Although the candlelight cloaked his face in shadows, there was no mistaking her captor for a manservant. Above his scuffed Hessians, he wore only a form-fitting pair of black trousers, an unbuttoned waistcoat, and a cream-colored lawn shirt, collarless and open at the throat. Only a gentleman would dare to be so careless in his dress. The rich aroma of bayberry wafted from his skin, mingling with the intoxicating warmth of the wine on his breath. He stood nearly a foot taller than Lottie, his broad shoulders blocking the moonlight.
"Damn that Ned anyway! I suppose this is his idea of discretion—sending you around the back of the house to skulk about the bushes like a burglar." His voice was silky, yet gruff, managing to soothe and incite her rioting senses in a single stroke. "Thank God I gave the servants the evening off."
"Y-y-you did?" she stammered, keenly aware that she'd never been alone with any man who wasn't a servant or relation. Nor had any man dared to handle her with such shocking familiarity. Although his grip had gentled, he showed no sign of relinquishing her wrist.
His thumb grazed his madly skittering pulse. "At least there won't be any witnesses."
"There w-w-won't?" Lottie echoed, beginning to feel like her aunt Diana's parrot.
Her prolific imagination immediately began to conjure up several dark scenarios for which a man would prefer there be no witnesses. Most of them involved strangulation and Harriet weeping over her mottled corpse.
His fingers weren't long and aristocratic, as she'd imagined, but blunt, powerful, and lightly dusted with calluses. As he chafed her icy hands between them, she tried not to envision them fixed around her throat.
"You're shivering. You shouldn't have lingered so long in the damp, you silly little fool."
Normally, Lottie would have taken loud vocal exception to her intelligence being questioned, but at the moment, she was questioning it herself.
"I didn't see a carriage out front. I suppose Ned left you stranded here?" When she didn't respond, he shook his head. "I knew he was up to no good. And to think, that meddling rapscallion had the nerve to accuse me of having no manners. Well, there's no help for it, is there? You might as well come with me. There's a fire laid in the study."
He secured the window with brisk efficiency, then retrieved a silver candlestick from a cherrywood occasional table. Lottie recognized the elusive flame she'd seen bobbing past the windows. As he started from the room, she hesitated, knowing this might be her last chance to bolt. But it might also be her last chance to taste adventure before settling down to a steady diet of tedium. If she stayed, what a tale she would have to tell Harriet! Provided she survived, of course.
As he disappeared around a corner, she found herself following, drawn forward by the inexorable tide of his will. He didn't seem the sort of man who was accustomed to being defied.
As she followed him deeper into the heart of the house, she peered about, straining to see. She wouldn't be able to tell Harriet much about his lair. The fluttering candlelight did little more than deepen the murky shadows. White sheets draped every stick of furniture, giving the deserted rooms a ghostly ambience. The hollow echo of their footsteps against the polished oak floor was the only sound.
He cast a curious glance over his shoulder. "Not much of a chatterbox, are you?"
Lottie had to bite her lip to keep from laughing aloud. If only George could have heard that! Her brother had always sworn that she only paused for breath between utterances because blue didn't suit her fair complexion.
"Perhaps it's just as well. I'm not much of a conversationalist myself these days. In truth, I'm barely fit for my own company." He stole another glance at her. "It's certainly rare to find a woman who knows when to hold her tongue."
Lottie's mouth fell open. She quickly snapped it shut, refusing to be goaded into a retort.
As her host ushered her through an arched doorway, her shoulder brushed his chest. She drew in a sharp breath, unprepared for the sweet sting of awareness that brought a flush to her cheeks.
Although the heavy mahogany furniture was unshrouded, the study was no more welcoming than the rest of the house. The floor-to-ceiling bookshelves along the back wall were empty of all but a thick layer of dust. He rested the candlestick on the desk, sending light flickering over the small leather trunk that sat open on the blotter. Following the direction of Lottie's gaze, he quickly moved to close and latch it, his features guarded. The protective gesture only multiplied her curiosity. What could he be so eager to hide? The freshly inked pages of a juicy memoir where he confessed all of his dastardly deeds? His latest victim's severed head?
Lottie remained frozen into place by her own misgivings while he crossed to the hearth and crouched to ignite the fire that had been laid there. His efforts with tinder box, kindling, and poker soon had a fire crackling on the grate, creating a cozy oasis of light in the gloom of the house.
The fire cast his broad shoulders and narrow hips into silhouette. It wasn't until he moved to light the lamp on the desk that she caught her first clear look at him.
