Authors: Danelle Harmon
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Fiction
THE WICKED ONE
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The Wicked One
Copyright © 2012 by Danelle Harmon
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THE WICKED ONE
By Danelle Harmon
Book 4 of the de Montforte Brothers Series
Blackheath Castle, Berkshire, England
He was coming.
The darkened bedchamber was still. Eerily so. Outside, faint through the ancient walls, she could hear the night wind howling around the castle turrets. The solitary candle flame twisted and writhed against the winter drafts that managed to creep, unseen, through the leaded casement windows. But somehow, with some deep, primal part of herself, she sensed his presence. Knew that he had finally arrived . . . was now approaching. Then, faintly discernible over the wind, the rising tattoo of her heart, she heard them.
Coming, now, up the spiralling stone stairs of this ancient tower.
Her senses heightened. Her heartbeat quickened. Sitting cross-legged on the huge medieval bed in the near darkness, her heavy skirts fanning about her hips, she became keenly aware of every sensation; the icy air against her skin . . . the way his fine linen sheets felt against her calves, her feet, naked beneath her petticoats . . . the way the lone bedside candle seemed to shrink back in nervous anticipation. She caressed the butt of the pistol, savoring the comforting weight of it in her hand. Her breath, hanging thick as fog in her lungs, stirred in small, silent exhalations. She tensed like a cat poised to strike down her prey.
Any moment now . . .
And yes, there it was, the sound of his tread coming up those last few stairs as he made his way, unsuspecting, to his apartments, the footfalls louder now than the wind outside that had been her companion since she'd scaled, by way of a rope and her own wits, the parapets, the window ledge, the very walls that had been able to hold at bay cannon balls during the civil war, besiegers from the Middle Ages — but had been unable to keep her, one furious, determined woman, out.
But she was driven by purpose. She had come for one thing, and she would not leave without it. He had fooled her once, this man, his diabolical machinations nearly costing her her position at the French court and jeopardizing her standing amongst the American contingent in Paris — all of whom were working to secure France's aid in the fight for American independence. She had worked hard to gain respect and prominence in a political arena dominated by men, but he had threatened that — and now she would threaten him.
Her adversary was a worthy one, a dangerous one, a man purported to be one of the deadliest duelists in England. He had a reputation for cunning. He had secured a formidable backing among his peers at a young age, had steered older men to attain his goals when his own youth should have hampered him, had been a subtle, sinister presence who was quite likely behind or at least involved with the British spy ring in France — a spy ring that had always been one step ahead of the Americans' own cleverly laid plans. No sane person would make an enemy of the Duke of Blackheath. Especially now that he was in the true height of his power . . .
She squeezed the pistol lovingly. He would not emerge victorious
time. Oh, no. She had the element of surprise.
And, she — a slow, feline smile curved her lips — had the cunning superiority of her gender.
And now he stopped just outside the closed door. Her eyes narrowed. She steadied the small weapon. The door latch was lifting. She passed her tongue once, twice over her lips, her blood beginning to hum, her smile becoming one of anticipation. She fixedly watched that slim piece of metal rising. Never taking her eyes off it, she reached out with her free hand and gripped the bottle she had stolen. Then she brought the gun up, sighted down her arm, and trained the weapon right where his heart would be when he came through the door.
It opened on a well-oiled sigh, spilling faint light into the cold, gloomy chamber; outside, the moan and whistle of the wind was suddenly louder. A sense of danger pervaded her bones. Screamed through every nerve. And there he was, a taper in his hand, his tall form backlit by a torch set into the stone wall behind him.
Her finger froze on the trigger, and her breath stuck in her lungs at the sheer magnificence of him.
There was that same unsmiling face, glowing like Satan's in the candle's flickering light, its orange flame picking out the lofty cheekbones, the chiseled mouth with those hard, sculpted lips, the compelling profile with its noble brow and razor-straight nose. His hair was as one with the darkness around him, no powder, no pomade, just thick black waves swept back off his brow and caught at the nape with a bit of velvet.
He was watching her.
Watching her with eyes as still and deadly as a cobra preparing to strike.
The candle in his hand flickered. In vain, the meager flame tried to find softness in a face that was as severe and unforgiving as the stone walls she had scaled, the little tongue of fire finally giving up and shrinking down in cringing terror, the wax running like a tear down the long taper.
Her smile became malevolent.
"Ah, Your Grace. I have been waiting for you. You see" — she held up the aphrodisiac, her voice preternaturally calm — "I found a little bottle in your safe there, and since I cannot afford another error,
— like it or not — are going to sample it prior to my departure."
