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“I have another book which you might also find very interesting, Mr. Draycott.” Olympia Wingfield balanced one slippered foot on the library ladder, wedged her other toe onto the edge of a shelf, and reached out to pluck a volume from the top of the bookcase. “This one also contains some fascinating information on the legend of the Island of Gold. And I think there is still another one you should examine.”
“Have a care, I beg you, Miss Wingfield.” Reginald Draycott gripped the sides of the ladder to steady it. He gazed up at Olympia as she leaned out to fetch another book from a high shelf. “You will surely fall if you do not watch yourself.”
“Nonsense. I promise you I am quite accustomed to this sort of thing. Now, then, I used this particular work when I wrote my last paper for the quarterly journal of the Society for Travel and Exploration. It’s extremely useful because it contains notes on the unusual customs of the inhabitants of certain South Seas islands.”
“Kind of you to loan it to me, Miss Wingfield, but I am really growing very concerned about your position on this ladder.”
“Do not fret, sir.” Olympia glanced down at Draycott with a reassuring smile and saw that he had an extremely odd expression on his face. His pale weak eyes had a glazed look and his mouth was hanging open.
“Are you feeling ill, Mr. Draycott?”
“No, no, not at all, my dear.” Draycott licked his lips and continued to stare.
“You’re quite certain? You look as though you might be nauseous. I shall be glad to fetch these books at another time.”
“I wouldn’t hear of waiting another day. I vow, I am quite well. In any event you have whetted my appetite for every scrap of information on the legend of the Island of Gold, my dear. I could not bring myself to leave here without more material to study.”
“Well, then, if you’re quite certain. Now, this volume relates some fascinating customs of the legendary Island of Gold. I, myself, have always been fascinated by the customs and habits of other lands.”
“Have you, indeed?”
“Oh, yes. As a woman of the world, I find such matters quite stimulating. The wedding night rituals of the inhabitants of the Island of Gold are particularly interesting.” Olympia flipped several pages in the old book and then chanced to glance down at Draycott’s face again.
Something was definitely amiss, she thought. Draycott’s expression was beginning to make her a trifle uneasy. His eyes were not meeting hers; rather they appeared to be fixed somewhat lower.
“Wedding night rituals, did you say, Miss Wingfield?”
“Yes. Very unusual customs.” Olympia frowned in concentration. “Apparently the groom presents the bride with a large gold object shaped rather like a phallus.”
“A phallus, did you say, Miss Wingfield?” Draycott sounded as if someone were throttling him.
It finally struck Olympia quite forcibly that in his present position at the foot of the ladder Draycott had an excellent view straight up under her skirts.
“Good heavens.” Olympia lost her balance and grabbed the top rung of the ladder. One of the books that she had been holding fell to the carpet.
“Is something wrong, my dear?” Draycott asked quickly.
Mortified by the realization that she was exposing a great deal of her stocking-clad legs to his unimpeded gaze, Olympia turned very warm.
“Nothing’s wrong, Mr. Draycott. I have found the volumes I wanted. I’m coming down now. You may step aside.”
“Allow me to assist you.” Draycott’s soft, pudgy hands brushed against the calves of Olympia’s legs beneath her muslin skirts.
“No, please. That’s quite all right,” Olympia gasped. She had never before experienced the feel of a man’s hands on her legs. Draycott’s touch sent a chill of alarm through her.
She tried to climb back up the ladder to escape Draycott’s hands. His fingers closed around her ankle before she could get out of reach.
Olympia tried and failed to jerk her leg free. Embarrassment turned to annoyance. “If you will just get out of my way, Mr. Draycott, I shall be able to climb down safely.”
“I cannot let you risk a fall.” Draycott’s fingers slipped higher up her leg and squeezed.
“I do not need any assistance.” Another of the books Olympia had been holding slipped out of her arms and fell to the carpet with a thud. “Kindly let go of my ankle, sir.”
“I am only trying to help you, my dear.”
Olympia was outraged now. She had known Reginald Draycott for years. She could not believe that he would not do as she asked. She kicked out wildly. Her foot struck Draycott on the shoulder.
“Umph.” Draycott staggered backward a step. He gave Olympia an injured look.
