The pianoforte in the corner fell silent. A dark figure rose from the instrument's bench, his appearance sending a ripple of anticipation through the gathered guests. It seemed that Caroline and her family had arrived just in time for some sort of recitation. Relieved to find herself no longer the center of attention, Caroline eased into an alcove along the back wall where she could watch the proceedings without being ogled. A nearby French window overlooked the courtyard garden, promising a hasty escape if needed.
Simply by striding over to pose before the marble mantel, the black-garbed stranger magically transformed the hearth into a stage and the drawing room's occupants into a rapt audience. His fashionable pallor only made his soulful dark eyes and the rakish black curls tumbling over his brow more striking. He was broad-shouldered, yet lean-hipped, with a strong, aquiline nose and full lips that betrayed a tantalizing hint of sensuality. From the fond smile curving Vivienne's lips, Caroline deduced that he must be their host.
A reverent hush fell over the drawing room as he propped one foot on the hearth. Caroline found herself holding her own breath as he began to speak in a baritone so melodic it could have made the angels weep with envy.
But first, on earth as Vampire sent,
Thy corpse shall fall from its tomb be rent:
Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race:
There from the daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life.
Caroline's eyes widened as she recognized the words of Byron's legendary Turkish tale, words she had heard Portia recite with an equal amount of drama only a few days before. She glanced at her baby sister. Portia's hand had fallen from her throat to her heart as she gazed up at the young Adonis, an adoring light dawning in her eyes. Oh, dear, Caroline thought. It would hardly do for Portia to start nursing an unrequited infatuation for her sister's suitor.
With his sulky mouth and cleft chin, the young orator might have been mistaken for Byron himself. But everyone in London knew that the dashing poet was currently languishing in Italy in the arms of his new mistress, the Countess Guiccioli.
As he launched into another verse of the poem, displaying his classical profile for everyone in the room to admire, Caroline had to cup a hand over her mouth to contain a hiccup of laughter. So this was the notorious viscount! No wonder he was offering Vivienne suggestions on how to style her hair. And no wonder society believed him to be a vampire. It was obviously a reputation as carefully cultivated as the en cascade folds of his cravat and the dazzling sheen on his Wellingtons. Such an affected dandy might steal her sister's heart, but Vivienne's soul appeared to be in no immediate peril.
Giddy with both mirth and relief, Caroline was still trying to choke back her giggles when a clock somewhere in the house began to chime midnight.
Caroline started violently as a handkerchief appeared just beneath her nose.
"I try to come prepared. It's hardly the first time his performance has moved a woman to tears. The more sentimental ladies have even been known to swoon on occasion."
That droll masculine voice, pitched barely above a growl, seemed to resonate all the way through to her bones. How could she have been so foolish as to fret about vampires when a voice that full of smoke and brimstone could belong only to the devil himself?
She gingerly took the handkerchief before stealing a glance at the man lounging against the wall next to her. He seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. He must have slipped through the French window when she'd been distracted, no small feat for such a large man.
Although she would have sworn she'd felt his gaze on her only a second before, he was staring fixedly at the hearth, where their host was launching into yet another stanza of Byron's masterpiece.
"Your chivalry is much appreciated, sir," she said softly, dabbing at her overflowing eyes with the expensive linen. "But I can assure you that there's no danger of my being overcome with emotion and swooning into your arms."
"A pity that," he muttered, still gazing straight ahead.
Taken aback, Caroline murmured, "Pardon?"
"Pretty hat," he said, nodding toward the pearl-and-feather concoction perched atop a matron's silvery curls.
Narrowing her eyes, Caroline took advantage of his purported indifference to study him. His thick hair was a warm honey shade threaded with brighter strands of gold and worn just long enough to brush the impressive shoulders of his russet tail coat. Had he straightened instead of lounging against the wall with both ankles and arms crossed, he would have towered over her by nearly a foot. Yet he seemed utterly at home with his size, finding no need to use its power to intimidate or cajole.
