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Authors: Kay Hooper; Lisa Kleypas

Tags: #Romance, #Anthologies

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BOOK: Gifts of Love
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Lyonshall could have ruined her completely had he chosen, with only a few words spoken to the right people. Antonia knew he had remained silent. For his own sake, perhaps; the tale would not have ruined him, but it would have marred his excellent reputation as a gentleman. Oddly enough, it had never occurred to her then that he might do so. It occurred to her now only because of his implied threat to “end things” between them.

But surely he wouldn’t…

“You’re very quiet, my sweet.”

She looked up hastily from her plate, cheeks burning; he had not troubled to lower his voice, and everyone from Tuffet and the footman serving them to her mother and grandmother had heard the endearment.

Lady Sophia all but dropped her fork, but Lady Ware, undisturbed, met her granddaughter’s eyes with a faint, bland smile.

Grimly holding on to her composure, Antonia said, “I have nothing to say, Your Grace.”

He was seated on her grandmother’s right, with Antonia on his right, and her mother across the table. Antonia’s chair was near the duke’s, so near in fact that he was easily able to reach the hand lying over her napkin in her lap. Once again, his long fingers curled around hers in a familiar, secret touch.

“That, surely, is a rare event,” he said with a smile so private it was like a touch.

Antonia couldn’t reclaim her hand without an undignified—and obvious—struggle, so she was forced to remain still. But her cheeks burned even hotter when Tuffet came around to serve them. Naturally, the butler did not betray by so much as the flicker of an eyelid that he saw the clasped hands, but there was no doubt he did see.

“I have learned to rein my tongue,” Antonia said with a meaning of her own. “I no longer blurt every thought aloud.”

“But your thoughts are part of your charm,” Lyonshall said smoothly. “I always found your plain speaking quite refreshing on the whole. Pray say whatever you wish; no one here, surely, would censure you.”

Antonia gritted her teeth. Very slowly, she said, “If I were to say what I wished to say, Your Grace, I am very much afraid that both my mother and grandmother would find me sadly lacking in manners.”

“I am persuaded you are wrong.”

Antonia did not know what to think, and her earlier brief detachment had flown. How dared he do this to her! What did he mean by it? She could feel the warmth and weight of his hand even through her clothing, feel one of his fingers stroking her palm in a slow caress, and a tingling heat spread slowly outward from the very core of her body in a helpless response.

She wanted to be angry. She wanted that so desperately. But what she felt most was a longing too powerful to deny and almost beyond her ability to fight.

Lady Sophia, looking anxiously at her daughter’s flushed cheeks and glittering eyes, and unsettled by the oddly intimate conversation going on between Antonia and the duke, rushed hastily into speech. “I do trust, Your Grace, that this wretched weather won’t keep you tied by the heels here and cause you to miss very many of—of your usual pleasures! You were promised to Lady Ambersleigh’s cotillion in a fortnight, were you not?”

It was such a transparent hope that the duke’s unnerving presence would not be unnecessarily prolonged, it was actually rather comical. Antonia caught herself glancing at Lyonshall, and felt a spurt of reluctant amusement when she met the laughter shining in his eyes. His voice, however, was perfectly grave.

“I was, ma’am, but I sent my regrets.” His gaze flickered to Lady Ware’s impassive face. “Having been warned I was likely to find myself snowbound here.”

Her amusement vanishing, Antonia looked at her grandmother as well. “I was not warned,” she said.

“You did not ask, Antonia. Lyonshall, being a man of good sense, did ask.” Placing her napkin beside her plate, the countess regarded her noble guest with a questioning lift of her brows. “Shall we ladies withdraw and leave you to enjoy your port in lonely splendor?”

He inclined his head politely. “I would prefer to forgo that custom, ma’am, with your permission.”

If Antonia had cherished hopes that Lyonshall would release her when they rose from the table, those hopes were swiftly dashed. He tucked her hand in the crook of his arm and held it there as they returned to the drawing room.

He was, in short, behaving as though he and Antonia were still engaged! She did not understand what was in his mind…

“Play for us, Antonia,” her grandmother commanded with a nod toward the pianoforte. “I am sure Lyonshall would be delighted to turn the music for you.”

