Authors: Donna Lea Simpson
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Cozy, #Historical, #Supernatural, #Werewolves & Shifters, #Women Sleuths, #Mystery, #Romantic Suspense, #werewolf, #paranormal romance, #cozy series, #Lady Anne, #Britain, #gothic romance
“I doubt they are being anything of the kind, Matthew.” She glanced over at Osei, then back to Darkefell. He could see some kind of gladness in her eyes, though her expression remained calm and grave.
As for him … his heart pounded. Until that moment, as much as he had thought about Anne and wished to see her again, he had perhaps forgotten just how much in love he was. And how angry. All the hours spent determinedly turning his mind to other pursuits had been a waste, because even as he tried to forget her, dreams had haunted him, dreams of lying with her, kissing her, making love to her over and over. He cleared his throat, averting his mind from such topics. “They were tormenting your cat, my lady,” he said.
Osei held out the wire. “They had tied a branch to his tail with this, and were chasing him.”
Her face turned red. “Luke! Matthew!” she said, her tone controlled but filled with fury. “How could you do such a despicable thing?”
“Don’t let the magician take us, Cousin Anne,” the smaller boy said, pointing to Osei.
“If you were cruel to Irusan, then you deserve whatever Mr. Boatin has in mind.”
“We’ll never do it again, Cousin Anne, we promise,” the taller boy said.
“Don’t believe him,” Darkefell said, “for I detect that though he will never do
this thing again, he and his younger brother will find something else, potentially something much worse.”
Anne’s face blanked for a moment and she gazed at her cousins thoughtfully. “Oh, good heavens, I cannot believe I didn’t think of that as a solution. Something
. Yes, possibly they would, and perhaps they have already done something
worse, though not to Irusan.”
He was mystified as to what she meant, for she clearly had something in mind, but he said, “My lady, what may we do with these children? I have things to discuss with you, questions raised by your letter to me.”
“And to me,” Osei said gravely, glancing at his employer, perhaps afraid he’d say too much in front of the boys.
“I have something in mind for these limbs of Satan,” she said grimly, as they squealed in protest. Irusan growled ominously as she turned. “Follow me, gentlemen. We have much to say to one another.”
Darkefell; he was so close, so close, so
! Anne’s heart thrummed, then skipped an anxious beat, making her feel a little ill. He was so close. She glanced over at him as they walked toward Harecross Hall. She could feel his heat, smell him, his scent unique and memorable, to her at least. She doubted anyone else would know what she meant, but even if she could not see him she would know he was near. Whomever she had seen at the gypsy encampment the week before, he was not the marquess.
Though she didn’t believe in such things, it almost seemed to Anne as if Darkefell’s arrival was the answer to her prayer. Had she not just been thinking of him on her walk back to Harecross Hall? And there he was, collaring the two worst of her aggravating cousins. And then his words had given her an idea that she would test. Was it possible that many of the troubles locally could be laid at the feet of her wearisome relations? Had they been the imps responsible for fires and thefts, crop damage …
of it? Had the gypsies’ reputations suffered for the Noonan boys’ overabundant unused energy?
She glanced over at the two men again, Darkefell and Osei, the secretary leading two disreputable-looking mounts by their bridles while the marquess still held the two boys in his steely grip. The boys had progressed from whining to frightened silence. Irusan trotted triumphantly at her side, grumbling the whole way. It must have been a sore trial to him to learn that not all little boys were as sterling and sweet-natured as Robbie, his second favorite human. She would bet that they would never be able to catch him to torment him again, so she was not worried about her cat’s well-being.
The town’s well-being was a different matter. She had been neglectful. Although she had made some halfhearted attempts to send the Noonan family away, until these last couple of days she had mostly been content to go about dreaming of Tony, mooning over what to do about him. Meanwhile, the Noonan boys had been running wild. Well, no more. She was inclined to have them beaten soundly for tormenting Irusan, but as tempting as that was she did not believe in corporal punishment for children. It made them sullen and nasty. And she doubted she could prove that they had done any of the things of which she now suspected them.
However, she did have a fate in mind for them that would keep them occupied.
She paused, looking over at them as they approached the Hall. “My lord, and Mr. Boatin,” she said formally, for the benefit of the boys, “will you dine with us this evening, and stay the night? I see you have baggage.”