"What I meant to say, sir," she whispered, unsure why it was so important that this stranger not mistake her for some maudlin ninny, "was that I wasn't overcome by sentiment, but amusement."
He slanted her an unreadable look beneath his generous lashes. His long, crystalline eyes were neither blue nor green, but some bewitching shade in between. "I gather you're not a fan of Byron?"
"Oh, it's not the poet who amuses me, but his interpreter. Have you ever seen such shameless posturing?"
One of the women in front of them turned around to glare at Caroline. Touching a gloved finger to her lips, she hissed, "Shhhhh!"
While Caroline struggled to dredge up a suitably contrite expression, her companion murmured, "You seem to be the only woman in the room immune to his charms."
There was no arguing with that. Portia was still gazing at the hearth as if she'd fallen into a trance. Several of the ladies had drawn out their own handkerchiefs to dab at their eyes. Even the gentlemen were watching the performance with slack mouths and glazed expressions.
Caroline swallowed a smile. "Perhaps he's bewitched them with his supernatural powers. Isn't that one of the traits of his kind—the ability to hypnotize the weak-willed and make them do his bidding?"
This time her companion turned to look her full in the face. His countenance might have been called boyish were it not for the furrowed brow, once-broken nose, and the teasing hint of a cleft in his broad chin. He had an oddly tender, expressive mouth for such a rugged visage.
"And just what kind would that be?"
It was hardly in character for her to indulge in a tasty morsel of gossip with a total stranger, but there was something about his direct gaze that invited confidences. Cupping a hand around her mouth, she leaned closer to him and whispered, "Don't you know? Our host is rumored to be a vampire. Surely you must have heard the gossip about the mysterious and dangerous Adrian Kane. How he rises from his bed only after the sun has set. How he prowls the streets and alleys of the city by night searching for prey. How he lures innocent women into his lair and enslaves them with his dark powers of seduction."
She had succeeded in bringing a sparkle of amusement to his eyes. "Sounds like quite a dastardly fellow. So what prompted you to brave his lair on this dark night? Have you no care for your own innocence?"
Caroline lifted her shoulders in an airy shrug. "As you can see, he's no threat to me. I'm utterly impervious to brooding, Byron-spouting young gentlemen who spend an inordinate amount of time in front of the mirror practicing their poses and curling their forelocks."
His gaze narrowed on her face. "I must confess that you have me intrigued. Just what sort of gentleman might pose a threat to you? What dark powers must a man possess to seduce such a level-headed creature as yourself? If a comely face and a nimble tongue won't make you swoon into a man's arms, then what will?"
Caroline gazed up at him, a kaleidoscope of impossible images whirling through her head. What if this were her Season instead of Vivienne's? What if she was a dewy-eyed nineteen instead of a sensible four-and-twenty? What if it weren't too late to believe a man like this might lure her into a moonlit garden to steal a private moment—or perhaps even a kiss. Wracked by a shiver of yearning, Caroline dragged her gaze away from that tantalizing mouth of his. She was a woman grown. She could hardly afford to succumb to a girl's foolish fancies.
She inclined her head with a dimpled smile, deciding it wisest to treat his words as the jest they undoubtedly were. "You should be ashamed of yourself, sir. If I confided such a thing, then you would have me at your mercy, would you not?"
"Perhaps it is you," he leaned down to murmur, his voice as deep and smoky as a forbidden swallow of scotch whisky, "who would have me at your mercy."
Caroline jerked up her head, mesmerized by the unexpected flash of longing in his eyes. It seemed a breathless eternity before she realized that the recitation had ended and the other occupants of the drawing room had burst into enthusiastic applause.
Her companion pushed himself away from the wall, straightening to his full height. "If you'll excuse me, miss...I'm afraid duty is a harsh and unforgiving mistress."
He had already presented his broad back to her when she called after him, "Sir! You forgot your handkerchief!"
She didn't realize she was waving the scrap of linen like a flag of surrender until he turned and one corner of his mouth slanted upward into a lazy smile. "Keep it, won't you? Perhaps you'll find something else to amuse you before the night is done."
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