For a long moment, he remained perfectly still, his expression betraying nothing of what was going on behind that inscrutable black stare. And then his lips curved in the faintest of smiles as, putting down the candle, he began to move toward the bed.
Of its own accord, the door swung slowly shut behind him. She steadied the pistol and pulled the hammer back to full-cock. Even the ominous click failed to check his approach, or put a glint of apprehension in eyes as black as nightshade. His cravat was the only light on his form, bubbling up like a frothy white fountain beneath his chin, emphasizing its dark perfection, its haughty arrogance, the faint smudge of inky bristle that shadowed his jaw. His waistcoat fitted a torso of classic form, and long, straight legs, the thighs hardened by years in the saddle, the calves enclosed in riding boots spattered with mud, gave him the commanding presence and height of a born ruler.
And now she saw his fingers moving down the buttons of that waistcoat, freeing them, one by one, as he approached.
The pistol had gone sweaty in her hand. He was eight feet away now . . . six . . .
Her eyes narrowed. She itched to squeeze the trigger, to send a ball ripping through the fabric of his body as his cleverness and deceit had ripped through the fabric of her life. But he ignored the gun, pausing just short of the bed, pulling the waistcoat off, and carefully laying it across the back of a chair.
"Eva de la Mouriére," he said at last, his voice like cognac, like black velvet, like the night that pressed in from outside. "I had hoped I had not seen the last of you."
"I can assure you, Blackheath, that you have not seen the last of me."
"And now I shall see
of you, I think. Every bit of you. Ah, what delights the night promises . . ."
Her smile faded. Her lashes lowered over dangerously glittering eyes, for he was deliberately baiting her, and she did not like being baited. But he only turned his back on her and moved to stand before a full-length mirror, watching her in its reflection, gauging her reaction from over his shoulder as he slowly began to undo his stock.
Eva looked into the mirror and met that unflinching gaze. "So, Blackheath," she purred, "will you make this difficult, or will you concede? The choice is yours."
He lifted his head to undo the final knot beneath his chin. "My dear lady, I should think my choice is obvious." The mirrored black gaze moved briefly over her breasts . . . down the length of her torso . . . took in her seductively curving hips, until an answering, unwanted response fired her own blood. "Especially when one considers what life is apparently offering."
"What life is offering is a choice between this" — she raised the bottle — "and this" — she tipped the gun, never changing its aim. "If it would not deny me the chance to prove that this is the real aphrodisiac,
choice would be to put a ball through that conniving black heart of yours."
"Ah, but you do not have a choice. May I remind you, madam, that you just relinquished that advantage to me?"
"Don't play games with me, Blackheath. Your deviousness has cost me dearly, and I'm here to take my revenge." As he merely raised a brow in amusement, it was all she could do not to squeeze the trigger and kill him where he stood. She met his reflected gaze, glare for glare. "That wasn't the
aphrodisiac your brothers were carrying in that bottle the night I ambushed them on the road near Maidenhead, was it? Oh, no. It was a substitute. You gave them a clever substitute, and caused me to steal something that sickened and nearly killed the king of France." She swallowed hard, trying to get a rein on her fury. "You damn near destroyed my life."
He pulled the long white strip of silk from his neck and dangled it between thumb and forefinger, watching her with a faintly amused smile. "
you to steal something? Do you not enjoy free will like the rest of us, madam?"
Green eyes narrowed to dangerous slits. "You made a fool of me, Blackheath, and I will see that you pay for it."
He shrugged. "Ah, then, let that be a lesson to you. Highway robbery is, after all, a hanging offense."
"So is murdering an English peer, but I can assure you that I find it no deterrent. Now get on with it and undress. Better yet, I think I'll have you simply unfasten your breeches, as I doubt this will take but a moment."
His eyebrows rose. "I beg your pardon?"
"You heard me."
"My dear lady." His reflection smiled at her, but it was a patronizing, faintly indulgent gesture that made her want to sharpen her claws on his face. "I can assure you that haste and pleasure do not make appropriate bedmates" — his eyes were gleaming now above that slow, deliberate smile — "if you'll pardon the expression."
"I am not here to take or give pleasure, and I can assure you, I do not couple with dead bodies, as that is what yours will be if you so much as attempt to take liberties with me. Oh, no, Blackheath. I am here only to make sure that
time, I have possession of the real aphrodisiac, and that it does everything it is supposed to do."
He was still watching her in the mirror, dark eyes hypnotizing, fascinating, magnetic above that sarcastic little smile. "And what, my dear, is it supposed to do?"
The smile broadened. He stretched out his arm, and the stock, a white ribbon in the darkness, floated lazily down to join his waistcoat, still draped over the back of the chair. "Ah, of course. Seduce me."