Tony stared at her with a look that made her ankles weak. How would she sleep, having him in the same house, under the same roof, no matter how far separated by halls or stairs?
“We would be delighted to stay at Harecross Hall, Lady Anne,” he said, his lovely deep voice vibrant with meaning.
The two boys exchanged horrified looks at the thought that their captor was invited to stay, but Anne could not concentrate on their predicament. Shivers ran down her spine, and she felt icy cold and blistering hot by turns. Oh, dear. She had vastly underestimated how affected she was by the man. He could turn her into quivering blancmange with just that one steady brooding look, his eyes an enticing chocolate brown under his thick brows.
She recalled her determination that she would have the marquess, throw herself at him and make love to quench the fire she felt, the flames that licked her body when she thought of his kisses. It was difficult to remember that she was a plain spinster when he looked at her with those dark, hooded eyes, and that meaningful expression. But these were unsuitable thoughts to be having in the circumstances; she would need to regain her equilibrium in his presence. Clearing her throat and schooling her voice to be as normal as she could make it, she said, “Wonderful. I will have Epping send a groom to gather your horses, and Mrs. Aylesworth will see to your rooms.”
In the next two hours, Anne ordered a more substantial dinner from Mrs. Macey (who was suddenly invigorated by the arrival of a dinner guest the likes of which Harecross Hall had not seen for years, since the countess had moved to Bath), visited Robbie—the boy had managed to take broth, and had not relapsed into unconsciousness like the gypsy woman—spoke to her father about their houseguests, reprimanded Mrs. Noonan about her boys and told her that starting the next day the boys would all be sent to the vicar’s house for lessons, and dressed for dinner.
First, her sore shoulder needed the dressing changed. Two days had done much to begin the healing, though it still ached. Then she took great care donning, with Mary’s aid, her gray tabby silk gown and amethyst jeweled stomacher, amethyst choker, Kashmir shawl and jeweled slippers. Her difficult hair was tamed, her narrow waist laced into the tightest corset, and her décolletage powdered and perfumed. She was agitated, her nerves quivering with excitement. Tony was under her roof, in her home. She would see him, talk to him, consult with him and perhaps, if she could find a moment and some privacy, kiss him.
As Mary finished pinning a gray feather into her hair, Anne turned in her chair and grabbed her maid’s hand. “What’ll I do, Mary? What
I do?” There was no need to explain her sudden panic to Mary, who knew her better than any living creature.
“Be yourself, milady. It is all his lordship has ever wanted from you, methinks.” She squeezed Anne’s hand and coiled one curl more perfectly, laying it along Anne’s slender white neck.
But dinner was no joy; conversation was stilted and difficult, with Mrs. Noonan holding forth at length on her injured feelings concerning the boys impending “imprisonment” at the vicar’s. She loudly proclaimed that it forced her to go with them, for she would not allow them to be tortured alone. Anne simply ignored her as she watched Darkefell eat, his appetite good, his face and form as handsome as ever.
She was at her leisure, for she had made an inspired choice in placing Mr. Boatin by her father. The two men were scholarly by nature and had many interests the same, especially languages. In fact, the earl was interrogating the secretary concerning his native tongue, the Fante language of the western part of the African continent, and the secretary, in turn, was asking the earl about his studies in the Mandarin dialect of China. The earl, never able to keep things simple, spoke at length about Cantonese versus Mandarin and other dialectical divergences from the various regions of China, keeping the conversation flowing to the exclusion of all else. Soon, odd words and sounds were coming from them both, as they instructed each other in the intricacies of Fante and Mandarin.
Anne smiled to herself; that was exactly what she had anticipated with two people who had so much in common as her father and Mr. Boatin. She exchanged a glance with Tony, who smiled knowingly, then glanced at his secretary. He raised one of his expressive brows, and she nodded.
At the end of the meal Anne cut her cousin’s complaints short with, “Shall we retreat to the drawing room, Mrs. Noonan? The men may talk, or join us, as they choose.”
