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Lord Alan Gresham was icily, intolerably, dangerously bored. As he looked out over the animated, exceedingly fashionable crowd that filled the large reception room, his blue eyes glittered from under hooded lids. His mouth was a thin line. Revelers who glanced his way, curious about his very plain evening dress and solitary state, looked quickly away when he met their eyes. The women tended to draw their gauzy wraps closer despite the enervating warmth of the room, and the men stiffened. Whispers began to circulate, inquiring as to who he was and what the deuce he was doing in Carlton House at the Prince Regent's fete. A damned good question, Alan thought, well aware that he was the object of their attention. He was here against his will, and his better judgment. He was wasting his time, which he hated, and he was being kept from truly important work by a royal whim. He couldn't imagine a situation more likely to rouse his temper and exhaust his small stock of patience.
Alan watched a padded and beribboned fop sidle up to the duke of Langford and murmur a query. The duke did not look pleased, but he answered. The reaction was only too predictable--surprise, feigned incomprehension, and then delight in having a tidbit to circulate among the gossips. Alan ignored the spreading whispers and continued to watch the duke, a tall, spare, handsome man of sixty or so. This was all his fault. Alan wouldn't be trapped here now, on this ridiculous quest, if it weren't for the duke. He clamped his jaw hard, then deliberately relaxed it. He wasn't being quite fair, he admitted to himself. The duke, his father, was no more able to refuse a direct command from the sovereignthan he himself was. Prinny's whims and superstitions had brought him here, and until he satisfied the prince, he could not return to his own life. Let's get it over with, then, thought Alan. The waiting was about to drive him mad.
"Well, I hope my eyes are not like limpid forest pools," declared a very clear, musical female voice behind him. "Aren't forest pools full of small slimy creatures and dead leaves?"
Somewhat startled, Alan turned to find the source of this forthrightness. He discovered a girl of perhaps twenty with lustrous, silky brown hair and a turned-up nose. She didn't have the look of the haut ton, with which Alan was only too tiresomely familiar. Her gown was too simple, her hair not fashionably cropped. She looked, in fact, like someone who should not, under any circumstances, have been brought to Carlton House and the possible notice of the Prince Regent.
Or of the dissolute-looking fellow who was bending over her now, Alan noted. He had the bloodshot eyes and pouchy skin of a man who had spent years drinking too much and sleeping too little. The set of his thin lips and the lines in his face spoke of cruelty. Alan started to go to the rescue. Then he remembered where he was. Innocent young ladies were not left alone in Carlton House, at the mercy of the prince's exceedingly untrustworthy set of friends and hangers-on. Their families saw to that. Most likely this girl was a high flyer whose youthful looks were very good for business. No doubt she knew what she was doing. He started to turn away.
"No, I do not wish to stroll with you in the garden," the girl said. "I have told you so a dozen times. I don't wish to be rude, but please go away."
The man grasped her arm, his fingers visibly digging into her flesh. He tried to pull her along with him through the crowd.
"I'll scream," said the girl, rather calmly. "I can scream very loudly. My singing teacher said I have an extraordinary set of lungs. Though an unreliable grasp of pitch," she added with regretful honesty.
Her companion ignored this threat until the girl actually opened her mouth and drew in a deep preparatory breath. Then, with a look around at the crowd and a muttered oath, he dropped her arm. "Witch," he said.
"'Double, double toil and trouble,'" she replied pertly.
The man frowned.
"'Fire, burn; and, cauldron, bubble,'" she added.
His frown became a scowl.
"Something of toad, eye of newt . . . oh, I forget the rest." She sounded merely irritated at her lapse of memory.
The man backed away a few steps.
"There's blood in it somewhere," she told herself. She made an exasperated sound. "I used to know the whole thing by heart."
Her would-be ravisher took to his heels. The girl shook out her skirts and tossed her head in satisfaction.
His interest definitely caught, Alan examined this unusual creature more closely. She was small--the top of her head did not quite reach his shoulder--but the curves of her form were not at all childlike. The bodice of her pale green gown was admirably filled and it draped a lovely line of waist and hip. Her skin glowed like ripe peaches against her glossy brown hair. He couldn't see whether her eyes had any resemblance to forest pools, but her lips were mesmerizing--very full and beautifully shaped. The word "luscious" occurred to him, and he immediately rejected it as nonsense. What the devil was he doing? he wondered. He wasn't a man to be beguiled by physical charms, or to waste his time on such maunderings. Still, he was having trouble tearing his eyes away from her when it was brought home to him that she had noticed him.
"No, I do not wish to go with you into another room," she declared, meeting his gaze squarely. "Or into the garden, or out to your carriage. I do not require an escort home. Nor do I need someone to tell me how to go on or to 'protect' me." She stared steadily up at him, not looking at all embarrassed.
Her eyes were rather like forest pools, Alan thought; dead leaves aside. They were a sparkling mixture of brown and green that put one in mind of the deep woods. "What are you doing here?" he couldn't resist asking her.
"That is none of your affair. What are you doing here?"
Briefly, Alan wondered what she would think if he told her. He would enjoy hearing her response, he realized. But of course he couldn't reveal his supposed "mission."
A collective gasp passed over the crowd, moving along the room like wind across a field of grain. Alan turned quickly. This was what he had been waiting for through the interminable hours and days. There! He started toward the sweeping staircase that adorned the far end of the long room, pushing past knots of guests transfixed by the figure that stood in the shadows atop it.
On the large landing at the head of the stairs the candles had gone out--or been blown out, Alan amended. In the resulting pool of darkness, floating above the sea of light in the room, was a figure out of some sensational tale. It was a woman, her skin bone-white, her hair a deep chestnut. She wore an antique gown of yellow brocade, the neckline square cut, the bodice tight above a long full skirt. Alan knew, because he had been told, that this was invariably her dress when she appeared, and that it was the costume she had worn onstage to play Lady Macbeth.
Sound reverberated through the room--the clanking of chains--as Alan pushed past the guests, who remained riveted by the vision before them. The figure seemed to hover a foot or so above the floor. The space between the hem of its gown and the stair landing was a dark vacancy. Its eyes were open, glassy and fixed, effectively dead-looking. Its hands and arms were stained with gore.
A bloodcurdling scream echoed down the stairs. Then a wavering, curiously guttural voice pronounced the word "justice" very slowly, three times. The figure's mouth had not moved during any of this, Alan noted.
He had nearly reached the foot of the stairs when a female guest just in front of him threw up her arms and crumpled to the floor in a faint. Alan had to swerve and slow to keep from stepping on her, and as he did so, something struck him from behind, upsetting his balance and nearly knocking him down. "What the devil?" he said, catching himself and moving on even as he cast a glance over his shoulder. To his astonishment, he found that the girl he had encountered a moment ago was right on his heels. He didn't have time to wonder what she thought she was doing. "Stay out of my way," he commanded, and lunged for the stairs.
Excerpted from The Bargain by Jane Ashford. Copyright (c) 1997 by Jane Ashford. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Books, a division of the Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.