“Vexing woman,” Edward muttered as he descended V the front steps of the Orlinda manse. He had hoped to leave Corinne Marchant behind, but she remained with him-the feel of her in his arms, the sweetly floral scent of her, the sting of her palm against his cheek.
And the way she spoke to him…
“Contrary female.” His fists clenched along with his jaw.
He almost reconsidered his decision to walk home in lieu of splurging on a hackney. Although a long walk would clear his mind and take the edge off his lust, a carriage would put greater distance between him and Corinne in a shorter amount of time. Distance that might temper the urge to go back inside and apologize. The itch to charm her properly and win her regard was nearly overwhelming.
Despite knowing her motives were impure, he wanted to scratch that itch.
There was no possibility that her interest was genuine. She was too beautiful, too wealthy, too well connected to find anything noteworthy about him-other than his work for Mr. Franklin.
It was not the first time he had been approached as a gateway to Franklin. It was, however, the first time he considered allowing it to happen for personal gain.
As his feet hit the front drive, his pace increased. His conscience told him to put any thoughts of a possible liaison between himself and Corinne far from his mind. If he did not seek her out, he doubted she would approach him again. The thought caused a sharp pang of regret.
He had never seen a woman more lovely. She had the face of an angel and a body built for sin. If anyone asked him to describe his epitome of perfection, he would point to Corinne Marchant. But that was not the problem. He could resist the lure of the flesh; his cock did not rule his head.
No, it was not the drive to rut with beauty that drove him mad. It was her eyes. So hard at moments, as if she had lost all feeling. Then, suddenly warm and lit with wry amusement. Some part of him believed he was responsible for those glimpses of the private woman. Those ephemeral sightings made him want to see more of her, all of her.
Edward growled. He was used to having what he wanted. A modest man, he rarely wanted much and never anything beyond his means. The attraction he felt toward Corinne defied reason. They had nothing in common. What was the lure?
She was damaged. The bruised and haunted look that wracked her features after he’d kissed her bespoke deep scarring.
Someone had abused her terribly.
Fury coiled tight within him. Her past was no deterrent. Instead, it made him want her more. The desire to protect her was as powerful as the desire to mate with her. He wanted rights to her. More precisely, he wanted the right to find those responsible and mete out the justice they deserved for damaging such perfection.
Dangerous thoughts, dangerous feelings. They had no place in his regimented and orderly life, just as Corinne had no place there.
A scream rent the night, one so filled with terror it stopped him midstride.
He turned to face the manse again, seeing nothing amiss from the front, but certain the sound had emanated from there. He was frowning at the elegant, columned facade when more screams disturbed the peaceful eventide. He set off at a run.
The liveried footmen and groomsmen standing at the front drive left their stations and sprinted up the stairs before him. The moment the door opened, thick, black smoke roiled out. The four servants paused on the threshold, gaping.
“Fetch buckets from the stables!” Edward ordered.
“Yes, sir.” The two groomsmen ran back down the stairs and around the side.
He shouldered his way in front of the remaining horrified footmen. “You two, come with me. We must make certain everyone vacates the house.”
Together, they plunged into the wall of smoke. Intolerable heat assailed them, the flames fed by the newly opened door. Struggling to see through watering eyes, Edward drew in a choked breath and stumbled as scorching, soot-filled air burned his throat and singed his lungs.
He was suffocating by the time they reached the ballroom, a journey hampered by the need to feel along the wall to find their way. They split up when they reached their destination, groping their way through the many planters and columns in search of anyone yet to flee. Black smoke rolled in through the doorway behind them in ever-expanding plumes. It tumbled across the soaring ceiling and began to lower in a malevolent cloud. Edward’s heart raced madly, his hands swiping impatiently at the tears that stung his heat-sensitized cheeks.
Surely Corinne would be safe. She’d left when he did. She was most likely home now, cursing him to Hades.
Thank God. He would be insane if she was here.
“Mr. James! Mr. James!”
Edward altered course, moving in the direction of the hoarse, unrecognizable voice calling out to him. A moment later, Comte Desjardins lurched into view from the depths of the cloying, burning smoke. His thin frame was wracked by violent coughing and he lunged at Edward, catching him by the shoulders.
“Corinne,” the comte gasped, his reddened eyes glistening with near-hysteria. “Is she with you?”
