The Bastard was here at Ware Castle.
Damn the man. Emma Greyson clenched one gloved hand into a fist on the balcony railing. Of all the thoroughly rotten luck. Then again, it was all of a piece, she thought. Her luck had been rotten for some time now, culminating in complete financial disaster two months ago.
Nevertheless, discovering that she would have to spend the next week trying to avoid Chilton Crane was really too much.
She drummed her fingers on the ancient stone. She should not have been so startled to see Crane arrive that afternoon. After all, the Polite World was a relatively small one. There was nothing odd about The Bastard being among the many guests who had been invited to the large house party.
She could not afford to lose this post, Emma thought. Crane might not remember her, but the only sensible thing to do was to stay out of his path for the duration of the house party. With so many people about, it should be a simple matter to disappear into the woodwork, she assured herself. Few took any notice of paid companions.
A slight whisper of movement in the darkness below the balcony jerked her out of her glum reverie. She frowned and peered more closely into the deep shadows cast by a high hedge.
One of the shadows shifted. It moved out of the darkness and glided across a moonlit patch of lawn. She leaned forward and caught a glimpse of the figure who moved like a ghost through the silver light. Tall, lean, dark haired, dressed entirely in black clothing.
She did not need the brief glint of moonlight on his austere, ascetic cheekbones to recognize the man below.
Edison Stokes. By chance she had been returning from a walk yesterday afternoon when he arrived at the castle. She had seen him drive his gleaming phaeton into the courtyard. The sleek carriage had been drawn by perfectly matched, well-trained bays.
The huge creatures had responded to Stokes's hands on the ribbons with calm precision. Their willing obedience indicated that their master relied on technique and skill rather than whips and savage bits for control.
Later Emma had noticed that the other guests watched Stokes with sidelong glances whenever he was in the room. She knew their ferretlike interest meant that he was very likely both extremely wealthy and extremely powerful. Quite possibly extremely dangerous.
All of which made him extremely fascinating in the minds of the bored and thoroughly jaded elite.
The shadows shifted again. Emma leaned a little farther out over the balcony. She saw that Stokes had one leg over the sill of an open window. How very odd. He was, after all, a guest in the castle. There was no need for him to skulk about this way.
There was only one reason why Stokes would choose such a clandestine approach. He was either returning from a tryst with the wife of one of the other guests or he was about to conduct one.
She did not know why, but she had expected better of Stokes. Her employer, Lady Mayfield, had introduced them last night. When he had inclined his head very formally over her hand, her intuition had sparked briefly. This was not another Chilton Crane, she had told herself. Edison Stokes was more than just another debauched rake in a world that already teemed with an overabundance of the species.
Obviously she had been wrong. And not for the first time lately.
A burst of raucous laughter spilled from one of the open windows farther along the east wing of the castle. The men in the billiard room sounded quite drunk. Music poured forth from the ballroom.
Down below her balcony, Edison Stokes vanished into a darkened chamber that was not his own.
After a while Emma turned and walked slowly back into a dimly lit stone passage. She could safely retire to her bedchamber, she decided. Lady Mayfield would be in her altitudes by now. Letty was extremely fond of champagne. She would never notice that her paid companion had disappeared for the evening.
The sound of muffled voices on the little-used back stairs brought Emma to an abrupt halt midway along the corridor. She paused and listened intently. Soft laughter echoed. A couple. The man sounded disgustingly cup-shot.
"Your maid will be waiting up for you, I assume?" Chilton Crane mumbled with ill-concealed eagerness.
Emma froze. So much for her hopes that her luck would improve. The glow of a candle appeared on the wall of the staircase. In another moment Crane and his companion would emerge into the hall where she stood.
She was trapped. Even if she whirled and ran as fast as she could, she would not be able to make it all the way back down the corridor to the main staircase.
"Don't be silly," Miranda, Lady Ames, murmured. "I dismissed the girl before I went downstairs this evening. I certainly did not want her in the way when I returned."
"There was no need to get rid of her," Chilton said quickly. "I'm certain we could have found some use for the chit."
"Mr. Crane, are you by any chance suggesting that my maid join us under the covers?" Miranda retorted archly. "Sir, I am shocked."
"Variety is the spice of life, my dear. And I have always found that females who are dependent upon keeping a post in a household are extremely willing to do as they are told. Eager, in fact."
"You will have to indulge your taste for the serving classes some other time. I have no intention of sharing you with my maid tonight."
