Authors: Candace Camp
“Of course.” Anne smiled. “I shan't say a word.”
Priscilla let Anne go on her way and turned her steps back to the house, still a little confused by Anne's behavior. Mrs. Smithson was back at work at the stove, but “John Wolfe” was sitting at the table again, waiting for her.
“Well?” he asked. “What did you find out?”
Priscilla shrugged. “Little enough. Other than what you are not. The vicar's wife mentioned no one who was expecting a visitor, nor any sighting of a stranger passing through town.”
“No. I meant with your friend just then. Lady Chalcomb. I thought you had gone after her to question her about the odd look she got when she saw my face up close.”
“Oh. That. Yes, I did. But that was no use, either. She said that for an instant you reminded her of someone. But it was much too long ago to have been you, and he was not an American.”
He tilted his head to one side, considering. “And do you believe her?”
Priscilla looked astonished. “Of course I do. Anne Chalcomb is a good woman, honest and kind. Why would she lie? If she had recognized you, I am sure she would have said who you were.”
“Not if she had something to do with my disappearance.”
Priscilla grimaced. “You can't be serious. Anne would never have anything to do with such a crime. I know herâshe is my friend. And you could not find a more decent human being.”
“Miss Pris is right about that,” Mrs. Smithson chimed in from the stove, not bothering to hide her eavesdropping. She turned around and spoke to them again,
waving her spoon for emphasis. “She hasn't a bad bone in her body. Only a saint would have put up with that husband of hers. Most women would have shoved him down the stairs when he was drunkâwhich was most of the time, so I've heard.”
Priscilla suppressed a smile. Mrs. Smithson was free with her opinions, and unfailingly blunt. It was one reason why she had come to work for the Hamiltons and stayed there so many years. She could have gotten more money from another, wealthier household, but she had never been able to hold her tongue and had been dismissed from every other house in which she worked. Only the amiable, freethinking Hamilton family was willing to put up with a servant such as she.
John did not bother to hide his smile. He grinned and leaned forward, propping his elbow on the table and his chin in his hand, clearly delighted with the cook's speech. “Sounds like a rounder to me,” he said encouragingly.
“That he was. The best thing that ever happened to her was him dying. It's just too bad that she never found another husband after he died.”
“Maybe Squire Chalcomb soured her on all men,” Priscilla suggested.
“It wouldn't surprise me.” Mrs. Smithson nodded her head. “I wouldn't think it's for lack of interest on men's part.”
“No. I think Mr. Rutherford is quite fond of Lady Chalcomb. I have always been a little surprised that she did not encourage him more.”
John yawned and rubbed a hand across his face tiredly, distracting Priscilla from her gossip. “I think it's time for you to get back in bed,” she told him. “You
are not nearly as strong as you would like everyone to believe.”
“Yes, ma'am,” he replied with mock meekness. He rose and started back to his room, then stopped and turned to Priscilla. “I was glad to see you return this afternoon.”
His words made Priscilla feel unaccountably warm. She had been planning to point out to him how wrong he had been about her being seized, but she found that she no longer wanted to.
“I looked all around as we walked to the vicar's,” she told him. “But I didn't see anyone. Don't you think they might have left the area?”
He shrugged. “It's possible. I hope not, though. I should like to find one of them when I'm back to myself again. Then we might get some answers.” His face tightened, and he clenched his fists unconsciously.
“I imagine we might,” Priscilla murmured. She would not want to have to face this man when he was feeling wellâand was bent on revenge.
He returned to his bed, and Priscilla went upstairs. She spent the rest of the evening, except for a brief break for supper, trying to write. She had gotten little work done today, what with caring for John Wolfe all night, and she wanted to get her book finished soon. They were always in need of the money she earned with her writing, even though it was scarcely a massive sum. It was her writing money that had put Philip at Eton and allowed Gid to pursue his dream of being an officer rather than spending his life as a clerk. Her father's small inheritance and occasional fees for lectures or scholarly articles were barely enough to maintain their house and two servants.
However, try as she might, the words would not come this evening. Her mind kept straying to their visitor and the puzzle he presented. It seemed far more intriguing than her novel, and just as fantastical. For once, instead of writing or dreaming about it, she was living an adventure, and Priscilla found that much more interesting.
Finally she gave up and went downstairs, where she found John Wolfe sleeping soundly in his room. Miss Pennybaker, darning socks in the kitchen, informed her that he had awakened once and eaten, then gone back to sleep. It was her opinion that he was healing rapidly, and the tone of her voice indicated that she felt this fact was an indication of a lack of gentility.
Priscilla suppressed a flicker of disappointment at not finding Mr. Wolfe up and able to bandy words with her. It was, she reminded herself, more important that he get well.
