hard and firm. Melissa clenched her eyes shut and pressed her hand more tightly over her mouth to smother her cries. The fingers of her other hand she knotted tightly in Julian’s hair, holding him in place, demanding that he continue.
“We can go now,” breathed Lord Carstairs into Alicia’s ear. “If you wish.”
A question waited beneath those words. Could Lord Carstairs honestly believe she wanted to stay here andwatch? She didn’t. She couldn’t explain this paralysis that left her unable to so much as turn away from the sight of Julian’s hot, wicked actions with mouth and hands, and Melissa’s wanton delight in all he did to her body.
And yet, she still couldn’t move. Melissa had begun to thrash madly. Julian moaned against her and gripped her thighs as his mouth pressed more tightly against her. Something was happening, some change. Melissa’s delight had taken on a fever pitch, and Julian held her hips tightly, squeezing and lifting her to his wicked kisses, taking her further, and further still, into the strange and dangerous world of delight.
“Please,” whispered Alicia. “Take me out of here.”
“Come, then, Alicia.” Gently but firmly, Lord Carstairs guided her toward the door.Two
By the time they reached the corridor, Lord Carstairs had smoothly rearranged his hold, so that Alicia’s hand rested properly on his sleeve and she was in step at his side.
“We should return to the party,” she said. How had she come to be so short of breath? “Everyone will be wondering where we’ve gotten to.”
“They will think they know were we’ve gotten to.” Lord Carstairs was not walking easily. There seemed to be a tension all about his body. “We should talk for a moment, you and I. Is there someplace we can be private?”
He’s going to call off the wedding. Alicia’s hand rose immediately to her brooch as her throat tightened. The ribbon strained against her neck.He is repulsed by my behavior, and I cannot blame him. I must be going mad.
“I am not going to call off the wedding, if that’s what’s turned you so pale. But we do need to talk.”
“Of course.” After a moment’s thought, Alicia led him downa small side corridor and through the door to Aunt Mary’s music room. No need had been anticipated for this little room during the celebration so it was quite dark and cool. Alicia felt her way around the sofa and skirted the pianoforte so she could pull the curtains back and allow in enough moonlight to see by. When she turned again, she saw that her fiancé faced her squarely, one foot set slightly before the other. It was the stance of a man used to the roll and pitch of a ship’s deck. Once again she was struck by the sheer size of him. Were he to wrap her in his embrace, she would be utterly engulfed.
Why am I thinking of that?She clutched her brooch until the ribbon’s clasp bit into the back of her neck.I must collect myself. I must be calm.
Alicia took a deep breath. “Lord Carstairs…”
“I beg your pardon?”
“We are to be married in three weeks, and we are quite private here.” He glanced toward the door, as if to make certain he spoke the truth. “I think we can use each other’s Christian names; don’t you, Alicia?”
“Yes. Yes, of course. Edward.”
“Thank you.” He bowed slightly. It occurred to her he might be teasing. She could never tell when she was being teased. Irritation rippled through her. So much had happened that she didn’t understand; her response to what she had witnessed, the press of the glass wall inside her mind, her fiancé’s calm acceptance of her outrageous behavior, this seemed insult added to injury.
“Alicia,” said Lord Carstairs—Edward. “I don’t want you to be concerned about what happened in the conservatory.”
She stared dumbly at him.
Edward stepped around the sofa, coming to stand directly in front of her. “If you experienced some…curiosity at what you inadvertently witnessed, it is quite normal and natural.”
Alicia frowned. Curiosity? She considered the word, sorting through her store of emotional references. No. That was too mild a word for what she’d experienced. There was no heat in it, no conflict.
“Alicia?” Edward touched her arm again. She wished there were more light. She wanted to see him plainly. She wanted…she wanted him to do something, to somehow recognize the wall that trapped her. It was as if some part of her thought his recognition could break that wall down.
Or perhaps it was not recognition that was needed. Perhaps it was action.
“Can you make me feel that?” she blurted out.
“Feel what?” Edward lifted his hand away from her.
“What she…what Melissa felt, from Julian. Can you do that?” Oh, she had gone mad. Entirely mad. But she felt she was being smothered. She had to find some way to fight free.
The muscles of Edward’s face shifted. He was holding something back. Slowly and deliberately, he folded his hands behind him. “I have some skill at the art of passion,” he said soberly. “But it is not so simple.”
She watched him choose his next words carefully. “The delight that comes with passion is not just a matter of physical contact.” He leveled his stormy gray gaze at her. “If I had to hazard a guess, I would say this was not the first time they had been together, and that Melissa was very much in love with young Julian.”
“Oh.” She should have guessed. Of course that passion she saw was a result of love. That was why she felt so strange. What fancypainted as a glass wall that could be broken, was only another manifestation of her inborn deficiency.
“However.” Edward reached out again, and grazed the back of her gloved hand with one fingertip. “If you wish to attempt an experiment now, I will do my best to oblige.”
Alicia swallowed. Her throat felt very tight and she clutched at her brooch. Did she wish it? She didn’t know. She feared his disappointment. Edward had experience with women. He’d just confessed as much. He would know if her reaction was not correct. He would know she was blighted.
“I…I don’t know what is happening to me…” Her words trailed off. She was trembling, she realized, and her body could not decide whether it was too hot or too cold. She had no words to rescue herself from this situation, which she had set in motion with her blundering questions. “I am not usually susceptible…”
Edward smiled. “We will talk about that later. For now, we will begin simply, with a kiss.”
The strange tension she perceived before had vanished and Edward moved forward gracefully. He was warm and solid, and so very tall. Now she found herself with her nose almost pressed against the wall of his broad chest. She wondered what that silk-and-linen-clad plane felt like, what he felt like.
“You can touch me,” he murmured. “If you wish.”
Alicia lifted her hand and laid it against his chest, right above the seam of his striped waistcoat. His breath moved underneath her fingertips, and something else. She drew her palm down, until she felt the steady beat of his heart. Standing like this, she felt unexpectedly steady and focused. As much as the sight of Melissa and Julian’s passion had agitated her, the feeling of Edward’s heartbeat calmed her.
She looked up. The moonlight had gotten into Edward’s gray eyes, and they shone as he bent toward her. His lips brushed hers, as gently and deliberately as his fingers had earlier. He drew her closer with that light touch. It seemed her whole awareness pressed against the glass wall in her mind. That wall strained to hold her back, but it could break. She pressed closer to Edward, pressed closer to the barrier of her mind.
Then, suddenly, he broke the kiss. Edward’s head went up, like he’d caught some strange scent or unfamiliar sound. It was not a pleasant sound, either.
“What is it?” she asked uneasily.Did I do something wrong?
“Something…” he murmured. “Something…” He stepped back, turning in place, his hand sweeping the air, as if feeling for an invisible object. He turned again to face her, his outstretched hand reaching for her brooch. Alicia shrank back, and Edward opened his mouth to speak.
A knock sounded on the door, hard, followed by a man’s voice calling. “Carstairs? Carstairs, are you in there?”
“Damn it!” Edward marched across the room and yanked the door open. A tall, black-haired man strode in, and froze. His eyes shifted from Edward to Alicia, and back again.
“Sorry to interrupt,” said Mr. Rathe calmly. “But a messenger has arrived, Carstairs. Captain Smith has sent for us.”
Edward snapped at once to attention. “I will be there directly.”
Rathe nodded to Edward, bowed to Alicia, and left, shutting the door firmly behind himself.
“I’m so sorry, Alicia.” Edward took her hand in both of his and kissed it swiftly. “This is a government matter and I must go. Will you return to the ballroom and make my excuses?”
He cupped his hand around her cheek, lifting her face so she had to look into his eyes. “We will continue our conversation later, I promise.”
With that he was gone, and she was left alone in the moonlight. As Alicia stared at the closed door, she could feel her awareness backing away. Almost without knowing it, she retreated into the mists that cocooned her away from all violent sensation. She should have been relieved, for it was a return to normalcy. But she was not. She wanted to race after Edward, to beg him not to leave her alone. Alone she was lost, smothered, dead.
But slowly, that impulse fled. It was a temporary fancy after all. They said engaged women grew nervous. Surely that was what was behind all this charging about. These idle notions of walls and mists, were bred by those same nerves. She was who she was, and she was well suited to the practical, straightforward marriage offered her. She was also fortunate that Lord Carstairs was not easily perturbed. Something tickled her cheek. She brushed at it, and looked down at her hand. Her fingertips were damp. Curious.
Head held high, face placid, Alicia opened the door and started down the long, dark corridor toward her engagement party.Three
Within moments, Carstairs climbed into the waiting carriage. Rathe signaled to the driver, who touched up the horses and pulled away from the steps.
“Are you all right?” asked Rathe.
Carstairs nodded curtly. But he was not all right. He was disturbed and surprised, profoundly so. There had been no messenger. He had used his power to call Rathe to his side.
He had seen Alicia leaving the party after talking with her cousin Verity. Partly from curiosity, partly from the desire to find a moment alone with his fiancée, he had followed her. But what he had found was far more than a moment alone.
“What happened in there?” Rathe asked. “Aside from the very obvious, that is.”
“I don’t know,” replied Carstairs. “I was kissing my fiancée, and all at once I felt a great, cold knot of magic tightening all around us.” Rathe did not need to hear about the circumstances that led up to that kiss. As it was, his face had turned pale.
“This is very serious.”
“I would agree, yes,” Carstairs replied blandly.
“Could she be a changeling?” The Fae, humanity’s powerful, inimical and profoundly magical enemies, had a fondness for human children and would abduct them when the chance arose. In most cases, they left behind one of their own in its place. Usually the changeling appeared to die quickly, but occasionally it remained in the home, causing mischief and misery. Sometimes, the changeling even had one human parent. These half-blood creatures had some Fae power and some human heart. The combination could be exceedingly dangerous. It was such a creature who had killed Carstairs’s older brother.
Carstairs felt his eyes narrow as he cast his mind back over the evening. Before this, he had spent very little time with Alicia Hartwell. But they had met, and talked, and he had been her escort to several society affairs. He had held her hand as they danced, and sat with her at dinner. All this time, he’d noted she was fair and levelheaded and an intelligent if cool conversationalist. Nothing about her had stirred his Catalyst’s senses.
“No, she’s not a changeling; neither is she half-blood. I’m sure of that.” If she were a Fae, or carried Fae blood, he would have felt it as clearly as if he’d put his hand too close to the fire. “But she is laboring under some enchantment.” It had been cold as death, that spell around her, but at the same time clear as crystal. He had thought unaccountably of the German folktale he’d read as a young man, in which a princess, thought to be dead, had been laid in a glass coffin.
“Did she cast it for herself?” asked Rathe. “Could she be a Sorceress? One of the Fae’s allies?”
Carstairs considered. “I think not. It seems to me far more likely she is the victim in this.”
Rathe looked out the window at the passing streets in silence for a minute. The noises of hooves, wheels, carriage springs and the shouts of late-night revelers filled the dark space. “Carstairs, you’re sure about that?”
They met each other’s gaze. Carstairs bit back a sharp retort at Rathe’s unspoken implications. Both men knew Carstairs had once failed in the face of Faery glamour. In his mind, Carstairs could clearly see Nick’s eyes open to darkness as the life left him. Rathe was right to ask.
“I am sure,” Carstairs said. “But you should perhaps check.”
Rathe grasped Carstairs’s wrist and held his palm over Carstairs’s heart. Carstairs, in turn, reached deep within his spirit to open the channel between himself and the current of power that was the very breath of the world. Focusing will and sense, he directed a small portion of that power toward Rathe. The Sorcerer drank the magic into himself, shaping it into a spell of detection. If an enchantment had been cast over Carstairs, Rathe would find it. Carstairs felt a tingling warmth as the re-formed power glided across his skin. It was an intimate sensation and Carstairs’s cock, restless from the events of earlier in the evening, stirred fitfully. An ordinary man might have balked at feeling such arousal while being touched by another man, but neither Carstairs nor Rathe had ever been ordinary men.
At last, Rathe let him go, and sat back. “You’re clear,” he said. “The captain’s not going to be happy to find you’ve engaged yourself to a woman with an enchantment on her.”
“It’s not something I’m entirely happy with, either.” In fact, Carstairs found himself deeply worried.
In the brief private time they’d shared before he’d become aware of her enchantment, Alicia Hartwell had intrigued and attracted him in a way he never would have suspected possible for a mature, sequestered virgin to do. He had followed her retreat from the ballroom with no thought other than to soothe her bride’s nerves, if she had them. To be holding her while she spied on a most erotic encounter had been the very last thing he expected from that moment. But she had melted so sweetly against him as they watched the lovers in the conservatory take their delight in each other. Then she boldly asked him to give her pleasure, although it was very plain she knew nothing of sexual matters. As surprised as he had been by this turn of events, Carstairs had wanted to accede to that blunt request. Badly. Reason and honor had taken to their heels as his cock had swelled beneath his breeches. He had spent years learning to control his response to beauty. He thought he had succeeded, but it seemed he had been deceiving himself on more than one level.
Their carriage had reached the heart of London. Carstairs could see the bulk of St. Paul’s looming against the starry sky. Their driver stopped at the corner of a street that was little more than a cobbled alley.
“Do you want me to come with you?” asked Rathe as Carstairs climbed down from the carriage.
“Thank you, but I’d rather keep this private if I can,” Carstairs answered. Rathe nodded, his face serious. He knew enough of Carstairs’s personal life to understand at least some of the turmoil inside him. Rathe gripped Carstairs’s arm. “Good luck.”
Carstairs shut the door and waved to the driver. As the carriage drove off into the dark, Carstairs turned down the sharply curved side street until he came to a nondescript door in a nondescriptstone building. Very few people would even have noticed the unmarked portal, let alone suspected that it was the headquarters of the most secret branch of the Crown’s military forces.
Carstairs laid his hand on the cool brass of the doorknob, and felt the enchantment recognize him. The knob turned, and he was permitted to enter.
On the other side of the door waited a parlor that was as simple and unremarkable as its doorway had been. A fire burned in the grate. Armchairs stood ready for visitors or clients, and Carstairs hung his coat and hat on the waiting hooks.
“Carstairs,” called a man’s voice, old but still strong and clear. “I’ve been expecting you. Come through.”
At the end of a short, shadowed corridor waited a room that took up most of the building. Lit by several lamps as well the low fire in the hearth, it might have been taken for a solicitor’s office or perhaps the library of a highly eccentric man. The comfortable scents of leather, parchment and dust rose from bookshelves stuffed with fat, leather-bound tomes. In the middle of this literary wealth sprawled a broad desk, crowded with stacks of paper, inkwells and pens, as well as scrolls tied with ribbons of various colors. With them sat the wizened, bright-eyed lord of this confounding place.
“Captain” Smith was a small man with a ring of grizzled gray hair around his bronzed and mottled scalp. He wore a long, unfashionable black coat over white breeches and stockings. At the moment, he bent over a massive book, examining its crabbed writing through his gold-handled quizzing glass. Without looking up, Smith beckoned Carstairs. Carstairs felt himself diminish as he walked forward, from the grown man he was to the slender youth he had been when he first entered this room.
Unlike some, Edward had known he was a Catalyst from a young age. His family traced its lineage from the magic workers of the Plantagenet courts. They’d survived purges under Queen Mary Tudor, and risen again when Queen Elizabeth had mustered her secret army against the Fae invasion. They passed on their secrets in whispers during Cromwell’s time, and even helped smuggle innocent men and women out of Scotland under the noses of King James’s inquisitors. Father had brought Edward and his brother Nicholas to London and Captain Smith for training at an age when other boys were handed over to tutors to prepare for Cambridge or Oxford.
“Good evening, sir.” Carstairs bowed to Captain Smith. “I apologize for the interruption.”
“Not at all, Lord Carstairs.” Smith closed the huge book and fastened its brass latch across the cover. “If something is important enough to take you from your engagement ball, I wish to hear it at once.” Smith leaned back in his creaking chair and gestured with his quizzing glass for Carstairs to begin. So, with a deep breath, Edward told his captain how he had discovered the enchantment surrounding Alicia Hartwell—omitting only a few details, such as the passion they had both witnessed and enjoyed.
Smith held up his glass and studied Carstairs through its lens for a long moment. There were whole worlds of speculation about what the captain actually saw through that glass, but no one in the Service would admit to knowing.
“Have you any notion what the purpose of this enchantment might be?” Smith asked.
Carstairs shook his head. “I had no time to make a proper examination. It was very subtle, but very strong.”
“Strong enough to throw a cloak of humanity over a Fae changeling? Perhaps even convince her she is a human girl?”
Carstairs’s fists knotted as he struggled to control his temper. Of course the captain asked the question. Given Carstairs’s history of weakness, Smith had to ascertain whether he was seeing clearly this time, just as Rathe had.
“I am sure she is no changeling.” Carstairs had looked deep into Alicia’s eyes before he’d kissed her. The truth of a Fae’s nature lay in their eyes. They were always filled with impossible promises and beauties. This was the creatures’ ultimate lure and their ultimate weakness. If Alicia had been even part Fae, she never would have permitted him to meet her gaze and still be free to speak of it afterward.
Smith nodded, and sighed. “At another time, we might dismiss this as a small mystery to be pursued as time and leisure permit. But with the events surrounding the birth of the new princess having come so close to disaster, we cannot afford to ignore the smallest irregularity, especially when it touches so close to home for one of our agents.”
“No, sir.” Carstairs bowed in acknowledgment of this truth. “How do you wish to proceed?”
Smith twirled his glass for a moment in his long, dexterous fingers. “We need more information,” he said. “And you, Carstairs, are the one best placed to get it. Fortunately, now that your engagement has been officially announced, custom allows you leeway in calling on your betrothed, and you can reasonably be seen to escort her about under lighter chaperonage. You should avail yourself of these opportunities. See her alone, and often. Draw her out about her background and her upbringing.”
“But remain alert, Carstairs. You are one of our most powerful and experienced men, and our enemies have attacked Catalysts before. We must not discount the possibility that this is an attempt by the enemy to get at you.”Especially considering your family history.The captain, of course, did not say this. He did not have to. He had attended Nicholas’s funeral.
Carstairs tried to think clearly about Alicia. But what came at once to mind was the sensation of her soft ass pressed against his groin; the warm curves of her body, which was both strong and delicate, in the circle of his arms; the light touch of her palm directly over his heart. A hot shudder ran up his spine, and his cock twitched again, as if angry at being reminded what it could not have. Damn it, he was too old, too seasoned, to be distracted by a woman’s body when there was work to be done. Especially when that work involved the woman herself.
Smith regarded him carefully. “It’s a delicate game to be playing, Carstairs, and not entirely a gentlemanly one. If you prefer, we’ll use another route, and organize a credible way to dissolve the engagement so it brings no discredit on the lady.”
That, of course, would be safest. His thoughts about Alicia Hartwell were already leading him in dangerous directions. It was more than the stirrings of lust that worried him. It was the stirrings of pity and genuine admiration. He sensed a strength and sorrow in Alicia that were both unexpected. He’d come here because he needed to report to his superior, but also because he wanted to help her. This, of course, was a natural reaction to finding a prisoner. But the Fae played upon the finer emotions—chivalry, generosity, love and desire, as well as the base feelings of greed and lust. Was Alicia Hartwell truly a prisoner, or a honeyed trap? Could she be both?
“Well, Carstairs?” asked Smith.
Carstairs opened his mouth, uncertain what he would say. In that moment, an idea came to him that was audacious, fully formed and very, very dangerous.
“Sir…one way to avoid a trap is to spring it early. It throws the enemy into confusion and makes them careless.”
Smith’s eyebrows arced in a rare expression of surprise. “Do you think you can spring the trap of Alicia Hartwell?”
“I do. The family has gone through a great deal of trouble to make sure this is a public and proper engagement. They have kept me away from Alicia, and they are counting on having three more weeks of us apart while the banns are published. What if we were married sooner?”
Carstairs nodded. Smith steepled his fingers and gazed off into the distance. When he spoke, it was slowly and guardedly, as if he had to examine each word before it could be uttered. “There is every possibility someone in her family laid this enchantment over her, either through exercise of their own powers or by opening the way for a Fae agent. It might indeed be worthwhile to separate her from them.” He paused. “The Hartwells will pursue you, of course.”
Carstairs shrugged. “Let them. They’ll be expecting me to take her to Gretna Green. But I shall have her safe in my London house until we can be sure of her…condition.”
“If she has been touched by the Fae or their agents, she could be extremely dangerous. Your house is fully warded?”
“We’ll double-check that. Very well.” The captain grew brisk. “You may put your plan into action. Let us know what assistance you require.”
“Thank you, sir.” Carstairs bowed and turned to go.
“Be careful,” said the captain to his back. “You have hardened your heart in these past years, but the Fae Queen and her subjects are expert at cracking such stones.”
“I will be careful,” Carstairs replied without turning around. He did not want his captain to see he was less than confident as he spoke those words.
He retrieved his hat and stick and stepped out into the dark street. The night air was warm and heavy with approaching rain. No cabs or chairs were in evidence at this hour. He’d have to walk home. But Carstairs found he didn’t mind. Exercise and fresh air would help him think.
He had watched Alicia in the conservatory before she became aware of his presence. He had seen how she shivered and stared at the couple in the arbor, her eyes wide and her cheeks flushed. This was not the reaction of a sheltered miss whose delicate sensibilities were shocked by the sight of a man devouring his intended’s pussy. Far from it. It was the struggle of one who’d lost the power of movement, because the sight of such erotic abandon held her fascinated.
It was a fascination he himself understood very well. Even now, as he replayed the whole scene in his mind, Carstairs felt his cock swell, fast and hard. Imagination enhanced memory. He stole up behind Alicia, wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. In his less gentlemanly moments, he had always suspected his bride-to-be concealed a sweet and shapely ass under her skirts, and now he knew he’d been correct. She would sigh and rub against him, letting his hands roam freely across her belly and breasts while together they watched Julian disrobe and Melissa lay back, stroking herself to see how her man had grown so hardfrom pleasuring her. Melissa would part her thighs and her folds with her white hands, showing Julian how wet and ready she was. Carstairs would find Alicia’s pussy with his hand. He would press her and cup her, all the while rubbing his cock against her ass until she moaned and begged in harsh whispers for him to lift her skirts.
And if he did not stop thinking like this, he was going to be good for nothing but a visit to Mrs. Hamilton’s house, which catered to those who shared a taste for watching, and being watched.
At the time, Carstairs had thought he was witnessing his fiancée discover a secret desire of a sort he happened to share. But now he had to consider the evening’s events in a different light. What if Alicia’s feelings had not been genuine? What if her desire had been magically imposed on her in order to lure Carstairs closer?
But that made no sense, because that desire had been what alerted him to the subtle enchantment in the first place. He’d felt it straining to hold her in check as she returned his kiss. And if the enchantment’s purpose had been to bring him closer, why had her family kept them apart?
As Carstairs turned all this over in his mind, a fresh idea came to him. He smiled sharply at the darkness as he reversed his direction, heading now for a very different neighborhood of the city from the one that held his family’s London home. It seemed he needed to visit to Mrs. Hamilton’s house tonight after all.Four
When Alicia came downstairs the next the morning, only part of the family was at the table. Custom and convenience made breakfast at Hartwell House a relatively casual affair. Her aunts Hester, Eugenia and Mary occupied the far end of the table. Alicia’s older, married cousins Henry and Francis sat at the other end with her guardian uncles, Morris and Gavin. The men talked in their dull, laconic way of horses and racing. Arthur and Lucius were probably still in bed, kept there by an excess of drink. Hortence, Louise and Julia were also probably still in bed, but from nerves and an excess of delicacy rather than drink.
