Swiftly Evie recalled that the previous month, Annabelle had confided her suspicions that she might be pregnant. “Of course, I…oh, Annabelle, I’ve been so pr-preoccupied with my own problems that I hadn’t even thought to ask how you were feeling! Is it true, then? The doctor confirmed it?”
“Yes,” Daisy interrupted, standing up and doing a little victory dance, as if it were impossible for her to stay still any longer. “The wallflowers are going to be aunts!”
Evie jumped up as well, and they cavorted in childish glee, while Annabelle remained sitting and watched them with amusement. “Heavens, look at the pair of you,” she said. “I wish Lillian were here—no doubt she would have some pithy comment about your savage romping.”
The mention of Lillian was enough to dampen Evie’s elation. She dropped back onto the settee, staring at Annabelle with kindling worry. “Will she forgive me, for m-marrying St. Vincent after what he did to her?”
“Of course,” Annabelle said gently. “You know how loyal she is—she would forgive you anything short of murder. Perhaps not even barring that. But I’m afraid that forgiving St. Vincent is another matter entirely.”
Daisy frowned and tugged at her skirts to straighten them. “It is certain that St. Vincent has made an enemy of Lord Westcliff. Which makes things difficult for the rest of us.”
The conversation was interrupted as tea was brought in by a housemaid. Evie poured some of the delicate amber brew for herself and Annabelle. Daisy declined to have tea, preferring to wander about the room and browse among the shelves of books. She peered closely at the titles that had been engraved on the colored vellum spines. “There’s a layer of dust on most of these books,” she exclaimed. “One would think that they hadn’t been read in ages!”
Annabelle looked up from her tea with a droll smile. “I’ll wager that few, if any, have ever been read, dear. It’s not likely that the gentlemen who frequent this club would choose to occupy themselves with books when there are so many more stimulating pursuits available.”
“Why have a reading room, if no one ever reads in it?” Daisy said, sounding outraged. “I can’t imagine any activity that could be more stimulating than reading. Why, sometimes during a particularly engaging story, I can feel my heart racing!”
“There is one thing…” Annabelle murmured with an unladylike grin. The words were lost on Daisy, however, who drifted farther away along the rows of books. Glancing at Evie’s face, Annabelle kept her voice low as she said, “While we’re on that subject, Evie…it troubles me that you had no one to talk to before your wedding night. Was St. Vincent considerate of you?”
Evie felt her cheeks burn as she responded with a quick nod. “As one would expect, he was very accomplished.”
“But was he kind?”
“Yes…I think so.”
Annabelle smiled at her. “It’s an awkward subject, is it not?” she asked softly. “However, if there are any questions that you might have about such matters, I hope that you will bring yourself to ask me. I feel very much like your older sister, you know.”
“I feel that way too,” Evie returned, reaching out to squeeze her hand. “I suppose I do have a few things that I would like to ask, but they’re so terribly—”
“Zounds!” came Daisy’s exclamation from the other side of the room. They both looked up to see her tugging at one of the mahogany bookshelves. “When I leaned on this bookshelf, I heard a sort of clicking noise, and then the whole thing started to swing out.”
“It’s a secret door,” Evie explained. “There are several hidden doors and passageways in the club, for hiding things if there’s a police raid, or if one needs to leave in haste—”
“Where does this one lead to?”
Fearing that to explain any more would encourage the adventurous Daisy to go exploring, Evie murmured vaguely, “Oh, nowhere that you would wish to go. A storage room, I’m sure. You’d better close it, dear.”
While Daisy continued to examine the bookshelves, Evie and Annabelle resumed their whispered conversation. “The truth is,” Evie said, “that L-Lord St. Vincent has agreed to undergo a period of celibacy, for my sake. And if he succeeds, he and I will then recommence our marital relations.”
“He what?” Annabelle whispered, her pretty blue eyes widening. “Good God. I don’t believe St. Vincent and the word ‘celibacy’ have ever been mentioned in the same sentence before. How on earth did you manage to persuade him to agree to such a thing?”
“He said…he indicated…that he desires me enough to try.”
Annabelle shook her head with an odd, bemused smile. “That doesn’t sound like him. Not at all. He’ll cheat, of course.”
“Yes. But I do think his intentions are sincere.”