Miss Pennybaker put up her darning and walked up the stairs with Priscilla to her room. She warned Priscilla darkly that she would be better off locking her door, then went into her own bedroom and shut the door, driving home the bolt with a resounding click. Priscilla, smiling faintly, went into her own room and dressed for bed, but when she retired, she did not lock her door. Instead, she opened it partway, so that she might hear more clearly. She was not foolish enough to dismiss John's warnings about his captors breaking into the house to get him. Miss Pennybaker might think they needed protection from Mr. Wolfe, but Priscilla was more inclined to think that
was the one who needed protection.
She was not sure how long she had been asleep when she awakened with a start. She lay still, her heart
pounding, listening to the quiet night and wondering what had awakened her. She heard a creak, then the scrape of a chair leg upon the floor.
Priscilla sat bolt upright and flung aside her covers. She moved with instinctive silence to the fireplace and snatched up a poker, then glided out of the room. She paused at the top of the stairs, but she could see and hear nothing below. After a moment, she started cautiously down the stairs, gripping the handle of the poker tightly.
She was almost to the bottom when a movement to the right caught her eye. She stopped dead still and peered into the darkness below her. A large shape was gliding along the wall with a caution to equal hers. It walked in darkness and silence; she could make out nothing except the bulk and the stealthy movement. Her heart thudded in her chest, and for a moment she was frozen with fear.
There was a rattle from the direction of the kitchen, and the shape jumped forward. Its movement seemed to release Priscilla from her paralysis. She thought of John Wolfe and the fact that he lay asleep in a room off the kitchen, precisely where the ominous shadow was going.
Priscilla hurtled down the stairs and around the newel post into the dark hall. The shadow she had seen earlier whipped around at the sound of her approach, but before it could turn completely, she raised her poker and flung herself at him, bringing the poker down hard on the man's back.
HE AIR WENT OUT OF THE MAN
with an audible
and he crashed to the floor, but as he did so, he reached out and grabbed the end of her poker, yanking it from her grasp. Priscilla staggered and fell on top of him. They rolled across the floor, wrestling and struggling. Priscilla's hands grasped something that felt like a wool blanket; she could see almost nothing, for her face was pressed against the man as she struggled. She kicked out and was rewarded with a grunt when her foot connected with hard bone. The man's grasp slackened, and she was able to pull away a little, turning and scrabbling to get up.
But then his arms went around her from behind. His hand slid across her chest, and he went still. His hand returned and cupped her breast. Priscilla drew in a sharp gasp.
“Damnation!” The voice and accent were familiar.
Priscilla turned and found herself looking into the face of John Wolfe, only inches from hers.
“Yes, oh!” he retorted sarcastically. “What the devil are you doing here? And why, in God's name, did you try to break my back?”
“I didn't! I was trying to protect you.” Priscilla sat up, pulling away from him. “I heard a noise downstairs, so
I picked up the poker and came down. I thought those men had returned and were trying to get you.”
“They had and they were,” he replied in a disgruntled tone, and rolled to his feet, his hand going instinctively to his back, where the poker had landed a solid hit. “Damn! You have a swing like a longshoreman.”
“I was going to turn the tables on them. But after all this clatter, they are probably halfway to London by now.” He bent down and picked up the poker. “I think this is a more effective weapon than mine.” He gestured toward the kitchen knife stuck in his belt.
He moved quietly but swiftly through the hall to the kitchen door. Priscilla followed right on his heels. He shot her an exasperated glance but said nothing. Pushing open the door carefully, he peered inside. It was somewhat lighter here, for moonlight shimmered through the windows. He moved farther in, poker at the ready, eyes scanning the dark shadows lurking in the corners and beside the stove.
When he reached the table, Priscilla took the lamp that sat there and lit it, casting the room into its pale yellow glow and revealing its emptiness. There was no sign of a human being anywhere. The back door stood open. Wolfe sighed and went to close it. Just to be safe, he checked the small pantry and the side room, where his cot lay. Neither revealed a person hiding.
“Damn.” He turned and scowled at Priscilla. “Why the devil did you have to come down just then? I would have had them.”
“Or they would have had you,” Priscilla retorted tartly. “There are two of them, and obviously they managed to subdue you once before.”
His scowl deepened. “That was only because I wasn't expecting any danger. This time I was ready for it.”
“Yes, and still woozy from a fever and a blow on the head. I could hardly leave you down here alone to be abducted againâor worse.”
“Well, whacking me with a poker certainly helped me out.”
“I didn't know it was you,” Priscilla replied frostily. “I couldn't very well say, âExcuse me, are you a villain or our patient? I wouldn't want to hit the wrong fellow.' And all I could see in the dark was a big shape.”