Only Verity did more than turn a head as Alicia entered the dining room. “Good morning!” Her cousin smiled up at Alicia from her seat exactly halfway between the uncles’ camp and the aunts’.
“Good morning, Verity,” Alicia said, helping herself to muffins and fillet of sole from the sideboard. Verity’s face fell. Clearly, she’d been expecting something more, but Alicia had no idea whatthat might be. It wasn’t as if Verity needed any news from last night’s ball. Verity had been at her side almost the entire time that Alicia could remember.
“It’s about time.” Aunt Eugenia sniffed. Alicia had never heard her speak of anything in tones of approval, much less seen her smile. “We were beginning to think you were having the vapors or some such nonsense after last night.”
“Wasn’t it all lovely?” Aunt Mary beamed. She was the smallest and plumpest of the aunts, and always sounded cheerful. Even Alicia, however, could tell that cheerfulness was a pretense, and she had never understood it. Perhaps the little, round woman felt she had to make up for her older sisters’ unrelenting severity. “And you did conduct yourself very well, Alicia. I’m sure Lord Carstairs considers himself a very fortunate man this morning.”
“So we all hope,” said Aunt Hester quietly. “What is your opinion on the subject, Alicia?” Aunt Hester turned her hooded eyes to her nieces.
She’s looking for something,Alicia thought.She’s always looking for something.
“Lord Carstairs will feel and behave just as a gentleman should,” Alicia said aloud. And he had. They had danced and conversed and…and…there had been something else, but Alicia found that, unaccountably, she could not remember what it was.
“You have no regrets? No sudden attack of nerves?” Aunt Hester’s eyes narrowed.
“None, Aunt. Why do you ask?”
Aunt Hester lifted her coffee cup and smiled. That smile seemed to Alicia even thinner and sharper than usual. Aunt Mary was looking down at the crumbs on her plate. Verity shivered.
“No reason.” Aunt Hester sipped her coffee and set down the cup. “But I am very glad to hear it. I should be most disappointed if anything were found to be wrong at this stage. Most disappointed indeed.”
“But nothing could possibly be going wrong,” said Aunt Mary quickly. “Everything is already in place. We’re just waiting on the banns…”
“Oh, do stop babbling, Mary,” snapped Aunt Eugenia. “One would think…”
Exactly what one would think, they were not to discover. The door to the breakfast room opened, and the footman entered bearing the morning’s letters.
“Oh, the post. Excellent.” Verity jumped to her feet. She retrieved the letters with thanks to the servant. She handed most of them to Alicia’s uncles, who received them dutifully and uninterestedly. Then Verity returned to her chair, sorting through the smaller stack she’d kept. “Why, here’s a note for you, Alicia! I think it’s from Lord Carstairs.”
“Who else would be sending Alicia notes in the morning, I should like to know?” snapped Aunt Eugenia. “Read it, girl. What does he say?”
Edward—Lord Carstairs. When did I begin to think of him as Edward?—had a good hand, strong and precise. Alicia had a sudden and clear vision of him sitting at a neat desk as he wrote. A sailor, being used to confined quarters and the rocking motion of a ship, would be a man of tidy habits. That understanding was most satisfactory to her, although she could not have said why.
Aunt Eugenia was staring hard at her. Alicia realized she had not begun to read as instructed. She blinked and focused on the words in front of her. She found she did not particularly want toread out whatever Edward might have to communicate to her. Odd. She was not used to having anything to keep to herself. Her flaws and secrets had always been so well known by all her relatives. “He thanks me for the dances last night; there are some remarks about how well the party went…”
“Oh, give it here.” Aunt Eugenia snatched the letter from her fingertips.
“Aunt Eugenia!” shrieked Verity. “That’s Alicia’s private letter!”
“Tush.” Aunt Eugenia waved the paper to brush back her words. “When she’s married, she can be private. Not before. Hmmm…hmmm…yes. Yes. Good.” She handed Alicia back the letter. Alicia stared at the paper. Her chest felt tight. Her cheeks felt hot. Something was wrong with her stomach, and it seemed to have affected her vision, because now she could not read at all.
“He says he hopes to call on her this morning,” said Aunt Eugenia to the other two aunts.
“Well.” Aunt Hester set her cup down silently on its saucer. “You’d best get yourself ready, hadn’t you, Alicia?”
“Aunt Hester, please, give her a moment,” said Verity, but in tones much softer than she usually adopted. “She’s barely had a morsel.”
“She can eat—” began Aunt Eugenia.
“When I am married. Yes. Thank you, Aunt.” Alicia got to her feet, folding her letter with quick, precise motions. “I’ll go get ready now.”
She strode out of the room before anyone else could comment, or object. The truth was she was glad to escape the breakfast table. She needed a chance to think. Something had happened last night; she was certain of it. It was something untoward anduncomfortable, but try as she might, Alicia couldn’t remember what it had been.
Perhaps I had too much champagne?Alicia fingered her brooch uneasily as she climbed the stairs and entered her room. No, that couldn’t be it. She’d have a headache. Cousin Raymond always had a headache when he drank too much. Then what?
Alicia closed her door behind herself and drifted to the center of the room, frowning hard. She remembered the ball; she remembered dancing with Edward…Lord Carstairs, and sitting with him at dinner. His conversation had been excellent, his manner polite and deferential. He’d talked politics with the uncles and about the Season with the aunts. Indeed, he had behaved exactly as one would wish. Then he’d had to leave, a matter of government business, he’d said, and she’d had to return to the ballroom to make his excuses.
Return to the ballroom?Alicia froze in place.When did I leave the ballroom?
A knock on the door startled Alicia out of her reverie. It was Verity, carrying a tray that held toast spread with marmalade and a cup of tea.
“Here.” Her cousin set the tray down. “I don’t care what Aunt Eugenia thinks. You have to eat something.”
“Thank you, Verity.” She looked at the plate of toast, but could not arouse any interest in its contents. Her stomach was clenched too tight.
“Are you all right? Only you seem distracted this morning.”
“I always seem distracted.”
“Yes, but this is a bit much even for you.” Verity laid a hand on Alicia’s arm. “Truly, Alicia, are you well?”
“You mustn’t worry about me, Verity.” Alicia remembered she should pat Verity’s hand for reassurance, and did so.
“I do worry. You’ve no one to look out for you, not really.”
“Lord Carstairs will look out for me.” Alicia paused. Where had those words come from? More than that, where had the certainty behind them come from?
“I hope so. You…you are glad to be marrying him, aren’t you, Alicia?”
“As much as I can be.”
“At least it will get you out of this house,” Verity muttered. “I swear sometimes it’s as if I can’t breathe in here.”
At these words, Alicia’s throat closed. She had not permitted herself to think that she would really and finally be leaving Hartwell House, which meant leaving Verity. What would she do without her one understanding cousin to stand by her?
“You’ll have to come visit me,” said Alicia. “Often. We can have you out to the country to stay in the summers. I’m sure his lordship will allow it. They say his estate is quite beautiful.”
“I’d like that.”
A fresh knock sounded on the door. “Alicia!” came Aunt Eugenia’s shrill voice from the other side. “Lord Carstairs is here! He’s waiting.”
“Oh, lor’!” Verity rolled her eyes. “I’ll go down. You’d better get yourself dressed before Aunt Mary expires of apoplexy. And have some of that toast!” She whisked out of the room.
Verity was right, as usual. Alicia needed to set aside her inconsequential thoughts of last night and concentrate on this moment. A vision of Edward’s face, and his keen gray eyes, flashed in front of her mind’s eye. Her skin remembered him being very close to her, and her heart wanted him closer. She remembered theshape of his mouth, strong yet sensual. And there was something more, something stronger.
Alicia shook herself. She was woolgathering. She needed to get ready. Lord Carstairs was expecting her, and it was important she not disappoint him.
“…I can’t think what on earth is keeping the girl,” said Mary Hartwell, the smallest of Alicia’s maiden aunts, for the hundredth time. She knotted a lace handkerchief in her stout fingers and her attention always seemed to be flitting in six directions at once. Her gray hair was done up in what had surely been a severe and tidy knot that morning, but now curling locks strayed out from under her cap. As a girl, Mary Hartwell might have been sweet and vivacious, but age had turned her simply nervous. Age and, Carstairs suspected, the stern rule of her older sisters.
Indeed, Carstairs was surprised that only Mary was sitting with him in the sunny morning room. During his previous visits, he’d had to contend with all three of the maiden aunts. They were, Alicia had told him once, actually her great-aunts, and they were as daunting a trio as ever a man faced. Especially Hester Hartwell, with her hooded eyes and thin, dry smile. The brothers, Gavin and Morris, might have ownership of the house and management of the money, but it was Aunt Hester who ruled the family, and she did not care who knew it.
Any other morning, Carstairs might have been relieved by Hester’s absence, but now that he knew about Alicia’s enchantment, he found he wanted to speak to Aunt Hester and get a closer look at her keen eyes. For if anyone in this house knew what mystery surrounded Alicia, it was she.
The door opened. Miss Hartwell jumped and turned in her seat at the same time. “Ali…Oh, it’s you, Verity. Where is Alicia?”
“She’ll be down in a moment,” Verity replied.
Carstairs got to his feet and made his bow to Alicia’s cousin. Verity was a slender girl of eighteen or so. Unlike most of the Hartwells, Verity was darkly complected, but she had a strength about her that took well to the color. She already carried herself with pride and assurance, and would grow, Carstairs was sure, into a formidable woman.
As if to prove his observation, Verity gave Carstairs a brief curtsy, then sailed straight past her aunt to fix him with a hard glower.
“The roses are in bloom in the garden,” Verity said, her eyes never wavering once from his. “Perhaps Lord Carstairs would be interested in seeing them?”
Plainly, this was not the time to defer to the sensibilities of a timorous spinster. “Thank you, Miss Verity.” Carstairs bowed once more, effectively cutting off whatever protest Aunt Mary meant to make. “I would enjoy that.”
“You’ll tell Alicia where we are, Aunt? Thank you.” Verity breezed out the French doors. Carstairs bowed again to Aunt Mary, who pressed her knotted handkerchief to her mouth as if she’d witnessed some ghastly horror. Then he followed Verity out into the garden.
The garden of Hartwell House was large, and laid out with old-fashioned geometry, and the roses were indeed blooming. Verity did not make any effort to pay attention to them. Instead, she marched straight ahead, her eyes flitting this way and that as if she expected an ambush. This was not what he expected from oneof the very correct, very disapproving Hartwells. They were a thin, gray sort of family who lived in a strange air of either resignation or boredom, all except the three aunts, and Verity.
As soon as they’d rounded a neatly trimmed box hedge, Verity turned and faced him.
“I want your word.” Verity folded her arms. “Your word as a gentleman that you will take proper care of Alicia.”
Carstairs folded his own arms, mirroring the girl’s defiant stance. The truth was, Carstairs wasn’t sure whether to be amused or insulted by her. But he was definitely surprised, and intrigued. “And who are you to demand any promise from a man not your relation?”
“I’m the only person in this family who has ever cared about Alicia.” Verity stepped closer to him, her face tilted up to meet his. Carstairs, more than a little shocked, received the distinct impression she was spoiling for a fight. “And I swear, if you hurt her or neglect her in any fashion, I’llmurderyou.”
Carstairs’s urge to laugh at this bit of drama lasted only for a moment. There was genuine determination beneath Verity’s overwrought words. “Why?” he asked.
“Why should you care about her? If, as you say, no one else in this family does?”
That took Verity aback. “Because…because she’s Alicia. Because she’s had more difficulties than the rest of us, and no one even tries to help her.”
“How so?” Aunt Mary might not be willing to talk about more than the weather, but this girl was plainly bursting at the seams for someone to confide in.
For the first time, though, uncertainty crept into Verity’smanner. “I shouldn’t have spoken. I’ve probably ruined everything.” But there was something else in the back of her dark eyes. It tugged urgently at Carstairs’s attention. He needed to keep her talking.
“Please. Tell me what you know. I want to understand.”
Verity cocked her head toward him, studying him carefully. “You know, I believe you mean that.” She took a deep breath, looking at her hands, the sky, at anywhere but him. Carstairs forced himself to be patient. Whatever the girl had to say, it was not coming easily to her. A sudden sense of familiarity was growing in him as he stood with her. He would be able to give it a name in a moment.
“Alicia was kidnapped when she was a little girl,” Verity whispered.
Verity nodded. “She and her parents lived in Northumbria, and she was kidnapped by highwaymen on the Scottish border. They held her for weeks. The family got her back, though. There must have been a ransom paid, but no one talks about it. Alicia swears she doesn’t remember anything that happened. But…her father was killed during the affair and her mother died of fever shortly afterward, and no one talks about that, either.” Verity sucked in a deep breath. “I think…I think something happened to her because of it all, the kidnapping and her father’s death. She’s not…normal, you see. She doesn’t feel things the way people usually do. She says it’s a deformity of her character, but I don’t think so.”
“Why not?” Carstairs forced his voice to remain calm and steady. He could not let Verity know how very badly her wordsshook him.Look at me,he urged her silently.Look at me, Verity Hartwell.
But Verity didn’t look at him. She looked instead at her own fingers, which were knotting themselves together, and for a moment she very much resembled her aunt Mary. “If I tell you, you’ll think I’m a silly girl.”
“I promise you, Miss Verity. Apart from Alicia herself, I think you may be the most sensible person in this family.”
Verity took a long time deciding whether to believe this. But, to Carstairs’s relief, she at last began to speak. “It’s just a feeling. I’ve never understood it, but when I’m with her, I always feel like there’s another Alicia underneath the one I see. It’s as if she’s trapped somehow…” She faltered again, and Carstairs realized he’d stepped toward her, and reached out a hand. He retreated hastily before she could become truly alarmed.
“Verity,” he said. “Thank you for this. I believe you are entirely correct, although in ways you may not be able to imagine, at least not yet.”
“You’re taking me seriously?” She searched his face for any trace of mockery. “No one ever takes me seriously.”
“I do. And what’s more, I promise you I always will. In fact, I think you and I must have some more conversation in the very near future.”Because you, Verity Hartwell, are a Catalyst, and you need to know about it.“Tell me, has Alicia ever spoken of having strange dreams? Or perhaps seen things and people no one else has?”
“No, nothing like that.”
“I see.” Carstairs let out a deep breath, his mind racing, but to no purpose. He could not change course now. He must play thisthrough, and take whatever came. “We need to get back before your aunts come looking for us,” he said aloud. “But, please believe me, I will care for Alicia as best I can. You have my word as a gentleman.”
“Thank you, Lord Carstairs.”
Aware he was being reckless, Carstairs decided to trust Verity a little further. He needed some cover for the rest of his day’s scheme, and Verity could provide it. “Before we return, or one of your inestimable aunts arrives, I have a favor to ask. I’ve come to invite Alicia to take a carriage ride with me. Of course, we must be chaperoned, and I intend to ask you to go along. Once we’re in the park, I need you to invent some excuse to leave us alone. Can you do that?”
Verity frowned up at him. Carstairs let her study him, although he felt his patience champing at the bit.Come, come, Verity, you know you can trust me. You can feel we are of a kind, you and I.
“Yes,” Verity said slowly. “I think I could manage.”
“I will be in your debt. Let us go back. Alicia will surely be there by now, and I think we should spare her as much of Aunt Mary’s company as possible, don’t you?”
Verity laughed. “I think I’m going to like having you as my cousin, sir!”
Carstairs permitted himself a smile. “I hope so, Miss Verity. I very much hope so.”Five
It was, Alicia had to admit, a perfect day for a carriage ride. Verity, for reasons Alicia could not quite make out, had insisted the parlor maid Margery accompany them all, and Margery seemed to be enjoying the treat as much as Verity. Lord Carstairs drove the phaeton himself, keeping his matched bay horses to an easy, even sedate, pace, while his man rode behind. As they turned into the park, the warmth and green of summer enfolded them. It was not the fashionable hour, but the road was crowded nonetheless, and Verity was kept busy happily nodding to acquaintances as the other carriages passed by. But Alicia could not relax. She found herself staring at Lord Carstairs’s back, watching the play of muscle under his close-cut coat as he handled the reins. It was as if she were seeking to discern some secret from the broad expanse of his shoulders. But there was nothing. How could there be? It was, in the end, only a pair of man’s shoulders. So, why couldn’t she look away? It was dangerous to stare, or to think toomuch on this man. She was sure of that. Look what thinking about him had gotten her already…
There it was again. Something about last night. Something she almost remembered, but that skittered away.
Nothing was made any easier by the way Verity kept giving her sly, sideways glances.
Eventually, Lord Carstairs reined the carriage to a halt under the shade of a spreading oak and turned to his passengers. “Ladies, it’s a very fine morning. What would you say to a stroll across the green?”
“That sounds lovely,” announced Verity before Alicia could formulate her own answer. Verity had an unusual tilt to the smile she leveled at Lord Carstairs, and Alicia felt something unfamiliar twist inside her. The twist was not loosened at all by both Lord Carstairs and Verity turning deferentially toward her.
“A walk would be most pleasant,” Alicia agreed.
“Excellent.” Lord Carstairs smiled as he helped first her and then Verity down from the carriage. Did his gaze linger a little longer on Verity? No, it was not possible. He was engaged to her—Alicia. He would not be looking at her cousin.
Her younger, prettier, sweeter cousin.
When Lord Carstairs very properly offered his arm to her, Alicia remembered to put on a smile as she accepted. Leaving Margery with the phaeton and her sewing, they all three set off across the expanse of rolling meadow. Lord Carstairs did not seem inclined to make small talk, and Alicia was just as content to walk in silence. It would give all her unfamiliar discomforts time to recede.
But after a few moments, Verity staggered and exclaimed, “Oh! Ow!”
“What is it, Verity?” Alicia asked.
“Oh, it’s these slippers. They’ve always been too tight.” The frown Verity directed at the blue tips of her shoes looked startlingly like one of Aunt Eugenia’s. “I wouldn’t have worn them if I’d realized we were going walking.”
“Perhaps we should return…” Alicia hesitated, looking up at Lord Carstairs. This walk was his idea; she should be deferring to him.
But Verity was already shaking her head. “Oh, no, no, I don’t want to spoil your morning. I’ll wait with Margery in the carriage. You go on.”
Go on. With only Edward for company. If thinking on him too much was dangerous, then how much worse would walking alone with him be?And there I am thinking of him as Edward again.
“If you’re certain, Miss Verity,” Edward was saying. “We can all go back to the carriage and continue our drive.”
“I’ll be fine.” Verity smiled. “I had Margery slip a book into her bag for me. It will be a treat to have some time to read without Aunt Eugenia fussing that I’ll spoil my looks hunching over some dusty old tome. Really.”
“She does do that, you know,” said Alicia. Perhaps there was nothing wrong. Perhaps everything was exactly as it should be, and it was only bride’s nerves that troubled her.
“Very well, then,” replied Lord Carstairs gravely. “Your maid and my man will look after you, Miss Verity. Shall we continue, Miss Hartwell?”
Alicia accepted Edward’s arm once more and let him lead her away. She glanced back just once to see Verity had almost reached the carriage. She walked quite steadily for someone who had just complained her shoes hurt so badly. What was she playing at?
“Your cousin seems very fond of you,” remarked Edward.
“I’d be lost without her,” Alicia replied. “I hope…I hope you’ll allow her to visit us once we are married.”
“I expect we will continue to see a great deal of Verity. And as to visitors, you will be entirely free to choose your own company.”
“Or to refuse it,” Edward added.
Alicia thought of Aunt Mary, and Aunt Eugenia, and, lastly and most reluctantly, of Aunt Hester. What freedom it would be to be able to refuse to see them should she choose. “Thank you,” she said again.
“I think you are selective with regard to company, a private person. Rather like myself, in fact.”
“You don’t find…you don’t find that unusual in a woman?”
“Perhaps it is unusual, but that does not mean there’s anything wrong in it.”
“Not many share your view.”
“That also does not mean there’s anything wrong in it.” He turned a smile toward her, and Alicia felt her brow furrow. He seemed so at ease with himself, it brought out an informality in her that she was quite unused to. She certainly had never spoken like this with anyone, not even Verity. But she could feel Edward’s assurance like the sunlight against her skin. She wanted nothing more than to turn her face toward it, toward him. She wanted to talk deeply and seriously with him. She wanted to truly understand this man beside her. It was a dangerous desire. If she came to know him, he might just as easily come to know her, and all her debilities. He could still call off the marriage. The contract wouldn’t matter, because her uncles would never escalate a scandalby suing for breach of promise. Worry swelled Alicia’s throat, tightening her skin against her white ribbon.
Fortunately Edward seemed in no way impatient to break their mutual silence. They walked past the groves and along to the sunny banks of the Serpentine. Alicia had let Edward direct their path, until she realized the sound of the wind in the trees overhead had become louder than any sound of voices or carriages. In fact, they were quite alone beside the sparkling water.
“I was hoping to continue our conversation from yesterday evening,” said Edward at last.
“Which conversation, my lord?”
“Edward, Alicia,” he corrected her with a smile. “We are once again alone.”
“Edward,” she repeated. She’d been thinking of him by his Christian name for some time now, but it still felt strange to say out loud. “What conversation is that?”
He frowned. “The conversation we left in your aunt’s music room.”
Oh, no.“I’m sorry. Did we speak in the music room?”
“You really don’t remember?”
So, shehadforgotten something, and it had involved Edward. What would he think of her now? Alicia wished desperately that Verity had stayed with them. Verity had a great deal of practice covering her lapses.
“I’m sorry,” Alicia said in what she hoped was a bright tone. “There was so much happening last night, I’m afraid some details have escaped me.”
“You truly do not remember? The conservatory? Our…acquaintances Julian and Melissa?”
“I…” Alicia tried to think, but she couldn’t. The memory had been taken away off into the mists.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”I’m mad. You have tried hard to be kind and you do not deserve a mad wife.
“Don’t be sorry.” Gently, Edward put his finger under her chin and lifted her face toward his. A shiver ran through her. Memory struggled to reach the surface, to reach out for the touch of his warm, strong hand. “Come, Alicia. You look pale. Let me take you out of the sun.”
His smile was tight, and there was something not right in it. Fear fitted itself around Alicia’s confusion. “I am well, truly.”
“Indulge me. Just a moment in the shade.”
With one hand on her shoulder, he steered her deeper into the grove. Trees and bracken closed about them, until it seemed as if they were in the deep woods rather than just a park in the teeming city. The air was fresher here, and the shade did feel calming after the warmth of the sun. Alicia began to relax.
But that relaxation was shattered by the high, distinct sound of a girlish giggle.
“You’re a bold minx, Freda,” said a man’s voice.
Her heart rising to her throat, Alicia turned to her right, toward the voices. Through the screening trees, she saw a man and a woman. The woman had a spill of auburn curls piled high on her head, and she wore a dress of sprigged muslin trimmed with blue ribbons. The man was older, but strongly built, with ginger hair and a square jaw. He was plainly dressed in a blue coat and buff breeches. He smiled wickedly at the woman as he wrapped his arms around her curving waist. The woman, Freda, came laughing to his embrace, and plainly willing. In fact, she rubbed her generous breasts against his broad chest.
“And you love me for it, don’t you, Marcus?” she cried merrily.
