A Rake's Midnight Kiss
By Anna Campbell
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2013 Anna Campbell
All rights reserved.
Little Derrick, Oxfordshire, September 1827
A thud followed by a low masculine curse stirred Genevieve from sleep. Even then she needed a few seconds to realize that she was slumped over the desk in her study upstairs at the vicarage. Her candles had gone out and the room's only illumination was the dying fire. In that faint glow, she watched a dark shape below the windowsill lengthen upward until a man's form blocked faint starlight from outside.
Choking fear held her motionless. Fear and outrage. How dare anyone break into her home? It felt like a personal affront. Her father and aunt were out, dining with the Duke of Sedgemoor at his local estate. The duke never visited this isolated corner of his vast holdings, so everyone was agog to see him. Genevieve had been invited too, but she'd wanted to stay and work on some research. The servants were away for the evening.
The man at the window remained still, as if checking that the room was empty before launching his nefarious activities. The charged silence extended. Then the tension eased from his lean body and he stepped toward the fire. From her dark corner, Genevieve watched him set a candle to the coals.
Blast his impudence, he'd soon learn he wasn't alone.
Quickly her hand found the desk's second drawer and tugged it open, not bothering to conceal the noise as she grabbed what lay hidden inside. The candle flared into life, the intruder turned his head sharply in her direction, and Genevieve lurched to her feet.
As she stepped around the desk on shaky legs, she forced a confidence she didn't feel into her voice. "You'll find nothing worth stealing in this house. I suggest you leave. Immediately."
Instead of reacting with the horrified dismay she sought, the man took his time straightening. Still with that leisurely air, he raised his candle to illuminate Genevieve where she stood. His face was covered with a black silk mask such as people wore to masquerade balls. Not that she had any experience of such events. "You're dashed well protected if there truly is nothing worth stealing."
Her hand steady, she raised the gun she'd taken from the drawer. "We live on the edge of the village, as you no doubt noted when you chose this house as your target." A horrible thought struck her and she waved the pistol at him. "Are you armed?"
He stiffened with shock, as though the question offended. To demonstrate his nonviolent intentions, he spread his hands wide. "Of course not, dear lady."
This rapscallion was a most bizarre burglar. Her knowledge of the criminal fraternity was limited, but this man's assurance struck her as remarkable. He spoke like a gentleman and didn't seem particularly concerned that she had a weapon. Her lips tightened and she firmed her grip on the pistol. "There's no 'of course' about it. In your line of work, you must expect opposition from your victims."
"I make sure the house is unoccupied before I start work."
"Like tonight," she said coldly.
He shrugged. "Even master criminals make the occasional mistake, Miss Barrett."
Her belly knotted with dread. This time not even her strongest efforts steadied her voice. "How do you know my name?"
The lips below the mask twitched and he stepped closer.
"Stay back!" she snapped. Her heart banged so hard against her ribs, surely he must hear it.
Ignoring her pistol with insulting ease, he lifted the candle and subjected her to a lengthy and unnerving inspection. Genevieve's sense of unreality built. Everything around her was familiar. The shabby comfort of her favorite room. The jumbled items on the desk. The pile of pages covered in her writing. All was as it should be, except for the tall masked man with his indefinable air of elegance and his smile of indulgent amusement. She had an irritating intuition that the reprobate played with her.
Bracing under that assessing regard, she made herself study him like she'd study an artifact, although with his face covered she would never be able to describe him to the authorities. Candlelight glinted on rich gold hair and found fascinating shadows under the open neck of his white shirt. He wore breeches and boots. Despite this basic clothing, his manner screamed privilege. And while she couldn't see his face, something about the way he carried himself indicated he was a handsome man.
A most bizarre burglar indeed.
"A good thief does his research." He answered the question that she'd forgotten she'd asked. "Although research occasionally lets one down. For example, village gossip indicated that you attended a soiree at Leighton Court tonight."
"I wanted to—" She realized she responded as if to any polite enquiry. The hand holding the gun showed a lamentable tendency to droop, pointing the barrel harmlessly at the floor. She bit her lip and hoisted the gun in what she prayed was a convincing gesture. "Get out of this house."
"But I haven't got what I came for."
He shifted closer, making her feel more at risk than at any time since he'd arrived. At risk as a woman was at risk from a man. Her skin tightened with awareness of their isolation. She hadn't missed how his gaze had lingered on her body. Before recalling that any show of vulnerability delivered him the advantage, she backed away. She pointed the gun at his chest. "Get out now or I'll shoot."
His frown indicated that her demand galled his sense of decorum. "Dear lady—"
She stiffened. Somewhere she'd lost control of this encounter. Which was absurd. She was the one with the gun. "I'm not your dear lady."
As if acknowledging that she'd scored a point, he bowed. "As you wish, Miss Barrett. I've done you no wrong. It seems excessive to menace me with murder."