She looked at him. He had wrapped himself in a blanket. Only his front was visible. He wore the shirt he had had on earlier, but he had left it unbuttoned to sleep in, and it hung open, exposing a wide expanse of muscled flesh. Mr. Wolfe, Priscilla thought, was all too comfortable in a state of near nakedness.
At that moment Priscilla recalled the fact that she herself was clad in nothing but her nightgown. She had not stopped to pull on a dressing gown before she hurried to Wolfe's rescue. Her nightgown was high-neck and long-sleeve, a simple, unadorned cotton gown with little allure. However, it was far thinner and more conforming to her shape than the usual petticoats and dresses she wore. He could, she was sure, see the swell of her breasts beneath the gown; there was even a possibility that he could see the darker circles of her nipples. Her nipples tightened at the thought, surprising her. Right on the heels of that thought came the realization that she was standing between him and the lamp on the table, which meant that the light would shine right through her nightgown, exposing the shape of her body to Mr. Wolfe's gaze.
Her cheeks flamed high with color, and she moved quickly to the side. She stole a glance at Wolfe to see whether he had noticed, and found his gaze focused on her breasts. She blushed even more furiously, yet, amazingly enough, there was a strange tingling warmth deep in her abdomen.
She turned away, desperately searching for something to divert their attention. “Uh, where did they come in? How did they enter the house?”
He straightened, tearing his eyes away from her. “I thought the noise came from that direction.” He pointed.
“Papa's study? Oh, no, I hope they didn't hurt any of his work! Papa would be so distressed.”
She picked up the lamp and started out of the kitchen. Wolfe caught up with her, grabbing her arm. “Wait! Do you always go charging off like this?”
“Actually, this sort of thing rarely happens to me.”
“Well, one of them might be there still. Let me go first.”
She stepped back with exaggerated obedience, waving him through the kitchen door ahead of her. He grimaced and walked past her into the hall and over to the door of her father's study. The door stood ajar, and he pushed it all the way open, revealing the darkened room, moonlight streaming through the windows. Priscilla, leaning around him, drew in a sharp gasp. One of the windows was pushed up, and it was clear that a pane of it had been broken.
“Oh, no,” she murmured, holding the lamp up to illuminate the room.
Wolfe took the lamp from her hand and moved into the study, shining the light around to reveal every nook
and cranny. Books lay everywhereâbeside the chair, on the desk, on a side table and in the seat of another chair. Some were neatly stacked, others lay open, and others seemed haphazardly strewn about. Papers filled every other available spot. A tray of tea dishes sat precariously atop a bookcase. A circular rack for pipes sat upon the desk, but it held only one pipe. Four others were scattered around the room, as well as a few ashtrays, boxes of matches, and a pouch or two of tobacco.
Priscilla looked around and heaved a sigh of relief. “At least they didn't disturb anything.”
John looked at her, quirking an eyebrow. “How can you tell?”
“It always looks like this. Papa says it is part of his creativity. I think it's laziness, myself. Mrs. Smithson and her daughter refuse to even come in here. Every so often, he will let me dust.”
She went to the window, noting a pile of books before it. “I think those were knocked to the floor when they climbed in the window. Papa's more of a stacker. He claims to have some sort of obscure order to the way he sets the books.”
She pulled the window shut and relatched it, then leaned closer to examine the broken pane. “Doesn't do much good to close it, I suppose, with this pane gone. I wonder how long it will take the glazier to come repair it.” She stood silently, gazing at the window.
“I can tack a board across it to hold it for now, if you'll find me the nails and hammer.”
“What?” Priscilla turned to look at him, as though surprised out of a reverie. “Oh, yes, of course. That will at least keep out the weather. It's rather frightening, isn't
it, when you see how easily the safety of one's home can be breached?”
“Yes.” He crossed the room to her and took her by the arms. “But you needn't be scared. I was watching out for them tonight, and I will continue to do so until I catch them. I won't let them harm you or your family.”
“You cannot stay awake all night long,” Priscilla pointed out reasonably.
“I will if I have to. I can sleep during the day. I don't think they would come then. I know you must think I'm incompetent, after the way they caught me off guard before, but I promise you, I don't usually make mistakes like that.”
“How can you be so sure?” she asked curiously. “You don't remember who you are.”
“I don't know how I know,” he admitted, “but I am certain of it. I won't let you come to harm.”
