One year and two months later…
The mysterious widow had vanished again.
Anthony Stalbridge prowled slowly along the shadowy hallway, watching for a crack of telltale light beneath a door. All of the rooms appeared to be unoccupied, but he knew she had to be somewhere in the vicinity. A few minutes ago he had caught a glimpse of her disappearing up the dark flight of servants’ stairs.
He had given her a little time before following her up the cramped staircase. When he emerged on the bedroom floor, however, Mrs. Bryce was nowhere in sight.
The muffled strains of a waltz and the dull roar of champagne-inspired conversation emanated from the ballroom. The ground floor of the Hastings mansion was ablaze with lights and crowded with elegantly attired guests, but up here there was only the dim glow of an occasional wall sconce and an ominous silence.
The house was a large one, but the only occupants were Elwin Hastings; his very new, very rich, very young bride; and the staff. The servants slept below stairs. That meant that most of the bedrooms on this floor would be empty.
Vacant bedrooms at a large party sometimes proved tempting to guests in search of a location suitable for an illicit tryst. Had Mrs. Bryce come up here to meet a man? For some obscure reason he did not care to contemplate that possibility too closely. Not that he had any claim on her. They had shared a few dances and some cautious, excruciatingly polite conversation at various social affairs this past week. That was the extent of their formal association. But his intuition—not to mention every masculine instinct he possessed—had warned him that in reality they were engaged in a reckless fencing match. It was a match he had no intention of losing.
Since their first meeting, Louisa Bryce had done her best to discourage his attentions, verbally at least. That was not entirely unexpected, of course, given the old scandal linked to his name. What intrigued him was that she seemed to go out of her way to put off every other man in the room at every party she attended.
He was a man of the world. He knew that there were some women who were not attracted to men in a sexual manner, but, on the few occasions when he had coaxed Louisa out onto the dance floor and into his arms, he had been convinced that she was as sensually aware of him as he was of her. The waltz was an excellent test for that sort of thing. Then, again, perhaps he was deluding himself for the oldest reason in the world: He wanted her.
She could not know that her scholarly gold-rimmed spectacles, unfashionable gowns, and earnest, painfully dull conversation only served to fascinate him. The studious, boring veneer was so manifestly fraudulent. He had to admit, however, that it appeared to be quite effective on the rest of Society. Her name was not connected to that of any gentleman. He had made a point of confirming that fact, discreetly, of course. As far as he could tell, Louisa was not involved in an intimate liaison with a man.
The lady was most certainly a mystery, and one of the most mysterious things about her was her stealthy curiosity concerning their host tonight, Elwin Hastings, and the gentlemen involved in Hastings’s new investment consortium.
A door opened at the far end of the hall. He moved into the deep shadow of a small alcove and awaited developments.
Louisa emerged from the room. He could not see her features clearly in the gloom, but he recognized the uninspired maroon gown with its unfashionably small bustle. He also knew the proud tilt of her chin and the graceful set of her shoulders.
In spite of the decidedly indiscreet situation, or perhaps because of it, a hot thrill of desire tightened his lower body. He watched her coming toward him out of the shadows and remembered how she had felt in his arms when he had danced with her a short time ago. She had done her best, as usual, to appear prim and boring, but no amount of stilted conversation could disguise the wary intelligence and intriguing challenge in those amber eyes. Nor could any amount of dull chatter detract from the feel of her elegant spine beneath his palm. He wondered if she realized that the harder she tried to discourage him, the more he felt compelled to discover her secrets.
She hurried along the hall, oblivious of his presence, going back toward the servants’ stairs. The light from a wall sconce gleamed briefly on the rims of her spectacles. He was debating whether or not to step out into her path and confront her or continue to follow her when a rough voice rumbled from the top of the servants’ stairs.
“Who goes there?” a man asked sharply.
It was a demand, not a question, and it was not delivered in the polite, deferential tone of a servant.
Quinby. One of the two guards who accompanied Hastings everywhere lately.
Anthony reached out an arm, seized Louisa as she went past him, and dragged her to a halt.
She turned toward him, mouth opened on a small shriek of startled surprise. Her eyes were very wide. He clamped his free palm over her lips.
“Hush,” he said into her ear. “Trust me.”
He pulled her tightly to him and kissed her hard enough to enforce silence.
She resisted tensely for a couple of seconds. He deliberately deepened the kiss, demanding a response. Abruptly, she stopped fighting him. In that searing moment of intimate contact something as highly charged and as electrifying as a lightning bolt flashed between them. He knew she was aware of the sensation. He could feel her sudden, shocked reaction. It had nothing to do with the approach of the guard.
