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An Invitation To Sin
By Jo Beverley Vanessa Kelly Sally Mackenzie Kaitlin O'Riley
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Kensington Publishing
All right reserved.
Chapter OneForbidden Affections
Anna Featherstone sat up in bed and fumbled urgently for her candlestick. Grasping it, she slipped out of bed to light it at the night lamp on the mantelpiece, then held it high and turned to study her peculiar new bedroom.
Her sleepy thoughts had been right. The Gothic monstrosity was exactly like Dulcinea's prison in the novel, Forbidden Affections! When the notion had come to her at a point between sleep and waking she had been sure she must have been mistaken, but now she wandered the room, convinced she was correct.
It was a wonderful discovery, but also very puzzling.
Anna had spent her sixteen years in the Derbyshire countryside and knew she was not au fait with the latest fashions, but even if dark, heavily carved Gothic furniture was the rage in London, surely such morbid motifs as deadly nightshade and coffins were not. In the novel, Dulcinea's cruel uncle had caused her room to be decorated with symbols of death to remind her of her probable fate if she did not surrender to his evil passions.
Anna was not the least alarmed by the grinning skeletons and contorted gargoyles in the carvings. She was sadly lacking in sensibility. When her sister Maria had once demanded to know what Anna would do if actually confronted by a skeleton in a monk's robe, Anna had replied that she'd inspect it to find out how it held its bones together without ligaments or muscles.
Smiling at the memory of Maria's shudders, Anna wandered the room, appreciating the fine attention to detail. The heavy armoire boasted ivory knobs carved as skulls, and the rather pretty design in the wallpaper turned out to be a coffin shape. As best she could remember, it was exactly as in Forbidden Affections.
She wished she had the novel with her so she could check each detail, but she had not been permitted to bring many books on this trip to London. Allowed only five, she would never choose Forbidden Affections over, for example, Cruel Matrimony, an earlier novel by Mrs. Jamison. Anna had always thought there was something unsatisfactory about Forbidden Affections, which had apparently been the lady's last work. Perhaps she had been ill.
Anna longed to know the history of this room for it must have been created by a wealthy and devoted admirer of the novel, and not that long ago. Forbidden Affections had first been published less than ten years ago, though Anna had only read it last year. After all, at the time of publication she had scarce been out of the nursery.
Would the servants know the house's history?
Number 9, Carne Terrace was just a house hired for the spring Season—part of a handsome row of houses in an excellent part of London. Her parents and sister had been delighted with it until this bedroom had been discovered. At that point, they had almost left to stay at an inn. The Gothic marvel was clearly the master bedroom, but Lady Featherstone had declared most absolutely that nothing would persuade her to sleep beneath a canopy of gargoyles.
Maria, who always copied Mama, had declared the same, adding that she could never even open a drawer if it involved touching a skull. She had gone so far as to collapse into a convenient chair to make her point, and had required a sniff of laudanum to overcome the shock.
Since there were only three good bedrooms in the house, and Maria and Anna hated to share a bed, there was only one solution. Anna and her father had shared an ironic glance and Anna had made the noble sacrifice, secretly delighted to have such a room.
Now she was even more so. Imagine having Dulcinea's chamber all to herself. Heavens, it might even turn her into a romantic heroine!
Anna caught sight of herself in a mirror surrounded by grotesque carved heads and laughed. Dulcinea she was not. Dulcinea—like all Mrs. Jamison's heroines—was slender as a willow-wand, had a complexion of pearly hue, and silky golden tresses. Anna possessed thick, dark hair which always fought the constraint of her plait, full rosy cheeks, and a round body that was the despair of her fashionable mama.
She remembered then that when Dulcinea had first seen her reflection surrounded by gargoyles she had screamed and fainted. Dulcinea—again like all Mrs. Jamison's heroines—tended to faint quite often. Anna had never fainted in her life.
She had always wanted to, and had tried various tricks to achieve it, including putting scraps of silk in her shoes, but she had never achieved so much as a slight sensation of dizziness.
With a grimace at her robust reflection, she hoped that sturdy nerves and common sense didn't rule out all possibility of a handsome hero one day sweeping her off her feet.
Still delighted by the room, Anna began to return to bed, but then she turned back to contemplate the huge carved stone fireplace guarded by armored skeletons on either side.
In the book, evil Count Nacre had constructed a secret doorway in the fireplace so that he could sneak into Dulcinea's room at night. One of the things about the book that irritated Anna was that Dulcinea's escape from his wicked plans was not of her own doing. Anna could think of any number of ways the silly creature could have escaped, but of course Dulcinea had waited for handsome Roland to find the secret door and rescue her.