"Perhaps we could look a bit higher for someone to make up a threesome. I noticed that Lady Mayfield brought along a companion. What do you say we arrange to summon her to your bedchamber on a pretext of some sort—"
"Lady Mayfield's companion? Surely you don't mean Miss Greyson?" Miranda sounded genuinely appalled. "Never say that you have a mind to seduce that bland creature in spectacles and caps. And that dreadful red hair. Have you no taste at all in such matters?"
"I have often found that drab clothing and spectacles can conceal a surprisingly lively spirit." Chilton paused. "Speaking of Lady Mayfield's companion—"
"I'd rather not, if you don't mind."
"There is something oddly familiar about her," Chilton said slowly. "I wonder if I have encountered her elsewhere."
Panic uncoiled in Emma's stomach. She'd had reason to hope that Crane had not recognized her earlier when, trapped in the music room, she had been forced to walk right past him to escape. He had glanced only casually in her direction.
She had told herself that men such as Crane, who enjoyed forcing themselves on their hosts' hapless maids, governesses, and paid ladies' companions, did not commit their victims' features to memory. Furthermore, her hair was now a different color.
Fearful that a previous employer, who had dismissed her for insubordination, might have warned her acquaintances about that insolent, red-haired female, she had worn a dark wig during the short period of her employment at Ralston Manor.
"Forget Lady Mayfield's companion," Miranda ordered. "She is a boring little thing. I assure you I can entertain you in a much more interesting fashion than she can."
"Of course, my dear. Whatever you say." Chilton sounded vaguely disappointed.
Emma edged back a step. She had to do something. She could not stand here like a cornered hare and wait for Miranda and Crane to emerge from the stairwell.
She glanced over her shoulder. The only light in the darkened hall came from a single wall sconce halfway along the corridor. Heavily timbered doors sunk deep in the stone marked the entrances to the various bedchambers.
She whirled, picked up her skirts, and hurried back along the stone corridor. She would have to hide in one of the rooms. The castle was very full, and each room on this floor had been assigned to a guest. But surely they would all be empty at this hour. The night was young. Ware's friends were still downstairs, enjoying the dancing and the flirting.
She paused in front of the first door and turned the knob.
Her heart sank. She rushed to the next door. It too refused to budge.
Panic ate at her. She went to the third door, seized the knob, twisted. And breathed a ragged sigh of relief when it turned easily in her hand.
She slipped quickly into the room and shut the door very quietly behind her. She surveyed her surroundings. The bright moonlight pouring through the window revealed the heavy curtains of a large, canopied bed. There were towels on the washstand. The dressing table was littered with elegant little bottles. A woman's lace-trimmed nightgown lay across the bed.
She would wait here until Chilton and Miranda disappeared into one of the other bedchambers. Then she would make her way back to the rear stairs.
She turned, put her ear to the door, and listened to the footsteps moving down the hall. They were coming closer.
A dreadful premonition seized Emma. What if she had stumbled into Miranda's bedchamber?
The footsteps paused in front of the door.
"Here we are, Chilton." Miranda's voice was muffled by the heavy door. "Just let me get my key."
Emma stepped back from the door as if it had turned red-hot. She had only seconds. Miranda believed her door to be locked. She was no doubt busily rummaging about in her reticule, hunting for the key.
Emma searched the moonlit room with desperation. There was no space under the bed. She could see that traveling trunks had been stored there. That left only the massive wardrobe. She ran toward it. Her soft kid evening slippers made no noise on the carpet.
Crane's drunken laughter echoed on the other side of the door. Emma heard the soft ting of metal on stone.
"There now, see what you made me do?" Miranda said. "I dropped it."
"Allow me," Chilton said.
Emma yanked open the heavy wardrobe, pushed her way through a forest of frothy gowns, and climbed inside. She reached out and pulled the door closed behind her.
She was instantly enfolded in utter darkness. A man's arm wrapped around her waist. She started to scream. A warm palm clamped around her mouth. She was pulled roughly against a strong, rock-hard chest and pinned there.
Terror crashed through Emma. The problem of being recognized paled into insignificance compared to her new predicament. No wonder she had found the door of this bedchamber unlocked. Someone else had already sneaked into the room.
"Silence, please, Miss Greyson," Edison Stokes whispered directly into her ear. "Or we shall both have a great deal of explaining to do."
From the Paperback edition.