“Now and always.” The man—Marcus—grasped Freda’s face in his hands, pulling her onto her toes so he could kiss her. Freda did not resist in the least. The opposite, in fact. She grabbed hold of Marcus’s buttocks to press his buckskin-clad hips tightly against her. While he plundered her mouth, she ground their hips together, moaning into the kiss. Slowly, Marcus bent his knees, lowering them both to the ground without once breaking the kiss.
“Oh,” whispered Alicia. “Oh.”
Edward was behind her. She couldn’t see him, but she could feel him, warm and near. Her breasts swelled against the bodice of her dress and her light, summer pelisse.
The pair in front of them parted, panting hard for breath and grinning devilishly at each other. Freda pushed her lover backward so that he fell against a tree trunk, his face awash with delight at this rough play. She reared up on her knees and reached to adjust the neckline of her dress, tugging and smoothing it over the lush curves of her breasts. All the while she eyed the bulging crotch of Marcus’s breeches. Alicia looked there too. She wanted to see what lay beneath. Wanted it so much, indeed, she could barely breathe.
Edward reached his arms around her, and his hands found her bonnet ribbons. With a single tug, he loosened her bow, and then with slow and infinite care, he drew out her hat pin. The bonnet tumbled away onto the grass, and Alicia let it fall.
Marcus settled farther back against the tree trunk, spreading his legs wide. “You want it so much, my dear, you’d better take it.”
“I do believe I will.” Heedless of the ruin she’d be making of her skirts, Freda crawled forward between Marcus’s legs. He stared greedily at the cleft of her breasts as she came toward himon hands and knees. When Freda was firmly nestled between his thighs, she sat back on her heels. She looked her lover straight in the eye as she stretched out one hand and ran it slowly and lovingly along the front of his breeches.
What did she feel there? What did she want so badly?
As if he read her thoughts, Edward breathed in Alicia’s ear, “She’s stroking his cock. You can see how good it feels for them both.”
“Yes,” Alicia murmured. The man, Marcus, had his back arched and his head thrown back. Freda smiled in wicked delight. Keeping up her rhythmic caress with one hand, she began to loosen the buttons on his breeches’ fly. She pushed the flap open, and laid him bare to the sunlight and her hungry gaze.
“Oh,” breathed Alicia again. Marcus’s member—his cock, Edward called it—jutted up strong and proud from the nest of ginger curls. Its flesh was dark, its shape…complex. Intriguing, and somehow important. It was very important, this thing, how she was seeing it, how she did not wish to look away.
“Do you like it?” whispered Edward. “Do you like seeing his hard cock?”
Freda certainly liked it. She grinned a hot, wanton grin and wrapped her fingers around Marcus’s rigid cock. Marcus hissed and laughed and arched his hips as she ran her hand up and down its length.
It must feel so good to touch him like that.
Vision assailed Alicia, of the conservatory in the moonlight, of a woman’s naked thighs and a man’s head down between them. He licked and teased as the woman arched her back to reach for the pleasure his mouth gave her.
“I saw…” Edward had been there, holding her, watching with her, speaking of the beauty of what they witnessed. “We saw it. Before.”
“You remember,” he said softly.
“I remember.” She should not be here. She must run away. Run away and forget. Her hand clenched her brooch until the ribbon strained against her neck. “I am mad. Wholly mad.”
“You are not mad, Alicia.”
But she was. She was on fire inside and the burn of it was driving her past reason. In front of her, Freda had leaned forward to kiss her man, running her tongue around his mouth. All the while her hand stroked and pumped his cock. Marcus broke their kiss to draw his mouth along the white length Freda’s throat, past her shoulders, down to the curving tops of her breasts. Now it was Freda’s turn to moan and lean toward him. Marcus lifted his hands to the undersides of her breasts, pressing them together, so he could nuzzle and kiss the plump, bare flesh above the curving neckline of her bodice.
“I should not want to see this.”
Edward laid his hands on Alicia’s hips. Warmth spread out from his palms and fingertips. It wrapped around her belly and sank deep into her skin. “I am here with you.” He leaned close. She felt his lips moving against her ear. “I’m watching too.”
“Do you…do you enjoy…this?”
“I enjoy the sight, but not so much as I enjoy seeing your delight in it.” His fingers brushed the nape of her neck, moving aside a few stray curls of hair. Such a light touch. Nothing like the harsh, fast strokes of Freda’s hand against her lover’s cock.
“Harder,” Marcus gasped. “Oh, God, yes, Freda. Harder!”
“This does not feel like delight.” There was a weight on Alicia, pressing her down. The more she saw, the more she felt, the stronger that weight grew.
“Be still a minute. Rest against me.”
Edward eased her back. It felt good to lay the whole of herself against him and feel the solid contours of his body through her muslin dress. He would not let her fall, no matter what. He curled his calloused hands gently around her forearms, right over that little space of skin bared between her sleeve and glove. He’d done that before as well, and she’d liked it just as much that other time.
When he spoke again, his breath brushed her ear. “When I danced with you at our engagement, when I spoke with you, I thought, here is a good woman, a sound woman. We will get along well together. But when I saw you in the conservatory, flushed with desire in the moonlight, I thought, here is a magnificent woman.” He ran his palms up her arms to her shoulders, and down again, caressing her gently, as if she were precious crystal. “You were so filled with desire, Alicia. So very beautiful in your need.”
At his words, warmth bloomed within her and spread, and it felt true and good. A wordless moan escaped her.
“That’s right, Alicia.” Edward’s hand glided around her waist to rest against her belly. “Lean close. Trust me.”
She wanted to, desperately. His hips rubbed lightly against her back, and all the breath left her. Her knees trembled and buckled. He was supporting her entirely now, with his hands and strong arms, and all she could do was lean back and let herself be held.
“Watch, Alicia. Watch with me.”
On the other side of the screening trees, Freda straddled Marcus’s legs, and still she stroked his cock. He’d shoved her skirts up so high Alicia could see her naked thighs. Both of his hands hadthrust under the bunched fabric of her skirt, one in front between her scandalously bared legs, and one behind to cup the curve of her buttocks.
“I want…” Alicia panted. She was on fire. It hurt to want. It hurt to need.
“What do you want, Alicia?”
What did she want? She wanted to run. She wanted to stay here, just like this. No, not just like this.
“Touch me,” she whispered.
“I am, Alicia.”
“No, no, like that…”
“Like this?” Edward’s hands glided down from her belly, to her thighs, pressing her buttocks close against him. The ridge of his erect cock rubbed enticingly against her back.
“Yes. Yes. Like that.”
“Do you want more?”
“Yes.”No. No. Stop. This is dangerous. Dangerous.But still she wanted it.
In front of them, Marcus grasped Freda’s curving buttocks, shoving her forward to his other hand, lost to Alicia’s sight under her rumpled skirts, but he grinned at his lover’s hard hiss of breath.
“He’s fondling her pussy, Alicia. Just here.” Edward’s hand slid across to the cleft between Alicia’s legs until his fingertips rested against her slit. “He’s stroking her clit. You can see how good it feels to her. Shall I touch you like that?”
“Yes.” But the gray swaddling darkness of her soul and self was closing down over the pleasure awakened by Edward’s bold touching, holding it back, leaving her awash in fire. “Now,” she said through gritted teeth. “Do it now.”
Edward’s fingers began to move, stroking the very tip of herslit. Lightning flashed through Alicia and the breath rushed from her. It felt so good. How could anything feel so good? Beyond the screening bracken, Freda was rocking and rubbing against Marcus, crying out in her delight like she didn’t care who heard. Their pleasure was palpable. It sank into Alicia to mix with the warmth of Edward’s body. It was almost as if Marcus’s mouth touched her breasts, as if she herself straddled his hard thighs and held his cock. No, not his. Edward’s. It was Edward’s cock she imagined in her hand. It was his thighs she wanted between hers, not just his hand, his clever, wicked hand, which was pressing into her slit now. Alicia felt herself growing warm and damp between her thighs. Edward sucked in a sharp breath and his hand moved faster, pressing closer into Alicia’s slit and finding a tight point of pleasure there. His cock swelled hot against the small of her back as they rocked and rubbed together and Alicia had to bite her lip to keep back her moans.
Marcus kissed Freda’s breasts through the cloth of her dress, grasping the very tip of her nipple in his teeth. As if it were too much to be endured, Freda cried out loud, her whole body bucking and shuddering, shaken to the core by the delight with her.
“Freda!” Marcus cried, and he too was seized by the ecstatic tremors raging between them, and they laughed and shook and kissed and laughed again, rolling onto the ground, and into each other’s arms.
But Alicia had traveled beyond the sight of them. Her whole awareness was centered on Edward’s knowing touch. “More,” she heard herself cry. “More, please.”
“All you want, Alicia.”
He pressed her closer, holding her, stroking her, gentleness replaced by urgency. It felt so warm, so good. But there wassomething else now, some new sensation brushing against her skin. At first Alicia thought it was sunlight, or perhaps the frantic rush of her blood as Edward’s hand continued to stroke her with such unending urgency, but it was not either. This was stranger and stronger than any of these things. It did not come from within her as the rising tide of pleasure did, or from outside like the heat of the sun. It was as if a current of heat and energy flowed directly from Edward’s body into hers.
The glass wall of her mind shuddered and pain bit deep into Alicia’s soul.
“No!” she cried. “No, stop!”
Edward’s hands froze instantly. The sensation of the current flowing between them vanished at once and took all the warmth with it. The pleasure that had throbbed through her folds and her clit a moment before was washed away in a rush of cold. Alicia slumped weakly in Edward’s arms.
“It’s all right, Alicia,” said Edward. “It’s all right. I’ve stopped.”
“I…I…” Alicia struggled to right herself. How could she possibly explain this sudden outburst, after she had begged so wantonly for him to touch her?
“Look at me, Alicia.” Edward turned her to face him. She shook her head. She couldn’t look at him. She wished she had the strength left to run away. This was impossible. This was madness. It was like the scene in the conservatory, only this time played out far more shamefully.
A sudden realization dropped like a stone into the flow of Alicia’s thoughts. Now she did look at Edward, straight into his surprised, gray eyes.
“You knew about this!” She pulled herself free of his steadying hands.
“Do not try to deceive me!” Anger, as hot and unfamiliar as the delight had been, flooded her. Alicia welcomed it, for it drove out the last lingering riot of pleasure and left her thoughts much clearer. “I may not have a woman’s feeling, but I do have a brain! You brought me here on purpose to shame me!”
“No, Alicia, never that. I swear it.”
“Then what? I don’t know how you did this, but you…you hired those…actors, somehow. You thought to draw me out!”
Edward sighed and his shoulders drooped. But not in defeat. He was not sorry. Not he. Her supposedly respectable fiancé had schemed to expose her. He had wanted to make her feel indecent. How had she ever believed he was a gentleman? All his decorous manners, his solicitousness—that was all a game. He was something else, something wicked and dangerous. Her gaze drifted to his hands, and her pussy strained to open between her clenched thighs, but she could not tell whether it was from anger or desire.
“I did arrange for you to see Freda and Marcus,” Edward told her. “And I did mean to draw you out. But it was not to shame you.”
“I wanted to be close to you. I wanted to understand you better.”
“By forcing me to witness such a display!”
“I never forced you,” he replied evenly. “Had you asked me to take you away, we would have gone. But you did not ask to leave. You wanted very much to stay, because you enjoyed what you saw.”
“I was paralyzed with shock.” Alicia tried to gather her usual calm back about her, but she could not. Desire was too hot, anger was too strong and neither was lessened by the sight of Edwardsmilingat her.
“Now you’re the one who’s attempting to deceive me, Alicia, and that displeases me greatly.” He stepped closer to her. The breadth of his body seemed to block all possibility of escape. “You enjoyed what you saw, and you wanted to see more. Further”—he took another step forward—“you enjoyed what we did.”
“Whatyoudid. I did nothing.” He was too close. She caught his scent, even over the green aromas of the summer grove. As she breathed him in, she remembered his hands on her arms, her shoulders and her hips. She felt again how his fingers pressed into her slit to touch the tight, hot nubbin he had called her clit, and bring her such bright pleasure.
“I did no more than you asked me to.” He still smiled at her, and there was nothing tight or wrong about his expression this time. It was an open, easy smile, and it sharpened her body’s memory of his touch.
Alicia drew back, and shut her mouth firmly. She felt the flush in her cheeks and throat deepen. Because he was right. She had enjoyed every aspect of his touch. But there was more to it than simple pleasure. She had felt herself to be on the brink of some great revelation, and that was now gone. As much as her mind tried to tell her it was better she remain ignorant, her body still ached with being denied.
“Why would you treat me this way?” Heat prickled behind her eyes. It was too much, too strong, and nothing made any sense anymore.
“Passion is an important part of a marriage, Alicia.”
He was still smiling, but he had his hands folded behind him, and adopted his strong sailor’s stance. It was, she realized, an attempt to reassure her on some physical level. He would not touch her without warning or permission. Despite this, she felt a cordof fresh sensibility in her blood, but it was nowhere near as pleasant as the other newfound sensations had been.
“That’s not the truth,” she said slowly. “Not all of it. You’re hiding something from me.”
Edward raised his eyebrows. “You’re right.”
“You’re right. I am hiding something from you.”
“You admit it?”
“Freely.” He shrugged, and Alicia could not help but watch the way his shoulders rippled. Her palms tingled and she wanted nothing so much as to run them across the breadth of him.
“Since you are so disposed to tell the truth,” she said, attempting to distract herself from her keen awareness of his body. “May I ask what it is you hide?”
Edward’s smile broadened and yet, at the same time, the levity of his manner seemed to lessen. Alicia felt her stomach churn. Why was this happening now? She had never been able to look at someone and even begin to guess what emotions they held.
“Do you truly want to know?” whispered Edward.
Worry pricked up Alicia’s spine. But if she backed away now, she knew she would remain trapped in this place between fear and need. No mist of her mind, no imagined glass wall, would be thick enough to shelter her from these feelings. “Yes,” she answered. “Yes, I want to know.”
“Then look in my eyes, Alicia. Look deep, and you’ll see.”
Her first thought was to tell him not to tease her. But he did not seem to be teasing. His face was still and solemn. Indeed, the whole of his body had gone very still, as it had the other evening in the music room. She remembered that now. How strange she had forgotten, for it was the moment before he had kissed her. Itwas her first kiss. Surely that was something to be remembered. His mouth had been soft and supple, gentle and sure, just as his hands had been when he touched her today. How could anyone be so gentle and so wicked all at once? It was as great a mystery as anything that might wait behind his gray eyes.
He didn’t move, not a fraction of an inch. He was patience itself. He would stand there until she complied with his strange command. It was up to her. If she wished to understand, she needed to obey. If she turned away, he would let her go. This decision was hers.
Steeling herself, Alicia took one step forward. She tilted her face up, and looked into Edward’s eyes.
At first, she saw only a man’s eyes. Fine eyes, certainly, and an unusual color, being a gray so bright as to be almost silver, but with dark flecks adorning the irises. Alicia thought of moonlight, and polished steel. There were both in the shine of Edward’s gray eyes. The skin around them was brown and seamed from squinting into sun and wind. She suddenly saw him standing on the pitching deck of a ship, one hand tight on the rail, one fist raised to the storm, shouting defiance to the ocean itself. A brave and wild joy shot through her, as if she stood beside him, arms around his arm, daring the sea to do its worst.
That’s right, Alicia. Look deep. See me.
He was speaking to her. She could not be mistaken. She knew his voice like she knew his eyes, like she knew his touch. Mischief, gentleness, strength, passion, she knew all these things waited within him. But there was much more, if she could but reach it. There was understanding. There was sharing and truth. She had only to reach out and grasp it.
Do not be afraid, Alicia. I’m here.
He was holding out his hand for her. He had not moved any more than he had spoken, and yet she knew it to be true. She could extend her hand; she could reach him, reach understanding, reach passion and shelter and companionship—all the things she had longed for in those numb, lonely hours when she had cursed her inability to comprehend the love of man and woman. All of that was there for her now. All she had to do was reach out, and she would be no more alone. She would know this man truly. And he would know her.
No. No. No!
A bright and terrible light tumbled through her mind. With it came a flood of voices, flashes of faces, all riding a tide of awful feeling; fear and hate and sorrow, all raging together.
Don’t tell. Don’t ever tell. You’re Alicia, Alicia Hartwell. Tell and they’ll come back. They’ll steal you away forever.
But I want to go! I hate it here! I want to go with the White Knight!
They hurt you!
Only when you came! You should have stayed away!
Oh, God, oh, God! What do we do! What do we do!
Hold her down!
No! I want to go with the White Knight!The voice that shouted from distant memory was a child’s voice. Her voice. She remembered. She remembered the burn in her throat from shouting those words. She was a little girl. She faced a man and a woman. Her parents. But she was screaming at them. She hated them. She hated them so badly she wished they were dead so then she could run away, run away back to the White Knight…
You’re an evil little demon and you must pray to be made good.You must wear this ribbon or all the evil in you will come pouring out and the devils will come and take you away again!
Lord Carstairs’s hand jerked back like he’d been burned.
“By all that’s holy…” he whispered.
“What’s happening to me?” Alicia backed away, wrapping her arms tightly around herself. She couldn’t see straight. The world was spinning all around her. “What is this?”
“You’re remembering,” Edward said through gritted teeth.
“Your memories have been taken from you, along with your heart and passion. They’re being held away from you by enchantment.”
His words rang in her ears, as if he’d shouted them in a closed room. She felt her eyes widen. “You’re mad.”
“No, Alicia. You know I’m not, and neither are you.”
“I…I don’t know anything.” The mists of her mind beckoned, offering her rescue from this sudden boiling emotion, the bright light, and the horrible, horrible words she had screamed to her lost parents.
“No, Alicia!” Edward caught her up in his arms, holding her hard against him. “Don’t let it take you.”
But he didn’t understand. It was too terrible. Too dangerous. She needed shelter.
Then come to me. Come to me, Alicia. I will shelter you.
Yes.His mouth pressed against hers in a hot, hard kiss. His earlier touches had more than readied her body for this kiss. Even through the fear and the tumult, she could feel its sweetness. She leaned toward it, pressing her breasts and hips against his hard,strong body. Alicia opened her mouth, hungry for this sensation that had nothing to do with the fear boiling up from the depths of herself.
Hold on, Alicia,he commanded her.Hold tight.
But the wall was too strong, and the mists too close. They rose to engulf her, to keep her away from him.I can’t. I can’t!
Fight, Alicia! Your heart has been taken from you. You can win it back, but you must fight!
Fight. Break the wall. See Edward clearly again and feel more than just this brief, torturous burst of passion. She wanted it; she needed it, as badly as she had needed his touch. But already she was slipping away.
Edward, help me!
I will, Alicia, I swear it. They will not keep hold of you.
Those words were the last she heard before darkness overwhelmed her.Six
Alicia crumpled against Carstairs’s chest in a dead faint. Cursing, he lowered her to the grass. She was pale, and her skin felt cold and damp under his fingertips as he searched for the pulse at the base of her throat, right below the white velvet ribbon with its bloodred amulet that was the token of her enchantment.
“They’ll not keep you,” he whispered as he laid his hand across her too-cold brow. “I swear it, Alicia. I swear it.”
“Damn, Carstairs, you need to learn when to give over,” came a voice behind him. Bracken rustled as Thomas Lynne pushed through the thicket.
Like Carstairs, Lynne was one of Smith’s agents. Lynne was not himself a magic worker, but he had intimate knowledge of the Fae and their plans. He also had a strong back and a sailor’s ability to take orders, so Carstairs had asked him to come along as lookout and backup.
Lynne crouched down beside Carstairs and Alicia, his sharp, green eyes darting from her still face to the screening trees. ButCarstairs didn’t give him any time to voice an opinion of the situation.
“We need to get Miss Carstairs to my house immediately,” he said, scooping Alicia into his arms. “Is the carriage ready?”
Lynne nodded. “Rathe’s minding the horses. How does Miss Hartwell?”
“Just unconscious,” he said, but uncertainty coiled in his gut. He did not like either her pallor or the chill of her skin. She felt far too light as he scooped her into his arms, and her head lolled loose against his chest.
If Alicia died, he would be the one who killed her. He was a fool, a greedy, lust-filled fool. He’d felt her fighting her confinement, and in his desire to help her win her freedom, he’d forgotten she’d never before made a trial of her own strength. He’d gotten careless, pushed her too far, and this was the result.
Lynne, displaying the casual chivalrousness of his buccaneer past, reclaimed Alicia’s bonnet and pin before leading the way through the trees. Cursing himself in all the languages he knew, Carstairs followed.
Just as Carstairs had instructed, his compatriots had a closed carriage waiting with the horses harnessed and ready. Corwin Rathe had the lead horse’s head. Lynne held the door while Carstairs laid Alicia on the carriage’s plush seat. He climbed in beside her and arranged himself so he could hold her and prevent her from slipping off the seat.
Rathe climbed in and latched the door. “Ready?”
Carstairs nodded. The carriage rocked slightly as Lynne clambered onto the box and touched up the horses. They started forward at a pace slow enough to be inconspicuous. That was the right choice. They did not want to give any passersby cause toremark on their passage. At the same time, Carstairs had to grit his teeth to keep from calling out to Lynne to hurry. He needed Alicia safe in his house, where he could help her.
As they trundled forward, Rathe slipped off his seat and knelt at Alicia’s side. Like Carstairs had, he took her pulse, and laid a hand across her forehead, feeling the chill.
“Tell me what happened,” he said.
Carstairs did. Rathe was not a man to be shocked or embarrassed, and he understood how sexual passion could help to make or break an enchantment. He was also able to keep strict confidence, so Carstairs felt no compunction at telling him about the snatches he had learned of Alicia’s past.
When he’d finished, Rathe remained silent for some time. Then the Sorcerer took hold of Carstairs’s arm with one hand and laid the other on Alicia’s forehead. Carstairs felt Rathe’s internal senses open, and he opened his own in response, as if he were opening his eyes to darkness. Rathe would now be able to feel what Carstairs himself had experienced when he touched Alicia’s mind—the crawling gray mists that stifled her mind, the cold, glass coffin that confined her spirit.
“Damn it all, but somebody took their time with this,” said Rathe through gritted teeth.
“Can you do anything?”
Rathe was silent for another long moment. “No,” he said at last. “If I try to break this from outside, I’ll hurt her. I might even kill her.
“One thing we can say for certain, however,” the Sorcerer went on as he settled back into his seat. “Whatever this is, it’s got nothing to do with you personally. This was not the work of a moment. She’s been laboring under this enchantment for years.”
Carstairs found that very cold comfort. Although Rathe had withdrawn his magic, Carstairs again cast his senses over that cold evil surrounding Alicia, searching for some seam or crack, any weakness he could call to the Sorcerer’s attention. But there was nothing. The wall was solid, and the mist beyond engulfed Alicia’s spirit. The carriage jounced over a pothole and Carstairs tightened his arm more firmly around her. Alicia didn’t even stir. It barely seemed possible that just moments ago she had been so aroused and responsive, watching Freda and Marcus take their pleasure in each other. Carstairs kicked that memory behind him. He needed to focus now on Alicia’s safety, and her freedom. This was his mission as an agent of the Crown, and his duty as a gentleman. But even as he schooled himself to consider his next steps with logic and detachment, he knew the sensations of holding Alicia Hartwell and feeling her rise to her first tastes of pleasure would not be quickly banished.
“It’s a fiendishly well-thought-out prison; I’ll give the maker that,” Rathe was saying. “If I had to guess, I’d say it canonlybe broken from the inside. To do that, the prisoner has to have the desire to escape, but what would she be escaping to? From what you said, what she remembers of sense and feeling is a child’s terrors. Why would she want to return to that?”
