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"The Grayson Estate, Missus."
"It's huge!" Aurora Tremblay rested her elbows on the edge of the hot-air balloon's swaying wicker basket and leaned forward for a better look. From a sprawling mansion flanked by outbuildings amidst acres of formal gardens, to wooded copses, riding trails, a maze, and a pond, the estate below was far more grandiose than she'd expected. "Can you set down on the lawn over there?"
"I can try."
When the basket touched down on the manicured lawn of the estate, Aurora hiked up her skirt with one hand, balanced her champagne glass in the other hand, and scrambled over the edge.
Once both feet landed on firm ground she straightened her hat and jacket and smoothed her skirt, as if such an entrance was an everyday occurrence. Since she'd cleverly avoided spilling even a drop of champagne, she tossed back her head and downed the contents of her glass. She'd need the extra fortification before she tackled the infamous Grayson Thorne, lord and master of the domain she had just breached.
The sound of applause momentarily caught her off guard, before she turned to her fan and made an exaggerated stage bow.
"Nicely done." The speaker was tall, broad of shoulder, and dark-haired. He appeared amused as he strolled toward her, a casual fluidity in his every step. Thorne? Or one of his henchmen?
If he thought to intimidate her, he'd need to do more than simply skim his eyes assessingly over her form. Except those dark, enigmatic eyes somehow managed to probe uncomfortably below the surface and ruffle her complacency. Why else would she suddenly feel as vulnerable as if she stood before him in her underpinnings, or less? As if he could see right through her well-rehearsed persona to the delicious secret longings that burned incessantly in her thoughts.
Not even the man she'd been married to had the slightest idea of her restless cravings, her innermost fantasies and desires.
"In fact," she said breezily, "it was quite the ride. Already I'm wondering what I might take on next."
"You make a habit of this type of thing?"
"I most certainly try." Was he laughing at her? Those firm lips curved upward in a way that seemed forced. Perhaps the man just wasn't accustomed to smiling very often. Surely a glower would be more at home on those handsome, ruggedly masculine features.
She dug into her reticule and pulled out a pristine new calling card, which she passed to him.
"Mrs. H. R. Tremblay," he read aloud. "Grand Adventuress." Now there was no mistaking the mockery in his tone and his eyes. "Just what does a grand adventuress do?"
"All manner of things." Drat, she sounded far too throaty, her words husky and breathless. A fact that did not escape the notice of the man before her. His reaction was subtle a perceptible dilation of the pupils, a slight quickening of his breath as he acknowledged the intangible something that tautened between them. Almost as if invisible silken bonds slowly and surely twined them together.
Aurora cleared her throat. "Could you please be so kind as to direct me to Grayson Thorne? He and I have an important matter to discuss."
His gaze swept her once more in that disconcerting fashion. Energy. Power. Magnetism. He had to be Thorne; for he exuded a fascinating combination of strength and raw sex that Aurora could not only see and smell and feel, but almost taste. She moistened her lips with her tongue, aware of the way he watched her slightest move, then matched it with one of his own.
She got the sense he was biding his time. Waiting for the right moment...To what sweep her into his arms? Carry her into his lair? Now that would be an adventure. People spoke of the powerful Grayson Thorne with a hushed reverence and awe, and she was starting to see why.
"Your ride appears to have left without you."
Aurora swung about, aghast to see the balloon rising skyward. "He told me he would wait."
"The wind, it would seem, had different ideas."
How had Thorne gotten so close? One minute he'd been a safe distance from her, now he stood directly before her, very much larger than life. She sensed raw, unleashed power, barely glossed over and held in check by the dictates of polite society.
If he was a warrior, what battles did he fight? Inward? Outward? What secrets did he harbor behind those enigmatic dark eyes? What images haunted his sleep and invaded his dreams?
His presence was so powerful, she started when he touched her. He took her arm in a possessive, proprietarial manner and began to steer her in the direction of the mansion. "And thus it would appear that one adventure begets another, and you find yourself my unexpected guest."
"Do you entertain often?" She didn't want to antagonize the man, simply state her business at the first opportunity, then be on her way.
"Sadly, no. With the exception of the next few days, of course."
"Oh?" Aurora allowed his hand to remain on her arm as she turned her attention toward the mansion, which, from the air, had appeared immense. Viewed up close it was just as imposing, sprawling in different directions.
"Indeed." They reached the front stairs just as a carriage rounded the bend and made its way up the drive toward them. When Aurora would have drawn back, Thorne's hold grew more insistent, a subtle pressure she felt radiate through her.
"The least you can do is come and help me greet my guests. And the very least I can do is refill your glass." He plucked the empty champagne glass from her hand and barked instructions to the bevy of household servants poised beneath the porte cochere to greet the carriage.