“St. Vincent is never sincere,” Annabelle said wryly.
Evie could not help but remember the desperate urgency of St. Vincent’s embrace, in this very room. The way his breath had shivered in his throat. The consuming tenderness of his mouth on her skin. And the raw passion in his voice as he had murmured “I want you more than I’ve ever wanted anything on this earth…”
How could she explain any of that to Annabelle? How could mere words justify her instinct to believe him? It was ludicrous to believe that she, awkward Evie Jennings, had suddenly become the ultimate desire of a man like Sebastian, who had his pick of the most beautiful and accomplished women in England.
And yet Sebastian wasn’t precisely the same man who had sauntered so arrogantly through Westcliff’s Hampshire mansion. Something in him had altered, and was altering still. Had the catalyst been his failed attempt to kidnap Lillian? Or had it started later, during the miserable journey to Gretna Green? Perhaps it was something about the club. He had behaved oddly since the moment they had set foot in it. He was striving for something, a nameless thing that he couldn’t explain even to himself—
“Oh no,” Annabelle said ruefully, looking over Evie’s shoulder.
“What is it?” Evie turned to follow Annabelle’s gaze.
There was no need for Annabelle to explain. The room was empty save for the two of them. One of the bookcases had been left out of alignment with the others. Daisy, predictably, had followed the urges of her own insatiable curiosity, and had gone through the secret door.
“Where does it lead?” Annabelle asked with a sigh, reluctantly setting aside her half-finished tea.
“It depends on which way she went,” Evie replied with a frown. “It’s rather like a maze—one passage branches off into two directions, and there are secret stairs that lead to the second floor. Thank heaven the club isn’t open—that minimizes the amount of trouble she could get into.”
“Remember, this is Daisy Bowman,” Annabelle said dryly. “If there is the least chance of trouble to be found, she will discover it.”
Creeping along the dark passageway, Daisy experienced the same thrill that she had always felt as a child, when she and Lillian played a game of pirates in their Fifth Avenue mansion. After their daily lessons had concluded, they had run outside in the garden, a pair of imps with long braids and torn frocks, rolling their hoops and digging holes in the flower beds. One day they had taken it in their heads to create a secret pirate cave, and they had proceeded to spend the entire summer hollowing out a tunnel in the hedge that bordered the front and sides of the mansion. They had diligently cut and clipped until they had created a long channel behind the hedge, where they had scurried back and forth like a pair of mice. They held secret meetings in their “pirate cave,” of course, and had kept a wooden box filled with treasures in a hole they had dug beside the house. When their misdeeds had been discovered by the irate gardener, who was horrified by the desecration of his hedge, Daisy and Lillian had been punished for weeks afterward.
Smiling wistfully at the thought of her beloved older sister, Daisy felt a wave of loneliness sweep over her. She and Lillian had always been together, arguing, laughing, getting each other into scrapes, and rescuing each other whenever possible. Naturally she was happy that Lillian had met her perfect match in the strong-willed Westcliff…but that didn’t stop Daisy from missing her terribly. And now that the other wallflowers, including Evie, had found husbands, they were part of the mysterious married world that Daisy was still excluded from. She was going to have to find a husband soon. Some nice, sincere gentleman who would share her love of books. A man who wore spectacles, and liked dogs and children.
Feeling her way along the passageway, Daisy nearly tripped down a small flight of stairs that presented themselves unexpectedly. A faint glimmer of light from the bottom drew her forward. As she neared the light, she saw that it limned the small rectangular shape of a door. Wondering what could be on the other side of the door, Daisy paused and heard an odd, repetitive tapping. A pause, then more tapping.
Curiosity got the better of her. Placing her hands on the door, Daisy gave it a decisive shove and felt it give way. Light spilled into the passageway as she stepped into a room that contained a few empty tables and chairs, and a sideboard with two giant silver urns. Peering around the door, she saw the source of the tapping. A man was repairing a piece of damaged molding on the wall, sitting on his haunches as he expertly sank nails into the thin strip of wood with deft blows of a hammer. As soon as he saw the door open, he rose to his feet in an easy movement, his grip changing on the hammer as if he might use it as a weapon.