A chill swept down Edward’s spine, in spite of the intense heat. “No, she left.”
“Are you certain? S-she was… to ride with me-” Desjardins coughed so forcibly that black spittle coated his lips. “… retiring room…” he wheezed. “… have not seen her…”
Edward grabbed the comte’s arm and dragged him our to the terrace, where the rest of the guests gathered. Then, he ran around the side of the manse, searching for windows with light, fighting a rising panic that threatened to paralyze him.
A woman in white stood outside an open window from which tendrils of smoke wafted.
“Go to the others,” he ordered. “On the rear lawn.”
She hesitated, her masked face gazing up at the window.
“Now!” he barked, in a tone no sane person refused.
Nodding reluctantly, the masked woman lifted her skirts and moved toward the rear of the house. Edward heard a distant scream at the same moment a masculine leg appeared over the sill. Assured of the safety of the woman’s paramour, he darted for the side gate.
No Corinne. Where in hell was she?
Edward sprinted around the front of the manse and burst through the gate on the other side, narrowly skirting the stairs that led down to the delivery entrance. He was halfway along the length of the manse when he sported Desjardins gesturing frantically before a window.
“Is she in there?” Edward rasped through his burned throat, skidding to a halt.
He studied the window through gritty eyes. Shadows danced sinuously against the glass.
Smoke. Too much of it. He could not see into the room.
“I saw movement,” the comte croaked. “Perhaps-“
The window exploded outward in a shower of broken glass, forcing them to duck beneath crossed forearms. A chair crashed to the ground with a splintering thud and smoke poured out the newly created orifice. A second later, flames that had been hugging the ceiling of the room lunged for the night air, licking outward along the manse walls.
“Corinne!” Edward roared.
The only reply was the crackle of fire eating everything in its path. After the initial burst of oxygen-starved flames, the blaze retreated back into the room, spurring him into action.
Edward spun around and caught up the damaged chair. With a mighty heave, he thrust the cracked rear legs into the flower bed and supported the padded damask back against the manse wall. He shrugged out of his coat and wrapped it around his forearm, then climbed atop the wobbly seat.
“Corinne!” he yelled, his damaged lungs seizing in protest.
Turning his head away to protect his face, Edward used his shielded arm to knock away the jagged glass that rimmed the broken sash frame. One thick piece was too firmly anchored and it sliced through his coat, shirtsleeves, and into the flesh beneath. He hissed, but refused to turn away.
Her precious face appeared, streaked with soot and trailed with tears. Corinne’s pale hair clung to her reddened skin in sweat-soaked tendrils and her nose ran copiously.
He had never seen anything so lovely.
“Christ,” he gasped, near dizzy with relief. “Come out of there.”
“James,” she whispered, her shoulders coming into view as she pushed weakly to her feet.
Admiration for her strength filled him. He knew how much it must have taxed her to break the glass.
“Yes, love. Come to me.” He held his arms out to her.
She swayed haphazardly and toppled out the window in a dead faint, her voluminous skirts catching in the protruding shards of the broken pane and tearing with a hideous rending noise.
Edward caught her and tumbled off the collapsing chair, twisting his body to absorb the entirety of the impact on his back. The breath was knocked from his beleaguered lungs. His spectacles were knocked from his head and, if he was not mistaken, presently crushed beneath him, but Corinne was in his arms, alive.
For now. She required the care of a physician immediately. Every breath she took rattled in her lungs and bubbled back out in black ooze upon her bloodless lips.
Coughing through his charred throat, Edward accepted the comte’s minimal assistance to regain his footing with Corinne held securely in his arms.
He gathered the tattered remnants of her gown and strode quickly toward the front of the house.
Simon raced toward the rear of the manse. He had checked every window as he passed it, searching for the source of the scream he’d heard just moments ago. He could not reach her through the door, but perhaps he could find her still. He had to try.
The clanging of bells carried news of the fire through the city. The night air smelled of char and heat, and sobbing told the tale of woe that ended an event meant for revelry.
He reached the rear lawn and saw a handful of servants running to and fro with sloshing buckets of water from the stables. The stunned and terrified guests huddled in various-sized groups, paralyzed and useless.
“Halt!” Simon roared, his voice carrying through the night.