Antonia considered rebelling, but at least he would be forced to release her since both her hands would be required for the task. She seated herself on the bench, and was further disturbed by the swift pang of loss she felt when he let go of her hand. Automatically, she began playing the piece already set before her, realizing too late that it was a soft, gentle love song.

Lyonshall leaned against the pianoforte, ready to turn the pages. His voice was low. “I have missed your playing, Toni.”

She kept her eyes resolutely on the music, grateful only that her mother and grandmother could not overhear whatever shocking things he said while she was playing. “I am merely adequate, Your Grace, and you well know it,” she said repressively.

He turned the first page for her. “If you use my title one more time, my sweet, I shall take my revenge in a manner calculated to shock your mother very much.”

Antonia hit a wrong note, and felt her cheeks flaming yet again. Her practiced mask was in splinters, and her voice was much more natural—and, to her fury, helpless—when she said, “What are you trying to do to me, Richard?”

“Have you not guessed, love? I am doing my poor best to court you. Again. In fact, I have a special license, and fully intend to marry you before the new year.”

Two

I
t was truly remarkable, Antonia thought much later that evening as she paced her bedchamber, how the social manners drummed into one from childhood had the power to hide even the most intense emotions. The moment Lyonshall had stated his astonishing intentions, her mask had almost magically rebuilt itself, and she had actually been able to behave as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

She knew she had remained calm, that she had continued to play the pianoforte; she could even recall responding to several of his more casual remarks. But the wild emotions churning beneath her mask had enabled her to ignore—almost to the point of literally not hearing—the shockingly intimate things he had murmured to her under cover of the music.

Perhaps his intentions, if he had meant what he said about wishing to marry her, should have made his behavior more bearable, but for Antonia that was not so. The bitter hurt that had caused her to end their engagement was still strong in her despite the months that had passed, but even though her mind fiercely refused the very idea of marrying him, both the painful longing of her heart and the powerful desire he had rekindled whispered seductively.

It had been nearly two years. Perhaps
she
was no longer a part of his life now. Perhaps he had decided—this time—that he could be content with a wife, and feel no need for a mistress as well. Or perhaps Mrs. Dalton had grown too demanding for his taste, and he had not yet found a replacement for her. And perhaps Antonia could forgive, even forget, the terrible hurt…

Perhaps. Perhaps.
Perhaps.

Antonia flung herself into a comfortable chair by the fire, absently drawing her dressing gown tighter. The afternoon storm had continued into the night, adding its threatening chill to the cold stone walls and floors. Outside, the wind moaned fretfully, and sleet pelted the windows in a whispery cadence. The mournful sounds were a perfect accompaniment to her miserable mood. Her thoughts chased their own tails, and her feelings remained in a painful tangle.

Her mother, she knew, would never understand; that was why Antonia had never confided her reason for breaking the engagement. Her own father had kept a mistress; according to gossip, most gentlemen did. Their wives were expected to pretend that such creatures simply did not exist. But Antonia knew herself too well to believe she could be happy in such an arrangement.

Even worse, he had
lied
to her. Early in their engagement, with the frankness he had claimed to admire, she had told him that she believed both partners in a marriage should remain faithful. He had agreed with her, saying with equal bluntness that although he had enjoyed several agreeable connections in the past—he was, after all, thirty-three at that time—she was the only woman in his life, and he fully intended that that would remain true.

That he had been so clearly willing to begin their marriage with a lie had hurt even more than the thought of another woman. It had shattered her trust in him.

Even now, she didn’t know why she had not told him the truth. Perhaps because she could not bear the thought that he would lie again. And although he had said in the drawing room that he meant to know the truth about their breakup, she didn’t want to tell him. She was afraid he would have some ready answer, and that she would allow herself to believe it even if it was a lie.

It was nearly midnight, and though the room was reasonably comfortable with the fire blazing, she shivered a bit. She felt so alone. The thought had barely crossed her mind when she became aware of a slight stirring of the air, as if someone had passed near her, and all her senses came suddenly alive and tense. She turned her head slowly, and gasped aloud.

He stood by one of the windows looking out, frowning slightly as if the storm disturbed him. He was wearing a dressing gown, its colors muted. He was dark, with a hawklike profile, and for an instant Antonia thought it was Lyonshall. Indeed, she very nearly cried out a sharp demand to be told what he was doing in her bedchamber.

