Authors: Rebecca Kelley
When they settled Northcliffe on the massive dark wood four-poster in the incongruously lavender room, Dr. Lyndon turned to Zel. “Miss Fleetwood, you seem to have a level head and a strong stomach. Can you assist?”
“She’d be happy to.” Northcliffe’s smoky eyes met hers. “She can hold my hand, if nothing else.”
Zel did hold his hand and his shoulder when he stubbornly refused laudanum for the stitching, claiming he had no head for the stuff and Lady Selby would never forgive him if he slept through dinner.
As her usefulness ended, Zel felt uncomfortably aware she was in a man’s bedchamber and the man’s state of undress was decidedly advanced. She tried to reassure herself there could be nothing wrong with Dr. Lyndon beside her, but her eyes kept returning to Northcliffe’s torso. Never had she seen so much bare skin on a man other than her father or brother, and neither of them looked much like Northcliffe. She found she had a peculiar fascination for the curly black hair powdering his firmly muscled chest. Following the dark line down over his flat stomach, she stopped suddenly at the waistband of his riding breeches. The room became too close. Too warm.
“Everything seems under control.” She felt pleased that her voice sounded calm although she knew her color rose higher. “I need to leave to dress for dinner.”
“I’ll see you there.” Northcliffe gave her his disarming grin. “Thank you, Nurse Fleetwood.”
“You should rest.” Zel inwardly chided herself for even glancing at the small male nipples hiding under the dusting of hair. After all, the man had just been stitched and bandaged.
“I’ll be down for dinner.” He caught her eyes, and she knew he was pleased to be the object of her wayward attentions. “You can lend me your shoulder and hold me up during dinner.”
With one last scolding look she darted out the door, nearly colliding with Lady Selby’s ample purple mass in the hallway.
“Zelda! That’s Northcliffe’s room. Why is Lyndon in there?” Lady Selby’s eye for scandal was as sharp as a hawk’s eye for a field mouse supper. “Why were you in there?”
Zel took the puffy old hand in hers, hoping to slow the woman down. “No need to worry, Northcliffe is fine. A wound reopened and needed to be stitched. I assisted the physician.”
“You assisted Lyndon?” Her jowls and voice quavered. “Are you sure Northcliffe is not badly injured?”
“Several days ago he was set on by footpads and not properly attended to afterward. He swears he is well enough to come down for dinner.”
“Oh dear, I am so pleased he is well. I would not want anyone taking ill at my home.” She clasped Zel’s arm and whispered conspiratorily. “Zelda, you shouldn’t be in his room.”
“I was assisting the doctor,” Zel repeated firmly.
“Zelda, this isn’t really the time—” Lady Selby hesitated, “but Northcliffe is not the type of man for you. Your aunt will never forgive me.… His reputation is dreadful. He is not accepted in the best circles.” Her voice lowered further. “He could not be truly interested in you, not in a respectable way. He usually consorts with married women. If
you don’t watch out, you could end up broken-hearted and ruined.” When Zel tried to break away she held on tighter. “It is said he has vowed not to marry. And when he inherited his title less than a year ago, there were stories about his family and how he got the title.” Lady Selby looked about, whispering, “Mysterious deaths, sudden illnesses, carriage accidents.”
“I know nothing of stories, nor do I put faith in gossip and rumor.” She looked at the door she had just exited. “If he is such a scapegrace, why did you invite him?”
Lady Selby pulled Zel farther down the hallway. “His dear grandmother is my friend, and I would never snub her kin. He is also a close friend of the duke of Ridgemont.”
Zel jerked her arm free and faced the woman. “And you wish to curry favor with the illustrious duke.”
“My dear, you know I have granddaughters entering the marriage mart, and any connection with His Grace—”
“You tolerate Northcliffe to cultivate Ridgemont.”
“My dear, you are such an innocent for one of your years. Northcliffe is exciting but dangerous. You must avoid him. He is not suitable company for naive, unmarried females.”