Of course with such men as the marquess, Mr. Boatin, and her father, there was no need for an hour spent with port and cigars, so they all adjourned. Mr. Boatin was the soul of courtesy, taking the earl’s arm and helping him up the stairs, but instead of turning toward the drawing room, the two men turned right, toward the library, as the earl said to his daughter, over his shoulder, “If you don’t mind, my dear Anne, Mr. Boatin was interested in my interpretations of your aunt’s Hebrew text on the dispersal of her people throughout the world. We will be just a few moments, and then we shall join you in the drawing room.”
Anne sighed and smiled. They would be gone for hours. “Whatever you wish, Papa.”
Mr. Boatin, though, paused and glanced at the marquess. “My lord,” he said, “if you do not mind?”
“No, by all means, Osei, take your time. I will be more than happy to entertain the ladies.”
That was said with such a wicked grin that Anne felt her cheeks flush with color. She led the way to the drawing room, and Mrs. Noonan took up her sewing, a homely collection of boys’ smallclothes, mending ripped seams and hemming handkerchiefs. On the pretext of showing him her family’s portraits over the vast fireplace, Anne strolled with Darkefell around the room, at first silent in her befuddlement at his closeness. She had not forgotten how he affected her, but still it was appalling that her senses became fogged, her heart rate accelerated and her body warmed with blood flow. She had never experienced such attraction to any man, and it confused her.
He paused in a corner near a vast painting of her ancestor’s triumph at the Battle of Edgecote Moor in the mid-fourteen-hundreds. “Anne,” he said softly, “I have much to talk to you about, but it is a little difficult to speak of it all with Mrs. Noonan doing her best impression of a hawk.”
Anne glanced around. Her cousin was indeed watching them, but swiftly resumed her sewing. “I need to talk to you, too,” she replied, “for you have much to explain, Tony. Very much! I have seen your double, and have been troubled for this last week, thus my letter to you. Perhaps we could … walk in the garden?” Her heart thudded at the thought of being alone with him.
“After Mrs. Noonan retreats?”
They agreed, and returned to the fireside to speak of nonsense while the lady listened. At last Anne had to say that it was perhaps time to retire, and Mrs. Noonan agreed with alacrity, accompanying Anne up to her room and saying good night to her. The woman appeared suspicious of the marquess, and if she had known of their previous behavior when alone, Anne reflected, she would likely not let her younger cousin out of her sight.
But Anne was home, this time, and knew exactly how to get away with no one else seeing her. She told Epping not to lock up, as she was going to walk in the garden before retiring, and she slipped out. Tony was waiting for her, as she had told him to be, by the statue of Diana, in the heart of the knot garden. Moonlight touched his hair with a glistening brightness, but his dark eyes were shadowed; she stood for a moment at the entrance of the garden, unsure of herself. He didn’t say a word, but she felt beckoned, invited, and despite her confusion over his double, even if it turned out that the man was him, she could not be angry with him in person.
But she was now virtually certain it was some coincidence, a chance look-alike, for she couldn’t imagine Darkefell, with his forthright nature, behaving in such a vile way as to retreat when she called his name. No, he would always come to her when she called. And if he asked, she would go to him. Somewhere inside she had known that all along, but an explanation still eluded her.
She walked toward him, licking her lips, nervous suddenly. They were entirely alone in her private garden. It had been weeks since she last saw him, but it may as well have been years, for she now felt differently. When she last saw him she had been confused and unhappy about her feelings, but now? If he asked her to marry him that moment, what would she say this time? She had thought carnal desire was her overmastering impulse in his presence, that she needed to sate her body with his, to devour him as her wanton imagination encouraged.
But there was more, so much more. She took in a deep and shaking breath, almost to him as he stood in the shadow of the statute. Almost there.
Ah, and now complete, she thought, as he folded her in his arms and kissed her deeply. She lost minutes, or perhaps hours. Dreamy bliss was hers as she surrendered to delight.
“I’ve missed you,” Darkefell murmured into her hair as he held her close, having kissed her as much as he could bear for the moment. He slid his hands down her back and pulled her closer, cradling her body to his, feeling the curvature of her hips and the flare to her voluptuous bottom, not enhanced this time by any of the silly additions female fashion seemed to require, bumrolls or bustles. Her bottom was quite elegantly perfect and his body responded to her warmth. Erotic dreams came flooding back to him, inappropriate and at the wrong moment.