Between her guardian, her brother, and her uncle Thane, Lottie had spent so much of her life surrounded by handsome men that if one passed her on the street, she rarely spared him a second glance. But if she had caught a glimpse of this man as he strolled past, she would have walked into the nearest lamppost. His face wasn't so much handsome as it was utterly arresting. For once, her imagination had failed her. Although he looked even more wary than she felt, there was no sardonic glint in his eye, no cynical sneer to his lips. He was far younger than she'd envisioned. The deep grooves bracketing his mouth had been carved by wear, not time. He'd grown out of a baby face and into a creased brow and strong jaw. A rakish hint of beard-shadow defined its rugged arc. His tousled hair was such a deep, velvety brown that she nearly mistook it for black. He was in bad want of a haircut. Lottie's fingers tingled with the irrational urge to brush a rebellious lock from his brow.
His smoky green eyes beneath their thick, dark brows were his most compelling feature. Their luminous depths seem to shift from flame to frost, then back again, based upon the fickle whims of the firelight.
Lottie's head reeled. This was the Murderous Marquess? This was the vile villain who had dispatched both best friend and wife to early graves?
He cleared his throat and gestured to a pedestal table where a half-eaten quail and a half-empty bottle of wine spoke of a lonely supper. "My coachman may not return for a very long while. Would you care for something to eat? A glass of Madeira to take the edge off your chill?"
Lottie shook her head, still afraid to speak for fear of revealing herself.
He looked a bit nonplussed. Perhaps the wine was poisoned. "Then at least allow me to take your mantle."
Before she could deny him again, he closed the distance between them. With surprising gentleness, he smoothed the hood away from her hair.
Lottie squeezed her eyes shut, waiting for him to realize she wasn't whomever he had been expecting. Her family probably wouldn't even be able to hear her screams over the wailing of the violins.
His hand lingered against her hair. She dared to open her eyes. He was fingering one of the bright strands that had escaped her topknot, gazing down at it as if mesmerized. A musing note softened the gruff timbre of his voice. "At least Ned had the good sense not to send me a brunette." His gaze shifted to her face. "So where did he find you? Are you a cousin of Fanny Wilson's? Or did he pay a visit to Mrs. McGowan's?"
The names struck an off-key chord in Lottie's memory, but with his touch playing havoc with her senses, she could barely remember her own name.
He shifted his hand from her hair to the curve of her cheek. His thumb caressed the softness he found there, straying dangerously near to her lips. "Who would have thought a devil like Ned could have found an angel like you?"
Lottie had been called a hellion, an imp, and a mischievous fiend. After setting off a Roman candle in his potting shed, she'd even been called a "wee divil" by Jeremiah Dower, the cranky, but beloved, old gardener at their country house in Hertfordshire. But she'd never once been mistaken for divine.
"I can promise you, sir, that I'm no angel," she murmured, blinking up at him.
He slipped his hand beneath the stray curls at her nape, his warm fingers settling against the vulnerable skin as if they belonged there. "You may not be an angel, but I'd wager you could give a man a little taste of heaven."
As their eyes met, he jerked himself away from her, an oath exploding from his lips. He strode back to the hearth, running a hand through his hair. "Sweet Christ, what am I doing? I knew I should have never let you in the house." He stood in profile, utterly still except for the rhythmic clenching of a muscle in his jaw. "I'm afraid you are owed an apology, miss, as well as whatever coin you were promised. It seems that you and I have been the victims of a tasteless jest."
Lottie was nearly as shaken by his withdrawal as she'd been by his touch. "You don't seem particularly amused," she noted.
Fisting one hand against the mantel, he stared into the leaping flames. "Oh, I have no doubt that Ned convinced himself he had only my best interests at heart. He still fancies himself my friend and he knows that I don't dare visit certain establishments with those vultures from the scandal sheets dogging my every footstep. Sending me some nameless, faceless woman could only be a kindness." He slanted her a glance, the smoldering regard in his eyes warming every inch of her exposed skin. "But that doesn't explain why in the bloody hell he sent you."
His casual profanity should have shocked her, but she was too riveted by the raw loneliness in his gaze. The scandal sheets hadn't lied. This man was being haunted. But not from without. From within.
He took one step toward her, then another. "I can't do this," he said fiercely, but he was already closing the distance between them, already reaching to frame her face in his hands. His voice deepened to a husky whisper. "Can I?"
Lottie had no answer for him. As his head dipped downward, she began to tremble. Her situation was far more dire than she'd imagined. This dangerous stranger wasn't going to murder her. He was going to kiss her.
And she was going to let him.
One Night of Scandal
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