Aurora watched wide-eyed as trunk after trunk was unloaded with swift efficiency from inside the carriage.
The driver said, "The club members are following, sir. With the ladies."
"Very good." Grayson turned to his manservant. "Hudson, I'll leave you to see everyone gets comfortably settled."
"I've come at an inopportune time," Aurora said as Grayson marched her inside, across an immense marble-hued hallway with a curving antebellum staircase, to what was obviously his study. Dark wainscoting, a huge wooden desk, uncomfortable horsehair furniture. A true man's domain, as dark and forbidding as the man himself. The chair across from his desk proved as uncomfortable as it looked, clearly intended to discourage one from lingering in his lordship's presence.
"Extremely inopportune," he agreed. He opened a chilled bottle of champagne in a manner that suggested it was a frequent ritual, then made a production of refilling her glass. After delivering her drink, he poured himself a measure of whiskey and sprawled behind his desk.
Aurora took a sip. Business, she reminded herself. Ignore the unsettling effect he has on you. It's obviously well practiced and garners him results.
Her mind skipped off sideways, thinking of the result should the two of them suddenly be united in mutual effort. Or mutual ecstasy. Suddenly Aurora was far too warm, but she resisted the urge to slip out of her jacket, a move Thorne would no doubt interpret as weakness. He'd think he was ruffling her composure. Perhaps she should allow him that false impression, let him think he held the upper hand. "I didn't mean to crash your party."
"Well, you certainly intended to breach my privacy. Now that you're here, I'm afraid you'll find yourself dependent upon my good nature."
Aurora tilted her head and studied him from beneath lowered lashes, unable to resist baiting him as he baited her. "Do you even have one? A good nature, that is?"
"Come, come, Mrs. Tremblay. You have inveigled your way into my home and some very expensive French champagne. I'm neglecting my guests for you, so intriguing do I find your charming presence."
Another woman might fall back on her feminine wiles, flirting with him to pander to his ego. Aurora was not another woman. "Please don't."
He looked askance at her curt response.
She leaned forward. "Please don't attempt to flirt with me, as if I'm a guest whom you must make feel welcome. Simply hear me out, then dispatch me back to the city, posthaste."
He rose and refilled her glass although she'd barely touched its contents, his hand atop hers steadying the stemware. She felt the heat radiate from his fingertips and ignite her skin, a wildfire that rippled through her blood to pool in her feminine recesses.
"And just how do you propose I do that? Your rather irregular mode of arrival seems to have left you quite stranded."
Pointedly, she removed his hand from hers and stood as well. Much better to be eye to eye than have him loom over her. "Don't toy with me, Mr. Thorne. Simply bundle me into a carriage, and I'll be out of your way."
"Supposing I don't care to have you out of my way?"
"You have a houseful of guests to attend to."
"Strangers, most of the lot. Have you heard of the Rose and Thorn Club?"
"Of course." Anyone raised in the world of theater, as she had been, was well aware of the gentlemen's club, with its exclusivity and mystique. Having a club champion guaranteed the stage success of any actress. Thorne's father had been a founding member.
"Of course," Grayson echoed in slightly mocking tones. "Tell me, does Mr. Tremblay know what sort of adventure you've embarked upon?"
"I'm a widow," Aurora said.
"I wondered," Grayson said. "You have the look."
"The look of a woman who has been too long without a man."
Grayson took the champagne glass from her fingers and set it down nearby. He ripped her hat from her head and tossed it aside, then dug his hands through her hair, tumbling it loose. "I like you mussed."
He intended to kiss her! Aurora couldn't still the jolt of excitement that accompanied the knowledge. She felt hot and liquid at the same time. Melting. Ready.
She swayed toward him, compelled by something too powerful to question. She knew only that she needed his kiss as badly as she needed to breathe. And that he felt the same.
His kiss was as masterful as he was. Sure. Strong. Knowing. Eliciting a heady response that danced through her blood and threatened to consume her.
Aurora caught his shoulders for support as waves of intense pleasure radiated through her. He was right. She had been too long without a man. And forever without one like him.
He drew back first, seeming far more in control than she. "I take it you are the same Mrs. Tremblay who has been pestering my secretary for a meeting with me these past weeks."
Aurora nodded, still dizzy from his embrace. Her lips ached, yet begged for more. Her entire body throbbed and pulsated. How could she feel both sated and bereft? All from a single kiss? "I am indeed that same Mrs. Tremblay."
"Obviously you don't believe in taking no for an answer."
"Not when there's something I want this badly."