“But she does want to escape,” insisted Carstairs. “I felt it.”I felt her passion, her desire. I felt her wanting to be whole.
The carriage turned a corner. The rocking motion caused Alicia’s hand to slide from her belly and dangle loose alongside the seat. Carstairs reached for it and laid it gently on her breast. She was still too cold. He should have stocked this carriage with thick quilts. She might take a chill.
Rathe was watching him closely. “You need to take care here, Carstairs.”
“Why? You just pointed out this enchantment could have nothing to do with me.”
“But that doesn’t mean it has nothing to do withus, with the Service. An ensnared woman would be an enticement to any of our people. But you especially.”
“You can’t have it both ways, Rathe. Alicia’s enchantment can’t be both a trap for anyone and a trap for me in particular.”
“Are you sure?” replied the Sorcerer mildly. “Since the Fae killed your brother, you’ve made sure you had nothing but duty in your life. You were even planning to marry for duty. Now, that’s no bad thing and I’ve always admired your commitment. But the combination might leave you especially open to…the allure of a beautiful and helpless maiden thrust suddenly into your care.”
Carstairs knew his anger flashed in his eyes. If Rathe thought him unable to complete this assignment, he was much mistaken.
“Then we must consider the danger you pose to the girl herself,” Rathe went on before Carstairs could formulate a reply that was not directly insulting.
“What do you mean by that?”
Rathe smiled tightly. “I mean you’ve chosen a…singular way to raise her feelings against her enchantment. If you needed to rouse emotion in her, you could have picked anger, or even simple happiness, but you chose passion. If she does successfully break free of this thing…she’ll be brand-new to her own feelings. She may become dependent on the person who freed her. She may even believe herself to experience deeper feeling than truly exists.”
“You’re saying she might believe herself in love with her rescuer? With me?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying. By her age most of us had been in and out of love a dozen times, but not Miss Alicia Hartwell.Not only does her enchantment isolate her from strong feeling; she’s been lodged with a large, careless family. She’s been contracted into a carefully arranged marriage with a stranger, the sort that will at best yield cordial friendship.” Rathe paused, letting that sink in. Edward’s thumb brushed restlessly against the back of Alicia’s gloved hand. He could not seem to stop himself. “If you’re the one who frees her, Edward, particularly if you persist in using the strength of desire to do it, you will be responsible for her in more ways than one.”
Carstairs knew he should listen to Rathe. After all, he had been warning himself against the dangers of too much feeling. Hadn’t he carefully avoided attachment for years? Oh, he sought the pleasures of the flesh readily enough, and he did his best to treat his partners with respect and consideration. But they had all been fully grown to their experiences of pleasure and never expected anything lasting from him. He’d never found virgins a source of fascination as some rakes did. But then, he’d never met a virgin who was excited or emboldened by the sight of erotic play. Abruptly, he found himself wondering how far she would be ready to travel passion’s journey with him. What would it be like to have Alicia naked under his gaze as he commanded her pleasures?
The very idea caused his cock to stir under his buckskins. Carstairs cursed his traitorous member. Could it be just the simple allure of unexpected lust that drew him to her? He’d meant his marriage to be a business relationship, a mutual fulfillment of social necessities. That was why cool, practical Alicia had seemed so ideal for him. In their first—call it “encounter”—in her uncle’s conservatory, he’d thought he’d tumbled on a pleasant secret that could be enjoyable for them both. But if she might actually fall inlove with him, when he could not return that love, he would be hurting her in a way he had never intended.
Rathe was right. He should give Alicia over to another’s care. In getting her away from her family, he had done enough. Rathe’s Miranda was a strong Catalyst, and with their partner, Darius Marlowe, the trio was truly formidable. They would not only break the enchantment but care for Alicia kindly afterward. As he thought this, though, Edward’s hand tightened over Alicia’s. He remembered her as she had been in his arms, flushed and animated first with desire, and then with anger. When their minds had touched, he was the one she’d cried out to for help. How could he abandon her?
“I’m responsible for her,” Carstairs said slowly.
Rathe sighed. “Considering I’m helping you abduct an unmarried girl, I suppose I can’t argue that. But you still need to be careful.”
Carstairs drew a deep breath. He needed to remember who and what he was, and how very little he knew about the woman lying on the seat beside him. There remained countless ways she could be bait at the center of a Fae trap. And even if he did help bring her all the way out of this enchantment, what then? Rathe was right; she would be unused to emotion. Look how openly she’d responded to her first taste of desire. How far would gratitude take her? She would not have any experience telling that feeling from true love, especially if it came mingled with the sweet and highly spiced passion he had rashly shown her.
And what if that passion wasn’t truly her choice? What if, as their minds and magics touched, he had projected his own particular desires upon her? The idea hit like cold water. Carstairshad seduced others and permitted himself to be seduced, but never once had he sought a lover who did not know her own mind. Even the idea that he might do so was repugnant.
Alicia stirred against him. She was waking. Carstairs let go of her hand and sat her gently up so she rested against the seat back. Rathe watched him closely but Carstairs didn’t bother to smooth the grim expression from his face. It would not do for her to awaken and find him holding her. Not now.
Slowly, Alicia’s eyelids fluttered open. She looked directly at Carstairs, but her gaze was flat, cold and uncomprehending.
“I fainted,” she said, at once mildly puzzled and faintly annoyed.
“You did,” Carstairs agreed. A thick lock of dark golden hair had tumbled free of her pins and slanted across her cheek. He longed to brush it back, but he could not reach for her while she looked at him so devoid of feeling and memory.
“It must have been the sun. I’m terribly sorry, my lord. I…” Alicia noticed the direction of Carstairs’s gaze and put her hand up to her bared head. She saw her bonnet lying on the seat next to Rathe. Then she saw Rathe. “Where are we? Who is this? Where is Verity?”
“We are in my carriage. This is my friend Mr. Corwin Rathe. You met him at our engagement party.”
“Yes, of course. How do you do, Mr. Rathe?”
“Very well, I thank you, Miss Hartwell,” Rathe answered calmly.
“As for Verity,” Carstairs went on. “At this point I expect she is looking for us and raging at me for being the worst sort of libertine.” That was something else to deal with. He would not only have to calm Verity down, but convince her to trust him again.
One problem at a time,Carstairs told himself.
Alicia touched her curls again, but her gaze roved the carriage, taking in the covered windows. Understanding gradually dawned behind her blank, amber eyes. “You are abducting me.”
“I’m afraid so, yes,” said Carstairs.
“Why? We were to be married in just three weeks!”
Because whether they know it or not, your family has been abetting your jailers. Because I want to know who you really are, and find out what you truly desire.“I find I am out of patience,” he said. “Before another day has passed, I mean to have you safe.” That much, at least, was true.
As he spoke, Carstairs felt something shift inside Alicia. Now that he had touched her mind, it seemed the brutal enchantment could no longer entirely hide her from him. She heard that single wordsafe, and she yearned toward it. He longed to take her hand and reassure her that all would be well.
“My family will come looking for me. Verity will sound the alarm.” Whatever she might be straining toward inside, Alicia spoke with cool rationality, as if she could make him change his mind about her kidnapping by force of pure reason. It was almost absurd, but Carstairs found himself far beyond laughter.
“Of that I have no doubt,” said Carstairs. “And it will be a long time before she forgives me for playing her for a fool.”
“I could scream.”
“You could,” he agreed. “And I could stop your mouth, although I’d rather not.”
For the first time since she woke, the fire of anger kindled behind Alicia’s words. “I did not expect you would stoop so low, sir.”
“You have no idea,” Carstairs replied evenly, even as he struggled to keep the anger from his own expression. Carstairs had been to war. He had seen men die next to him and he had killedwithout a second thought. But he had never truly hated any enemy as he hated the unknown person who bound Alicia with this enchantment.
Despite this, Carstairs had to admit the enchantment that so disordered her heart and mind had some advantages. Probably, Alicia would not throw hysterics at them, or even fight very much. To fight, one needed to be roused strongly to anger or desperation, and those were the very things denied her. As it was, she had only a light furrow between her brows as she reclaimed her bonnet and occupied herself in retying and re-pinning it. She kept her face turned toward the covered window so she would not have to look at either him or Rathe. At least, that was what Carstairs thought at first. Then he noticed she was craning her neck carefully, trying to see around the thick shades.
“And I ask you to entertain no thoughts of running away once the carriage stops,” Carstairs said. “I would also have no compunction about tying you down.”I would probably enjoy it far more than is good for either of us,he added silently, and instantly cursed himself for it. She was entirely in his power, and ensnared by forces even he could barely comprehend, and yet he couldn’t stop thinking of how delicious her body had felt as she melted back against his chest.
Maybe Rathe is right. Maybe I should leave this now. Because I’ve clearly lost what few wits I ever possessed.
“You need have no fear,” she replied coolly. “I am not fool enough to risk a broken neck, or pointless indignities.” But she did not turn her face from the window and Carstairs could see nothing of her but the straw bonnet with its ridiculous ribbons and flowers.
Look at me, Alicia.Carstairs clamped down on the thoughtbefore he could stretch it toward her. He wanted to move closer, to touch her and kiss her until her desire, herself, shone through. He wanted to touch again the Alicia Hartwell he had glimpsed beyond the enchantment, the woman filled with passion and power. And yes, he wanted to feel her leaning against him, to draw out the subtle nuances of her pleasure and teach her all he knew of desire. But until he had that cursed brooch off her, he had to endure the fact that she could not remember any but the most banal of events that passed between them.
The carriage rattled to a halt. Rathe opened the door, revealing the mews behind Carstairs’s house in quiet Mayfair. He could have had a more fashionable address, but the relative isolation of the neighborhood suited both his tastes and his requirements.
Rathe held up his hand and Alicia permitted herself to be helped from the carriage. Her eyes darted this way and that, but Carstairs came up right behind her, reminding her she was outnumbered, even before Lynne jumped off the box to land lightly in front of them. Lynne bowed gallantly to Alicia, then led the way through Carstairs’s small but well-kept garden. Alicia walked calmly between himself and Rathe, but Carstairs felt tension radiating from her. Perhaps he’d been wrong. She was angry at her treatment, and humiliated. These feelings were passions in their own right. She might not be able to muster the will to fight, but she might find the ability to run.
Carstairs handed Rathe his keys so the Sorcerer could unlock the back door. Rathe disappeared into the shadowed interior to make sure the house was empty. Carstairs trusted his servants with his life and the secrets of his house, but he’d still sent them away for this night. There were too many ways his scheme couldgo wrong. He did not want to unnecessarily risk those who had been loyal to his family for so many years.
With Lynne behind them, Carstairs guided Alicia up the back stairs to the plushly carpeted corridor of the second floor. They arrived just as Rathe stepped out of the door to the guest apartments.
“Is everything set, Lynne?” asked Rathe over Carstairs’s shoulder.
“Aye, sir.” Lynne carelessly touched his knuckle to his brow in imitation of a sailor’s salute.
“Very good.” Carstairs faced Alicia. “Now, Alicia, you’ll go in that room and take off your pelisse and bonnet.”
“Why should I?” she inquired icily.
“Because you don’t want me taking them off you.”
Alicia’s eyes slid from Carstairs, to Rathe, to Lynne. “You could be planning some ruse. Why on earth should I help you?”
“She’s got a point there, Carstairs.” Lynne’s green eyes flashed with sharp mischief.
“You’re not helping, Lynne.”
Alicia faced the fair-haired former pirate, evidently guessing him to be some sort of weak link in her captor’s chain. “Take me out of here,” she said. “My family will pay well for my return.”
“I’m sure they will.” Lynne attempted to school his face into an expression of gravity. “But there’s not money enough in the world to induce me to return you to them.”
“What’s it to be, Alicia? Will you do as I say, or will I strip you down myself?” Carstairs clenched his hands to fists so she would not see them tremble. God in Heaven. He was a barbarian with no restraint of mind or manner. He could be walking into a snare, with her as the sweetest lure of all, and yet he seemed determinedto quicken his pace. Carstairs was very conscious of Lynne and Rathe both watching him, waiting for some sign he might be wavering from his duty.
“Well, Alicia?” Carstairs said through gritted teeth. “What is your decision?”
“I am not given much choice.” She strode through the bedroom door and shut it firmly behind her.
Lynne had sense enough to turn away before Carstairs could threaten to wipe the smirk off his face. “I’m never going to be able to explain this to Jane,” he muttered.
“Miranda’s not going to be any too pleased when she hears of it, either.” Rathe started down the main staircase.
“Where are you going?” Carstairs growled at Rathe.
“To stand under your betrothed’s window,” he answered. “Just in case she’s been reading Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels and has ideas about making herself a rope from the bedsheets.”
Which only made Carstairs angrier, because he should have thought of it. As Alicia herself had pointed out, she might not have many sensibilities available to her, but she did possess a very fine brain.
“You’d better watch the kitchen door, just in case,” he snapped at Lynne. Lynne saluted again and disappeared down the hall.
Left alone in the shadowed corridor, Carstairs could do nothing but pace. He tried very hard not to imagine Alicia on the other side of the door. In his overheated fancy, he saw her removing not just her pelisse, but also her dress. She’d struggle with her tapes, slipping her shapely arms out of first one muslin sleeve, then the other. She’d bare a light chemise that would allow a man clear sight of her curves…
The knob turned. Carstairs straightened up and faced the door,holding himself to attention. He would be master of his own mind. His cock might think it belonged to a randy youth, but he was a gentleman, and Alicia was under his protection. He would behave like a gentleman, if it cost him everything he had…
The door opened a crack, and a bundle of cloth flew out, hitting him square in the face. Startled, Carstairs shouted, and by the time he’d clawed the pelisse aside, Alicia was halfway down the stairs. Cursing, Carstairs raced after her.
He caught up with her on the landing, grabbed her by the waist and hauled her off her feet. Pain jabbed his wrist. He swore loudly, but his grip loosened enough for Alicia to pull away. Carstairs lunged for her, and trapped her against the railing with his body, while he wrenched the hat pin from her hand. He tossed it aside and clamped his hands hard around her wrists. Otherwise he risked a slap, or a good clawing. She might not know how to fight, but she had good instincts, as the spot of blood welling up on his wrist clearly showed.
“You will return to your room,” he growled.
“No.” She was breathing hard and her cheeks were flushed. Even now her eyes searched for the hat pin. But Carstairs was not in the mood for any more games. With a blasphemous oath, he threw her inelegantly over his shoulder, and stomped back up the stairs.
Alicia kicked uselessly a few times, and her fists pummeled his back, but now that she was disarmed, she could not muster a solid blow. When they reached the guest room door, he set her firmly down on the other side of the threshold. She tilted her chin up defiantly as he slammed the door shut. This time, he locked it.
Still swearing, he retrieved the rumpled pelisse and bonnet she’d thrown at him and started down the stairs. Lynne and Rathehad evidently sensed something was amiss, because by the time he reached the foyer, they were both there to meet him.
Carstairs handed Alicia’s garments to Lynne. “Take my coat and hat as well, and make it good.”
“By tomorrow, there’ll be a half dozen carriage houses where the landlord will swear you and Miss Hartwell are on your way to the Scottish border,” Lynne assured him. He rolled the lady’s garments quickly into an anonymous bundle and tucked them under his arm as he strolled out the door.
Carstairs faced Rathe. “You can tell our captain things are proceeding according to plan.”
“I’ll tell him things are proceeding,” replied Rathe. “Are you sure you don’t want help?”
“Alicia doesn’t deserve any more humiliation than she’s already had, and there are some things I—we—may do that…you don’t need to witness.”
Although this plainly left Rathe unhappy, the Sorcerer nodded a curt farewell and took his leave. Carstairs looked up the stairs, all the way up to the second floor where its open corridor curved around his vaulted foyer. He could see the guest suite door from where he stood. Alicia waited on the other side, angry, frightened and trapped, but this time he was the one holding the key.
That was not as nearly as enticing a realization now as it had been before she’d stabbed him.
Carstairs climbed the stairs, steeling himself to confront his abducted fiancée.Seven
She could have run faster. She could have tried harder. She was certain of it.
Then why didn’t I?Alicia ran both hands over her thoroughly disordered hair. Her mind was entirely in an uproar. She wanted to fly home to safety and normality, even if it meant having to endure the worst scolding Aunt Hester had to deliver. But part of her wanted to stay in this room; to be right here when Edward came through that door.
Ridiculous.Lord Carstairs had proved himself to be nothing but a callous brute. How could she possibly want to remain with him?
Alicia surveyed the room, trying to formulate a fresh plan of escape. Under other circumstances, she would have found the apartment pleasant enough. More pleasant, certainly, than her own narrow chamber in Hartwell House. The walls were an attractive summer yellow with white trim. There was a fireplace that had comfortable chairs placed before it. There was also awriting desk and roomy wardrobe. The four-poster bed had a snow-white canopy and counterpane. It looked very comfortable. Just gazing at it, Alicia felt acutely how tired she was. She wanted nothing more than to lie down and rest. But she couldn’t, because Edward was going to come through that door. What would he think she was about if he discovered her in the bed?
She would find a way out of this. She clutched her brooch. She was calmer when she touched it, and yet at the same time it reminded her that Edward didn’t like it. They had quarreled about it. She remembered that much, but the details of what they’d said floated away like dandelion seeds on the wind. Her head ached. Her breath was suddenly coming short. Alicia lurched to one of the chairs in front of the fire and sat down heavily.
I must think,she instructed herself.I must plan.
But before she could find a way to begin, Alicia heard the metallic clacking of a key turning in a lock. The door opened, and Alicia had to scramble to her feet.
Edward had switched his stiff morning coat to an older one of plain blue cloth and exchanged his Hessian boots for more comfortable shoes and stockings. In his hands, he carried an intricately carved wooden chest, about the size of a thick book. It was banded with black iron and an iron key had been left in its lock.
“What is that?” Alicia asked.
“Call it a wedding present,” Edward replied as he set the box on one of the room’s small tables. “I’ll show it to you later.”
“This is not a wedding. This is—”
“Unfortunate in the extreme,” Edward cut her off as he turned to face her. “I can only hope that before long, Alicia, you will understand I meant to help you.”
“How? By holding me against my will?”
She expected another one of his callous replies, but none came. Instead, he spoke softly. “Do you know what your will is, Alicia? Truly?”
This question settled uncomfortably in her mind.It is just another of his tricks,Alicia told herself. “You are trying to distract me yet again.”
“I assure you, I truly wish to know. What is your will, madame?”
“I…”I want you to hold me, Edward. I want you to help me understand what’s happening.Pain shivered through her mind and she backed away from that thought. “I want to go home.” Yes, that was better. That was safe.
“Very well.” Edward stood back. “There is the door.”
Alicia’s knees trembled. Edward left her a clear path past him to the door. He now stood by the foot of the bed. If she wanted to leave, that was the way. He would not prevent her, but he also would not help her. She must make the decision.
He’d done this before, Alicia recalled suddenly. She swung around and stared at him, memory and confusion swirling together in her mind.
“You’re remembering,” Edward breathed. “Tell me what you remember, Alicia.”
“This afternoon. You…We were together. You showed me…” No, no, not again. She could not rise to that desire and longing again. It would break her.
“What did I show you? What did you feel this afternoon?” Edward stepped toward her, each movement carefully controlled, as if he was afraid she might collapse, again. “Name it, Alicia.”
I can’t. Don’t make me.Alicia cast about for some way to retreat, but there was nowhere to go. She had no way out of this deceptively pleasant chamber except past Edward. He seemed tofill the room. There was no escape from his presence, because the moment she looked at him, she remembered his hands and his breath on her skin. She remembered his mouth as he kissed her. She remembered the lovers, Marcus and Freda, and Freda’s hands stroking that hard cock, and their cries of delight. She remembered how she had begged Edward to touch her.
“What did you feel this afternoon, Alicia?” he repeated, softly, firmly.
“Passion,” she heard herself whisper. “Desire.”
“Yes.” He was nearer now. If she stretched out her hand, she would touch him. He would close his fingers around hers and pull her to him, as if they moved together in a country dance. “You wanted to know passion, and you wanted to know me. I could not show you as much as I would have liked then, but I can now that we are alone in my house.”
“What is so very special about your house?” She meant to be haughty, like Verity when she was repulsing a clumsy beau, but to her own ears she just sounded breathless.
That breathlessness made Edward smile. “My house is special because you are in it, and there is no one else to see what we do. Here, I can give you all you may desire.”
His words seemed to caress her from the inside. He made her body into a traitor against her sense and safety. How was it possible he could arouse her without even touching her? She knew then if she stayed any longer she would give in to him and everything would end.
“Please. Stop this. Let me go.”
“I’ve told you, Alicia, you are perfectly free to go. But if you do, you will be beyond my power to help or hold. Go now, and you go forever.”
“You say that, but you don’t mean it.” As she spoke, Alicia realized she was hoping to find some anger toward him, but none came. Instead, the terribly comfortable mist rose up in her mind, tempting her as the bed had tempted her. It told her she could lie down and rest, and all this struggle would be done. “You will follow me.”
Edward shook his head. His face had gone tight, and the moonlight softness in his gray eyes had vanished so that only the gleam of polished steel remained. “Not again, Alicia,” he said, and she thought she saw a tremor cross his shoulders. “Whatever happens now, it happens forever. You come to me, or you go to the mists.”
Alicia’s ribs squeezed against her heart. “How do you know about the mists?”
“I’ve seen them.”
Alicia turned away from him. She could not look at him anymore. It was too disturbing. It was wrong that he should know of the state of her inner thoughts.
Why, then, did part of her feel so relieved to hear his words?
“You are laboring under heavy enchantment, Alicia.”
“Enchantment!” The word whirled her around. Edward had not moved. She walked toward him, searching his face and finding nothing. He must be mocking her, but she couldn’t see it. That precious moment in the park when she’d been able to read his face had vanished.
“Enchantment,” he repeated slowly. “Look inside, Alicia; look into your own mind. You know I’m telling the truth.”
He could not be. It was impossible. And yet…and yet…he knew about the mists. In the park, he had spoken inside her very thoughts, and she had been able to answer him. What could that be if not magic?
Alicia gripped her brooch. The edges dug hard into her fingers. The pain urged her to silence, to stillness. But she did not want to be still. She wanted to run; she wanted to fight. But fight what?
“I can prove what I’m saying.”
Edward moved carefully toward her, as an experienced horseman might approach a skittish mare. He covered her hand where she gripped the brooch and the warm press of his palm reminded her sharply of all the ways he had touched her so far. Her fingers went slack and he pulled her hand away from her brooch. Locking his eyes on hers, he undid the button on her glove, and tugged at the fingers, drawing it off so the kid leather brushed slowly against her skin. He gently spread her fingers, so they could both see the angry red lines from where the edges of the cinnabar’s gold frame bit into her skin.
Edward bent his head over her hand. Softly, he kissed each finger, right over those red lines. Alicia’s mouth went dry and her heart fluttered wildly at the base of her throat. Edward took her bare hand and laid it against his chest, directly over his heart. The beat was steady and strong. The warmth of him slipped into her blood and she welcomed it, like the desert might welcome rain.
“Hear me, Alicia,” he whispered. She felt the words resonate through her palm.Hear me.
Hear him. Hear. Here. Here in her mind. Hear him inside her, where he’d been before.No. This isn’t possible.
It is. Let me come to you.