Olympia paid no attention to the accusation in his eyes. She scrambled down the ladder in a flurry of muslin. She could feel her hair coming free of the knot in which she had secured it. Her white muslin cap was askew.
When the toe of her slipper touched the carpet, Draycott’s hands closed around her waist from behind.
“My dearest Olympia, I cannot hold back my feelings any longer.”
“That is quite enough, Mr. Draycott.” Abandoning any further effort to deal with the situation in a ladylike manner, Olympia rammed her elbow into his midsection.
Draycott groaned but he did not release her. He was panting in her ear. She could smell onions on his breath. Her stomach churned.
“Olympia, my darling, you are a woman of mature years, not a green girl fresh out of the schoolroom. You have been buried alive here in Upper Tudway all of your life. You have never had a chance to experience the joys of passion. It is time you lived.”
“I believe I am going to be ill all over your boots, Mr. Draycott.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You are no doubt a bit nervous because you are unfamiliar with the pleasures of physical desire. Have no fear, I shall teach you everything you need to know.”
“Let me go, Mr. Draycott.” Olympia dropped the last book and clawed at his hands.
“You are a lovely woman who has never known the taste of l’amour. Surely you do not wish to deny yourself the ultimate sensual experience.”
“Mr. Draycott, if you do not let go of me at once, I shall scream.”
“There is no one home, my dear.” Draycott wrestled her over to the couch. “Your nephews are gone.”
“I am certain that Mrs. Bird is somewhere about.”
“Your housekeeper is out in the gardens.” Draycott started to nuzzle her neck. “Have no fear, my sweet, we are quite alone.”
“Mr. Draycott. You must get hold of yourself, sir. You do not know what you are doing.”
“Call me Reggie, my dear.”
Olympia made a wild grab for the silver statue of the Trojan horse that stood on her desk. She missed.
But to her amazement Draycott suddenly yelped in alarm and released her.
“Bloody hell,” Draycott gasped.
Free at last, but off balance, Olympia stumbled and nearly fell. She caught hold of the desk to steady herself. Behind her she heard Draycott cry out once more.
“Who the devil are you?” he began in an outraged voice.
There was a sickening sound of flesh slamming into flesh and then there was a sudden thud.
Cap dangling over one ear, Olympia spun around. She pushed several tendrils of hair out of her eyes and stared, astounded, at Draycott. He was lying in a crumpled heap on the floor.
With a strange sense of inevitability, Olympia’s gaze went to the pair of black boots that were planted on the carpet beside Draycott. Slowly she raised her eyes.
She found herself staring at the face of a man who could have walked straight out of a legend involving buried treasure and mysterious islands set in uncharted seas. From his long, wind-whipped black hair and velvet eye patch to the dagger he wore strapped to his thigh, he was an awe-inspiring sight.
He was one of the most powerful looking men Olympia had ever seen. Tall, broad- shouldered, and lean, he radiated a supple sense of strength and masculine grace. His features had been carved with a bold, fearless hand by a sculptor who scorned subtlety and refinement.
“Are you, by any chance, Miss Olympia Wingfield?” the man asked calmly, just as if having an unconscious person at his feet were an everyday occurrence.
“Yes.” Olympia realized her voice was a mere squeak of sound. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Yes, I am. And your name, sir?”
“Oh.” She gazed at him blankly. She had never heard the name. “How do you do, Mr. Chillhurst.”
His riding coat and breeches fitted him well enough but even she, who had lived in the country all her life, recognized them as being sadly out of style. A man of modest means, obviously. Apparently he could not even afford a neckcloth because he certainly was not wearing one. The collar of his shirt was open. There was something a little uncivilized, even primitive, about the sight of his bare throat. Olympia realized she could actually see a small portion of his chest. There appeared to be dark, curling hair on it.
The man looked dangerous standing here in her library, Olympia realized. Dangerous and utterly fascinating.
A small shiver went down her spine, a shiver that was not at all akin to the unpleasant sensation that had gripped her when Draycott had taken hold of her ankle. This shiver was one of excitement.
“I don’t believe I know anyone named Chillhurst,” Olympia managed to say smoothly.
“Your uncle, Artemis Wingfield, sent me.”