Quinby’s heavy footsteps sounded in the hall. Anthony swore silently. He wanted nothing more than to continue kissing Louisa. He longed to drag her into the nearest bedroom, put her down on a bed, strip away the spectacles and the plain gown…
“What are you two doing up here?” Quinby demanded.
Anthony raised his head. He did not have to pretend a show of reluctance and irritation. Louisa stepped back, frowning as though she, too, was vexed by the interruption. He noticed that behind the lenses of her spectacles her eyes seemed a little unfocused and that she was breathing quickly.
“It seems we have company, my dear,” he said evenly.
Quinby was almost upon them. Big and broad-shouldered, he was dressed in a dark overcoat. One of the pockets of the coat sagged with the weight of the object inside. A large, expensive-looking gold-and-onyx ring flashed on one hand.
Louisa rounded on the guard. Anthony sensed that she was unnerved, but she covered her reaction quite admirably by opening her fan with an irritated snap.
“I do not believe we have been introduced,” she said in a voice that could have frozen a furnace. Although she was a good deal shorter, she somehow managed to look down her nose at Quinby. “Who are you to accost us?”
“No offense, ma’am,” Quinby said, his hard eyes on Anthony, “but no guests are allowed on this floor. I’ll see you both back downstairs.”
“We do not require an escort,” Anthony said coolly. “We know the way.”
“Indeed,” Louisa said. “We most certainly do.”
She collected a handful of her skirts and made to sweep past Quinby. He reached out and caught her elbow.
She gasped, as though shocked to the core. “How dare you?”
“Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am, but before you go, I’m obliged to ask what you were about up here,” he said.
She glowered through the lenses of her spectacles. “Take your hand off me immediately, or I shall see to it that Mr. Hastings is informed about this incident.”
“He’ll be informed about it in any event.” Quinby was clearly unruffled by the threat. “It’s my job to tell him when this kind of thing happens.”
“What kind of thing, for heaven’s sake?” she shot back. “Whatever are you implying?”
Anthony looked at Quinby. “Remove your hand from the lady’s arm.”
Quinby’s eyes narrowed. He did not like taking orders, Anthony thought.
“At once,” Anthony added very softly.
Quinby released Louisa.
“I’ll be needing an answer to my question,” he growled, his attention still fixed on Anthony. “Why did you come up here?”
The question was clearly aimed at him, Anthony realized. Quinby was no longer concerned about Louisa.
Anthony captured Louisa’s elbow in a proprietary manner, a lover’s manner. “I should have thought the answer is obvious. The lady and I came up here to find some privacy.”
He could tell that Louisa was not thrilled with the implications of that explanation, but she clearly knew that she had no alternative other than to follow his lead. To her credit, she did not miss a beat.
“Evidently we shall have to go elsewhere, sir,” she said.
“So it appears,” Anthony agreed.
He tightened his grip on her elbow, turned her around, and started toward the main staircase.
“Now, see here,” Quinby said behind them. “I don’t know what you two are about, but—”
“Precisely,” Anthony said over his shoulder. “You have no idea at all what my very good friend and I are doing up here, and that is the way it will remain.”
“I was hired to keep an eye on things around the mansion,” Quinby announced, pursuing them down the hall.
“I understand,” Anthony said. “However, the lady and I were unaware that the upper floors of the house were forbidden territory. We certainly saw no signs to that effect.”
“Of course there aren’t any signs,” Quinby growled. “Folks like Mr. Hastings don’t go around posting signs in fancy houses like this one.”
“Then you can hardly blame us for wandering up here when we concluded that we desired to get away from the crowd downstairs,” Anthony said pleasantly.
“Hold on,” Quinby said.
Anthony ignored him. “I believe my carriage will provide the seclusion that we are looking for,” he said to Louisa in a voice that was loud enough to carry back to Quinby.
She slid him an uncertain look, but mercifully she kept her mouth shut.
They started down the staircase. Quinby stopped at the top. Anthony could feel the guard’s eyes boring into his back.
“We’ll have to leave now,” he said very quietly to Louisa. “If we don’t, he will be even more suspicious.”
“I came here with Lady Ashton,” Louisa said uneasily. Her voice was equally low. “I cannot simply disappear; she’ll be frantic.”
“I’m sure one of the footmen will be happy to convey a message to her informing her that you left with me.”
She stiffened. “I cannot do that, sir.”
“I don’t see why not. The night is young, and we have so much to talk about, do we not?”