As these words sounded inside her, the everyday room with its everyday furnishings faded away until they stood in another place entirely. Edward had somehow moved yards away across a winter nightmare of emptiness. Alicia felt her familiar and awfulmists swirling at her back, filled with their numbing cold and implacable calm.
Edward held out both his hands.Reach for me, Alicia.
I can’t. I can’t,she answered, feeling herself close to panic.There’s a wall. I can’t…
Show me. Picture it in your mind, and I’ll see it too.
How could she picture a glass wall? How was any of this even possible? It was so hard to think and it hurt so badly. The mists were rising now. She could feel them surging around her ankles, her knees. Their cold, familiar caress promised her comfort. They promised she would never have to fight or fear again if she just backed away from Edward and into their embrace.
Alicia stared into Edward’s eyes, and she remembered the conservatory with its high, mullioned windows where he had first touched her. As she thought of them, the windows seemed to take shape between herself and Edward.
That’s it, Alicia. I see it. That’s good.
How could this be good? This glass separated her from him. From everything.
Yes, that is exactly what it does. This is the enchantment that holds you. But your mind shows it to you as glass, Alicia. Glass can be broken.
I can’t. I’ve tried,she answered him desperately.I haven’t the strength.
But I have. Was he holding her, away in that other, everyday place? She thought she felt his arms about her, his hand clutching hers, but she couldn’t be sure. Here it was winter and he was so far away, with the icy mists and her wall between them. He couldn’t possibly understand how dangerous this place was.
I can share my strength with you,Edward told her.If you’ll let me.
It was not possible. She could not think it. She had given up hope of changing herself years ago. It was far easier to accept her condition. And yet, when she looked at Edward in this strange dream world, she could see him clearly, as she had in the park. With Edward came warmth, hope and vitality. She wanted that. She wanted him.
That’s it. Now, reach for me, Alicia. Say my name.
But she was tired. Too tired to think, let alone speak. It was so hard to fight against the mist, and the cold glass pressed her back so heavily. She was sliding away into exhaustion, down into the misted dark.
Say my name, Alicia!
She wanted to. But each thought weighed a thousand pounds, and she must push them forward all alone. She needed to rest. Just for a moment.
Say my name, Alicia; then you can rest. Just say my name!
Light. A quick flash, a spark of warmth, not enough to drive back the mists, but enough to show her the mists were not all there was. She could see Edward. Alicia laid her palms against the glass wall, instinctively reaching for him.
Again.His presence was clear and calm, filled with strength.Say my name again.
Another flash of light. The mists recoiled. The cold glass shuddered. A crack appeared under her left palm.
Nearly there, nearly there.Edward too laid his hands on thewall. It shuddered again; the crack widened. She felt its jagged edges against her palm. The crack widened and spread, but it hurt, as if it was herself that cracked. She could not stand against the pain, the fear and the cold. Not alone.
Help me!she cried.Edward, help me!
She felt it then, a tidal wave of light pouring into her and out from her. The light rolled against the glass. The wall shuddered and the cracks radiated in all directions. She felt herself swinging her fists, pounding that glass barrier, screaming like a maddened thing.
Away in her body, she felt herself grip the velvet ribbon holding her cinnabar brooch and tear it from her neck. In that same moment, in her mind, the glass wall shattered.Eight
Pain as if from a thousand cuts wracked her. Then it was gone, leaving her hollow. She had been bled dry all in an instant. A fierce starvation gripped her and Alicia screamed again. She was dying. She must die; she could not survive this sick and horrible hunger.
But Edward was there. He wrapped her in his strong arms, holding her tightly. His hot, open mouth covered hers. Alicia struggled, but slowly she realized that as he breathed into her, the hunger eased. He was kissing her now, a deep, slow kiss, and the warmth spread. Slowly, ever so slowly, the hollowness filled. The pain of starvation ebbed, taking the panic with it. Sanity returned and she sagged into Edward’s embrace.
“It’s all right, Alicia. It’s all right. I’ve got you. It’s over—do you hear me? It’s over.” He cradled her head against his chest. He was breathing hard. “You’re safe now.”
Edward smoothed her hair back from her brow and smiled. His cheeks were pale, but there was a fierceness in his gray eyes.Alicia blinked hard and the darkness at the edges of her vision retreated. She tipped her head back, and saw Edward.
He had his strong, warm arms about her. She felt the vitality of him, and the deep concern. But his face…His face showed fear and hope, and anger. Not anger at her, but at what had happened to her. For her, there was tenderness, and triumph and relief.
She could see it. Wonder blossomed in Alicia, robbing her of her breath. For the first time in her life, she could see all the feeling in a man’s face, and understand it. This what was had been hidden from her all those years. She reached up and touched Edward’s cheek, as if she could absorb these new things through her bare hand. His skin was so warm. There was a rough stubble on his jaw that rasped against her palm.
She stared at the brooch on its torn ribbon that dangled from her hand. It was like a lump of ice, or the last shard of the glass from the shattered wall. She dropped it hastily, but Edward caught it before it hit the ground.
“What is that thing?”
“An amulet. A malevolent one. It has been keeping you divided from your true nature since you were a child. Here, sit down.” With one arm, he lowered her softly to the edge of the bed. Then he went to open the metal-banded box he’d called a wedding present.
“But…but…my aunts gave that to me. They told me to never take it off.”
“I know.” He dropped her brooch—the amulet—inside, slammed the lid shut and turned the black key.
“Why would my aunts mean me harm?”
“I don’t know all the reasons. But I do know this much—you’re a Sorceress, Alicia.”
“A Sorceress, a magic worker. That thing was cutting you off from your power.”
She should have doubted him, but she couldn’t. The sudden change she felt within herself laid bare the truth in his words, as did the way in which she now looked at his face and saw the anger there.
“Are you a Sorcerer?”
“No. I’m a similar kind. We are known as Catalysts. It is our gift to draw magic from the world about us and channel it for Sorcerers to shape into enchantment.”
He was utterly serious. She could see it, in his eyes and in the way he held himself.
“Alicia?” Worry filled his eyes as he took her hand once more.
“I’m well,” she said, and it was the truth. She felt flushed with health and energy. Even in the twilight created by its closed draperies, the room around them seemed brighter than any she had ever been in. “I…when I took the ribbon off, I felt like I was starving. What was that?”
“Proof you are a Sorceress, if any was needed. Sorcerers need magic in them to survive. The amulet kept you from taking any magic into yourself, but also kept you from feeling the lack.”
“You…you took that feeling away. What did you do?”
“As I said, I am a Catalyst. I gave you the magic that you needed. It is inside you now.” He drew his hand down her arm, tracing the line of her vein. Alicia’s throat tightened. Edward’s jaw worked back and forth for a moment and he lifted his hand away.She felt bereft, but she let him step away from her. She needed the space. She couldn’t think when he touched her.
“You knew what was happening when you brought me here,” she said.
“I’ve known something of it since our night in the conservatory.”
“And so you rescued me?”
“You’re welcome.” Edward bowed, his face still and grave, but a merry light shone in his eyes, and Alicia smiled. It was a brilliant sensation, and it seemed contagious, because Edward smiled as well. If he had been handsome before, now he was breathtaking. Alicia felt her breasts swell against the bodice of her modest walking dress. And she suddenly became acutely aware of her position, seated on a bed, in an empty house, with this man in front of her and a closed door behind them.
“What…what will happen to me now?”
“Well, in the morning, you’re going to meet some colleagues of mine who can help you understand more about your abilities as a Sorceress. Until then…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I confess I hadn’t planned this far. I was uncertain what…state of mind you’d be in once the amulet was removed.”
“Oh.” She felt the blood drain from her cheeks.
“Alicia.” He lifted her one bare hand, and laid his over it. “I need you to trust me. You will not be abandoned. We are engaged, and I swear by all I hold dear, I will honor that agreement, if it is what you want.”
“I’m not sure what I want, to tell the truth.”
“That is not surprising. You’ve not had proper access to yourown thoughts and feelings for above five minutes yet. Don’t push yourself. Understanding will come with time.” He paused and looked at their hands. “Perhaps you’re tired?” A current of reluctance ran beneath those words. “I could leave you to get some rest, if you wish.”
If you wish.He’d spoken those words to her before, in the conservatory, which was, in many ways, where she had first truly met him. But that time had been marred by so much confusion. This time she understood him more clearly. Edward did not want to leave any more than he had wanted to stop touching her. But he would if she asked it of him.
Edward mistook her hesitation. He laid her hand on the white counterpane, and bowed courteously. “Until tomorrow, then.”
She watched him walk toward the door and tried to tell herself to let him go. That would be best. It would be cautious and prudent.
She could not do it. What was more, she did not want to.
“Wait,” she said, and Edward froze with one hand hovering over the door latch. “I don’t…I don’t think I want to be alone.”
“Very well.” He turned and folded his hands behind his back. “How can I serve you, Miss Hartwell?”
There was a wealth of warmth and import in those calm words, but even with her newly opened eyes, Alicia felt certain she was missing most of it. But she did sense he was perfectly serious. He would do whatever she wanted. All she had to do was ask.
“Will you…” She couldn’t. It was most improper. Alicia clapped her hand over her mouth to suppress what would be a slightly hysterical giggle. She was already gone miles past propriety. If anyone knew she was here, she would be disgraced and dishonored in the eyes of the polite world, except for one thing:She and Edward were still betrothed. He said he would marry her and, whether it was wise or not, she did trust him. That saved her. That, as much as anything else that had happened, freed her to speak. “Would…would you hold me?”
Edward’s lips curved up in a small smile. That smile changed his eyes, giving them a light that seemed to shine from deep within.
“Gladly. Here.” He moved around to the other side of the bed and swung his legs up, stretching them out and settling himself so that his back rested against the headboard. “Now.” He spread his arms.
A tremor of bashfulness ran through Alicia. Her dress and chemise suddenly seemed very thin, and her throat was entirely too bare. Her hand went up reflexively to find her brooch. But then she looked again at Edward’s patient eyes and saw his strong arms opened for her. She lowered her hand, and instead undid the button on her remaining glove. She drew it off and laid it on the nightstand beside its mate. Her heart constricted, but there was no pain. Instead, she felt a strange eagerness stirring beneath her bashfulness. As she looked at her white gloves lying against the dark wood, she was also aware that she was stalling. She had asked for this. She did want it. She could shy away and say she’d changed her mind. But what would that bring her?
Alicia lifted her chin and faced Edward. He still held his arms out toward her. Still smiled at her, but not in amusement; rather, in understanding. She sat on the edge of the bed and then, awkwardly, she scooted herself across the counterpane toward him. Edward folded her into his embrace and laid her head against his chest.
“Comfortable?” he asked.
“Very.” All her previous hesitation had vanished. Lying here in Edward’s arms suddenly seemed the most natural thing she had ever done.
“Good. Close your eyes and rest, then.”
“You will not leave me?” The idea of waking to the dark alone chilled her, although she was not entirely sure why. Perhaps because this all might still be a dream. Perhaps she would wake up to her isolation and confusion again.
“I won’t leave you.” Edward pressed a kiss against her brow. “I will remain as long as you want me.”
Alicia did close her eyes, but, comfortable as she was, this did not serve to relax her. Instead, it made her more aware of Edward. She could feel him breathe, and hear his heart beat. His body’s warmth surrounded her as surely as his arms did, but it was not a restful, drowsy heat, not like the warmth of a fire. There was a different quality to it. It was invigorating. Exciting.
Without any conscious thought on her part, Alicia’s hand rose up and she laid her palm against the particular place right over his heart. His shirt was of very fine linen, and she could feel the crisp hairs that covered his chest through the fabric. She brushed at them, curious. Edward’s breathing hitched and his arms tightened around her, just a little. She became aware of a fresh stirring inside her. It was a pleasant sensation, but still far from relaxing.
Edward shifted his weight. Even though she was comfortable, it seemed to her suddenly that he was not. “You were meant to be resting,” he admonished her.
“Oh. Yes.” Alicia curled her fingers up on his chest. Of course she must rest. She should have remained still. She squirmed closer to try to regain the comfortable warmth she had felt when shefirst rested herself against him, but it was gone. Now she did not know what to do. She did not want to pull away, but she couldn’t stay like this, either.
“Yes?” She tipped her face up so she could look at him.
“May I kiss you?”
Why was he bothering to ask now? He’d already kissed her, and held her and touched her in shocking and intimate ways. But that was before, Alicia realized, when he was rousing her passions to break the enchantment that held her. Now it was a different matter. Now it was just the two of them and she was for the first time truly in her right mind.
“Would it…Do you want to?”
Amusement sparkled in Edward’s gray eyes. “I very much hope there will be time enough for what I want later. Right now, I would far rather do as you want. Would you like me to kiss you?”
For the first time Alicia had a question she did not have to search for an answer to. “Yes.”
Alicia expected Edward to bend toward her, but he did not. He raised two fingers and traced them lightly around her mouth. For all its gentleness, this new touch sent a shiver through the deepest part of her. “Ask me,” he said.
It seemed a strange request, but this whole situation was strange beyond imagining. “Edward, would you kiss me?”
Edward took hold of her chin, keeping her face still and tipped up toward him. His mouth pressing against hers was delightful. He ran the tip of his tongue around her lips, just as he had done with his fingers, and Alicia shivered again. As she did, her mouth opened, and his tongue slipped inside. His arms tightened around her, his mouth urged her closer so she could receive him more fully.She leaned toward him until her breasts brushed his chest. A bright spark of feeling shot from her heart to her center, and her nipples tightened abruptly.
Edward’s broad hands began stroking down Alicia’s back, exploring the curves of her waist and the very tops of her buttocks. Taking that as a signal, she ran her hands up his chest. Its planes and hollows delighted her. She wanted to memorize every inch of his form. His hand drifted down to her thighs, caressing them with lazy appreciation. She imitated his touch. To her eyes, his legs had seemed well shaped, but to her hands, to her body, they were enthralling and she felt she could not get enough of touching them.
All the while, Edward kissed her; all the while his tongue teased and coaxed and stroked her. Heated memory flashed through Alicia. She saw the park again, and the man Marcus with his breeches open and displaying his cock for his lover. It had been hard and straight and strong and, even blocked by the wall of enchantment, it had looked beautiful to her. Her heart raced as memory blended with current sensation and her cheeks burned. Her hand, bolder by far than her mind or her voice, glided down to the front of Edward’s breeches. She found what she sought at once—his cock, hard and warm beneath the buckskins.
“Oh, my dear.” Edward’s eyelids were half closed, but she could still see his bright gaze. He caught her wrist and lifted her hand away. For a fevered heartbeat, Alicia was afraid she’d done something wrong, but Edward opened her fingers and kissed her palm. “Are you certain?”
“Yes,” she answered immediately. These new feelings that burned and enticed were a great riddle inside her. She must know the answer.
If there had been sparks in his eyes before, there was there lightning now. Edward surged forward to kiss her again. Alicia’s mouth was already open when he reached her. This kiss was far stronger than the first, and Edward gathered her to him, rolling them both over until he came up on top of her with the entire hot length of his body pressing hers into the feather bed. Alicia melted beneath him, as if her very bones sought to conform to his shape so that she could feel him with every inch of skin.
His hand closed over her breast and the pleasure spiraled through her with such intensity her head actually began to swim. He kneaded and plumped her until the pleasure of it would not allow her to lie still. Her hips had to move. She shimmied against him, her thighs opening of their own volition until the sensitive folds between her legs rubbed against the curve of his muscled thighs. She wanted to wrap her whole self tight around him until she straddled his cock. As good as this wanton rubbing felt, every instinct she possessed told her that would be even better.
“Such fire in you, Alicia,” Edward groaned. His mouth moved across her jaw, to her throat, to her shoulder, licking and nuzzling while his hand continued the wicked massage of her breast. “Such sweet fire.”
“I want you,” she panted. “I want…everything.”
“Oh, you’ll have it, my lovely, wicked girl. Everything, and a little bit more.”
Edward pulled back to kneel between her legs. Slowly, he ran his palms up her right thigh underneath her skirts. She shivered and her hips shifted, restless, uncertain. His fingertips found the ribbon tying her garter, and quickly freed the bow. Slowly, so they could both savor the sensual glide of the silk, he drew her stocking off. Then he repeated the gesture for her left leg.
“There.” He dropped the stockings off the side of the bed and stretched out once more beside her to claim her mouth for another deep kiss. Alicia sighed and her bare legs rubbed together as she leaned closer to let her mouth be teased and taken. His arms tightened around her and the world spun as Edward rolled them over again. This time, she was on top of him, and his hands pushed up underneath her dress, parting her thighs and settling her astride him. Alicia moaned as she straddled the ridge of his erection and writhed her hips. It was exactly what she had wanted and felt far better than she had imagined.
“Oh, yes.” Edward’s hard hands stroked her naked thighs. “Yes, you will take to this ride very well.”
She had no answer to that, so she leaned down to kiss him again. This, it seemed, was the right thing to do, because he pulled her close into his embrace again. Her swollen breasts rubbed hard against his chest, a sensation so consuming, she almost didn’t notice his strong, clever fingers working the tapes and hooks on the back of her dress, until she felt the draft of cool air against her spine.
His hands moved up, to her waist, to her breasts, tugging and pulling at the confining fabric until he drew it fully over her head, leaving her entirely naked on top of him.
“God in Heaven, you are beautiful, Alicia.”
Her nipples puckered tight from the unfamiliar draft as much as from her excitement. Alicia pressed her palms against Edward’s linen-clad chest. The air might be cold against her skin but she was flushed and hot for all of that. She couldn’t catch her breath. Feeling filled her to the brim, leaving no room for air.
Letting that feeling drive her forward, Alicia kissed Edward again, pressing her tongue into his mouth as he had pressed intohers. She shoved her hands beneath his shirt, delighting in the heat of his skin against her palms. She wrestled with the linen. He had promised her everything, and like a greedy child she wanted it all now.
An unfamiliar sound reached her, and Edward’s chest bounced under her clumsy hands. She pulled back and stared, frozen between desire and disbelief. He was laughing at her.Laughing.It was absurd. She slapped his arm, and he only laughed harder. She raised her hand to slap at him again, but this time he caught her.
“Oh, no, my dear, you are in no way ready for such games yet.”
“Who are you to say what I am ready for?” she demanded.
The world spun again. Alicia found herself flat on her back, and Edward loomed over her, his hard thighs clamped around hers, his hands holding her wrists pinned tightly over her head.
“I am your betrothed lord.” He leaned close, the hairs of his chest just brushing the tight buds of her nipples and his hot breath caressing her cheek. “But you know that. Now you will learn that I am also lord of your body’s pleasure.”
She opened her mouth to make a retort, but he kissed her too quickly, too deeply. He shifted his grip, so one hand held both her wrists. With his other he began again to play with her breasts, no longer gently, but rolling and pinching the very tips of her nipples. Pleasure rippled through Alicia, making her arch her back. His relentless kisses stopped her words, but the rest of her body could still beg.
Edward pulled back, chuckling deep in his throat.
“Stop…” She meant to say,Stop laughing at me, but Edward’s mouth had closed about her nipple, and her power of speech fled. He sucked her into his hot mouth. He licked her,rolling his tongue around the tight bud, and sucked again. With his free hand, Edward toyed with her other breast, kneading and plumping, preparing her for his wicked, wicked mouth.
“You said stop,” he breathed against her damp and heated skin. “Shall I stop, Alicia?”
Panic spiked deep in her center. “No. Please.”
“Please what? Say what you want, Alicia.”
“Your mouth. I want your mouth on me.”
“Say you want me to suck your tits.” He kept her legs clamped firmly between his, holding her helpless while he rubbed the ridge of his cock against her slit, urged her with strength and pleasure to his bidding.
She could not refuse. She did not even want to. “Suck my tits. Please, Edward.”
“Well, since you ask so nicely…”
He was smiling as he took her in his mouth. He released her wrists so she could grasp his shoulders and arch against him. She was lost to everything but the feel of his mouth, his tongue, his hard, beautiful body. Each breath, each nuance of pleasure, was a revelation, and she could never know enough.
He shifted to the side, allowing his hand room to glide down her belly and caress her there, even as his mouth continued to suck and tease her swollen breasts. Gently, he slipped his hand between her thighs, letting his fingers stroke the sensitive folds underneath the dark tangle of curls.
“You’re very wet, my dear,” he breathed into her ear.
“Is that…Is that good?”
“You tell me.” His thick, blunt fingers dipped into her wet slit and began to run slowly up and down.
“Yes.” She sighed. “Yes, it’s very good.”
“And…here?” He reached the very tip of her slit, where there was a tight little bud of flesh. He’d called it her clit, she remembered now. He pressed firmly and she cried out as pure delight spread through the whole of her.
“Ah, yes, that’s it.” He stroked her clit. He was laughing again, but she didn’t care, as long as he didn’t stop caressing her in this way.
“You are so beautiful, Alicia,” he whispered huskily. “So very beautiful. I like seeing you stretched out in my bed, begging for my touch.”
“You…you make me feel so good.”
“I want to show you my cock, Alicia. I want your hands on me.”
“Yes. Yes. Please.”
She thought she would die when he removed his hand from her to undo the buttons on his fly and kick his breeches away to let her see him fully naked for the first time.
He was magnificent. His member was proud and strong, as was every other portion of him, but there was a fascination in the sight of his erect cock that held her gaze rapt. A flush spread through her, and her nipples tightened once again, even as her pussy loosened. But a thread of uncertainty trickled through her heated mind, and Alicia squirmed.
“What is it?” Edward asked, a smile playing about his mouth.
“Nothing, I’m sure. I…”
“Now, then, you must not lie to your lord and lover, Alicia. What is it?”
“I…You…You’re supposed to go…inside me?”
“My cock in your sweet pussy. Yes.”
“I don’t…I don’t think you’ll fit.”
His smile was broad and wicked and slow. “Flatterer.”
Would he never cease to confuse her? “I am in earnest.”
“I know. But trust me, we will manage.” He stretched himself out so his back and shoulders were propped up against the mounds of pillows. “Come here, Alicia,” he said. “I want you beside me.”
She wanted that as well. She lay down docilely against him. Edward smiled, and drew his fingers down her body, pausing at her breasts to fondle her nipples and make her shiver.
“So beautiful,” he whispered. “Now, give me your hand.”
She held her hand out and he took it. “Watch, Alicia.”
She did. In fact, she stared. Edward lowered her hand to his cock and wrapped her fingers around his shaft. His skin was hot and velvet soft, but the shaft was so hard. She could feel his heart beating against her palm.
“That’s good, Alicia.” He released her hand, and slid his own hand between her thighs. She liked the warmth of him there. His hand moved up toward her pussy and a thrill ran through her. Her hand moved, and she stilled it, unsure how it felt to him.
“No,” he whispered. “Caress, me Alicia. I want it. Like this.”
The edge of his hand pressed higher until it nestled snugly between her damp folds, caressing her back and forth, causing fresh pleasure to spread slowly out to the whole of her body. She groaned, and her hand moved on him, echoing the rhythm of his caress between her legs. There was excitement in seeing her hand around his cock, as well as in the glide of his velvet skin and his heated strength against her palm.
“That’s it. You see, we must relax you before you take me into you. You’re going to come for me, hard and sweet, Alicia, with your lovely hand around my cock.”
She barely understood his words. The only thing she couldfully comprehend was the desire of her body. “Harder,” she whispered. “Please. Harder.”
“Yes.” He nestled his hand deeper, moved it faster. Her hips bucked, seeking yet more from him. He growled deep in his throat and his hand shifted inside her folds. Now she felt his fingers probing her entrance, even as his thumb pressed against her clit. She cried out and arched against his hand. It was too much. It was not enough.