Her bewildered anger vanished quickly, however, to be replaced by a pang of chill fear when she realized that she could clearly see the tapestry hanging just beyond him—
through his body.

Unable to believe her own eyes, Antonia swallowed hard and managed to hold her voice steady enough to ask, “Who are you?”

He did not answer. In fact, he appeared to take no notice of her at all, as if—to him—she was not even in the room. Turning away from the window, he drew a watch from the pocket of his dressing gown and studied it, still frowning. Returning the watch to his pocket, he moved a few steps nearer to Antonia and seemed to pick up something as if from a table long since vanished. A book appeared in his hands, no more solid than he was, yet she could almost hear the whisper of pages as he leafed through them.

Antonia was still afraid, yet she was fascinated as well. She felt almost numb, her mind working with a strange clarity. Huddled in her chair, she stared at him, seeing that he did indeed resemble Lyonshall. His height and build were much the same, as was the dark hair and hawklike handsomeness. But this—man’s—hair was worn long, tied at the nape of his neck with a black ribbon, and she vaguely recognized the style as that of a century past. His face was thinner, his eyes deeper-set than the duke’s, and she thought he was—had been—a bit younger.

She was not dreaming; Antonia knew that. She could feel the heat of the fire and hear its crackling energy, hear the wail of the storm outside, and sense her own heart pounding rapidly. She forced herself to move, rising slowly from her chair. Again, he did not react to her presence.

“Who are you?” she repeated in a louder voice. She started when he moved suddenly, but it immediately became clear that he had no awareness of her presence. She had the eerie feeling that this was no longer her room, that it had become his. It even looked subtly different to her, as if she was the one caught between times and she could
almost
see the room as it had been in his time. Almost. But it was more of an emotional sense than an actual one, she thought; she was fixed in her own time, allowed only a kind of doorway to see into his.

For a fraction of a moment, a superstitious terror sent ice through Antonia’s veins. She could not draw him into the world of the living—but what if he could pull her into the world of the dead? The fear was brief, but strong enough to leave her feeling shaken. Her rational mind reasserted itself, and she reminded herself that he had taken no notice of her; obviously, he was no danger to her.

Nevertheless, she started a bit when he dropped the book—it vanished the instant it left his hands—and consulted his watch a second time. A smile curved his lips as the watch was returned to his pocket. Then he strode toward the door.

Antonia had no intention of following him, but she found herself doing just that, as though compelled. She felt almost like a puppet, pulled along as if she had no will of her own, and that sensation, added to the appearance of the man, made the impact of these unnatural events even stronger. Fascinated, numbly frightened, inexorably drawn, she followed him.

She had a bad moment when he passed through the closed door as if it had been open, but she forced herself to turn the handle, open it for her own passage, and step out into the hall. He had paused just outside the door, and for a moment she was unaware of anything but him. Then he went on. It was easy for Antonia to see the man in the hallway; sconces placed high on the wall between each door lined the entire corridor, and they were kept burning all night.

The man was met several feet away in the hallway by a slender, very young woman, dressed in a flowing dressing gown, with a lovely, delicate face and a crop of riotous red curls worn loosely. Her huge, glowing eyes lifted to his as they met, her lips parted, and she was in his arms as if it was the one place in all the world where she belonged.

Antonia felt a vague shock when she saw the young woman, but she was uncertain as to the cause. Surely, two ghosts were no more shocking than one? No, it was something else. A sense of familiarity, perhaps, though she had no idea why that should be so, for she could not remember ever seeing a likeness of this young woman and she did not know her identity. Before she could ponder the matter further, she realized that she was not alone in observing the lovers.

Lyonshall stood in the open doorway of his room, staring just as she did. She could see him hazily through the lovers. It was a strange and eerie sight, evoking a feeling of even greater unreality within Antonia, yet she was more affected by the passionate embrace than by the ghostliness of two people long dead and buried.

Their passion for one another was so powerful Antonia could literally feel it. They kissed with the aching pleasure of two people deeply in love, their faces transformed by tenderness and desire. Their lips moved in speech that only they heard, though it was obvious they spoke words of love and need. Her arms were tight around his neck, and his held her pressed to his body. She tilted her head back as he kissed her throat, her expression filled with such sensual delight that Antonia wanted to turn her eyes from so intimate a moment.