It was the Gypsy, the boy with the eyes of a hungry panther. He had removed his coat and waistcoat…his necktie as well…so that his upper half was covered only in a thin white shirt that had been tucked loosely into the waist of his close-fitting trousers. The sight of him elicited the same reaction Daisy had felt upstairs—a swift sting in her chest followed by the rapid pumping of her heart. Paralyzed by the realization that she was alone in the room with him, Daisy watched with unblinking eyes as he approached her slowly.
She had never seen any living being who had been fashioned with such exotic dark beauty…his skin the color of raw clover honey, the light hazel of his eyes framed with heavy black lashes, his thick obsidian hair tumbled over his forehead.
“What are you doing here?” Rohan asked, not stopping until he was so close that she back-stepped instinctively. Her shoulder blades met the wall. No man in Daisy’s limited experience had ever approached her with such directness. Clearly he knew nothing about drawing room manners.
“Exploring,” she said breathlessly.
“Did someone show you the passageway?”
Daisy started as Rohan braced his hands on the wall, one on either side of her. He was a bit taller than average but not towering, his tanned throat at a level with her eyes. Trying not to show her nervousness, she took a shallow breath and said, “No, I found it by myself. Your accent is odd.”
“So is yours. American?”
Daisy nodded, the power of speech abandoning her as she saw the glitter of a small diamond on his earlobe. There was a funny little curl of sensation in her stomach, almost like repulsion, but it made her skin feel very hot, and she realized to her dismay that she was turning bright pink. He was so close to her that she could detect a clean, soapy scent, mixed with the hints of horses and leather. It was a nice smell, a masculine fragrance, very different from that of her father, who always smelled like cologne and shoe polish, and fresh-minted paper money.
Her uneasy gaze skittered along the length of his arms, which were exposed by his rolled-up shirtsleeves…and stopped at the astonishing sight of a design that had been inked onto his right forearm. It was a small black horse with wings.
Noticing her mesmerized stare, Rohan lowered his arm to give her a better view. “An Irish symbol,” he murmured. “A nightmare horse, called a pooka.”
The absurd-sounding word brought a faint smile to Daisy’s lips. “Does it wash off?” she asked hesitantly.
He shook his head, his lashes half lowering over his remarkable eyes.
“Is a pooka like the Pegasus of the Greek myths?” Daisy asked, flattening herself as close to the wall as possible.
Rohan glanced down her body, taking a kind of leisurely inventory that no man ever had before. “No. He’s far more dangerous. He has eyes of yellow fire, a stride that clears mountains, and he speaks in a human voice as deep as a cave. At midnight, he may stop in front of your house and call out your name if he wants to take you for a ride. If you go with him, he’ll fly you across earth and oceans…and if you ever return, your life will never be the same.”
Daisy felt gooseflesh rise all over her body. All her senses warned that she had better put a stop to this unnerving conversation, and flee his presence with all due haste. “How interesting,” she muttered, and turned blindly in the circle of his arms, hunting for the edge of the hidden door. To her dismay, he had closed it, and the door was now skillfully concealed in the paneled wall. Panicking, she pushed at various places in the wall, trying to discover the mechanism that would open it.
Her moist palms flattened on the paneling as she felt Rohan lean against her from behind, his mouth close to her ear. “You won’t find it. There is only one spot that will release the catch.”
His hot breath touched the side of her throat, while the light pressure of his body warmed her wherever it touched.
“Why don’t you show it to me?” Daisy suggested in her best imitation of Lillian’s sarcastic drawl, dismayed to hear that she sounded only unsteady and bewildered.
“What favor will you give in return?”
Daisy strove for indignation, even as her heart clattered against her ribs like a wild bird in a cage. She turned around to face him, launching a verbal assault that she hoped would drive him back. “Mr. Rohan, if you are insinuating that I should…well, you’re the most ungentlemanly man I have ever encountered.”
He didn’t budge an inch. His animal-white teeth flashed in a grin. “But I do know where the door is,” he reminded her.
“Do you want money?” she asked scornfully.
Daisy swallowed hard. “A liberty, then?” Seeing his incomprehension, she clarified with reddening cheeks, “Taking a liberty is…an embrace, or a kiss…”
Something dangerous flickered in Rohan’s golden eyes. “Yes,” he murmured. “I’ll take a liberty.”
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com