“That’s it, Alicia. Show me how much you want it.”
“I want…I want…” Fire. Fire like she had felt before in the park, but this time there was nothing to confine it. It burned through the whole of her, and she gave herself over to it willingly. Her pussy opened wide as Edward’s fingers eased more deeply into her. His cock swelled against her palm, and that heated vitality fed her desire.
“What is happening to me?” She couldn’t breathe; she couldn’t see. Her hand was wet where she stroked his cock, her pussy was wet where his fingers stretched her, but instead of opening farther, the muscles there began to clench tight around his fingers.
“You’re going to come, Alicia. You’re going to come for me.” His finger thrust deep; his thumb pressed against her clit. The burst of pleasure was so hard and so sudden, her whole body shuddered and bucked, and somehow that felt better still.
“Oh, yes. That’s it, Alicia,” Edward groaned. “Beautiful, beautiful, Alicia.”
Slowly, her shuddering eased into a long, slow pulse of pleasure deep inside her. And still Edward’s fingers moved, caressing her sheath, toying with her folds.
“Now, my dear.”
He rolled them over once more so that Alicia was again on herback. Her strength was gone. Her body was limp and warm and yet it felt wholly wonderful. Edward clearly did not share her lassitude. He had his hands on her thighs and was spreading them apart. She shifted beneath his touch, placidly opening her legs and displaying herself entirely for him. He sucked in a long slow breath, and she smiled and stretched. For so long she had been hidden in a fog, but now she lay in the open sunlight of Edward’s delighted gaze, and that felt as good as any wicked caress he’d taught her yet.
Slowly, gently, Edward settled himself between her thighs. The blunt tip of his cock pushed impertinently at her pussy’s folds. Alicia had thought herself gone beyond further pleasure, but this sensation brought fresh delight with it and her legs spread wider, hardly understanding what she did. Her body seemed to know just what it wanted, and she was content to let it have its way.
Edward took his weight on his elbows. His chest brushed her breasts again. Their eyes met, and locked. His cock slipped farther between her folds, and found the entrance to her sheath. Nervousness fluttered through the warmth pooling in her center, and her entrance tried to tighten, but he was already inside her.
“God,” she whispered, and her sheath tightened again.
“Gently, my dear, gently.” Edward’s voice was tight and his eyes struggled to stay focused. “Let me inside.”
He pressed deeper, one deliberate inch at a time. Alicia opened her thighs wider. She lifted her hand to his cheek. He was panting with effort. He stretched her sheath, and despite the relaxed state of her muscles, it hurt. She tried to ignore the pain. There was something beyond it, something she wanted very much to understand. She yearned for him to fill her, to take her through the painto this new mystery. So, she held herself still and open as Edward groaned and settled deeper yet.
There was a burning, bright and brief, and it was over, and Edward was fully inside her. Alicia’s thighs wrapped around him. She liked the feel of his muscled legs underneath her calves and her heels. She caressed his legs with hers and her hips moved. In response, Edward shifted inside her, and fresh pleasure slid into her veins.
“Edward,” she breathed but could find no other words. It was all right; he understood. She could see it in the moonlight that glowed so brightly in his eyes.
“Yes, Alicia,” he breathed. “I’m with you. Now, let us dance, you and I.”
He began to move his hips against her, circling, lowering, and rising up again. He kept his weight on his elbows and knees, letting her adjust to the intense sensation of his cock moving inside her. At first, she wasn’t sure she liked it, but then she was. She began to match his movements, his rhythms, as she had when they had stroked each other with their hands. This new caress, this intimate sweetness, robbed her of the breath she had so recently regained. She wanted it faster, wanted him deeper, but he was holding back. She groaned, as much in frustration as in delight, and tightened her legs around his rock-hard thighs, arcing her hips up to force him farther inside her.
“Gently, gently my dear,” Edward murmured. “You’ll be sore in the morning as it is.”
“But I want this,” she panted. “Please. I wantyou.”
“Oh, Alicia.” He cupped her cheek with one broad palm. “You have me.”
His moonlight gaze filled her as deeply as his cock inside her.The two sensations redoubled the pleasure. She felt the tightness, the wildness, building up from deep with her once more. She arced her hips again. No warning from him could still her. Edward moaned and threw his head back. His cock thrust forward. She had him. He was as far gone as she had been. His thrusts grew faster and she knew his control was slipping. She welcomed this, as she welcomed his weight against her. She was filled to the brim with passion, and when he called her name the tide of it burst, rocking her against him, rolling her close into his arms, until together they collapsed in a tangled embrace and lay together, stunned and breathless.Nine
Hester sat bolt upright in her bed. Someone had called her name. She had heard it distinctly.
Hester Hartwell. I would speak with you.
Hester’s brow furrowed as she threw back the bedclothes and pulled the bell cord. While she waited for the maid, she calmly donned her wrapper of plain, gray flannel and pulled the sash tight about her waist.
The maid knocked and entered. She was as perfectly turned out in her uniform as if it had been the middle of the afternoon rather than the early hours of the morning. It was not the first time Hester had needed to call for a servant in the middle of the night. She knew the maids drew straws to see who would sit up. She did not care how they ordered things among themselves, so long as the bell was answered promptly by a girl ready to do what was required. Anything less would bring about instant dismissal.
“I need to get dressed, immediately,” Hester said.
The girl asked no questions. She just curtsied and began to assist Hester into her plain black dress and to cover her white hair with a proper cap. Someone waited for her out in the darkness, but she would not appear less than ready. She was no fool to be overawed by her family’s enemy or to have her wits disordered by his summons.
Once the maid helped her on with her shoes, Hester dismissed her. When she was alone, she pulled open her nightstand drawer and brought out the bundle of keys waiting there. One in particular was important now. It was a small, silver key that fit no door in Hartwell house, but was decorated with a carved cinnabar oval. Hester hung her key ring at her waist and let the amulet’s cool shield settle over her heart.
Cane in one hand, candle in the other, Hester Hartwell descended the back stairs of her house. She blew the candle out and set it on the table by the door before she stepped out into the walled garden.
The night was unusually warm, and the heaviness of the air said that rain approached. Hester walked without glancing left or right. She had no question as to where she must go. Most of the garden was taken up by Gavin’s flower beds, but she had forbidden him to touch the center of the garden. There spread the pied-à-terre maze: a precise and intricate design of flagged paths and carefully trimmed plantings with a silver gazing ball resting on a plinth at its center. If anyone had been given the opportunity to study the two, they might have noted the paths of the ankle-high labyrinth looked strikingly similar to the cinnabar carvings on the key Hester carried.
The labyrinth was not empty. A slender man stood beside the gazing ball. Long white hair cascaded across the shoulders of hiswhite surcoat and gleaming golden mail. A golden circlet adorned his pale brow. His eyes were golden too, and shone as if lit from behind. This was no mere metaphor. The light of his slanting cat’s eyes mixed with the more workaday glow of the moon overhead, turning his face into a startling mask of gold and sepia shadows.
“What do you want here?” Hester gripped her cane hard enough for its silver handle to bite into her bony fingers. The pale king at the center of the maze saw this, and smiled.
“You know very well what I want.” His voice was as rich and strange as the golden light of his eyes. If Hester had not been shielded, that voice would have reached right through blood and bone to wrap around her heart.
As it was, she brushed his charm aside. “You are mistaken. Nothing has occurred that would warrant your presence here.”
“Really? Little Alicia has slipped her bonds, and you say it is nothing?”
“What do you mean?”
The king cocked his head toward her and Hester became uncomfortably aware of his silent mockery. “How strange that you should not feel it. I did. Distinctly. You’ve hidden Alicia from me for years now, but suddenly”—he made a gesture as if releasing a bird—“here she is again, only much grown from the little girl who came to play in my gardens.”
The blood drained from Hester’s cheeks. Alicia’s enchantment was broken? Impossible. She would have felt it. “You’re lying.”
The Fae King’s hand settled onto the hilt of the golden sword he wore, and the light from his eyes seared Hester’s skin.
“Just this once I will bear your insult, and only because it will be amusing to see your face when you learn the truth.” He sketched a sign upon the air.
The night tore like cloth and Hester did see. She saw a dim apartment, and she saw Alicia in the arms of her betrothed Lord Carstairs. All at once, Alicia cried out in fear and pain, and, with her own hand, tore the amulet from her throat.
“No,” whispered Hester. The white knight smiled and closed his fist. The vision vanished. Hester meant to call him out on his lie again, but she could not. Every fiber of her being told her she had been shown the truth.
It took all her strength of will to rally her calm once more, but she lifted her head. This creature must not see her disconcerted.
“Alicia is nothing to you. You lost hold of her. You have no more claim here.” Hester turned her back on the pale king.
“But I do have a claim,” he said. “And you know it. You have unlawfully held on to what was mine.”
Hester’s temper shattered. “Alicia was not yours!” she cried, striking the flagstones with her cane.
It was a mistake and she knew it, because the king only laughed. “Oh, I was right. You are most amusing when you are confounded, dear Hester.” That laughter faded as swiftly as it had appeared. “Alicia came with me freely, and freely pledged me her loyalty.”
“She was a child!”
He shrugged. “She accepted my hospitality. She ate my food and drank from my cup and freely promised to stay with me. It was your sister and brother-in-law who took her without my consent, and you helped conceal her.”
Hester stood silent. She remembered Constance kneeling at her feet, already dying of fever and starvation. She had walked far beyond her own limits, and drained her husband and herself to their bones to retrieve their daughter. That same daughter whowas tied down to her bed, weeping and screaming like a mad thing.
Please, Hester,cried Constance from memory.You must help her! I know I’ve done wrong. But she’s my daughter, Hester, your great-niece. She’s a Hartwell. Please.
For just one moment, Hester had forgotten Constance was a traitor. She instead saw her niece as she had been before she met her seducer and forgot her duty to her family. Hester had weakened, and she’d agreed to try to save the child.
And here was the price of that fleeting weakness.
“The law is with me,” said the king, his voice cold and remorseless. “You must return her, or I may take my lawful vengeance on the house that holds her. Unless…” He smiled, and it was as sharp as the edge of a butcher’s knife. “You will provide another forfeit to me? Perhaps you would even enjoy that, Hester?”
Emotion assailed her, burning joy, bright, aching need. If she went with the Fae King, she would be made young, whole and beautiful. She would have all the love and laughter and beauty that mortal flesh could possibly desire. With a single touch, he could bring to life the longings she had suppressed for so many years, and then satisfy them all. The promise battered at Hester’s thoughts and tried to set its hooks into her heart even through the amulet’s shield.
Hester swayed on her feet, and took one step forward, and held. “Never,” she croaked.
“Then you must return Alicia to me,” said the king. “It is your choice. But I am owed a Hartwell life, and I am not in a mood to be kept waiting.”
In an eyeblink he was gone. Slowly, thankful there was none to see, Hester turned. Her hands had gone cold and she could notfeel her feet anymore. Leaning heavily on her cane, she limped through the darkened garden back to the house.
By the time she returned to her rooms, Hester had regained her composure. She was also sure what had happened.
The maid answered the bell promptly when Hester rang.
“Fetch my sisters.”
The girl left and Hester sat down before the fire banked in her hearth. Methodically, she uncovered the coals and poked up the flames. She lit the oil lamp with a spill from the crock on the mantel. Her movements were unhurried and precise; her face remained blank and still.
Hester’s life was bound by duty. She had sacrificed all other feeling to it. She, along with Eugenia and weak, foolish Mary, were the chosen protectors of the Hartwell line. This responsibility had been laid down for them more than a hundred years ago. Each child born to the Hartwell line had to be examined at birth for magical potential. Each infant who exhibited such potential had to be wiped clean, lest they draw the fear of men and the attention of the Fae down upon the family. Only three members of each generation were allowed to keep possession of their magical powers. Each of those three was given an amulet to help and hide them. Hester was the Sorceress of her generation. Constance, who was her niece and Alicia’s mother, had been destined to be her heir. Hester had raised and trained the girl herself, and in the end had been lightly and carelessly betrayed.
Hester remembered the day Constance eloped. The stupid girl left a letter behind, declaring she would marry whom she chose, and raise her children “free” to understand the gifts of their true natures. Mother had read it out loud as Hester, Eugenia and Mary huddled in front of the hearth in her room. Hester had wanted tocurse Constance down, but Mother had raised her hand against it. Constance would find her own curse, she said. She threw the letter in the fire, and Constance’s name had never been mentioned again.
Mother had been wise. Constance had come crawling back, howling that the man she called her husband was dead. The Fae had taken little Alicia as one of their playthings, as they did with human children from time to time, especially human children who had a talent for magic. The man had died helping to reclaim the child. Now Constance had Alicia back, but Alicia was stark, raving mad, and she too was dying.
Constance had begged the ones she had betrayed for help, begged on her knees. It was to save Alicia’s sanity as much as to hide her from the Fae that Hester and Eugenia had bound her with the strongest of the family’s amulets.
Hester’s eyes narrowed as she stared at the glowing coals. It seemed that Constance was not the only traitor among the Hartwells.
A knock sounded on the door. “Enter.” Hester set down the poker and picked up her cane.
Eugenia came first. Her beady gaze darted this way and that, as if searching for an intruder in the shadows. Mary, of course, was a disaster, with damp eyes, a trembling mouth and her smelling salts wrapped in the lace kerchief she was forever clutching.
“Hester, dear.” Mary’s voice quivered as badly as her sagging chin. “Wh-what is the matter?”
“Alicia’s binding has broken.” Hester leveled her gaze directly on Mary.
“You’re certain?” asked Eugenia. Mary just pressed the damp handkerchief to her mouth.
“Whatever is the matter, Mary?” Hester asked evenly. “Weren’t you expecting it so soon?”
“I? Expecting this? Hester, how can you say such a thing?”
Another person might have shouted at this point, but Hester dropped her voice down to a whisper. “How long did you think you could lie to me?”
“But I never!” whimpered Mary. “Hester, you know me! I’m such a ninny! Even if the thought entered into my head, I’ve never been able to lie to you.”
“So I thought. That’s why I didn’t quiz you about your foreseeing when we had to determine if it was safe to let Alicia live.Use the amulet. That will keep her and the family safe.” Hester sneered. “That was what you told us, I believe? I should have seen that for the lie it was. Not your usual style at all. Far too direct.”
“Are you saying you made a mistake, Hester?” inquired Eugenia, and Hester was sure she did not imagine the hint of relish in her sister’s voice.
“Yes. I was deceived.” Hester rose to her feet, towering over Mary, who squeaked again and shrank back in her chair. “You’re a liar and a traitor to your family, Mary Hartwell.”
“No, Hester. Never that. I only…” But she clamped her fat, damp lips shut around the words.
She thought her sister would try lying again, but to Hester’s surprise, Mary grasped hold of her smelling salts, and what little courage her fat frame held, with both hands. “Hester, it’s not right. Times have changed. It’s not right that we’re wounding the whole family.”
“You think times have changed, do you?” snapped Hester. “Perhaps you think we’re all safe? What’s happening now, after all?The Fae are only preparing for invasion, and that man who now calls himself Captain Smith has only sent his agent into our home to ferret out our secrets, whichyou, youstupidthing, have handed over to him!” Hester felt her voice rise and she pulled back, fighting for calm. No good would come of a display. It was undignified and unnecessary. “What was the true prophecy regarding Alicia?” Hester’s demanded. “What did you really see?”
Mary’s watery eyes slid sideways to Eugenia, but there would be no help there. Eugenia took no risks and knew no real loyalty. She wanted nothing more than to be left alone with her books and her letters. Because Eugenia did as she was told, Hester was happy to oblige.
Seeing Eugenia remain stone-faced, Mary dropped her gaze to her hands where they clutched the bottle and the kerchief.
“What was that, Mary?” Hester took a step forward. “Hold your head up. I did not hear you.”
Mary lifted her head. Her chin quivered again, and Hester was forced to conceal her surprise. For in Mary’s moist blue eyes waited something she had never seen there before: defiance.
“I won’t tell you,” Mary said, her words soft but steady. “I know I’m only a fat old fool, and I know the reason you haven’t done for me like you have the rest of the family is that I’m the only Seer to been born to us in the last fifty years. But you’re wrong, Hester. Thisisn’tthe hanging times. We don’t have to wipe the magic out of the children. They could be their own protectors and find their own destinies. They would be strong enough if we taught them properly.”
Anger crackled through Hester. She stalked forward. Marycringed backward so far, she lost her balance and plopped into the wooden chair with another squeak.
“You will stop that horrid noise!”thundered Hester, which only made Mary try to duck behind her hanky-wrapped bottle. Patience finally gone, Hester struck the ridiculous object from her hands, sending the bottle spinning and spraying violet water across the room.
“What. Did. You.See?What is Alicia’s true prophecy?”
Mary clenched her eyes and mouth shut and shook her head.
“Eugenia.” Hester held out her hand.
“Eugenia, you can’t do this,” Mary babbled. “Please. Not this.”
But Eugenia shrugged and laid her hand into Hester’s palm. “You’ve brought it on yourself, Mary.”
Magic rushed into Hester’s veins, quickening her tired heart and renewing her understanding of her power and purpose. Mary sobbed freely now, and she actually tried to dart between them, but Hester grabbed the collar of her nightdress and hauled her back into the chair. She wrapped her bony hand around Mary’s plump neck and forced her chin up, catching and holding Mary’s pitiful weeping gaze.
Intent formed in Hester’s mind. She knew exactly what to do. Hester took the magic Eugenia funneled toward her and shaped its power into a knife blade. She stabbed that blade deep into Mary’s weak mind to split it open. Then she stepped inside.
Mary’s mind was a pathetic place. Her tiny thoughts fluttered about like moths caught in a whirlwind—vain loves, silly hopes, childish distractions. Hester caught them one by one, examining each before tossing it away. At last, back in the dark, she foundwhat she was looking for. Hester caught up the trembling thought, forced it open, and looked close.
Mary was looking down into the silver waters of a scrying bowl. Hester saw herself leaning over Mary’s shoulder. From Mary’s point of view, the candlelight gave her face a gargoyle’s shape.
“Well?” As Mary heard it, Hester’s voice was harsh as any crow’s. “What do you see? If Alicia lives, do I…Do the Hartwells remain safe?”
Mary was strangely calm. She liked the seeing. It was the only time she felt whole, the only time she understood who she was.
This one thing I will do,Mary was thinking.It may be the last thing I ever do, but at least I will have tried.
“Well?” Hester heard herself croak as if from a great distance. “If she lives, are we still safe?”
But that was not the question Mary formed with her power.
How do I free Alicia?Mary shaped the words of intent and of power.How do I freeus?
And there it was. Constance’s betrayal had infected Mary. Mary, like Constance, had abandoned her duty to the family safety. Mary had taken up this fool’s dream of freedom. As if anyone with the curse of magic in their blood could ever be free. They would always be in danger, from the Fae or from men like Smith, who wanted to make use of their power. For them, there was only vigilance, only the constant work of keeping the family safe from those who would use them, and destroy them.
The silver waters in Mary’s bowl swirled and trembled, although no hand touched them. A thousand images, a thousand voices, invaded Hester’s mind. Her consciousness shuddered and shrank back under the assault. She saw Alicia, but it was as if all the moments of her life were piled on top of each other. She wasa girl, a maiden, a mother, an ancient woman, but not just once; a hundred times. A thousand. It was too much and too fast. But Mary held. This was what Mary’s power as Seeress allowed her to not just withstand but also comprehend.
A voice lifted up above the cacophony. It was Mary’s voice, but not the weak, cringing whine that Hester knew. This was Mary as she might have been, calm and confident.
Let her be kept from sight. Let her be lost to herself until she finds her match with the scion of the Carstairs land. If their love shall prove true, then the children of Hartwell will be freed.
“Well?” Hester heard herself croak again. She felt her own breath oddly cold on the back of Mary’s neck. “Are we safe if we let her live?”
“It…it says we should use the amulet,” answered Mary slowly, because she was trying to think of the best way to form her lie. “It says that will keep her and the family safe. It says…it says she can even be safely married.”
Hester drew herself back out of Mary’s mind until she was fully returned to her own body and her own room. Mary had not weathered the opening of her mind well. Her head lolled sideways and plump hands dangled at her sides as she struggled to catch her breath. Her lips twitched restlessly.
“You were right, Mary,” said Hester. “It will be the last thing you ever do.” She raised her hand.
But to her surprise, Eugenia spoke. “You’ll leave us without a Seer.”
Of course, as Catalyst, Eugenia had felt Hester’s intent take shape and had shared her visions. “We can do well enough without Mary’s lies. One of the children will be brought up to serve.”
“By whom, Hester? Mary was right about one thing. Therehasn’t been a Seer born to us for fifty years. You and I could well be dead before the next one arrives.”
Slowly, Hester lowered her hand. Just as slowly, she turned to face her other sister. “Are you questioning my judgment now, Eugenia?”
Eugenia pulled herself up straighter, but Hester did not miss the fear underlying that small gesture. “Certainly not.”
“Good, because Mary did not think to conceal the next Catalyst from me. Verity will come fully into her gift in another year. We have only ever needed one Catalyst.”
Eugenia made no reply and Hester turned her attention back to Mary. She drew the magic from Eugenia, but this time instead of shaping it into a knife blade, she twisted it into a rope.
“Curse you, Mary Hartwell,” Hester whispered, winding her noose around her sister’s spirit. “Curse you for your treachery. Curse you for your foolishness. Fire take you for each lie you told, for each false prophecy you gave. Fire take you and burn you slow.”
Hester knotted the magic, and pulled it tight.Ten
Edward opened his eyes to darkness and a sense of contentment. A warm, soft weight shifted beside him, and memory came flooding back. Carefully, he extricated his arm from around Alicia. She stirred and stretched beneath the covers, but did not wake.
A sliver of moonlight seeped around the room’s heavy draperies. It glinted on the dark gold curls tumbling across Alicia’s cheeks and around her shoulders. As Carstairs’s eyes adjusted to the faint illumination, he saw how sleep smoothed and softened her features. She retained only a hint of a smile about her full lips, as if her dreams were sweet ones.
So I hope they may be.Edward sat himself up and rested his forearms on his knees. Just looking at her brought the memory of their tempestuous lovemaking to the front of his mind, allowing him to savor again the feel of her mouth, her lush curves, her willingness to be carried along by her desire. A new lover was always a delight, but Alicia had been more than that. She’d followedhim unafraid into the new world of erotic desire. She’d trusted him with her body and her freshly discovered passions.
The problem was, neither of them knew who “she” really was. He’d gone to bed with strangers before, but never like this. Alicia had never known her own deepest spirit, not even in the common way of a girl growing up. She’d never felt the joy and the ache that were the heritage of the human heart, let alone the boundless possibilities of desire. Those were all yet to be explored by her, and Edward found the idea both intriguing and a little frightening.
He had to admit he enjoyed discovering this Alicia Hartwell far more than the virago who had thrown things at him and jabbed him with a hat pin. Although, if he stopped to consider it, that Alicia was admirable in her own way. She’d kept her head and made an excellent attempt at escape. If she hadn’t been so at war with herself, she might even have succeeded.
Edward frowned. Far more serious was this matter of the memories he had glimpsed when he’d touched her mind—of the furious child, and this “White Knight” she had so desperately wanted to return to. That memory may not have resurfaced in the rush of her being freed of the enchantment, but it was still in the depths of her mind, and it would return, one way or another.