Astonishment almost made her laugh. "You broke into my house. You threatened me with—"
He interrupted. "So far, any threats have emanated from your charming self."
"You mean to steal," she said in a low, vibrating voice.
"But I haven't. Yet." The expressive mouth above the intriguingly hard jawline curved into a charming smile. "Temper justice with mercy. Let me go free to seek redemption."
"Let you go free to find some other innocent to rob," she said sharply. "Better to lock you in the cellar and summon the local magistrate."
"That would be unkind. I don't like small, confined places."
"In that case, you've chosen the wrong profession. Somewhere someone will catch you."
Disregarding the gun, he took another step forward. "Surely your compassionate heart abhors the thought of my imprisonment."
She retreated and realized that he'd boxed her against the desk. She tightened her grip on the gun to counteract her slippery palms. "Move away or I swear I'll shoot."
He lit one of the candles on the desk and blew out his own smaller candle, dropping it smoking to the blotter. "Tsk, Miss Barrett. You'll get blood on the carpet."
Words escaped on a gasp as with surprising speed he grabbed the hand holding the gun. A few nimble turns of that long body and he caught her against him, facing the open window. Pressed to him, she was overwhelmingly conscious of his power. His leanness was deceptive. There was no denying the muscles in the arms holding her or the breadth of the chest behind her. He embraced her firmly across her torso, trapping her arms. While she still held her weapon, she couldn't shift to aim it.
The barbed but oddly flirtatious conversation had calmed immediate dread. Now fear surged anew. What in heaven's name was she thinking, bandying words with this scoundrel? As if she enjoyed herself, when if she despised anything in this world, it was a thief.
She caught her breath on a frightened hiccup and struggled. "Let me go!"
His arms tightened like straps, controlling her with mortifying ease. Genevieve was a tall, strong girl, no frail lily, but the thief was taller and stronger. She'd never before measured her strength against a man's. It rankled how easily he restrained her. She'd never been so aware of another person's physical reality. The experience was disturbing beyond her natural terror of an intruder. "Hush, Miss Barrett. I give you my word I mean no harm."
"Then release me." She panted, her wriggles achieving nothing beyond the collapse of her never very secure coiffure.
"Not unless you put the gun down."
She maneuvered to elbow him in the belly, but his grip made it impossible. "Then I'll be at your mercy," she said breathlessly.
A grunt of laughter escaped him. "There's that to consider."
He was so close that his amusement vibrated through her. The sensation was uncomfortably intimate. A few more of those blasted deft movements and he snatched her weapon. He placed it beyond reach on the desk.
"There's nobody to hear," he said carelessly, and in that moment, she truly hated him.
"You're despicable," she hissed, trying and failing to free herself. Her heart galloped with fright and anger. With him, and with herself for being a stupid, weak female, prey to an overbearing male.
"Sticks and stones."
He drew her into his body and took a sliding step backward. She became conscious not just of his size and strength—those had been apparent from the moment he caught her up—but also of his enveloping heat and the way that he smelled pleasantly of something herbal. Fresh. Tangy.
This ruffian took the trouble to wash regularly.
He reversed another step and opened the door with a rattle, containing her struggles beneath one arm with humiliating ease. Fear spurred rage. She wrenched hard against him and tried without success to sink her fingernails into his forearm.
"No, you don't," he huffed, tugging her closer.
"I'll have your liver for this," she snarled, even as his scent continued to prick her senses. What was that smell?
"You'll have to catch me first."
She wished she didn't notice how laughter warmed that deep, musical voice. Any angry response died in furious shock as he brushed his cheek softly against the wing of hair covering her cheek.
"Au revoir, Miss Barrett," he whispered in her ear, his breath teasing nerves she didn't know she possessed. Then he shoved her away from him hard.
By the time she'd regained her footing, he'd slammed the door and locked it from outside with the key he must have palmed when he fiddled with the latch.
"Don't you dare ransack the house, you devil!" she shouted, rushing forward and pounding on the door. But the vicarage doors were of solid English oak and hardly shook under her determined assault. "Don't you dare!"
Gasping, she stopped and pressed her ear to the door, desperate to work out what he was up to. She heard a distant slam as though someone left by the front door. Could her presence have deterred him from his larcenous plans? She couldn't imagine why. From the first, he'd had the best of the conflict.
Her hands fisted against the wood as she recalled his barefaced cheek in holding her so ... so improperly.
"Improper" seemed too weak a term to describe the sensations he'd aroused when he'd captured her like a sheep ready for the shears. Like that sheep, she was about to be well and truly fleeced. She was in no position to stop the villain from taking what he wanted. Nobody would let her out until her father and aunt returned from the duke's, and heaven knew when that would be. The Reverend Ezekiel Barrett adored hobnobbing with the quality. He'd be there until breakfast if Sedgemoor didn't throw him out first. She'd have to go out the window the way the villain had come in.