His coffee-colored eyes told her without words that he wanted her with equal fervor. The knowledge inflamed her.
"I'm rather like that myself. It can prove difficult."
Aurora knew they were speaking of two things at once, her desires versus his. "I manage quite nicely."
"So it would appear. Yet I fear, in this instance, you may find you've gotten more than you bargained for."
"Really, Mr. Thorne. When you refused to meet with me concerning the Gaslight Theater "
He rose. "I have no intention of undertaking this discussion at this time. Come. I will show you to your room."
"My room? Surely you don't expect me to stay?"
"Oh, I think you'll stay. Seeing how there's something we both want. Badly."
"But I have no things. No clothing or toiletries."
"Rest assured, I am more than able to see to your needs."
The promise in his words and his eyes was unmistakable.
All of her needs.
Aurora had the strong urge to bolt before she got too deeply embroiled. "Surely someone can fetch me back to the city."
"I'm afraid I don't have the staffing required to see you back to San Francisco."
"But your guests..."
"Will be as charmed to meet you as I have been, I'm quite sure." As they spoke he led the way upstairs to the end of the hall, where he opened the door to a sumptuous suite. "There is plenty of clothing in the armoire. You should manage to find something suitable."
She stepped past him and into what was most clearly not a guest room. It reeked of femininity in tones of pink and lavender. A multitude of flounces and frills draped a huge canopied bed that was drowned in pillows. Matching fabric swathed the windows. The domain of an absentee wife?
"Whose room is this?" Aurora advanced slowly, half-expecting that her surroundings might disappear into a cloud of smoke and mirrors.
ardPerhaps those years of make-believe, on stage and off, had finally taken their toll. Perhaps she wasn't capable of separating fantasy from reality, even though she no longer had to act on stage for a living. Once she'd married Hubert, it wasn't considered seemly to pursue her career, he'd said. Was that when her grown-up longings and fantasies had been born, with time on her hands and little to amuse herself save her imagination?
On the far side of the room near the fireplace, framed photos lured her to a side table. Thorne stood stiffly, legs apart, hands clasped behind his back as she picked up a picture and studied it in the fading afternoon light.
"This is my mother's room. She hasn't been here in quite some time."
Aurora spun about to face her host, recognizing the shadow. The lonely young boy awaiting the return of his beautiful and famous mother. "Celeste Grayson is your mother."
"Excellent deductive powers, Mrs. Tremblay."
"The Gaslight Theater is where she first got her big break."
Just like that, Grayson's face shut down, devoid of all expression. "I see you've researched the property."
Aurora's eyes remained on his. "I'm also aware that your father's body was discovered on the site."
"Very good, Mrs. Tremblay. Who knows what other interesting snippets you might discover over the next three days?"
Randall Ames strolled into Grayson's study a short time later. "Who's the knockout redhead I saw you escorting upstairs?"
"You mean, Mrs. H. R. Tremblay, Grand Adventuress?" Gray said mockingly, flipping the calling card to his secretary.
Randall caught the card deftly, frowning as he read it. "Grand Adventuress? Likely more talk than action. Why does the name sound familiar?"
"She's been hounding you for a meeting with me these past weeks."
"Ah, yes. Aurora Tremblay. The one you told me to get rid of."
"A task at which it would appear you failed miserably."
"Someone who doesn't take no for an answer, is she? Forgive me, but isn't tenacity one of those character traits you most admire?"
"Only when it suits me," Gray said.
"So send her on her way."
"Not until I know exactly who and what she's all about."
"Doesn't she have designs on the theater?"
"Perhaps," Gray said, recalling the delectable way she felt in his arms, her response to his impulsive kiss. He'd thought to repel her with his advances, yet the exact opposite had happened and he wasn't accustomed to being so wrong in his judgment of people. That alone was enough to intrigue him.
"The rooms have all been assigned. Where are you going to put her?"
"She's in Celeste's room."
Randall raised a brow. "In your wing. How very convenient."
"At least that way I'll be able to keep a close eye on her. I don't need any more unpleasant surprises."
"What's Beau been up to now?"
"His usual. Making promises he has no intention of keeping."
"Chip off the old block that way, isn't he?"
"He does seem to favor his mother."
Randall laughed aloud. "Last I heard, Celeste was your mother, as well."
Gray shot him a sharp look. "I'll thank you not to remind me."
Hardly the auspicious audience she had set out to obtain with Grayson Thorne, but it was a start, Aurora thought as she made a more leisurely perusal of the room. To think that Celeste Grayson was Thorne's mother. The woman who was not only a legend in the theater world, but equally well known for her legion of lovers.