He touched her cheek lightly, and she turned her face toward his fingertips. He could not resist drawing them over to the corner of her smiling mouth. Her lush lips parted slightly, as if preparing for a new kiss. Carstairs’s cock stiffened. With a rueful smile, he lifted his hand away and folded his arms. Alicia’s mouth closed and she shifted again, turning toward him, seeking his warmth in the cool room. He tucked the blankets in a little more firmly around her and she stilled.
Who would Alicia prove to be when she woke once more? Thepassionate lover or the calculating and distant woman? Some combination of the two, most likely, but what combination?
That was what nagged at him now, even more than the restless swelling in his all-too-ready cock. Seeing Alicia curled up in his bed brought all Rathe’s warnings back to him. He didn’t really know how she came to be imprisoned by her enchantment. She might be more than an innocent victim in this unfolding mystery, but he found he already had trouble considering that possibility.
And this is exactly how our enemies work. They play on our loves and our vanities.
With a mild curse Carstairs climbed out of the bed and paced across the room. The air was cold against his bare skin, but he welcomed it, because it cleared his mind. It was nonsensical that he should be angry at Rathe for reminding him only of what he already knew. He had been raised in a family of Catalysts and Sorcerers. He had been barely thirteen when he’d called up the magic the first time. He’d been sixteen when he had helped ensnare his first Fae.
Sixteen when his weakness killed his brother.
He’d never forget the sight of the impossibly beautiful and delicate woman cowering on the ground before Nicholas. Nick was just nineteen, but he’d already proven himself to Captain Smith as a strong and competent agent. The whole family had been so proud of him, and of Edward when Nick had declared him to be ready to take on his first mission.
There’d been rumors of the Fae establishing themselves in a London gaming house, luring in wealthy and influential men with glamour and gold. Nick had asked that Edward be allowed to stand as Catalyst to him so they could try to gain membership in the house and discover if those rumors were true.
Nick had played the part of a young wastrel showing his little brother a rake’s ropes to perfection. They’d soon discovered the elegant hostess who promised them excellent and willing company for the evening was indeed a half-blood Fae in the service of the Seelie court. As soon as they’d gotten her alone, Edward had raised the magic, and Nick had worked the spell to confine her.
But she was so beautiful, so frail. She’d huddled on the carpet and begged for her life. Nick had suddenly seemed a foul ogre to be brutalizing such a delicate maiden, and Edward’s hold on the magic had faltered.
Edward’s fist curled as he fought to shut the memories away. Father had never blamed him for Nick’s death. Smith had sent him to sea to help with efforts on the Continent, and to get him away from the source of his overwhelming guilt.
The effort failed. The guilt and the responsibility were part of him, because the failure was his and his alone. He’d spent his every waking moment in a fight to restore his honor, and his family’s. He had to make Nick’s death mean something. But now here he was, within an inch of falling for yet another beautiful and apparently helpless girl. Not that there was any chance Alicia could be a Fae. No matter what their glamours, the Fae could not disguise their eyes, and Alicia’s rich, amber eyes were fully human. That did not erase the possibility that she was one of the Fae’s human allies.
Or that someone in her family is.This idea sat more comfortably in Carstairs’s guts. But if Alicia was the lure for a trap created by another Hartwell, then he was deep in it now. Was that really any better?
Carstairs looked back at Alicia. In her sleep, she’d stretched out one arm so that her hand lay on the pillow he had vacated.Yes,he told himself.It is better. Because it means she can still be saved. I can still…
He stopped himself. Still what? What did he mean to do with Alicia Hartwell once this was over? Marry her, of course. He really had no choice. He’d not only abducted her, but thoroughly and enjoyably ravished her. The fact that she was a Sorceress changed things only somewhat. She still had to live in the world, and in society. As it was, she would be the subject of a scandal. If he did not marry her, she would be ruined. It was his duty to marry her.
But what if duty required him to give Alicia Hartwell over to his superiors for judgment? Cold and premonition pricked across Carstairs’s naked shoulders. For the first time, it occurred to him that the necessity to follow duty’s dictates might harm far more than himself.Eleven
Something clinked softly but persistently. Alicia rolled over and tried not to listen. She floated in a warm and delicious darkness and had no desire to leave it. But even as she curled more tightly in on herself, an appetizing scent brushed her. It held coffee, and something else, something homey and familiar.
Muffins. Alicia’s eyelids fluttered open and she shoved the thick blankets back from her face.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“That’s all right.” She pushed herself up on the pillows. Edward sat in a chair drawn close to the hearth. He had speared half a muffin on a long toasting fork and held it over the fire. A pot of coffee and several fat crocks sat on a tray on a nearby table, along with plates, knives, cups, a whole roasted chicken and a wheel of yellow cheese.
“Butter or jam?” he asked, holding the muffin up.
“And coffee? It should be chocolate, I know, but I’m afraidthat’s a bit beyond my poor skills. Most of the cooking I’ve done has involved bad tinned beef and a campfire, in the rain as likely as not.” He slipped the hot muffin onto the plate and smeared it with a healthy spoonful of shining red jam from one of the crocks.
“You made this?” Alicia blinked at the tidy breakfast. Her stomach turned over grumpily inside her. She was, she realized, next to starving.
“Well, I assembled it. Cook left us a well-stocked pantry.” He added some thick slices of chicken and cheese to the plate. “How do you take your coffee?”
“A little cream, please.”
“As my lady desires.” Edward carried the plate and a cup of coffee over. He sat on the edge of the bed and put the plate on her lap and the cup on the nightstand.
He cupped her cheek and smiled into her eyes. “Gladly.”
Warmth rushed through Alicia, flushing her face. Just looking up at him, her skin seemed to feel the touch of his hands and hard body all over again. Her pussy remembered how good it had felt to have his cock filling her. What was more, Edward seemed to see all that was passing through her mind, and he grinned at her. In a minute, he was going to chuckle at her. This realization did nothing to cool the heat from those memories.
“I’m not going to be able to eat with you this close,” she told Edward. “You’re too distracting.”
“Are you saying you prize me above muffins? I don’t think I’ve ever been so highly valued before.” He did chuckle. “However, you need to eat, so I will take the martyr’s part.” He walked back over to the tray by the fire, and slathered butter on another toasted muffin. Alicia took a bite of the muffin in front of her. It was hot and toastyand tender. The raspberry jam was sweet and tart. It went beautifully with the strong, bitter coffee, and somehow only whetted her appetite for both the perfectly roasted chicken and the salty, crumbly cheese that completed her eclectic breakfast. Before she knew it, Alicia was picking at crumbs and draining the dregs of her cup. She looked up to see Edward watching her. He wasn’t laughing anymore. There was an intensity in his gaze that prickled across her skin. It was almost as if he were searching for something he was afraid to find.
“What is it?” Alicia asked.
Just like that, the intensity was gone. Pushed aside. Hidden. “I like watching you eat. You enjoy it so much.”
She glanced down at her empty plate, and tried to set aside her discomfort. She should not attach too much importance to one look. After all, it wasn’t as if she was an expert in understanding such things. “I…Everything just tasted so good.”
“I’m glad.” Edward brought over another jam-covered muffin. She should refuse. Aunt Eugenia said a lady should eat only in a restrained fashion. But then, Aunt Eugenia had said a number of things which turned out not to be true. Alicia bit down on the toasted muffin.
“What time is it?” she asked.
Edward, coffee cup in hand, wandered over to the window and peered around the curtain. “Still early. The sun’s only just up.”
“You said the cook was gone? She doesn’t live in?”
“She does, but I wasn’t certain what would happen last night. It could have gone badly.” He murmured these last words to his coffee cup. “So I sent the servants away.”
Alicia’s throat tightened around her bite of muffin. Last night. She would have to come to grips with all that had happened, andwhere she was. It was morning now, and she was naked in a man’s bed. Even though that man was her betrothed, they were not actually married. No amount of enchantment could get around this single, salient point. She was ruined. And she had enjoyed it—enjoyed Edward and all the wicked things they had done—far more than any decent woman possibly could.
“But it didn’t go badly.” She tried to make herself mean those words. It was done. Regret now would accomplish nothing. She was not just ruined; she was free. She had herself and she could not let the rules of society override that most important point, either.
“No, it did not go badly. In fact, it went very well.” There was an attempt at reassurance in Edward’s smile, but Alicia thought she saw worry as well, and something else. Something, for all her newfound understanding, she couldn’t quite grasp. “I hope you agree?” he added softly.
“I hardly know.” Alicia set the muffin down. Her appetite seemed to have ebbed. “I think it depends on what happens next.”
“Well, first, as I told you, you will be meeting some friends of mine, and learning more about your powers as a Sorceress.” Edward drained the coffee he had been drinking and set the cup next to him.
“How can I meet anyone? I’ve no clothes.” In fact, her walking dress was a crumpled ruin on the floor.
But Edward only smiled at her distress. “While I think I prefer you naked, my dear, I am not such a careless abductor as you think.” He moved over to the wardrobe and opened it with a flourish. Inside hung a variety of neat frocks. “They are not to your measure, of course, but they should serve well enough for the moment.”
“Where did they come from?”
“A lady named Miranda Rathe, who is currently helping lead your family as far astray as possible. She sent them over when she learned of our plans. Like you, she did not trust a man to remember a woman needs more than one dress when being kidnapped.”
“You enjoy making light of this situation.”
“Only because I’d rather see you smile than looking distressed.”
She had no answer. The memory of passion and desire was fading to the background, and the cold reality of where she was settled once more around Alicia. She was not a maiden any longer. She had, willingly, eagerly, given herself to this man. She had to marry him. There was no choice. Of course, she had planned to marry him. All the papers had been drawn up, all the settlements made, and she had agreed. But this was different. This wasn’t a case of agreeing. This was a case of unyielding necessity. She looked at him. Did Edward see it that way? Was he uncomfortable with realizing they now had no choice but to go through with their marriage? Was that what was behind the intense gaze she’d glimpsed?
“What’s wrong, Alicia?” Edward asked softly.
“I’m not sure. Everything has happened so fast.”
“I know. I’m sorry it had to be this way, but I could not leave you under that enchantment any longer. We’ll be talking more about that as well when my friends arrive, rest assured.” He paused, his eyes searching hers for a long moment. “You will not be abandoned.”
“I know.” She believed he would honor his promise to her. But there was something he wasn’t saying, and she could not find the words to ask him about it. So many feelings flowed through her, and they were so strong, she could barely begin to sort any of themout, let alone ask about them. She had no experience with this kind of unrest. Every small sensation—the scent of the muffins, the crisp fold of the starched sheets against her feet, the way the sunlight slipped around the closed draperies to lay bright streaks across the Turkey carpet—was powerful and new. She wanted nothing more than to revel in them all, if only for this single moment. All these things had been taken from her once. They could be taken again, and she would be lost.
At this thought, a river of sorrow poured into her mind, and tears pricked her eyes.
“Alicia?” Edward sat on the edge of the bed and took both her hands. “Alicia, what is it?”
“I don’t know…I…” But the thoughts behind her sudden sorrow skipped away from the warmth of Edward’s touch, and Alicia shook her head. “You must think me very foolish.”
Edward crooked his finger under her chin and tipped her face up toward him. “I think you are very brave, and very beautiful.” His gray eyes sparkled. He was remembering their lovemaking; she was sure of it. But before her blush had time to do more than warm her cheeks, Edward stood and walked away. Alicia watched, mystified. Had she done something wrong? But then, just as abruptly, Edward turned and faced her. With deliberate motions, he pulled the sash of his robe and dropped into the armchair in front of the window. Alicia stared. His robe fell open, and Edward let his legs relax. He was naked in front of her, and his cock stood up straight and hard against the flat plane of his belly.
Slowly, Edward ran his fingertips down the dark, swollen shaft.
“What—what—” she stammered. “What are you doing?”
“Touching myself.” His lids drooped over his gray eyes, butshe still felt his knowing gaze brush her sensitive skin. “And watching you while I do it. Do you like what you see?”
How could she possibly answer such a question! And yet, shewaswatching his hand move, deliberately, almost thoughtfully, up and down his hardened cock, and as she watched, her nipples tightened and rubbed painfully against the linen sheets she had wrapped around herself.
“Yes,” she breathed. “Yes, I do like it.”
“Good.” He cupped his balls, fondling them for a moment before he stroked his way up the shaft again. “I like you watching me.”
Which is as well,thought Alicia a little desperately, because she couldn’t take her eyes from him. “You…you do?” she stammered.
“I like it very much. Oh, my hand makes me hard, but seeing your excitement makes it so much better.”
She was blushing in earnest now. The heat traveled down from her cheeks to her breasts and her center. Her pussy began to soften, just from watching, just from seeing how his cock swelled and stiffened under his fingers.
Edward’s eyes glittered beneath his heavy lids. “I’d like to see you do this.”
“See me…touch myself?”
“I…” She’d heard that women did touch themselves. Verity had told her in a whisper once. It was dreadfully wicked, of course, but so was watching Edward fondling his cock. Even more wicked was the way she wanted to be there with him, touching him too, urging him on.
She wanted to touch herself and feel his excitement build.
“I don’t know what to do.” Her voice sounded terribly harsh in her own ears.
He smiled languidly. “Come here, Alicia. Let me show you.”
Her mouth was dry. Her heart pounded against her ribs. A cold shiver of pure nervousness cut the heat rising in her body. But he was so magnificent, lounging there, utterly unabashed in his nakedness, stroking his magnificent cock to fullness as he watched her. She couldn’t refuse him. She did not want to.
She drew back the covers. The room’s cool morning air enveloped her bare skin and she shivered as she swung her legs over the side of the bed. Edward ran one finger up the center of his cock’s shaft and nodded at her; his eyes and smile filled luscious promise. Just looking at him, her pussy grew damp, and her mouth watered. She wanted his mouth on hers, his hands on her body. Most of all, she wanted his cock—his gorgeous, hard cock—inside her again.
“I’m waiting for you, my dear.”
It was too much. Completely naked, she stood and crossed the room. She felt clumsy, a stranger in this woman’s body so filled with fire. The curls between her thighs were damp with need. She knew his bright eyes saw this, and that only sent another flash of desire through her. His gaze traveled up to her breasts, which seemed so heavy now it was hard to breathe beneath the weight of them.
“Alicia.” Edward reached out a hand to her, still touching himself with the other. His smile filled with mischief and desire. His strong, calloused hand enfolded hers as he drew her close, urging her to bend down toward him. Alicia’s pounding heart swelled and her nervousness subsided, replaced by a fresh eagerness.
He kissed her. His tongue slid without hesitation into her readymouth, finding hers so he could stroke it as languidly as he stroked his cock. She groaned and he chuckled against her mouth.
Edward wrapped his hands around Alicia’s waist and pulled her down onto his naked lap. Not once breaking their kiss, he arranged her crosswise, supporting her back with one strong arm while her legs dangled over the arms of the chair. His hand splayed against the side of one thigh, and his cock pressed hot and hard against the other.
“Now.” Edward took her hand and kissed her palm, slowly, lovingly. “It is all very simple, my dear. You already know how good it feels when I touch you here.” He laid her palm against her own taut breast, covering her hand with his, moving it, squeezing and releasing so that she was massaging herself. Sweet pleasure suffused her. Alicia sighed and laid her cheek against his chest.
“Yes, it feels good, doesn’t it?” he murmured. “You are so beautiful to see, lost like this in your pleasure. It will feel even better here.” He drew their hands down her belly, all the way to her damp curls. Her thighs parted, anxious to discover what new delights waited. “Oh, good, my dear Alicia, my lovely one. That’s it.” He ran her palm along the sensitive flesh of her inner thigh. She was hot there and she found her own skin almost as fascinating to her hands as his was, especially while his hand moved with hers. Especially with his eyes on her, watching, his hard cock stroking her other side, and his sweet, sensuous voice speaking so wickedly to her.
“Touch your pussy.” His lips brushed her ear. “Stroke yourself. You know what to do. Show me how you like best to be touched.”
She did know what to do, and when he laid her hand against her curls, her fingers began at once to toy with her soft, heated folds. Pleasure rippled up through her body and she groaned. Her head dropped back, but she was perfectly secure, supported byhis rock-hard arm. She could stroke herself as hard and as fast as she desired. She would not fall. Edward would hold her safe. His thighs rubbed against her ass, his cock against her thigh. She could hear his harsh, hard breathing; she could feel the heat of him radiating through her flesh, mingling with her own fire.
“Oh, yes,” she moaned.
“Is it good, Alicia?”
“Yes. Yes. I want…”
“What do you want? Tell me.”
“I want you…inside.”
“Yes.” He drew the word out long and slow. “Yes, and you will have me. I will put my cock inside that lovely pussy and you will ride it as hard as you want. But first you must show me your pleasure.” His hand covered hers again, pressing her palm against her throbbing clit. She gasped and groaned as his fingers pressed hers deeper into her wet slit, right up to the entrance of her sheath.
“Yes, you like that, don’t you, Alicia?” She moaned in answer and he pressed hard, thrusting her deeper into herself. She arched her neck, trying to reach his mouth for a kiss, but he was not there and she whimpered.
“You’re so beautiful,” he whispered wickedly into her ear. “All pink and flushed and hot, getting yourself ready for my cock. Are you thinking about my cock, Alicia?”
“About my cock inside you? Where your fingers are now?”
“Yes!” She sank her fingers deeper into her wet sheath, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy her need. It couldn’t be enough. What she truly needed, and desperately wanted, was his cock filling her.
“I want you, Alicia. I want you so much, but first you mustcome for me. Show me how gorgeous you are when you come. Show me how you want me to fuck you.”
She cried out wordlessly. Her hand moved faster. He’d removed his, and was stroking the curve of her belly and her thighs with his confident hands. The twin sensations were driving her mad. She could think of nothing but the heat and the friction, the pleasure of their hands and his flesh and gaze against her.
“So beautiful. You’re so close.”
“Yes,” she moaned. “Oh, yes.”
“Now, Alicia! Come for me now!”
His command undid her. All the pleasure flooding her burst free, sweeping her along with its current. Her body rocked and shuddered uncontrollably. Edward groaned. As the last hot waves of delight tumbled through her, he’d shifted them, lifting and turning her to face him. Now Alicia straddled Edward’s thighs and his hard hands spanned her waist. Her pussy squeezed and strained, and she felt the blunt tip of his cock stroke down her folds once, before he lifted her high and plunged her down onto him, thrusting up to bury himself in her slick, pulsing sheath.
The redoubling of pleasure made her cry out loud. She arched her back. Her strength was utterly gone. She could not stand this. She was helpless in his hands, completely lost within the fever he had roused her to.
“You can do it,” he murmured. “You can do it, my beautiful Alicia. Look at me.”
She obeyed, opening her eyes to gaze into his, and what she saw there took the last of her breath away. Light and pure desire filled his handsome face, but it was mixed with wonder and even a kind of awe.
“Breathe deep,” he told her. “Let yourself move with me.”
She tried, but could draw in only a kind of ragged hiccup of a breath. But his laughing eyes encouraged her. Gradually, she felt her body and senses steadying under the new onslaught of delight brought by his cock thrust so deeply inside her, a sensation so overwhelming but so very much desired.
“Edward.” Alicia wrapped her arms around his neck. Her thighs relaxed, her sheath relaxed, opening to the pleasure he brought. “Oh, my dear.”
He smiled as she spoke the word and the mischief returned to his moonlight gaze. He thrust up a little harder, teasing her, testing her. It felt good, and the pleasure no longer frightened her. She welcomed it. He circled his hips underneath her. She could feel the motion causing his cock to stir inside her and stroke her sheath, unfurling delightful new sensations inside her. She wanted more.
“Teach me to ride you,” she breathed. “I want to ride you hard.”
“As my lady desires.”
Edward pressed his hands firmly to her hips and buttocks, and he lifted her. Her breath hissed through her teeth as the motion drew his shaft out of her tight sheath, but he swiftly lowered her again, so he was deep inside once more. The friction was sweet. The way his hands clutched and kneaded her ass added wonderful spice. He lifted her again, and again, until she caught the delicious motion and her thighs began to move of their own accord, raising her up, bringing her down hard, seeking her own rhythm of pleasure.
“Oh, yes. Oh, God, yes,” groaned Edward.
His words went straight to Alicia’s core, burning away the last of her hesitations. Her body moved of its own volition, harder, faster, wanting only to take the full measure of her delight fromhim, conscious only of their bodies—his hard thighs between hers, his hands cupping her buttocks, but most of all his cock filling her.
His mouth caught her nipple and sucked her deep. She cried out as his tongue circled her areola and his teeth nipped her. She tried to lift herself up, but this time, he forced her down, thrusting deep into her. Without warning she shattered, again, rocking wildly against his cock. Edward shouted and thrust, and now he was with her, the two of them a tempest tossed by their pleasure, voices crying out, spirits pressed as tightly together as their mouths as they slowly, slowly descended from the heights to which they had flown.Twelve
It was something of a miracle that Carstairs was fully dressed by the time the bell rang to signal the arrival of Captain Smith and Lady Jane Lynne. He and Alicia had decided that after their recent, very pleasant exertions, they both needed something more than a cold-water wash. With equal amounts of trouble and laughter, they’d managed the cookstove and the copper boiler well enough to fill a hip bath with steaming water. Of course, since Alicia would not know where anything was, Carstairs had to bring her towels and soap. Then, because she had no maid to assist her, he’d had to help her out of her borrowed robe. What followed was highly enjoyable, but it had almost upset the bath, and his own dressing had been delayed by the need to get the water mopped up.
Now Alicia stood beside him in the foyer wearing a morning frock of a pale peach color that seemed to him a little too tight across the bodice and hip, but he found he did not mind that in the least. Her hair was dressed much more simply than it hadbeen yesterday. Carstairs thought she looked radiant, but he was aware of a certain bias on the subject. She was also very quiet.
“You need have no fear, Alicia,” he said, laying his hand on the front door’s knob. “These are friends come to meet you.”
“I know.” She lifted her chin. He felt she also knew, almost as well as he did, that their private idyll was at an end. Duty waited outside.
Disturbed by his own reluctance, Carstairs made himself open the door.
“Good morning, Carstairs.” Smith stood aside to let Lady Jane Lynne proceed him through the door.
“Good morning, Captain, Lady Jane. May I present Miss Alicia Hartwell?”
“Miss Hartwell, how do you do?” Lady Jane smiled as she moved forward to exchange courtesies with Alicia, but her eyes raked hard across Carstairs as she passed. Lynne’s prediction proved correct. His wife was not in the least pleased with how Alicia had been treated. “I daresay you do not remember, but we have met before.”
“I believe so, yes,” Alicia replied, frowning. “Weren’t you in the household of the Duke of Clarence?”
“Until quite recently, yes. Now I am married to one of the rapscallions who decided, quite without consulting cooler heads, to treat you so roughly. You may be sure, he has heard what I think on this point!” Lady Jane favored both Carstairs and Captain Smith with another hard look, but Carstairs thought he detected a softer light behind the lowering glare. He found he could well imagine the sorts of things Lynne had said and done to make up with his wife for his poor conduct.
“For my part, I wish to apologize.” Captain Smith bowed toAlicia. “It was on my orders that you were brought here. I can only plead that it was done out of concern for your safety.”
Which was true, but not wholly true. Edward felt his hands trying to curl into fists again, and forced them to relax. He had known this moment was coming. It was as well it had arrived now. He knew himself to be treading very dangerous waters with regard to Alicia. His inability to keep his hands off her this morning proved that.