Tears of frustration stung her eyes. However illogically, she felt the radiating heat of the burglar's body against hers. It was like he still touched her. She wasn't afraid anymore, at least not for her person. If the rascal had wanted to hurt her, he'd had plenty of opportunity. Her principal reaction, now that fear and unwilling fascination ebbed, was self-disgust. She'd acted a ninnyhammer, the sort of jittery female she despised. She'd had a gun. Why hadn't she forced him from the house?
The ominous silence extended. What was the blackguard doing? Would there be anything left by the time he finished? She glanced over to the desk and thanked the Lord that the only genuinely valuable item here had escaped his notice. For a sneak thief, he wasn't very observant, although he hadn't struck her as a man deficient in intelligence. Or, she added with renewed outrage, impertinence. Nevertheless, any professional would immediately purloin the gold object on the blotter.
Something landed on the carpet near the open window. Curious, nervous, Genevieve grabbed the candle from the desk and lifted it high. On the floor lay the key.
Astonished and outraged, she rushed to the window, but darkness and the elm's thick foliage obstructed her view. In the distance someone started to whistle. A jaunty old tune. "Over the Hills and Far Away." Apt for an absconding thief, she supposed. Not that he'd betrayed any panic. Again, his confidence struck her as puzzling. The music faded as the whistler wandered into the night.
With shaking hands, Genevieve scooped up the key and balanced it on her palm. One completely unimportant fact threw every other consideration to the wind. She'd finally identified the smell that had tantalized her when he'd held her.
Richard drained his brandy and rested his head against the back of the leather armchair in Leighton Court's library. Housebreaking left a man in dire need of a drink. The black mask draped disregarded from a bookshelf. He'd felt like a confounded mountebank wearing it, but as things turned out, it had been a wise decision. After six months of detective work, he'd found his treasure.
"She's got the jewel, all right, after playing coy with my agents about whether Great Aunt Amelia left it to her. When I climbed through the only open window I could find, it sat on the desk, plain as that big beak on your face."
"No need to get personal." Camden Rothermere, Duke of Sedgemoor, rose from the matching chair across the hearth to refill Richard's glass. The duke's green eyes below his ruler-straight black hair lightened with the humor that only his friends saw.
Right now, Richard knew he took advantage of that friendship. Only a good friend would rusticate on this obscure estate to support a pal when he could be enjoying the delights of his principal seat in Derbyshire. Cam's house in Little Derrick gave Richard a base in the neighborhood. Cam's name would provide an introduction to the locals.
Cam hissed with impatience. "Why the devil didn't you steal it then and there if the damned thing was ripe for the taking? Nice quick job. You can slink back to the fleshpots and I can go north to supervise the harvest at Fentonwyck."
"Bad form to steal it, old man, bad form." A faint smile tilted Richard's lips as his free hand dangled to toy with his dog's ears. Sirius, a hound of indeterminate breed, snoozed on the floor beside the chair, his long nose resting on his front paws. He hadn't appreciated missing out on tonight's excitement. "I'll give the chit a chance to sell it to me first. If I steal it, I can't brandish the bauble to demonstrate that I'm the title's incumbent and society had better bloody well respect that."
Richard spoke more casually than circumstances warranted. Until tonight, he'd only seen the jewel in watercolor sketches in the family papers. The urge to pocket the gold and enamel trinket had been deuced strong, but tonight's burglary had always only been a reconnaissance mission.
His agents had approached Miss Barrett several times to purchase the jewel and none of them could get the damned woman to admit that she had the troublesome artifact. She'd neither denied nor confirmed, although every trail ended at Little Derrick's vicarage. Tonight's burglary had been a last-ditch attempt to discover whether to proceed with the plan that even he admitted sounded outlandish.
The rage that had gripped him in Lord Packham's ballroom still soured his days. Laying his hands on the jewel had become a quest to assert his worthiness to a world too eager to discount him as a sham.
"I'm glad I don't have to add theft to your list of misdemeanors." Cam eyed Richard without favor.
"I'll try persuasion first." He sipped his friend's excellent brandy, his pleasure in recalling the vicar's fiery daughter vying with the anger that had simmered for six months. Longer. His whole life. "Anyway, Miss Barrett had a gun."
A surprised gust of laughter escaped Cam. "Did she, by Jove? Good for her. I wondered if you'd encounter the mysterious Miss Barrett when her father and aunt turned up to dinner without her, but it was too late to warn you that the vicarage wasn't empty. I swear the reverend gentleman could talk the leg off an iron pot. Even if you'd caught a bullet, I had the worst of the evening." (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Rake's Midnight Kiss by Anna Campbell. Copyright © 2013 Anna Campbell. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
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