His words warmed her. She looked up into his eyes. The green was muted in the dim light, but the determination in them was clear. He was the sort of man one believed. She was reminded again of one of her heroes. In his eyes there was the light that she imagined in theirs, a look of steel and courage and moreâ¦an excitement at the thought of facing danger, a sparkle of humor and fun. Did such a man really exist outside the pages of a novel? She thought of her father, her brothers, even her friend Alec. No matter how much she loved them, she would never have thought of putting her absolute trust in them, of believing that they would keep her safe. Yet with this man, she could not help but believe that he would do as he said, that he would keep all harm from her and her family.
“Thank you,” she said simply. “I feel much better.”
His eyebrows rose lazily, and he smiled. “What? No witty ripostes? No questions? No reminders of my less-than-stellar past?”
“Am I really that much of a skeptic?” She smiled back at him. His smile did something funny to her insides, made her feel warm and fizzy and strangely giggly.
“No. Merely a trifle prickly.” He raised his hand and brushed his knuckles against her cheek. “Personally, I find I like my women with thorns. As with roses, it makes them all the more desirable.”
He gazed down into her eyes, and Priscilla could do nothing but stare back. She did not think she could have moved if their housebreakers suddenly reappeared in the window. His mouth softened. His hands, still on her arms, seared through her nightgown, igniting her skin. He lowered his head toward her, and Priscilla knew he was going to kiss her. She let out a breathy little sigh of pleasure.
Then his mouth was on hers, and it was as warm and firm as she remembered it. But this was not the hard, bruising kiss that he had given her in his delirium, the passionate claiming of a woman who belonged to him. This was softer and more tender, a seeking rather than a demand. She found it just as delightful.
She responded to him, her lips gently pressing into his. Her hands came up and curled into his shirt, holding on to him, for the world suddenly seemed to be unstable. His arms went around her, pressing her body into his, and his kiss deepened. She felt the hot tremor of his breath against her cheek, the tightening of his body, and his reactions sparked her own desire.
Finally he raised his head and looked down at her.
His face was flushed and his eyes were glittering. “This is madness.”
Priscilla nodded, not taking her eyes off him. Her whole body was thrumming with new sensations. It was crazy, she agreed; they hardly knew each other. Heavens, he didn't even know
They seemed to spend most of their time arguing. But none of that mattered at the moment. All that mattered was the way she felt.
He let out a low groan and bent to kiss her again. This time his mouth was more urgent on hers, moving her lips apart, and his tongue swept inside. It was startling, but arousing. Priscilla began to tremble; heat was building within her. She had never felt this way, indeed had known nothing even remotely resembling it. Her abdomen seemed to turn into hot wax; her legs were weak, her heart was racing. And she wanted more of it, wanted it to go on and onâ¦.
She wrapped her arms around his neck, stretching up on tiptoe as she pressed her lips eagerly into his. Her own tongue tentatively touched his, and she was rewarded by the deep moan that escaped him. With the artless seduction of innocence, she stoked his passion, her tongue teasing and stroking, twining with his and slipping into his mouth to explore. His arms were like steel around her, grinding her body into his. Since she wore nothing but her nightgown, she could feel every inch of his muscled body, every curve and dip, even the persistent, throbbing hardness moving against her abdomen.
His hand moved down her back and curved over her buttocks. She jerked a little, startled, and heat blossomed deep within her. She melted into him, amazed at how good it felt to have his hand on her, to be stroked and
caressed. Was this what marriage was like? Or was it only sin that was so delicious? She could not suppress a shaky little moan as his fingers dug into the fleshy mound of her buttocks.
He groaned at the sound, and his other hand went to her bottom, also, lifting her up and into him, pressing her hard against the throbbing proof of his desire. “Priscillaâ¦” Her name was a sigh as he released her lips and began to trail his mouth down the soft skin of her throat.
“Priscillaâ¦” For a moment, the hissing of her name blended in Priscilla's bemused mind with the low, soft moan that had just come from John Wolfe's throat. Then it came again, frantic and sharp and quite clearly in a woman's voice, “Priscilla! Where are you?”
Both of them stiffened at the sound, then broke apart guiltily and whirled around to face the door.
“Priscilla!” The name was repeated, and then an apparition appeared in the doorway. It was ghostly pale, with an enormous head, and Priscilla started before she realized who it was.
“Miss Pennybaker!” She squeaked out.
The governess's bony frame was swathed in a voluminous gray dressing gown over her nightgown, and her graying hair was caught up in an old-fashioned mobcap that ballooned out around her head like an enormous mushroom. In one shaky hand she held a candle, and in the other a black flatiron.
“Christ!” John snapped. “I've never seen such a household for weapons!”
“Priscilla! Are you all right?” Miss Pennybaker's gaze went to John and centered on the naked swath
of skin between his shirt's edges. “I heard a dreadful commotion down here.”