The servants paused, gasping, their buckets more than half-empty from the jostling required to cover the distance from the mew to the manse.
Simon gained the terrace, then leaped atop the wide marble edge of the fountain.
“They cannot battle this blaze alone,” he yelled, gesturing to the servants. “Every able-bodied man must assist if we are to end this! There are others trapped inside in need of rescue.”
No one moved at first. Simon searched the huddled mass and spotted a young man of seemingly fine physical condition. “You,” he ordered, pointing with his finger, “come here.”
There was a brief hesitation before the man came forward. He was disheveled, his shirtsleeves hastily tucked into his doeskin breeches, his waistcoat and coat unbuttoned. From the cut and quality of his garments, Simon was certain he was a member of the peerage. But Simon did not care. Rank had no bearing in his mind when lives were at stake.
Grabbing his elbow, Simon lined him up by the terrace doors. He looked about and more men approached under the weight of his condemning stare. Some were sluggish and reluctant, but as the line formed from the door to the fountain, the level of enthusiasm displayed increased.
Simon grabbed a bucket from a servant, plunged it into the fountain, and passed it to the first man in line. It moved down, man-to-man, the participants gradually moving forward until the procession stretched from the interior gallery door where the fire raged to the terrace.
Of their own accord, the men changed positions-the lead man retreating to the cool air of the outdoors with an empty bucket, while the second man stepped up and discharged his ration of water before retreating to collect more and pass it along the line.
Once the water was flowing steadily into the house, Simon risked a glance toward the lawn and saw Lysette standing with two other women, watching him from behind the crimson mask. Relief filled him at the sight of her safe and unharmed, her white gown glimmering like a pearl in the moonlight. Then his relief was replaced by fear.
Her presence goaded him like a painful spur in his flank. There was danger here and he could not fight it while concerned for her safety.
He abandoned his post without thought, striding toward her with a clenched jaw.
“I need you to go home,” he said when he reached her, sparing a brief nod of acknowledgment to her two companions-one wigged, the other a brunette.
The wigged woman grabbed Lysette’s elbow. “I was just saying the same to her.”
Lysette opened her mouth to reply, but the set of her shoulders forewarned him of her intention to argue.
“Now,” he ordered brusquely. “I cannot think while you are here.”
Simon led the way along the side of the manse, his gait so long and rapid that the three women had to scamper to keep up with him.
They reached the drive and Simon whistled sharply, drawing the eye of every coachman. The brunette took the lead then, hurrying to a well-appointed equipage and herding the other two inside.
Lysette reached out to him. “Come with us,” she begged.
Simon caught her gloved hand and kissed the back. “I am needed here.” He retreated and closed the door, glancing at the coachman with a silent order to set off. “Godspeed.”
With a crack of the whip, the carriage rolled forward. The other coaches moved to open a pathway and within a few moments it was out of sight.
The knots of tension in Simon’s shoulders loosened appreciably. Now he could focus on the grim task ahead.
He pivoted on his heel and headed back.
“Simon Quinn,” Lynette and Solange answered in unison.
Lynette glanced at Solange with raised brows.
“I would be remiss if I did not know the name of so handsome a man.” Solange smiled lightly, and Lynette was pricked by jealousy.
It was obvious from the conversations she’d overheard that Mr. Quinn was the object of an inordinate amount of female lust, but now that she had held him intimately, she had no desire to share even a small piece of him. His passion was addicting and she wanted the whole of it for herself.
Marguerite’s gaze moved from the window.
“No one knows for a certainty.” Solange shrugged. “However, I had a paramour who had the ear of Talleyrand and he was convinced the man is an English spy.”
“He is Irish!” Lynette protested.
“He is a mercenary,” Solange corrected. “His loyalty is for sale.”
Perhaps that should have mitigated Lynette’s fascination. It did not.
“Why did he act as if he knew you?” Marguerite queried with an accusatory note in her tone.
Lynette leaned forward. “It is not me he knows. It is Lysette.”
Her mother’s face paled. “What are you saying?”
“He called me Lysette,
“That is impossible.”
“Is it?” Lynette removed her mask. “He looked at me directly and called me Lysette. How can that be a coincidence?”
“You removed your mask for him?” Marguerite whispered, her eyes wide.
“Well…” Lynette’s face heated. “He removed it.”