“As a mature woman of six and twenty, I know my own mind. If I choose to be a friend to Northcliffe, I do so on my own assessment of his character.” Zel lifted her chin. “And if I choose to have a mild flirtation with the man, it will not go beyond what I can control.”
“What’th the man doing?” Melbourne’s whining drawl moved higher in query. “Dangling after Mith Fleetwood, and what’th thith about a knife wound?” He crossed his orange satin-covered legs, settling in the plush chair.
Wilmington John Wilborn Hawthorne, earl of Newton, allowed a slight smile to touch his lips. “Lady Selby claims he was attacked by footpads several days back. As for Miss Fleetwood, I would never have given her a second glance.”
He bent his thin form before the library window, but he barely saw the terraced garden below. “Northcliffe has singled her out, and as his taste rarely errs, I believe a second glance may be warranted.”
“Newton, you are becoming positively shortsighted. The woman is a dowd, and as tall as a man.” Isadora’s normally smooth tones carried an unaccustomed edge. “Wolfgang must be bored to be playing with her. This country life’s too tame for his blood.” She ran her tiny fingers along a row of books, the movement too rapid to be seeking reading material.
“If he’th bored, why ithn’t he theeking your company, Lady Horeton?” Melbourne twittered.
“He will be.” She pulled at the top of her gown revealing more of her full white bosom. “We’ll be back on old terms.”
“Such a dreamer.” Newton stared at her and barked out a hard-edged laugh. “Perhaps our Miss Fleetwood is a libertine. She is known to be outspoken on the rights of women, and some of that mind do not have conventional views on morality.”
“A libertine?” Melbourne’s vacant smile matched his drawl. “I don’t think tho.”
“We will attempt to solve this puzzle or scatter its pieces.” Newton ran his nails down the pane of glass. “A sure remedy for the ennui of a country retreat.”
“I’ll distract Northcliffe.” Isadora grimaced, watching his hand at the window. “And allow you to pursue Miss Fleetwood.”
Newton smiled, tracing the line of his mustache. “I was certain you would volunteer your services.” He glanced toward the open door of the library. “Here is your victim now.”
Isadora dashed to the door just as Northcliffe entered and grasped his arm, her voice dripping honey. “Wolf, dear, you are avoiding me. Dinner has been delayed to accommodate
your little injury. We’ll take a turn about the garden. You can tell me all about it.”
After consuming his postdinner port, Wolfgang led the other men to the drawing room. He could hear Isadora’s irritatingly high voice ring out before he entered the room.
“I shall scream, if I have to hear one time more about what a Trojan Miss Fleetwood was. It is not at all ladylike to be around blood without fainting.” Isadora turned to the door, her smile sweet and welcoming. “Ah, gentlemen, we were just praising Miss Fleetwood for her bravery.”
Wolfgang edged toward Zel but was hindered by Isadora’s hand on his sleeve. She pouted. “Come sit with me.”
Determined not to make a scene, at least not immediately, he reluctantly sat beside her. But he looked to Zel, frowning when Melbourne and Newton flanked her as they had at dinner. Their interest must be piqued by his own. They had not observed her closely enough to see her true value. True value? He nearly snorted out loud. What by the rosy fires of hell did he mean by that? Whatever her value, it was greater than that of this waspish piece of flotsam sharing the sofa with him.
What had he seen in Isadora? He scanned the woman beside him. Her figure held no appeal. The overabundant curves seemed vulgar next to Zel’s slender suppleness. He watched Zel juggle the attentions of Newton and Melbourne. Satan’s small clothes! Zel Fleetwood’s value, with all that passion buried in her long, sleek body, would be discovered soon enough, when she shared that body with him. Wolfgang smiled at the immediate response of his own body. He was ready, but how would she respond? Would it be with abandonment? Or would she shyly smile at him, a soft blush suffusing her skin from head to toe?
Isadora tapped his arm, effectively terminating his little
fantasy. Their affair ended months ago but she was unwilling to release him, even following him to this house party. Her pride couldn’t allow her to face his continuing rejection much longer.