“Edward—Lord Carstairs—has explained something of the matter to me,” Alicia was saying.
“Excellent,” replied Captain Smith smoothly. “Now, unless I am much mistaken, it is Lady Jane who would like a word with you, Miss Hartwell.”
“Most definitely,” said Lady Jane.
“Would you like coffee?” Carstairs asked, belatedly surfacing from his cold reverie to remember his role as host. “I’m sorry you’ll have to cope with my poor skills as a servant.”
“No, thank you,” replied Lady Jane, to Carstairs’s relief. “You and the captain have a great deal to talk about. Miss Hartwell and I will do very well as we are in the parlor. I believe it’s this way?” She tucked her arm through Alicia’s and swept them both down the corridor.
Carstairs conducted Smith in the opposite direction to his library. He found himself wishing, with uncomfortable furtiveness, he knew what Lady Jane intended to say to Alicia.
“Don’t worry,” said the captain behind him. “Lady Jane is formidable, but she is loyal, and fair.”
“Yes, sir,” answered Carstairs, a little abashed at how easy it was for his captain to read his thoughts. He let the captain precede him into the library so he could close the door behind them both.
“How does Miss Hartwell this morning?” Smith asked.
“Well, I believe.” Memory of her body under his hands, her moans and the intensity of her pleasure, swept swiftly through him. Carstairs busied himself with drawing back the drapes from the windows and French doors that overlooked the garden to let in the morning sunlight until he could set those intimate, and extraneous, thoughts aside. “She is still coming to terms with herself, now that the enchantment is broken, but she is adjusting quickly.”
“And what are your impressions of Alicia Hartwell’s self?” Smith settled himself into the armchair beside the hearth and steepled his fingers.
Carstairs had known he would face this question, but that did not make answering it any easier. He should have spent his time quizzing Alicia and learning what he could of her family and her past. Instead, he’d let himself get distracted.
“She seems both strong of mind and firm of character,” he said. “I was afraid her long enchantment would have left her wits frail, but that does not appear to be the case.”
“Interesting. But I believe you told Rathe you felt she struggled against the enchantment?”
“Yes. That was my impression, even before I was able to begin assisting her.”
“If she has fought her bonds, that may have had the effect of strengthening her mind and spirit, the way constant exercise will strengthen the body.”
Carstairs had not stopped to consider the matter in this light. It might explain a great deal, including the intensity of Alicia’s passions. She’d admitted to spending a considerable amount of time seeking to understand attraction and love between men and women.
“Or it might be she has not been so closely confined as we are being led to believe.”
These new words fell against Carstairs like the cold ocean spray. He had to struggle to bite back an angry retort, and the shame that followed it. What was happening to him? One night with this woman and he was near to losing not just his composure, but the sense of duty that had guided his entire adult life.
“With respect, sir,” said Edward, fighting to reclaim his sense of professional detachment, “I walked in her thoughts. I felt the enchantment. It was an abominable thing, and had dug deep into her spirit. I concur with Rathe’s assessment.” Which Captain Smith had most certainly heard by now. “This was not the work of a moment, or a thing that had been casually put on.”
“Then we must return once again to the question of why it was put on at all.” He got to his feet. “May I see this amulet?”
Carstairs had already brought the strongbox down to the library and placed it on the desk. He handed Captain Smith the key, and stood aside. Smith rested his fingertips on the box for a moment before he turned the key and opened the lid. Slowly, almost reverently, the captain lifted out the torn ribbon and its gold-framed brooch. Carstairs folded his hands behind his back to hide his clenched fists. He wanted nothing more than to throw the vile thing into the fire. Smith betrayed no such emotion. Instead, he carried the amulet over to the window where he had the full light. He ran his thumb over the cinnabar carvings and lifted his quizzing glass to examine the amulet minutely. Edward gritted his teeth and forced himself to be patient.
“And Alicia Hartwell is indeed a Sorceress?” the captain murmured as he turned the amulet over in his fingers.
“She is, and I believe she will prove to be a powerful one.”
“Yes. It would hardly be worth the trouble otherwise, would it?” murmured Smith.
“What is it, sir?”
“Something I thought to be only a rumor. An old rumor at that.” Smith laid the brooch back into the strongbox. Carstairs tried to suppress his sigh of relief as the captain turned the key again. “It comes from back in Cromwell’s day, when so many magic workers were forced into hiding. I expect you’ve heard a few of the tales.”
“My grandfather used to frighten us with the stories his grandfather told him.” Cromwell had not believed in the Fae, but he’d experienced the workings of human Sorcerers. His cold, Puritan heart had seen the Devil in their magic, and became determined to rid the Isle of Britain of them as he had rid it of its king. Carstairs remembered sitting on the rug beside Nick with the flickering firelight washing over them. They listened wide-eyed and terrified while their grandfather described the thudding of the Witchfinder General’s boots and the creaking of boards over top of a hidden cellar.
“More than one magic wielder who went into hiding in those days never came out.” Smith’s face went hard. “Some never told their children the truth of their natures, or worse, they’d try to drive the magic out of the children altogether.”
“Is that even possible?”
Smith shrugged. “It was one of the stories, and given the terror of the times, I don’t doubt a few people tried. Some may have even succeeded, but what harm it would have done to those children…” He didn’t finish. He didn’t need to. To remove the magic from a Sorcerer or Catalyst would be like blinding their very souls. “But there was rumored to be another possibility.” Smith tapped hisquizzing glass against the chest. “A spell that would hide a Sorcerer’s magic from even themselves. It would bury the magic deep in the soul, where even Matthew Hopkins could not sense it, and he was one of the strongest Catalysts ever born. And I have been searching for that spell for a long time now.”
“Stop to consider, Carstairs, what a spell that can suppress magic might do in our battle against creatures whose very nature is magical. If we can study the construction of this amulet, learn its enchantment and how to wield it effectively, we might finally stand a real chance against them.”
The possibility left Edward thunderstruck. If the Fae could be bound the way Alicia had been, they would be drastically weakened. There would be no chance of a Catalyst failing their Sorcerer the way he’d failed Nick, because an amulet did not need to be fed a stream of magic to work. It could not be fooled by glamour or seduced by beauty. Smith was right. This could change everything.
“What else must we consider, Edward?” Smith asked him.
Carstairs knew what his captain was doing. The question was a test to see if his mind was still clear. Smith needed to know Carstairs could still look at the situation with detachment and analyze all the possibilities. He needed to know Edward could still be counted on.
He also knew his answer. “We must consider whether this is a weapon we’ve discovered, or a lure we’ve been handed.”
“Just so, sir,” the captain replied. “Just so.”
“Now, my dear, do sit and please make yourself at ease. You’re quite safe with me.”
Lady Jane opened the door onto Edward’s pretty, powder blueparlor and Alicia followed her inside. She tried to move smoothly and not to look about her too much, as if she were already well acquainted with the house, but it was no good. She felt stiff and awkward, and was painfully aware her cheeks glowed bright red.
“Oh, I wasn’t…” Alicia began, trying to rally her composure.
Lady Jane waved her stammering words away. “You were abducted, you spent the night in the house of an unmarried man without chaperonage, and now you find yourself in strange company. Of course you feel uncertain. How could you not?” The other woman settled onto the plush sofa and smoothed down her dove gray skirts. “But it’s all right. I’m acquainted with all the circumstances, and please believe me, I am not here to judge you by the commonplaces of haut ton etiquette.”
“I…thank you.” Alicia perched on a stiff embroidered chair, attempting to will herself to something approaching relaxation. “It has all happened so very suddenly.”
“Yes, when it comes to the Service, things generally do.”
“Are you a…Sorceress? Or a Catalyst?”
“Not I. My husband, as you may have discerned, is one of Smith’s agents, and I am much in their confidence. But I also found myself joining the ranks abruptly, so I know at least some of what you’re feeling. In fact, when I heard the details, I’m afraid I insisted on coming to make sure you were all right. You are all right?” she asked suddenly.
“Yes. At least, I think I am.”
“Now, that’s an answer which shows you have good sense.” Lady Jane smiled. “Because how could anyone be certain after such a time as you’ve had? And you say Lord Carstairs has explained to you what’s behind this extraordinary treatment?”
Alicia’s hand drifted to her throat to touch the hollow where her brooch used to rest. “A little.”
“Good. More will be explained to you shortly, but there is a point I wanted to make clear first. If you do not wish to stay in this house, I will take you out of here at once. You may trust me, there will be no argument.” She spoke these final words with such firmness, Alicia had to work not to shrink back from her.
“But I couldn’t leave now.”
“You most certainly could.” Lady Jane drew herself up straight. “And if it is what you want, I will see to it. So, you need not trouble yourself with any words like ‘impossible.’ Do you wish to leave?”
Alicia did not answer at once. She believed Lady Jane when the woman said she’d take her away if she wanted to go. Except for Verity, Alicia had never met anyone so frank, and—despite a fluttering of trepidation—she found herself warming to this openness. With some difficulty, she set aside the question of just where she could go if she left Edward’s house, and tried to consider the main point.Do I wish to leave?
She had been used badly. Her reputation would be in tatters. But she had been rescued from a most strange imprisonment. She had also been told she was the possessor of magical abilities. Up to this point in her life, she’d been unable to even understand her own heart, let alone perform any act that was meaningful or useful. Now it seemed she had real power as well as real feeling inside her. She had no wish to walk away without learning more.
And then there was Edward. When he’d leaned into the tub where she was supposed to be cleaning herself and proceeded to wash her pussy with long, teasing strokes of his cloth, she’d almost swooned. But his “work,” as he so slyly called it, did not end there, for he applied his mouth and wicked tongue to her folds and hersheath until she’d come so hard she’d almost upset the bath. No, now that she had found all these new delights, she was in no hurry to give them up. This made her a disgraceful wanton, but it was true nonetheless.
What about Edward himself, though? Alicia felt her thoughts lurch to a halt. He’d said he would marry her. More than once in fact. But there was that hesitation about him as well, that sense of holding back. Could he truly want her as a wife now that circumstances between them had changed so much? It might be only his gentleman’s sense of honor that made him stand by their betrothal. When he held her, when he looked at her with his steel and moonlight eyes, she was sure his heart reached for her. But she was so new to the world of feeling, she could well be mistaken.
“No.” Alicia shook her head at her thoughts. “I will stay.” She would never learn the truth of Edward and Edward’s heart if she ran away from him now.
“Very well.” Lady Jane smiled, and Alicia saw approval in the other woman’s expression. “But if you ever find yourself in need of a friend, you may summon me at any time, day or night. Mrs. Rathe is another you may call on without hesitation.”
“Thank you.” Alicia felt an unaccountable prickling behind her eyes. She was not used to kindness being bestowed so freely. Most of her family had ignored her much of the time. Those who had not, had been dismissive, or scolding. Now it seemed that was not all they had done. Her cheeks burned as the outrage of it came to her afresh and the prickling behind her eyes grew stronger.
“What’s the matter, my dear?”
This soft, friendly inquiry was the final blow. Alicia burst into tears. She did not cry in little delicate sniffles, but in great, loud sobs. She cried for strangeness and exhaustion and fury at therealization of how badly she had been wronged. She barely felt Lady Jane putting her arms about her, and pressing a handkerchief into her hand.
The door opened, and she looked up through her blur of tears to see Edward standing, stunned, in the threshold. Alicia wiped hastily at her eyes but it was good. Now that it had begun, the flood would not be stemmed. With an oath, Edward unceremoniously pulled her from Lady Jane and raised her to her feet so he could wrap her in his strong embrace.
All will be right, Alicia. I promise. All will be right.
His voice cradled her thoughts as warmly as his arms cradled her body. After a time, her heart was able to believe him, and her tears eased. Alicia looked up into Edward’s gray eyes and opened her mouth.
“If you’re thinking of apologizing, do not.” He tucked a loose lock of hair behind her ear. “After all you’ve been through it’s a wonder this did not come before.” She opened her mouth again, and, utterly disregarding the fact that they were being watched, he not only failed to release her from his embrace; he laid a finger against her lips. “No apologies, Alicia. Do you understand me?”
She nodded, but over her shoulder, she saw Captain Smith standing in the corridor, his face creased with deep concern. He was not looking at her, however. He was looking at Edward.Thirteen
“Lord Carstairs may have forbidden apology from you, madame, but he will grant me the privilege of allowing me to make one to you.” Smith entered the room and bowed, formally but not smoothly. Edward stepped back, allowing Alicia to turn toward his captain. Now Alicia could see Smith held the carved chest that contained her brooch under his arm. A shudder ran up her spine.
“Forgive the brusqueness of an old man,” Captain Smith went on. “I am fighting a long campaign and I have little time to waste on formalities. I will be taking away your amulet for further study, and hope soon to be able to discover something of its origins and its exact effects. All that is learned will be communicated to you and Lord Carstairs. Until then, I want to assure you that Lord Carstairs stands fully ready to honor his engagement to you.”
“So he has told me,” said Alicia, even as apprehension stirred inside her.
“Yes. But, as it has been discovered you are a Sorceress, I mustalso inform you, it is at this time advisable that you not enter into an actual marriage in the strictest sense.”
“I beg your pardon?” Alicia looked from Smith to Edward. But Edward was not looking at her. His gaze was fixed on the curtained window.
“A Sorceress, especially one in service to the Crown, has possibilities open to her beyond those commonly allowed a woman in ordinary society,” Smith told her. “It is better that you understand these before you become permanently bound in a legal ceremony.”
“We will be furnished with a license, Alicia,” said Edward quietly. “It will be enough to convince your family and other acquaintance that our marriage is genuine, but you will not be tied to me in any legal sense, should you decided to change your mind.”
Once again, he was holding something back. She was certain of it. Did he truly believe she would change her mind? Or did he want to remain free to change his?
“But…if I did change my mind, if I did leave, would we not be found out in any case?” Alicia could scarcely believe it was her voice asking the question.
“Not necessarily,” replied Smith. “Should that be your ultimate decision, we would review the options available at the time as to your place and station. However, plenty of couples in the ton live separately. One or the other of you could retire to the country, or go abroad, and not one eyebrow would be raised.”
“I see,” Alicia said, and she did. It made perfect sense. What made less sense was the uncomfortable twinge under her rib cage. She thought again on the concern written so plainly on Smith’s face when he had seen her in Edward’s arms. Perhaps this falsemarriage had been his idea. Perhaps Smith thought he would save a trusted agent from further entanglement. After all, the appearance of marriage bound her almost as much as it freed her. If it was made known publicly that the marriage was false, she would be just as ruined.
Alicia frowned inwardly. She had to stop thinking such things, at least until she had either more proof or more experience. Otherwise, she would become one of those jealous creatures talked about in Verity’s novels.
“Very good.” Smith nodded. “The paper will be brought by courier this afternoon.” He faced Edward. “I recommend you both work on a story to tell Miss Hartwell’s—I should say Lady Carstairs’s—family. It has also been decided that Lord Carstairs will begin training you in the use of your powers, Lady Carstairs. He is a highly experienced Catalyst, and can teach you much of what you need to know. Once he has some measure of your strength and abilities, we will be able to assign you other tutors as necessary.”
“That seems a very good plan. Thank you.” Alicia was aware her voice sounded hollow, and that Edward was watching her closely. She wished he’d look at the curtain again. She was not certain she wanted to risk him comprehending the thoughts flashing through her at this moment, especially not in front of Captain Smith and Lady Jane.
Fortunately, Captain Smith seemed to be in earnest about being pressed for time. “Now, Lady Jane, we should leave, and let these two begin to settle themselves in their new circumstances.”
Lady Jane got to her feet, and she pressed Alicia’s hand. “We’ll talk again soon, I promise.” She gave Alicia a swift peck on the cheek. “You will remember what I told you?”
Alicia nodded. Smith said he would conduct Lady Jane home, and shut the door behind them, leaving Alicia facing Edward.
“What was it Lady Jane said?” Edward asked.
“She wanted to make sure I knew that I was not alone.”
“Good, I’m glad she did.” He paused and smiled. “Lady Carstairs.”
Humor sparked in his eyes, but Alicia found no such answering feeling inside her. “So, that’s it? The turn of a page and we are married?” The belligerence in her voice surprised her. After all they had done without benefit of a marriage license, why did this feel so painful? It was sensible to wait and, given the circumstances, artifice was required. Everything had changed. Not only did she not know who or what Edward truly was; she did not truly know herself. But still, with the revelation of the forged license being created, her fragile sense of security had broken in two.
“Alicia,” said Edward. “If all goes well, and your abilities are strong, you will be welcomed as one of the Service’s female agents. It is a position that allows you much more freedom and responsibility than you could ever have expected as an ordinary, married woman. You should take some time to learn just what that will mean.”
“Yes, of course. I’m sorry, Edward. I’m not used to feeling so much; I find I’m having difficulty sorting through it all.” This was true, and she tried to make herself mean it. But at the same time, she found that instead of looking into his eyes, she watched her hands as they restlessly smoothed her skirts. “What do we do now?”
His smile was slow and warm, and despite Alicia’s apprehensions, an answering warmth welled up inside her. “First things first. I must recall my people. Perhaps such a tiny thing as yourself can be adequately sustained by toasted muffins and cold meatsbut they will not do to preserve my manly physique.” She could not help but laugh a little at this, and Edward’s smile broadened. “You are not to worry about what the servants will think,” he added. “Their families have all been with mine for generations. They know almost as much about magic and the Service as I do, and they do not expect things to proceed conventionally in this house. Come to the library with me. I’ll write a message to my butler and find a porter to carry it.”
Edward’s library was easily the most beautiful room of the house Alicia had seen so far. It was hushed here. Clearly, this was a haven for a man with a busy life. She sank up to the tops of her slippers in the Turkey carpets, and the graceful furniture seemed all designed for the comfort of the occupants, especially the armchair with its plump ottoman pulled up by the hearth. The ceiling above was painted with a classical Greek mural showing the muses dancing to Orpheus playing the lyre. But it was the books that took her breath away. The walls were lined floor to ceiling with shelves filled with more volumes than Alicia had ever seen in her life.
“Wonderful,” she breathed.
“Surely your uncles have a library?” Edward sat behind the broad mahogany desk and pulled out paper, pen and ink.
“Nothing like this.” She ran her fingers over the beautiful matching volumes of Diederot’sEncyclopédie.“They keep one because it is the expected thing. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen either of them set foot in it, let alone add a book to it. In fact…” She paused and frowned. “None of the family did.” Her aunts and female cousins used the parlor and sitting rooms for sewing, orfor their listless conversations. Aunt Mary shut herself up in her music room and played the pianoforte for hours on end. “Except Verity,” Alicia amended. “She was forever smuggling in novels to hide them under the cushions and in back of the sermons so we could read them together.”
“Are you fond of novels?” Edward asked, his face studiously grave as he mended the quill’s tip with a small knife.
“Mostly I was puzzled by them. I couldn’t understand much of what the authors were going on about.”
“Because you did not know what it is to be in love.”
“No.” Alicia looked away. She knew very well how his touch could unnerve her, but how had just the sight of his hands and fingers moving with such care and delicacy as they mended the pen, come to so thoroughly disorder her thoughts? “I should write Verity,” she said hastily. “To let her know…at least something of what’s happened. With your permission,” she added.
“There is no need to ask my permission for such a thing, Alicia. Besides, it’s an excellent idea. And I’ll write a formal letter to your uncles, letting them know you are safe with me and asking permission to call on them.”
She noted he did not say, “We are married,” and she was glad. The necessity, even the wisdom, of the pretense was plain. But if she stopped to think about it too much, that uncomfortable contraction underneath her ribs returned. She had known before that Edward had become engaged to her for purely practical reasons, and she had thought it the finest possible arrangement for her. But now that she had touched passion, touched need, she could not help but wonder if he felt anything for her beyond that famous lust the worldly man was said to feel.
But this was foolish. It would have been foolish even withoutthe added strangeness of the magic and her own enchantment. If she had learned anything from Verity’s novels, it was that the love of the heart and the physical act of passion were distinct things. At this point, she could not even be sure Edward would want to keep her in his house.
The constriction returned and Alicia sat down abruptly.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes. I’m sorry. A little indigestion, perhaps.”
“All the more reason for me to call back my people. My housekeeper, Mrs. Talbot, will be able to look after you until we arrange a lady’s maid, and her sister, Mrs. Graves, is my cook. She will say at once you are too pale and design the perfect menu to restore roses to your cheeks. Unless…” He paused.
“I fancy I know a way to restore your color.” His gaze traveled down to her breasts, to her waist and ankles, and began a long, slow journey upward again. By the time he reached her face, Alicia knew she was blushing hotly. “But that will have to wait. We must both write our letters. Here.” He stood, taking the writing materials over to one of the library’s many small tables. “We will see about installing a proper desk for you soon.” He set a chair in place, and bowed, smiling to usher her into it.
“Thank you.” Alicia returned a smile as she sat, but she did not feel cheerful. She felt disastrously uncertain.It is simply because the emotions are all so new and strange,she told herself.I will get used to this seesawing. It is no more than other people have lived with. I just need to accustom myself to it.
But when she looked over at Edward settling himself to his own work, she found she could not entirely believe that. So, shefaced the blank paper instead, dipped the quill in the ink and wrote,Dear Verity.
And found she had no idea at all what should come after that.
Edward watched Alicia as she labored over the letter to her cousin. She frowned hard at the paper, as if willing it to present her the words she needed. For a moment, he thought to ask if she wanted help, but he decided to remain silent. It would be better to give her this little space so she could begin to adjust properly to her new way of being and feeling.
Alicia was not the only one with adjustments to make, either. Edward found himself wondering what was the proper form of address to a man when one had just abducted his niece. He blew out a sigh, took up his quill and set to work.
It took a tidy few minutes, but at last Carstairs felt he’d created an acceptable missive. As he melted the wax and pressed his ring into the seal, he glanced again at Alicia. She had evidently found her theme, and now wrote steadily, her manner composed and her frown replaced by an air of quiet concentration. The sight struck him. It was so everyday, and yet at the same time so perfect. Seeing her sleeping beside him had been just the same. It moved him, not to physical desire, but to the desire to preserve this simple moment of harmony with another person. No, not just another person. With this woman. With Alicia.
The intensity of that feeling jerked Carstairs to his feet.
“I’ll go find a porter,” he said as Alicia twisted around to stare at him. “When my people return, we can send the footman with the other letters.”
He took himself from the library without looking back. Once the door closed behind him, Edward paused, and laid his hand against the wall.
This was not right. He had never felt so much for a woman so suddenly. No. He had never felt so much for any woman, ever. It was beyond ridiculous. He knew nothing about her true mind or character, had shared no genuine intimacy with her. They had danced at their engagement ball. They had walked and talked, only a little. They had enjoyed some erotic play, but none of that was enough to cause so much feeling at so small a sight. Was it possible, after all these years, after all the hardening of his heart to duty, that he was falling in love with Alicia Hartwell?
But even as he thought this, Captain Smith’s soft, cool question came back to him with the force of a thunderclap.
What else needs to be considered, Edward?
Edward cursed. Then he gritted his teeth and stretched out his Catalyst’s senses. If enchantment had somehow slipped past his wards, he would be able to feel it. There would be a change in the tide of power around his house. But there was nothing. He felt the wards standing their quiet watch. He felt the undisturbed flow of energy within the house as calm and even as a sleeper’s breathing.
It should have reassured him, but Carstairs found himself more troubled than ever.
Get over it, man,he instructed himself.It was a fancy. It’s natural in a man your age left alone with a lovely woman in his house to think on family life. It will pass.