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Tempt Me at Twilight
By Lisa Kleypas
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2009 Lisa Kleypas
All rights reserved.
The Rutledge Hotel
Her chances of a decent marriage were about to be dashed — and all because of a ferret.
Unfortunately Poppy Hathaway had pursued Dodger halfway through the Rutledge Hotel before she recalled an important fact: to a ferret, a straight line included six zigs and seven zags.
"Dodger," Poppy said desperately. "Come back. I'll give you a biscuit, any of my hair ribbons, anything! Oh, I'm going to make a scarf out of you ..."
As soon as she caught her sister's pet, Poppy swore she was going to alert the management of the Rutledge that Beatrix was harboring wild creatures in their family suite, which was definitely against hotel policy. Of course, that might cause the entire Hathaway clan to be forcibly removed from the premises.
At the moment, Poppy didn't care.
Dodger had stolen a love letter that had been sent to her from Michael Bayning, and nothing in the world mattered except retrieving it. All the situation needed was for Dodger to hide the blasted thing in some public place where it would be discovered. And then Poppy's chances of marrying a respectable and perfectly wonderful young man would be forever lost.
Dodger hurried through the luxurious hallways of the Rutledge Hotel in a sinuous lope, staying just out of reach. The letter was clamped in his long front teeth.
As she dashed after him, Poppy prayed that she would not be seen. No matter how reputable the hotel, a respectable young woman should never have left her suite unescorted. However, Miss Marks, her companion, was still abed. And Beatrix had gone for an early morning ride with their sister, Amelia.
"You're going to pay for this, Dodger!"
The mischievous creature thought everything in the world was for his own amusement. No basket or container could go without being overturned or investigated, no stocking or comb or handkerchief could be left alone. Dodger stole personal items and left them in heaps beneath chairs and sofas, and he took naps in drawers of clean clothes, and worst of all, he was so entertaining in his naughtiness that the entire Hathaway family was inclined to overlook his behavior.
Whenever Poppy objected to the ferret's outrageous antics, Beatrix was always apologetic and promised that Dodger would never do it again, and she seemed genuinely surprised when Dodger didn't heed her earnest lectures. And because Poppy loved her younger sister, she had tried to endure living with the obnoxious pet.
This time, however, Dodger had gone too far.
The ferret paused at a corner, checked to make certain he was still being chased, and in his happy excitement, he did a little war dance, a series of sideways hops that expressed pure delight. Even now, when Poppy wanted to murder him, she couldn't help but acknowledge that he was adorable. "You're still going to die," she told him, approaching him in as unthreatening a manner as possible. "Give me the letter, Dodger."
The ferret streaked past a colonnaded lightwell that admitted sunshine from overhead and sent it down three floors to the mezzanine level. Grimly, Poppy wondered how far she was going to have to chase him. He could cover quite a lot of territory, and the Rutledge was massive, occupying five full blocks in the theater district.
"This," she muttered beneath her breath, "is what happens when you're a Hathaway. Misadventures ... wild animals ... house fires ... curses ... scandals ..."
Poppy loved her family dearly, but she longed for the kind of quiet, normal life that didn't seem possible for a Hathaway. She wanted peace. Predictability.
Dodger ran through the doorway of the third-floor steward's offices, which belonged to Mr. Brimbley. The steward was an elderly man with a full white mustache, the ends neatly waxed into points. As the Hathaways had stayed at the Rutledge many times in the past, Poppy knew that Brimbley reported every detail of what occurred on his floor to his superiors. If the steward found out what she was after, the letter would be confiscated, and Poppy's relationship with Michael would be exposed. And Michael's father, Lord Andover, would never approve of the match if there were even one whiff of impropriety attached to it.
Poppy caught her breath and backed up against the wall as Brimbley exited his offices with two of the Rutledge staff. "... go to the front office at once, Harkins," the steward was saying. "I want you to investigate the matter of Mr. W's room charges. He has a history of claiming that charges are incorrect when they are, in fact, accurate. From now on, I think it best to have him sign a receipt whenever a charge is made."
"Yes, Mr. Brimbley." The three men proceeded along the hallway, away from Poppy.
Cautiously, she crept to the doorway of the offices and peeked around the jamb. The two connected rooms appeared to be unoccupied. "Dodger," she whispered urgently, and saw him scurry beneath a chair. "Dodger, do come here!"
Which, of course, produced more excited hopping and dancing.
Biting her lower lip, Poppy went across the threshold. The main office room was generously sized, furnished with a massive desk piled high with ledgers and papers. An armchair upholstered in burgundy leather had been pushed up against the desk, while another was positioned near an empty fireplace with a marble mantel.
