Gemma Lancaster held her breath and stood perfectly still as if that would make her invisible. It wasn’t a good strategy. She knew this. But the only other option was gathering enough courage to pry one of her eyelids open to see who had come into the room.
It took her a few seconds, but when she did she regretted it immediately. Of all people, it had to be him.
“Bloody Hell,” Lucas Stone, Earl of Winchester, muttered into the quiet of the darkened library.
A similar, though slightly more lady-like, sentiment was about to slip from her own lips but it died at the sound of laughter right outside the door. More company. Brilliant. Exactly what she needed.
This time, though, Gemma kept her wits about her and dashed toward the heavy curtains that flanked a large window behind the desk. Her triumph was doused by alarm when she turned to find Lord Winchester a half-step behind her.
“Find your own spot!” she whispered, swatting ineffectively at his shoulders.
“Too late,” he said as he pulled the thick velvet curtain around them. Gemma sucked in air as every inch of her body pressed up against his, but she had to admit he was right when the door swung open mere seconds later. At least it wasn’t the owner of the room who had discovered her. She was not quite sure that an excuse of getting lost on her way to the ladies’ withdrawing room would have sufficed if it had been their host, Lord Howard, who had pulled back the curtain.
She closed her eyes and tried not to think about the strong, muscled legs now imprisoning her own as indecipherable whispers and groans filled the air around them. From the sounds coming from the other side of the curtain, an amorous couple had entered the library for an intimate interlude. Gemma hoped they would not be long, and she tried to shift her body so that less of her was against so much of him.
“If you wish to make this less embarrassing for both of us, you will want to stop squirming,” the earl murmured, his warm breath tickling her ear. She immediately froze as warmth rushed to her face.
Gemma cursed the fates that had landed her in her current predicament. Of course it was Lord Winchester who now pressed her back into the wall. Of course it was the devilishly handsome gentleman whom she had not been able to shake for the past two weeks, ever since they’d met at the Dorchester ball. Of course it was the one person of the ton who saw past the disguise of dowdy gowns, spectacles, and boring conversation she had cultivated so carefully. To the rest of the glittering butterflies that flitted through society, she was a mousey nobody. But with those piercing eyes, he seemed to see beyond the facade.
She was not sure what had captured his attention. She was not the type to attract suitors under the best of circumstances. Her unfashionable, unruly red hair alone was enough to deter any eligible gentleman. She had also long ago given up the hope that she was a late bloomer, and she was coming to—not terms with, perhaps, but maybe acceptance of—her boyish figure. She was well aware that she was never going to be the type of woman to turn heads when she walked into a ballroom.
No, she did not know why she had piqued the interest of one of the ton’s most eligible gentlemen, but she did know she was growing to resent the very sight of him. When he was watching her, it was difficult to sneak off without notice, which was a crucial element of her plan and instrumental to its success.
She had so carefully planned every detail. When the darkness of grief had threatened like an angry thundercloud, she had researched. When she’d become discouraged by the lack of clues, she’d made lists. When her rational side insisted she was mad for pursuing vengeance, whispering that it could only bring ruin, she’d mapped out the finances she would need to be successful. She had planned every detail. But she hadn’t planned on him.
None of that mattered now, though. What mattered was not being discovered in this compromising position, and finding out exactly why he had intruded upon her hiding space.
Why couldn’t he be like the other dandies who frequented the balls and society affairs? Why did he have to be a constant distraction from her plan? So much so that she now stood hidden, literally between a wall and a hard place. She now had firsthand knowledge that he did not need the padding the other young bucks used to build up their frame.
He was all muscle, a fact of which she was uncomfortably aware with his arms wrapped like steel bands around her. His black-as-night hair was overgrown, but she could tell it was not for fashion’s sake. A lock of it fell over into his sharp green eyes, and she itched to push it back behind his ear. It was not just his looks that drew her, though. It was something more than that. Something she had not quite been able to put her finger on since she’d first seen him that night of Lord Dorchester’s ball.
A grunt followed a loud thud, bringing Gemma back to her current predicament. She imagined that the unseen pair had knocked the heavy crystal decanter she’d seen earlier onto the thick Persian rug.