He moved his legs farther from Isadora, catching Zel’s eyes just as Melbourne commandeered her as his partner at whist. Her lips curved in a silent plea for rescue. He would be happy to come to her aid, freeing himself and her of unwanted companions, but not yet. A little more of Melbourne’s company, and she would be begging for relief.
Wolfgang followed the progress of the whist game as he pretended to listen to Isadora’s conversation. He watched Newton hovering over the card game, a patient scavenger. Chuckling, he glanced around at Melbourne, Isadora, and Newton. A mismatched trio of bloody jackals, waiting to pounce. But who was their intended victim? Zel? Or, having noticed his interest in her, could they be using it to get to him? If so, he had difficulty being frightened.
But maybe he should be frightened. Maybe they were involved in the attack on him several days before. The attack he claimed was a simple footpad strike, although he felt nearly certain it was more, certain enough to hire an investigator. He looked again at the trio. Newton and Isadora might be capable of anything. But Melbourne? A most unlikely villain.
Excusing himself from Isadora’s company without prelude, Wolfgang approached the card table. Zel threw herself into the game, winning most hands despite Melbourne’s poor showing. He stood beside Melbourne, addressing the table at large. “I believe Miss Fleetwood is deserving of a partner such as I might provide.”
Melbourne surprised him with a blush. “Thaying I’m not an adequate player?”
“I’ll wager five hundred quid that with me as partner we’ll take every hand.”
“You’re on.” Melbourne, predictably, was intrigued enough to dispense with a little of his pride.
Wolfgang played a bolder, faster game, and Zel seemed to unconsciously follow suit. Her color rose in tandem with the stakes, and the gold in her eyes shimmered. They couldn’t lose.
Winning hand followed winning hand until she suddenly froze, face pale, eyes lowered. Zel dropped the cards and stood, almost toppling her chair, dashing from the room without a word.
Promising to settle later, Wolfgang bolted after her. She was still in the hallway when he caught her arm, compelling her to a tiny salon.
He pulled her onto a divan in the dimly lit room. Her eyes were bright with unshed tears. Taking her fine-boned hand in his, he curled his free arm lightly over her shoulders.
“What is it?” His grip tightened around her trembling fingers. “What’s wrong?”
“I am sorry.” Her husky voice broke. “I … I am acting foolishly.”
“Something has obviously overset you. Something about the card game?” He searched her face for an answer.
“It’s the damned gambling.… I never should have done it.… My family has been decimated by it.” She went on hoarsely. “We even had a special entail granted so the main estate cannot be gambled away.… But I was gambling, I was loving it.… God, it frightens me. I will not be like my father or brother.” The tears finally streamed out. “My brother is on his way to debtor’s prison … if I do not find a wealthy, old husband.”
Wolfgang’s other arm circled her, pulling her close. She clung to him, sobbing. He patted her hair, attempting to comfort her. Zel pushed in closer, her arms moving up over his shoulders and neck, her soft, full breasts sinking into his chest. He forgot his restrained efforts to soothe, and the embrace turned instantly sensual. Stroking her back, he molded
her to him. He pushed aside her hair, seeking her face, her lips.
Her hand accidently rubbed against his bandaged wound. Wolfgang flinched at the stab of pain. He felt her stiffen and wrenched himself away, surprised by the degree of his arousal. His timing was deplorable. Not very sporting to seduce a woman in tears. And not very safe to seduce a fortune hunter, even if she did voice a preference for wealthy,
“I’m sorry.” He took her hand again. She was shaken but recovering quickly. He spoke casually, “I don’t see you as being done up by gambling. Take a moment to contain yourself, then we’ll return to the drawing room.”
The wolf stalked in ever narrowing concentric circles. His glossy coat illuminated by the moon. His brilliant silver eyes locked onto hers. Paws reached for her, only they were not paws but hands, long, elegantly tapered hands, gentle and strong, stroking and teasing.
Zel woke, shivering, to rays of moonlight pouring through the window, filling the room with a pale silver glow. It wasn’t until dawn changed that glow to a soft gold that she finally found sleep again.