Dodger waited beside the desk, regarding Poppy with bright eyes. His whiskers twitched above the coveted letter. He held very still, holding Poppy's gaze as she inched toward him.
"That's right," she soothed, extending her hand slowly. "What a good boy, a lovely boy ... wait right there, and I'll take the letter and carry you back to our suite, and give you — Drat!"
Just before she could grasp the letter, Dodger had slithered beneath the desk with it.
Red with fury, Poppy glanced around the room in search of something, anything, she could use to poke Dodger from his hiding place. Spying a candlestick in a silver holder on the mantel, she tried to pull it down. But the candle wouldn't budge. The silver holder had been affixed to the mantel.
Before Poppy's astonished eyes, the entire back of the fireplace rotated noiselessly. She gasped at the mechanical wizardry of the door as it revolved with a smooth automated motion. What had appeared to be solid brick was nothing but a textured façade.
Gleefully, Dodger darted from the desk and went through the opening.
"Bother," Poppy said breathlessly. "Dodger, don't you dare!"
But the ferret paid no heed. And to make matters worse, she could hear the rumble of Mr. Brimbley's voice as he returned to the room. "... of course Mr. Rutledge must be informed. Put it in the report. And by all means don't forget —"
With no time to consider her options or the consequences, Poppy dashed through the fireplace, and the door closed behind her.
She was engulfed in near darkness as she waited, straining to hear what was happening inside the office. Apparently she had not been detected. Mr. Brimbley continued his conversation, something about reports and housekeeping concerns.
It occurred to Poppy that she might have to wait for a long time before the steward left the office again. Or she would have to find another way out. Of course, she could simply go back through the fireplace and announce her presence to Mr. Brimbley. However, she couldn't begin to imagine how much explaining she would have to do, and how embarrassing it would be.
Turning, Poppy discerned that she was in a long passageway, with a source of diffused light coming from somewhere overhead. She looked upward. The passage was illuminated by a daylight shaft, similar to the ones that ancient Egyptians had used to determine the positioning of stars and planets.
She could hear the ferret creeping somewhere nearby. "Well, Dodger," she muttered, "you got us into this. Why don't you help me find a door?"
Obligingly Dodger advanced along the passageway and disappeared into the shadows. Poppy heaved a sigh and followed. She refused to panic, having learned during the Hathaways' many brushes with calamity that losing one's head never helped a situation.
As Poppy made her way through the darkness, she kept her fingertips against the wall to maintain her bearings. She had gone only a few yards when she heard a scraping noise. Freezing in place, Poppy waited and listened intently.
All was quiet.
But her nerves prickled with awareness and her heart began to drum as she saw the glow of yellow lamplight ahead. And then it was extinguished.
She was not alone in the passageway.
The footsteps came closer, closer, with the swift purpose of a predator. Someone was heading right for her.
Now, Poppy decided, was the appropriate time to panic. Whirling around in full-scale alarm, she dashed back the way she had come. Being chased by unknown people in dark corridors was a novel experience even for a Hathaway. She cursed her heavy skirts, grabbing them up in frantic handfuls as she tried to run. But the person who chased her was much too fast to be eluded.
A cry escaped her as she was caught up in a brutal, expert grip. It was a man — a large one — and he seized her in a way that arched her back against his chest. One of his hands pressed her head sharply to the side.
"You should know," came a low, chilling voice close to her ear, "that with just a bit more pressure than this, I could snap your neck. Tell me your name, and what you're doing in here."CHAPTER 2
Poppy could scarcely think above the blood rushing in her ears and the pain of his tight grasp. The stranger's chest was very hard behind her. "This is a mistake," she managed to say. "Please —"
He forced her head farther to the side until she felt a cruel pinch of the nerves in the joint between her neck and shoulder. "Your name," he insisted gently.
"Poppy Hathaway," she gasped. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to —"
"Poppy?" His hold loosened.
"Yes." Why had he said her name as if he knew her? "Are you ... you must be one of the hotel staff?"
He ignored the question. One of his hands coasted lightly over her arms and her front as if he were searching for something. Her heart threshed like the wing beats of a small bird.
"Don't," she gasped between fragmented breaths, arching away from his touch.
"Why are you in here?" He turned her to face him. No one of Poppy's acquaintance had ever handled her so familiarly. They were close enough to the overhead lightwell that Poppy could see the outline of hard, lean features and the glitter of deep-set eyes.
Fighting to catch her breath, Poppy winced at the sharp ache in her neck. She reached for it and tried to soothe the pain as she spoke. "I was ... I was chasing a ferret, and the fireplace in Mr. Brimbley's office opened, and we went through it and then I tried to find another way out."