“Is that it?” An outraged female’s voice sounded in a sharp staccato against the sudden silence. “Really, Reginald, I could have had a better go at it with my coachman. I cannot believe I wasted my time with this. You are no better than a rutting schoolboy.”
“No.” There was a rustle of skirts then the muffled tread of footsteps. “We’re through here.”
Gemma listened for the man to leave, but he was still uttering oaths about his departed partner.
After what seemed like an eternity, but which was probably only a minute or two, the man collected himself enough to storm out of the library, a rush of noise from the ballroom tumbling into the room before growing dim again.
Gemma waited a beat in the renewed hush and then placed her hands on Lord Winchester and gave him her best shove. He didn’t budge, just squinted down at her fingers, which were now resting on his chest, then back at her. Heat radiated into her fingertips, and she struggled not to blush again, having done so more in the past ten minutes than in all her life previously. But since he did seem to be remaining cautious rather than deliberately torturing her, she picked a spot above his shoulder and stared at it as his scent drifted over her.
“I believe they are gone for good,” he said, finally stepping out from their hiding place. He glanced around, as though confirming his statement, before turning back to her. He clasped his hands behind his back and towered over her. He was trying to intimidate her, she was certain. Well, he clearly did not realize with whom he was dealing.
“Now,” he said, the epitome of an arrogant, demanding lord. “Explain yourself.”
What? She’d been here first. If anyone had any explaining to do, it was he. After all, he’d disrupted her search of the library.
“Excuse me?” uttered the little creature in front of Lucas. She was the picture of disgruntlement, her eyes blazing and cheeks flushed. She all but stomped her foot on the ground.
Lucas ignored the question, not quite sure what to make of the evening, only knowing that when he’d opened the door to the library and seen her there, part of him hadn’t been surprised. He’d known Gemma Lancaster had secrets.
A sudden thought struck him, however, and for a reason he could not quite name, it did not settle easily in his mind. “Should we be expecting other company?” he asked, watching her face in the semi-darkness. “Were you meeting someone here?”
A tiny gasp escaped her rosy lips. If possible, she looked even more outraged than she had a moment ago. Her reaction answered at least one question: she was not using the library as a quiet place for a lovers’ tryst.
He admitted to himself why it mattered when the memory of her small, soft body snug up against him made his tighten. He had fought the overwhelming urge to bury his face in her hair when her subtle scent had perfumed the air around them. It was nothing like those expensive fragrances many of the ladies chose to douse themselves in. She smelled of soap and fresh air. Looking down at her animated face now, he wanted to pull her to him and kiss the vexation from her pursed lips.
Lilting notes from the ballroom permeated through the heavy door, and he remembered why he was in a dark library with Gemma Lancaster.
Not the time for fantasies. No matter how tempting.
“Never mind.” He turned abruptly from her. She might be annoyed with his manners, or lack thereof, but she would be a trifle more than that if they were discovered together. And so would he. He would not endure the kind of forced marriage that had destroyed his parents. He went back to scanning Howard’s library. It was well used, not one of the more fashionable, decorative libraries favored by the dandies of the ton. Dark, leather-bound books filled every space on the mahogany shelves.
He pulled up an image of Lord Howard in his mind and tried to picture him as the blackmailer he sought. It didn’t fit. Howard was a stocky, balding man in his early fifties. He mostly concerned himself with his books and his hounds. Lucas couldn’t remember a conversation with the man that hadn’t revolved around the latest agricultural techniques. Still, appearances could be deceiving, he thought with an amused glance at Gemma. He switched his attention from the books to the paintings. There were three in the limited blank spaces on the walls.
Two strides brought him to the first, an innocuous landscape of Cornwall. He tipped the frame gently. Just a wall, nothing behind it. He repeated the move on the second one. Nothing. That left the hounds behind Howard’s desk.
He eyed the gold frame as he walked closer. Heavy, but not impossible. He gripped the edges and lifted it to the ground.
“Ah, lovely,” he whispered as he stared at the safe tucked into the wall. He was in luck; he knew the type. The designer was a good friend from Eton and a fellow gentleman in the service of his country. They had practiced many a night on just this type of safe.
“Are you a thief?” Miss Lancaster’s crisp voice broke his concentration. He’d forgotten she was there for a moment. He had always been able to focus in even the most distracting circumstances. He turned to look at her. Distracting, indeed.