Just before ancient, rat-infested Castle Nacre crumbled to the ground during an earthquake.
Now Anna eyed the ridiculous fireplace, refusing to believe that anyone had actually gone so far as to construct a secret door in a modern London town house. Where could it go, after all? Number 9, Carne Terrace was solidly bounded by number 8 and number 10.
But she could not resist trying.
The lever, if it was there, would be the spear of the skeleton to the right of the grate. The spear was held across his body and extended into the chimney so that it wouldn't be accidentally moved by a servant.
In the book.
This was real life. This wasn't a book.
Anna seized the spear and pulled it toward her. At first—as she expected—nothing happened. Then it began to move.
Anna snatched her hands away and stared at the spear as if it had come to life. This was taking replication to extremes! After all, on the other side of this fireplace there assuredly was not an abandoned, rat-infested, ivy-covered tower.
Her heart began to thump.
For the first time, Anna's very practical mind was toying with the fantastic.
On the other side of this fireplace, she told herself firmly, was number 10, Carne Terrace, a respectable modern house.
Well, not precisely respectable.
That had been another shock for her parents—to realize that Carne Terrace was named after the Earl of Carne, who had built it, and that number 10, the large end house next door, belonged to the notorious fourth earl.
Their housekeeper had revealed that fact when asked who their neighbors were. Mrs. Postle had hastened to explain that the house stood empty and had done so for over eight years—ever since the incident.
Those two words had been said with the sort of meaningful glance that Anna knew all too well. It meant that young ladies were not to hear about it, and of course that had left Anna in a ferment of curiosity. What on earth had the earl done? It was probably to do with carnal relations. Incidents always were.
She'd followed the subsequent conversations very closely, but all she had learned was that after the incident the earl had left England and had not been seen since.
Anna was surprised. She'd heard of a number of young ladies who had traveled abroad as a result of incidents. Gentlemen, on the other hand, never seemed to suffer the full consequences of their follies.
She had been delighted by this hint of murky mystery, however. Though her parents had brought both their daughters to London, only Maria was to make her curtsy this year, and Anna had expected to be a little bored. Digging out the whole story of the incident would definitely enliven her stay.
Now it seemed she had other amusements—if she dared pull the lever fully.
Was it truly possible that it would open a door into the house of the wicked Earl of Carne?
Curiosity was Anna's greatest weakness, and she knew it. She generally kept it under control, but she could never return to bed and sleep without finding out if the door was there or not. After all, if Count Nacre could creep into Dulcinea's chamber, perhaps the wicked Earl of Carne could creep into hers!
She might be in danger ...
But that was sophistry, and she knew it. She wanted to try the lever just because it was there.
She grasped it and pulled it all the way. It made only a slight grinding sound, but it clearly had done something. She took a deep breath, went to the right-hand part of the fireplace, and pushed.
Just as in the book, the panel swiveled slightly.
Anna stopped to consider. No, she was not dreaming. No, she had not been plunged into the pages of a novel. But there was, assuredly, a secret door.
Even Anna's prosaic heart was beating high and fast as she pushed the panel fully open. She told herself it had to open the way into number 10 ...
But a small, less rational part of her brain was prepared for it to open into a rat-infested, crumbling castle.
Anna, therefore, was prepared to scream.
Once the door was open she cautiously peeped through. She laughed shakily and her heart rate began to steady. The room beyond was a perfectly ordinary bedroom shrouded in Holland covers.
The secret door, as expected, simply led into number 10, Carne Terrace.
Of course, that meant that it led into the home of the wicked earl. A proper young lady, assuming that she hadn't already fallen into the vapors, would at this point have run to Papa to have the door firmly nailed shut. Anna Featherstone, fairly bubbling with excitement, walked through to explore.
After all, the earl was not here, and had not been here for years. In confirmation, this room—which was probably the master bedroom—had the feel of a place long unused.
Anna turned to look at the fireplace and found it to be much more normal than the one on her side, though rather ornate for a bedchamber. It was of carved wood and had the heavy side panels necessary to disguise the moving parts.
Whatever the reason for this construction, there had obviously been a conspiracy by the residents of both houses, and she'd go odds it was all to do with the incident. Anna was not naive, and secretly connected bedchambers told their own story. Although she still wanted to know why the bedchamber in number 9 was so peculiar.
Being a careful person, Anna checked the mechanism before moving away from the door. Once she was sure she could return at will, she prepared to enjoy herself.
She was wickedly at large in someone else's house, and it was an adventure impossible to resist, especially when the risk was so small. Since the house was unused it was unlikely that she would be found out. And if she did meet anyone, she would hardly be thrown into prison. A young lady of sixteen in her nightgown could not be mistaken for a housebreaker.