Nonsensical as the explanation was, the stranger sorted through it efficiently. "A ferret? One of your sister's pets?"
"Yes," she said, bewildered. She rubbed her neck and winced. "But how did you know ... have we met before? No, please don't touch me, I ... ouch!"
He had turned her around and had put his hand on the side of her neck. "Be still." His touch was deft and sure as he massaged the tender nerve. "If you try to run from me, I'll only catch you again."
Quivering, Poppy endured his kneading, probing fingers and wondered if she were at the mercy of a madman. He pressed harder, exacting a sensation that was neither pleasure nor pain but some unfamiliar mingling of the two. She made a sound of distress, writhing helplessly. To her surprise, the burn of the pinched nerve eased, and her rigid muscles went lax with relief. She went still and let out a long breath, her head dropping.
"Better?" he asked, using both hands now, his thumbs stroking the back of her neck, slipping beneath the soft lace that trimmed the high-throated bodice of her dress.
Thoroughly unnerved, Poppy tried to step away from him, but his hands clamped on her shoulders instantly. She cleared her throat and attempted a dignified tone. "Sir, I — I should like you to guide me out of here. My family will reward you. No questions will be —"
"Of course." He released her slowly. "No one ever uses this passageway without my permission. I assumed that anyone in here was up to no good."
The comments bore a resemblance to an apology, although his tone wasn't regretful in the least.
"I assure you, I had no intention of doing anything other than retrieving this atrocious animal." She felt Dodger rustling near the hem of her skirts.
The stranger bent and scooped up the ferret. Holding Dodger by the scruff of his neck, he handed him to Poppy.
"Thank you." The ferret's supple body went limp and compliant in Poppy's grasp. As she might have expected, the letter was gone. "Dodger, you blasted thief — where is it? What have you done with it?"
"What are you looking for?"
"A letter," Poppy said tensely. "Dodger stole it and carried it in here ... it must be somewhere nearby."
"It will be found later."
"But it's important."
"Obviously, if you've gone to such trouble to recover it. Come with me."
Reluctantly Poppy murmured her assent and allowed him to take her elbow.
"Where are we going?"
There was no reply.
"I would prefer that no one knew about this," Poppy ventured.
"I'm sure you would."
"May I rely on your discretion, sir? I must avoid scandal at all costs."
"Young women who wish to avoid scandal should probably stay in their hotel suites," he pointed out unhelpfully.
"I was perfectly content to stay in my room," Poppy protested. "It was only because of Dodger that I had to leave. I must have my letter back. And I'm certain my family will compensate you for your trouble, if you would —"
He found his way through the shadow-tricked passageway with no difficulty at all, his grip on Poppy's elbow gentle but inexorable. They did not go toward Mr. Brimbley's office but instead went the opposite direction, for what seemed an interminable distance.
Finally the stranger stopped and turned to a place in the wall, and pushed a door open. "Go in."
Hesitantly Poppy preceded him into a well-lit room, a sort of parlor, with a row of Palladian windows overlooking the street. A heavy oak drafting table occupied one side of the room, and bookshelves lined nearly every inch of wall space. There was a pleasant and oddly familiar mixture of scents in the air — candle wax and vellum and ink and book dust — it smelled like her father's old study.
Poppy turned toward the stranger, who had come into the room and closed the concealed door.
It was difficult to ascertain his age — he appeared to be on the early side of his thirties, but there was an air of hard-bitten worldliness about him, a sense that he had seen enough of life to cease being surprised by anything. He had heavy, well-cut hair, black as midnight, and a fair complexion in which his dark brows stood out in striking contrast. And he was as handsome as Lucifer, his brows strong, the nose straight and defined, the mouth brooding. The angle of his jaw was sharp, tenacious, anchoring the grave features of a man who perhaps took everything — including himself — a bit too seriously.
Poppy felt herself flush as she stared into a pair of remarkable eyes ... intense cool green with dark rims, shadowed by bristly black lashes. His gaze seemed to take her in, consuming every detail. She noticed faint shadows beneath his eyes, but they did nothing to impair his hard-faced good looks.
A gentleman would have uttered some pleasantry, something reassuring, but the stranger remained silent.
Why did he stare at her like that? Who was he, and what authority did he wield in this place?
She had to say something, anything, to break the tension. "The smell of books and candle wax," she remarked inanely, "... it reminds me of my father's study."
The man stepped toward her, and Poppy shrank back reflexively. They both went still. It seemed that questions filled the air between them as if they had been written in invisible ink.
Excerpted from Tempt Me at Twilight by Lisa Kleypas. Copyright © 2009 Lisa Kleypas. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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