He found it interesting that her tone had not been accusatory, merely curious. She did not even appear overanxious as she observed him. There were plenty of ladies of his acquaintance who would be clutching for their smelling salts after the events of the evening thus far.
“What would you do if I answered in the affirmative?” He was partly deflecting and partly curious. If she had known him well, he would be insulted at her question, but considering he was about to break into the library safe of a lord of the realm, he didn’t have much ground to stand on. However, she was unmarried and skulking about in a darkened room with a gentleman. She didn’t have the higher ground, either.
“Well…” She bit her lip. Squaring her shoulders, she said, “Could you look for an item for me? I don’t want to steal it…I just need to know.”
“Ah,” he said, a few missing pieces clicking into place. Maybe that’s why she was always slipping out of ballrooms and musicales. He had noticed but had not wanted to dwell on the reason for it. “You are expecting to find a particular item, then?”
“Perhaps. It’s a pocket watch. Gold, inscribed. Are you able to get into the safe?” She slipped closer to him, peering over his shoulder at the formidable door.
He threw her a curt nod. “How were you planning on perusing the contents if I had not come along and been so obliging?”
“I have my ways.”
No, she was not near fainting. He wanted to pursue the line of inquiry, but first he had to get them out of here as quickly as possible. He turned his attention back to the lovely puzzle in front of him and stroked the door with one hand as he removed the tools from his coat pockets with the other.
“A thief who comes prepared,” Gemma commented.
“Of course. You never know when you’ll need to come to a lady’s aid and break into a safe,” he said without looking at her. “Ah, that’s it,” he murmured as he slipped his tools into the lock. He continued his soft coaxing until he felt a pull of satisfaction as the final tumbler gave way, and the safe relinquished her secrets.
“Well, it clearly is not your first time. Impressive, my lord,” she said as he popped open the door.
“I’ve heard that before,” he said, amused at her quiet intake of breath.
But that humor was quickly doused by disappointment: save for a few baubles and a stack of pound notes, the safe was empty. Not unexpected, but frustrating nonetheless.
“Oh.” Her face fell for a brief moment when he turned with outstretched hands to show her what he’d discovered. Lucas braced himself for tears, but she simply nodded once and composed herself. Curiosity, tinged with a bit of admiration he couldn’t deny, tugged at him.
He would get answers from her before the night was out, but for now it was time to remove them both from the library. He replaced the items and the painting in their rightful places. After a cursory search of the desk, he felt satisfied that he could mark Howard off his list. He took Gemma’s arm, ignoring her dissent, and guided her to the door that would lead her back to the ballroom.
Speaking over her protests, he said, “Here is what we will do. You’ll make your way back to the ballroom, and after a few moments issue your excuses. You came with your aunt, yes?” He didn’t need it confirmed. He’d noticed them when they had made their appearance, the vivacious Rosalind, Lady Andrews, and her dowdy niece of a cousin twice removed. He was never quite able to lock down the exact connection when he asked, but he always noted when they arrived. “You have a headache, so you’ll take her carriage home and send it back for her.”
He didn’t wait for her answer, just nudged her out the door, closed it in her face, and then walked to the exit that would take him outside to the terrace. He would skirt the house and be waiting in Lady Andrews’s carriage, with the coachman none the wiser. He was rusty when it came to this stealth game, but some skills he would never lose.
“Rude, insufferable man,” Gemma muttered at the door in her face. She glared as though she could see the earl in all of his arrogance standing just beyond the wood.
She could not blame him entirely for her foul mood, but it felt better to focus on the anger instead of the disappointment. This whole night had been one unpredictable mess after another. At least she could cross one more off her dwindling list of suspects. She had not had much hope, anyway, but no lead was too obscure to rule out at this point. Because they were all obscure.
As she made her way toward the noise of people and music, she thought of all that Rosalind had told her about Lord Winchester. Standoffish. Rarely in town for the Season. Intelligent. Arrogant. She scoffed. She could tell all of that within a minute of meeting the man, and nothing in their conversations since had changed her mind. Rich as Midas came to mind. Which made her pause and reevaluate her lord-thief assumption. But many in the town were not what they appeared, she had come to realize. In her snooping, she’d found many a seemingly well-to-do family on the edge of financial ruin. He’d put the jewels back, though, without much of a glance. She did not think she’d been the reason for him not taking them—he was the type to do what he wanted, regardless of her opinion.