But she could not. Just as she had felt compelled to follow the man from her room, so now she was compelled to stand there and watch. She felt caught, trapped in a spell of sensuality that tugged at all her senses. Her heart beat faster, and she felt hot, her body feverish and tense. It seemed to go on forever, but it was actually no more than a few minutes later when the couple turned with one mind and moved toward the duke’s bedchamber.

Antonia felt rather dazed, but a shaken laugh escaped her when Lyonshall automatically stepped aside for them. They passed into his room. He looked after them for a moment, then reached for the handle and pulled the door closed. He strolled down the hall to Antonia.

With utter composure, he said, “I believe they would rather be alone.”

“How can you be so calm?” she asked, her gaze moving between him and the closed door down the hall. Her voice was shaking, and she felt appallingly unsteady. “I knew the castle was supposed to be haunted, but it was not something in which I believed. I—I was never more shocked in my life.”

He slid his hands into the pockets of his dressing gown and smiled faintly. “Lyonshall is not so old as Wingate, but it can claim a number of centuries. And a few ghosts. In the portrait gallery, it is quite usual to see a cloaked gentleman moving about on stormy nights such as this one. I have seen him myself. In fact, he tipped his hat to me with perfect courtesy one night.” He paused, then added, “I wonder why spirits choose to walk most often when the weather is uneasy. And why the hour of midnight seems to be their time.”

Antonia had no answer for him, and in any case he did not wait for one.

“Well, as it appears my room will be occupied for some time to come, and since it is somewhat drafty in this hallway, I suggest we wait in your room.”

Too startled to voice an instant refusal, Antonia found her arm taken in a firm grasp as she was guided back into her bedchamber. She pulled away from him, her voice even more shaky when she said, “We most certainly cannot wait here! I am astonished you would suggest anything so improper.”

“Don’t be missish, Toni; it hardly becomes you.” He strolled over to the fireplace and stood gazing at the flames. “I have left the door open, as you see. In any case, but for our ghostly friends we are quite alone in this wing, so you need fear no scandal. By the way—do you happen to know who the lady was?”

“No.”

“Undoubtedly an ancestor of yours; you are the living image of her.”

That startled Antonia so much that she forgot to be affronted by his presence in her room. “I?”

Lyonshall looked at her. “Didn’t you notice? The same red hair and blue eyes, of course, but there is a much stronger resemblance than mere coloring. You share the same delicacy of feature, the same large eyes and flying brows. She was less stubborn, I imagine; your jaw is sharper. And though the shape of your mouths is very alike, you have more humor than she could lay claim to, I believe.”

He smiled slightly, his gaze intent on her. “As for…other attributes, I would say that you are far superior to your ancestor. She seemed quite frail, almost sickly. You, however, possess a magnificent body, beautifully voluptuous without an ounce of excess flesh. A body made for the passion we both know you are capable of.”

Antonia felt an almost feverish heat stealing through her body once again, and silently cursed his seductive wiles. She had to regain control of this situation, before…before something irrevocable was said. Or done. “Please leave at once,” she said stiffly.

“And where am I to go?” He raised one brow.

“There must be thirty rooms in this wing!”

“None of which have been prepared for a guest. Cold fireplaces and unaired sheets? And the furniture likely in holland covers? To say nothing of the difficulty my valet would have locating me in the morning. Would you really be so cruel as to consign me to such discomfort only to satisfy the boring notions of propriety, Toni?”

She struggled to remain calm. “There is no reason for you not to return to your room. The—the ghosts probably vanished the moment they entered; I am sure you will find them gone if—”

“No. They were moving toward the bed as I shut the door.” His voice had deepened to a husky note.

Remembering the passionate kisses they had observed, Antonia flushed. The scene had profoundly unsettled her. She couldn’t seem to shake the queer sensual spell that had enveloped her as she had watched them, especially since Lyonshall seemed bent on reminding her.

She could not help but think of those two lovers blissfully together in the duke’s bed, or in a ghostly bed of their own century, she surmised, and that mental image brought others with it. A quiet stable, filled with the sweet scent of new hay. His mouth on hers, arousing emotions and sensations she had never known before. The burning, throbbing longing of her body for his. The incredible, shocking pleasure of lying in his arms and discovering her own passion…

BOOK: Gifts of Love
12.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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