“Lynette!” her mother cried, her spine straightening with indignation. “How could you? I should have dragged you with me to the kitchen when that oaf spilled wine on my gown. I trusted you to behave in my absence.”
“Marguerite…” Solange began soothingly.
“And you!” Marguerite glared at her dearest friend. “This evening was your idea. You should have kept a better eye on her.”
“That is a poor excuse for lack of supervision.”
“Did supervision deter you? Seems to me the daughter has the same taste in men as her mother.”
Marguerite’s mouth opened, then closed. A flush spread across her cheekbones.
Lynette’s gaze darted back and forth between the two women, uncomprehending. Her father was nothing like Simon Quinn.
“About Lysette…” she began tentatively.
“How would he know her?” her mother snapped, her foul mood escalating.
“That is the question I intend to ask him,” Lynette replied.
“No.” The word was uttered with such finality it took Lynette aback. “You will stay away from him.”
“We have to know!” Lynette protested. “I must know!”
“I said no, Lynette. There will be no further discussion on the matter. Your sister is gone.”
“But wasn’t Quinn dashing when he spirited us away?” Solange murmured.
Marguerite glared at her.
Lynette knew when it was time to hold her tongue and she did so, but the uncommonly vehement refusal created a deep-seated unease.
Nothing could stop her from discovering if there was something about her twin that she did not know.
Especially if the secret kept was Simon Quinn.
Edward reached the gate leading to the front drive and paused with the unconscious Corinne tucked securely in his arms. Impatience and concern rode him hard as he waited for the struggling Desjardins to overtake him and release the catch.
Just as the comte gained the distance between them, the portal swung open of its own accord. A tall, dark-haired man stood on the threshold, coming to a halt at the sight of them.
“My lord,” the gentleman greeted in a hoarse voice.
“Quinn,” Desjardins returned.
Edward sensed a wary tension emanating from the man called Quinn. It caused him to hold Corinne more securely, her face turned in toward his chest.
Quinn glanced at the back of Corinne’s disheveled head, then rested a moment on the shredded skirts of her once-bright yellow gown.
“Do you require assistance?”
“At this point, only a physician can help her.”
With a nod, Quinn stepped aside, facilitating their departure.
The comte hurried forward, waving madly for his carriage, which waited with a dozen others clogging the drive. The various drivers spotted Edward’s burden, and they began the arduous task of clearing a path for their departure.
As they approached, Desjardins’s footman opened the door and Edward used the last of his waning strength to carry both himself and Corinne into the interior. He laid her carefully along the leather squab and turned to exit, only to find the comte blocking the doorway.
Saying nothing, Edward sat, grateful for the ride and the opportunity to remain with Corinne a little longer.
The equipage lurched into motion, and Edward closed his eyes and rested his head wearily against the back of the squab. The shallow, rapid wheezing that afflicted all of them echoed within the small confines. He thought of the day and how he had awakened that morning in completely different circumstances. Unencumbered. Focused.
Now, mere hours later, he was embroiled in the life of a woman who would certainly bring him nothing but grief.
However, there was no help for it at this point. He was fascinated and he had never been able to resist exposing the cause of any fascination.
Mysteries were meant to be solved.
Simon watched Desjardins and Mr. James settle the injured woman into a carriage, and wondered why and how the comte’s plans had altered so drastically over the course of the day. That morning the comte had enlisted Lysette’s assistance in reaching James, but tonight Lysette had been in
The situation unsettled Simon, causing the hairs on his nape to stand on end and tension to stiffen his spine. Something was amiss and Lysette’s sudden change of heart was beyond suspicious. Mindless with lust, he had not cared about her motivations. He’d cared only about pushing inside her and staying there until he could think again.
Frustrated by the sudden sensation of being played the fool, Simon growled and continued his journey to the back of the manse. He glanced at every window as he passed it, searching for any signs of occupation. He hoped everyone was safely free of entrapment. His eyes lit on the destruction of one window and a shattered chair beneath it. Glass littered the gravel pathway and bore testament of a desperate attempt to stay alive.
How in hell had this happened?
Simon gained the terrace and was relieved to see that the line of water carriers continued to work industriously.
He rejoined them, working past the sunrise, his thoughts actively occupied with the mystery Lysette, Desjardins, and James presented.