She reached the edges of the crowd and scanned the gathering. It was a crush, and she imagined Lady Howard was preening over the turnout. Her aunt, though, was no fading wallflower, and Gemma spotted her bright chartreuse gown and followed the unladylike—but completely delightful and infectious—laugh. Rosalind was not the type to mask her enjoyment with ennui, as was so fashionable. And thus, she was always the life of the party.
Gemma made what she hoped was a delicate gesture to get Rosalind’s attention, though she probably failed miserably. Uncle Artie had taught her many things, but the artful ways of society had not been one of them.
She stood off to the side while Rosalind disengaged herself from her many male admirers.
“Did you find anything, dear?” Rosalind asked without any preamble.
“No,” Gemma told her, glancing around to make sure they were not overheard. She lowered her voice to a whisper and said, “But the night has taken a startling turn.”
Rosalind took Gemma’s hand, immediately worried. “Are you all right?” she asked. “Did something happen in your search?”
“Yes,” Gemma said, knowing she did not have time to explain and that it would kill her aunt not to know. It would be a minor miracle if she could persuade Rosalind not to trail her out to the street. “I will tell you everything as soon as possible, but for now I must take the carriage to the house. I will send it back for you. All is well, I just need to leave with some urgency.”
Rosalind gave her a hard look, and Gemma wondered if she should have told the headache lie.
“Someone might notice…and talk,” Rosalind warned. Her aunt was constantly torn between shielding Gemma’s reputation and helping with her investigation. It could have been worse. She could have been stuck with a stickler for all of society’s absurd, restrictive rules for ladies.
“I doubt anyone will even realize I’m not here,” Gemma said. In fact, that was part of their scheme: to make sure as few people as possible paid attention to her. It was why she dressed in unflattering, colorless gowns, wore fake spectacles, and tried not to say more than one or two words to anyone attempting conversation with her. No one ever paid her a bit of mind.
Except Lord Winchester.
“Just be careful, dear heart.” Rosalind squeezed her hand once before turning back to her crowd of admirers. “I am positively parched,” her aunt told them, and they all but fell over themselves to secure the honor of procuring her a refreshment.
“Thank you,” Gemma whispered to her aunt’s back, and she faded into the crowd. No one gave her a second glance.
She breathed a sigh of relief when Rosalind’s carriage pulled up to the steps.
Would Lord Winchester be inside?
Unexpected nerves fluttered along her insides, and she stumbled as she reached the driver. Did she really want to keep tempting fate by being alone in dark places with him? Not only was her reputation at stake, but his ability to see past her disguise simultaneously intrigued and frightened her. It also put her mission in jeopardy, and she refused to fail Nigel in this. Accepting John’s proffered hand, she climbed into the monstrosity Rosalind insisted on taking about town. The thing was more suited for old country roads, but Rosalind would have her way.
The shadows didn’t shift until the door closed behind her. She didn’t care to admit it, but she almost let out a small shriek as Lucas’s sharply contoured face emerged in the moonlight. He reached across and tugged the curtains shut, blocking out prying eyes.
“My lord, you are quite skilled in clandestine affairs. I didn’t even notice you in the dark there, and I knew to look for you,” she said, her hand still covering her racing heart. Lucas lounged in the corner of the seat, one leg propped on the opposite bench, much too close to her skirts. His sleek dark hair and green eyes gave him the appearance of a panther holding deceptively still during a hunt.
Does that make me his prey?
“That is the point, my dear,” he said, his voice low enough that she had to lean forward to hear him. She remembered the coachman not too far away from them. The driver was discreet, as was fitting for how well Rosalind paid him, but even the most careful person could slip at times. She had to remember to keep her wits about her.
“Now,” Lucas said, “I believe you are about to tell me just exactly what you were doing in Lord Howard’s library tonight.”
She narrowed her eyes. She’d followed his plan out of curiosity, and out of the hope that perhaps he would be a help to her. But she’d had about all she could take of his autocratic demands. She smiled at him sweetly.
“Why…hunting a murderer, sir. What was it that you were doing?”