Anna crept barefooted across the carpet and gingerly turned the knob. It made no sound. She eased the door open and peeped out into a corridor rather wider than the one in number 9. This corner house, a nobleman's residence, was at least twice the size of the other houses in the terrace.
She was struck by the silence.
It took Anna a moment to think why this was so strange, and then she realized that there was not even the ticking of a clock. She'd never before been in a house which did not have a clock ticking somewhere.
She detected no smell of decay or mold, though. The house might be unused but it was not neglected. In fact, now that she searched for it, there was the faint smell of polish in the air. This meant there had to be some servants and so she must be careful.
It did not mean she would give up her exploration, though. This was like having an enormous playhouse all to herself.
She walked the corridor, shielding her candle and glancing at the pictures on the walls. They were not particularly interesting—mostly rather nondescript landscapes with no indication of the places they represented.
She peeped into the various rooms along the hall, but they were not interesting, either—some bedchambers and dressing rooms and a moderately sized drawing room.
Then, in a large sitting room or boudoir, she caught sight of an intriguing painting. She wasn't sure at first why it had caught her eye, as it was only half-lit by the flickering candle. When she went closer, she decided it was a simple matter of quality. She did not know a great deal about art but surely this portrait had been painted by a master.
Even in the candlelight the young man's skin tones glowed with vitality and his dark curls sprang crisply from his brow. His expression was quite sober and yet she could feel that he desperately wanted to laugh. Perhaps it was the way his bright blue eyes were crinkled slightly with the humor he was trying to suppress. Was he trying to appear older than he was? She didn't think he was a great deal older than her own sixteen years. He reminded her in many ways of her brother James and his friends, full of the joy of life and ready for mischief.
Of course, she reminded herself, by now this young man could be ancient.
She didn't think so, though. The high collar and plain cravat fitted recent fashion.
Anna realized she had been staring at the portrait as if expecting him to move and speak, so skillfully had the fleeting expression been captured. With a smile of farewell, she made herself leave the room, feeling rather as if she abandoned someone to dark neglect.
When she had looked in every room on this floor, she came to her Rubicon, the stairs to the lower floor. A prudent miss would now return to her room and forget about this place. Anna had to admit as well that it was probably morally wrong to creep about someone's house like this, peeping and prying. It was almost like reading a private journal.
On the other hand, there were no secrets here. It was just an empty house and she wanted to see all of it.
She went cautiously down the stairs to the main floor.
All the windows she had seen had been curtained, presumably to keep the sun off the unused rooms, but here a handsome fan light over the door spilled moonlight into the hall, making it seem more alive, more as if someone might suddenly appear.
She stood still, her feet chilling on the tiled floor, listening for any sound.
She heard only silence. Any servants were fast asleep.
All the same, Anna decided to hurry through the rest of her exploration and get back to her bed.
A breakfast room, shrouded. A reception room, the same. A dining room, a library ...
Anna halted, faced temptation, and succumbed.
Anna loved books. She loved novels, but they were not her only reading. Her father said she would read anything, even a sporting journal if desperate, and he had always encouraged her. He had not, however, allowed her to bring more than a small box of books with her and to her dismay the library in number 9 was a skeleton of a room with empty shelves. She supposed no one would want to leave books for unpredictable tenants, but she had been disappointed. After all, her consumption of books was so large that trips to the lending libraries were going to take most of her days!
Here, however, was a supply, to hand and neglected. The books seemed to call to her, begging to be read.
No, no, her conscience argued. To borrow without permission would be like stealing.
Yet Anna was soon cruising the glass-fronted shelves almost without thought, drawn like iron to a magnet. Rows and rows of matched volumes—bound magazines, philosophical classics, eminent sermons. But also rows and rows of mismatched books likely to have been bought for love.
And organized. Here was travel. Here was science. And here were novels.
Just one row.
In fact, just the novels of Mrs. Jamison. That was intriguing, to be sure.
She opened the case and ran her fingers over the glossy leather covers, pausing at the three volumes that comprised Forbidden Affections. She wanted to read it again in Dulcinea's room to check the accuracy of the simulation. She wanted it so much it was agony to resist.
But Anna knew that if she took the books she would have gone beyond an intrusion of privacy to theft. She found the strength to close the bookcase doors and leave the chamber of temptation. (Continues...)
Excerpted from An Invitation To Sin by Jo Beverley Vanessa Kelly Sally Mackenzie Kaitlin O'Riley Copyright © 2011 by Kensington Publishing. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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