Aurora had had a bit part onstage with the woman once. Celeste wouldn't remember her, but it was an experience Aurora had never forgotten. This room showed a different side of the woman Aurora remembered. Her love of books, her passion for art, along with many other creature comforts. Not to mention clothing, for the armoire door was nearly bursting off its hinges. Aurora pulled out a simple day shift in spring tones and held it against her. It smelled faintly of a seductive floral scent. So Grayson expected her to take up residence in his mother's room and help herself to his mother's clothes, did he? Quite a cheek.
Aurora had no intention of sitting about meekly, waiting to be summoned. She pushed aside the curtains and took in the surrounding grounds. She caught a glimpse of the pond in the distance, beyond the formal rose garden and arbor, past the maze.
She had need of Grayson. Rather, she corrected herself quickly, she needed what he had the Gaslight Theater. And she was quite certain that she'd be able to convince him of the merit of her plans. He'd soon find she wasn't easily swayed from her goals.
The manor house was unexpectedly quiet as she made her way downstairs. Perhaps Grayson's guests had been delayed, and the staff was busy with behind-the-scenes preparations. Once outside, Aurora faced a quandary. The maze...the sculpture gardens...the summerhouse...the pond...Each one beckoned, promising an adventure.
"If you're looking for Gray, he's in the summerhouse." A fair-haired youth rose from the depths of a wicker chair in the shadows of the porch.
"And the summerhouse is...?"
"That way," the young man said, pointing and extending his hand in one lazy movement. "I'm Gray's brother, Beau."
"Aurora Tremblay," she said, taking his proffered hand. The young man was slender, almost pretty, and she sensed weakness in both his handshake and his personality, reminding her of her late husband. Perhaps the younger brother was simply spoiled. Whatever the cause, she saw no evidence of Grayson's strength in his sibling.
"You one of the actresses, then?"
"I've been onstage a time or two."
"Gray didn't want to host the party, you know. Julian badgered him into it. On account of it was Gray's father's turn."
"I see." Aurora doubted Grayson was easily badgered into anything, so he must have his own agenda. Something to do with his father's death and his newly inherited membership in the exclusive Rose and Thorn, perhaps. "I think I'll go and see if I can beg a minute of his time."
Grayson's estate proved as remarkable as the man himself. The pathway she followed was flanked by a verdant broadleaf hedge with a profusion of colorful blooms, whose fragrance spiked the air with a sweet-smelling perfume. Jasmine twined about the overhead archway, shielding her from the late-afternoon sun and adding its own exotic fragrance.
Aurora stooped and picked up a bright orange bloom from the ground. As she tucked it behind one ear, she realized she had neglected to tidy her hair after Grayson had run his hands through it. Or did she just not wish to erase the memory of his touch? She couldn't pretend she hadn't enjoyed the excitement of being in his arms, of experiencing his kiss. Even now a thrill chased through her, clear to the tips of her fingers and the soles of her feet.
Glancing about, she suddenly felt younger and more carefree than she had in years. So much responsibility had come her way, especially after her marriage, as Hubert's waning health and weak character had forced her to be the strong one of the couple.
No wonder she found herself drawn to Grayson Thorne. How could she resist a man whose physical strength paired effortlessly with strength of character? A man who wouldn't allow himself to be pushed or bullied, any more than she did. Whose power could enhance without quelling hers if she played her cards correctly. Somehow she needed to convince him that a partnership was in their mutual interests.
She reached the charming open-air summerhouse, disappointed to find no sign of her host. Did she secretly hope that here, in a heavy silence broken only by the trill of birdsong, he'd pull her into his arms and kiss her again? Open-air coupling, the thrill of the forbidden only one of the many sexual adventures hinted at in Grayson's knowing gaze. Aurora shivered at the delicious direction of her thoughts. No matter that her fantasies would never come to fruition; they fed her soul and nurtured her adventurous spirit.
Aurora climbed the three steps to the cool, sweet-smelling interior, an idyllic mix of indoors and out with its encroaching greenery, casual wicker furniture, and slatted, half-open ceiling, intended more for shade than privacy. She stretched out upon a wicker settee and sank several inches into an overstuffed feather mattress. Dreamily, she gazed up at the ceiling. She'd just settle in here for a bit and see if Grayson showed up.
She awoke at dusk, blinking herself awake, hungry and totally disoriented. In the west she could see the last fading pink fingers of the sunset, backlit by a faint golden glow.
She stirred and sat up. How odd. She didn't recall there being a blanket here when she first lay down, but she was cozily warm beneath one now. She touched it and discovered it was not a blanket at all, but a black velvet cloak. And lying on the pillow, next to the faint indentation from her head, was a matching velvet mask.
Copyright © 2004 by Kathleen Shandley