“I do not know what you mean. I appreciate your timely intervention back there in the hall, but it was not at all necessary. I could have handled that man. Now I really must insist—”
“I’m afraid I am the one who must insist. You have aroused my curiosity, you see. I will not be able to rest tonight until I obtain some answers.”
She gave him another quick, suspicious look. He smiled, letting her see his resolve. Her expression tightened, but she did not argue further. She was too busy plotting her escape, he thought, timing it, no doubt, to coincide with their arrival back in the ballroom, where the presence of the crowd would discourage a scene.
“You will have to forget any notion you might have of abandoning me, Mrs. Bryce,” he said. “One way or another you will allow me to take you home this evening.”
“You cannot force me to get into your carriage.”
“I wouldn’t dream of using force. Not when calm reason will very likely work just as well.”
“What is the nature of this calm reason?”
“Why don’t we start with the observation that you and I appear to have a mutual interest in our host’s private affairs.”
He felt her take in a quick, startled breath. “I have no idea what you are talking about.”
“That was Hastings’s bedroom you emerged from a few minutes ago.”
“How do you know that?” she said. “You are guessing.”
“I rarely guess, Mrs. Bryce. Not when I have the facts before me. I know that was Hastings’s bedroom because I obtained a floor plan of the house yesterday.”
“Good heavens, sir.” Sudden comprehension and something that looked a lot like unmitigated relief brightened her face. “You are a professional burglar. I had began to suspect as much.”
A proper, well-bred lady would have been horrified, he reflected. Louisa did not seem the least bit put off by the notion of being escorted by a member of the criminal class. Instead, she was clearly intrigued. Delighted would not be too strong a word. He had been right: She was a most unusual female.
“You can hardly expect me to confirm your suspicions,” he said. “The next thing I know you’ll be summoning the police and having me arrested.”
To his astonishment, she laughed. The sound captivated him.
“Not at all, sir,” she assured him with an airy wave of her fan. “It is nothing to me if you make your living by stealing from the likes of Elwin Hastings. I must say, this news does explain a few things, however.”
It occurred to him that the conversation was veering off in a rather bizarre direction.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“I will admit that ever since I met you at the Hammond ball I have been quite curious about you, sir.”
“Should I be flattered or alarmed?”
She did not answer that question. Instead, she smiled, looking as satisfied and smug as a small cat curled in front of the fire.
“I thought from the first that there was something decidedly mysterious about you,” she said.
“What was your clue?”
“Why, you asked for an introduction and actually danced with me, of course.” She flicked her fan open and closed in a small gesture that implied she had proved her point.
“What is so odd about that?”
“Gentlemen never care to make my acquaintance, let alone take me out onto the floor. When you danced with me again at the Wellsworth reception I realized immediately that you were perpetrating some clandestine scheme.”
“I assumed, of course, that you were using me as a cover to conceal your interest in some other lady.” She paused delicately. “A married woman, perhaps.”
“You have obviously spent a great deal of time and energy thinking about me in the past few days.”
As much time as he had spent contemplating her, he thought. He found that satisfying.
“You were a puzzle,” she said simply. “Naturally I felt the need to find an answer. I must say, this is a most fortuitous turn of events.”
They arrived in the front hall before Anthony could come up with a response to that statement. A footman in old-fashioned blue-and-silver livery, a powdered wig on his head, stepped forward.
“Mrs. Bryce’s cloak, please,” Anthony said. “You may summon my carriage and then inform Lady Ashton that the lady has left with me.”
“Yes, sir.” The footman hurried away.
Louisa made no further protest. Anthony got the impression that she was as eager to be away now as he was. Apparently the idea of setting off into the night with a professional thief did not worry her overmuch. He was not sure how to take that.
The footman returned with a dull maroon cloak that matched the dull maroon gown. Anthony took it from him and arranged it around Louisa’s shoulders. The small act of gallantry would send a message that would not go unnoticed. If Hastings questioned him later, the footman could say in all honesty that Mrs. Bryce and Mr. Stalbridge appeared to be on very intimate terms.
The carriage appeared at the foot of the steps. Louisa allowed herself to be handed up inside. Anthony followed before she could change her mind.
He sat down across from her and closed the door. The dark confines of the cab enveloped them. In the intimate space he was intensely aware of Louisa’s delicate scent, a mix of some flowery cologne and woman. He was half-aroused, he realized. He had to force himself to concentrate on the business at hand.
“Now, then, Mrs. Bryce,” he said, “where were we?”
“I believe you were about to tell me something of the nature of your unusual profession.” She reached into her muff and withdrew a pencil and a notepad. “Would you mind turning up the lamps? I want to take notes.”