“Does watching me eat entertain you?” she murmured when she felt his eyes upon her.
“Yes. You do so with such hedonistic abandon.” His gaze went hot. “It is rather stirring. Perhaps I should bid you to forego the silverware, if only to see how you use your hands.”
A breathless laugh escaped her. “I do believe you enjoy unsettling me.”
Which she was loath to admit he was rather good at doing.
The corners of his eyes crinkled. “I want to understand your mind. The best recourse is to engage your defenses.”
The man had cheek, to be sure. Should she wither under such boldness, he’d have her under his thumb in short order. Miranda’s fork clinked against the china as she set it down. “I shall keep that tactic in mind.”
Holding his gaze, she reached out to select a thick white section of pear. Soft flesh sank beneath her fingers, the fruit cool and wet against her lips. Archer shifted in his chair, and she took a bite. The fruit burst in her mouth, tasting of warmth and sugar. Giving a little moan of pleasure, she swallowed it down, then slowly licked her lips to catch a bit of juice that ran over.
With the suddenness of a cat leaping upon its prey, he leaned forward and caught up her wrist. “Tread lightly, Miranda Fair.” His thumb moved lightly over her fluttering pulse, as she stared with her mouth assuredly hanging open in shock, her heart beating furiously within her breast. “You know, it’s never wise to tempt the devil.” His gaze lowered to her hand, still locked in his grip, her fingers glistening with pear juice. His rich voice lowered to raw huskiness. “Had I not this mask, I should be of a mind to suck that juice right off your fingers.”
Good Lord, what had she done? Miranda cursed herself for such high-handed stupidity as Archer abruptly announced that dinner was over and led her from the room. She had goaded the man into looking at her as a woman. And on her wedding night, of all times. What had she been thinking?
She knew what was to happen on a wedding night; only the enjoyment of sparring with Archer had made her forget all that. Until now. The urge to run the other way was strong. She dared a glance at him, catching a glimpse of one large shoulder, the wide expanse of his chest. She had flirted with him, she realized with chagrin. More than flirted, thrown down the gauntlet, really. Why had she done that? Attraction. Her steps bobbled before she brought herself under control.
Daisy had warned her once that attraction of a physical nature had no rhyme or reason. One might be inexplicably swept off one’s feet by a short, bald man of twenty stone and not be able to ignore it. Such things called to the animal inside a person, not the mind. Miranda had laughed and asked Daisy with whom she was keeping company.
Damnation, she wasn’t laughing now. True, his frame was attractive, and he was good company, but there was the mask to consider. What was he beneath it? Did it matter?
No, it did not, because they were now before her door, and she had no recourse but to face her fate.
Archer blinked down at her for a moment as though just as unsure.
“I forgot to ask,” he said, breaking the heavy silence. “Are your rooms to your liking?”
The tightness in her shoulders relaxed a fraction. “They are utterly lovely.” Her large set of rooms included a sitting area by the fire, enormous dressing room, and modern bathing room. Elegant, palatial, yet cozy, they were something out of a dream. “Thank you, Archer.”
He nodded slowly. “And the color?”
She smiled, thinking of the golden damask-papered walls, furniture dressed in ivory silk, with ivory cashmere drapes to keep out the cold. “Ivory and gold.” She glanced up at him, finding his gaze inscrutable. “I’ve always longed for a room decorated as such. How did you know?”
“Luck, perhaps.” His voice lowered. “Or perhaps I had a vision of you sleeping in a bed of cream and gold…” Archer’s gaze traveled over her like a caress. “I would love to see you thus.”
Her mouth went dry, and he took a step closer. Miranda gripped the door handle tight enough to feel the skin stretch over her knuckles. His hand closed over hers, heavy and warm, even through the thickness of his glove. With an unwavering gaze, he slowly turned the handle, and the door’s lock snicked open.
Archer bent closer, and her knees bobbled. For a moment they simply stood still, the air between them a palpable thing, buzzing and heated. She stared at the folds of his black cravat, the sound of her life’s blood roaring in her ears. His body did not touch hers but she felt the hardened length of it as though the nerve endings along her skin were directly attached to his by little hooks that tugged with sweet pain.
His broad chest lifted in exhalation, and her breath caught it in return. Lord, he was big, and strong, and delicious smelling. It was an ineffable clean scent, yet it consumed her, making her mouth water and her head spin. She took another ragged breath, and a burst of heat flared over her skin and settled between her legs. Her fingers tightened on the handle. Common sense was crumbling like old ruins. Good lord, she was going mad.
A pained sound left him as he came a hair closer. Her inner thighs clenched. Only inches away, he stopped, his body visibly stiffening. Her eyes squeezed shut, and she swayed. Waited.
His deep voice rumbled against her ear. “Good night, Miranda Fair.”
Her eyes flew open. He was already halfway to his own door.
Red-hot flames twisted and turned within the grate, undulating and sinuous upon the ashen logs, tiny dancers beckoning him closer. Archer sat before the hearth. Breathe, he ordered of himself once more. In. Out. Just breathe. Do not think of her.
Slowly, by agonizing degrees, his heart rate returned to normal. She had flirted with him. Hadn’t she? He swiped at his perspiring brow. He was too dizzy with want to think clearly. Too tempted to open that forbidden door, go in and claim her as was his husbandly right. Oh, God.
He looked away from their connecting door. The action brought his attention to the silver salver lying upon the table by his shaking hand. Gilroy had left him the day’s correspondence. Resting like an offering upon the various reports and letters was a small paper box wrapped up with a silver bow. The innocuous little box caused his heart to stop and then promptly start up with palpable thuds. Evil had touched that package.
The chair creaked beneath him as he inched forward. The package weighed next to nothing, but that slight weight, the unbalanced feel of it in his hand, chilled his blood. The rotten-sweet stench of death drifted from its edges as he slowly pulled the ribbon free. A thick cream-colored vellum envelope. And something below it. He could feel it, rolling about along the bottom of the box. He lifted the card, his fingers trembling as he did, and he spied what lay beneath. Glossy, despite its yellowed surface, oblong and laced in red, the thing might have been mistaken for a rotting hard-boiled egg—if one overlooked the gore of veins trailing from one end of it. Archer swallowed hard, his fingers turning to ice even as hot fury pounded within his temples. Having sat through more than one autopsy examination, he well knew what the hideous gift was. An eye. A human eye.
The vellum envelope tore under his numb fingers, dread and fury growing in equal measure as he read the note set out in block letters cut and pasted from various newsprint as if part of a child’s nursery project: You should not have done it.
Only then did he spy the small news article that had fallen from the card onto his lap. Damp with congealing blood and nearly illegible beneath the gore was the announcement of the marriage of Lord Benjamin Aldo Fitzwilliam Wallace Archer, Fifth Baron Archer of Umberslade, to Miss Miranda Rose Ellis.
Pure white light colored his world, biting cold and blinding with its brilliance, like the heart of a blizzard. It pulsed through his hard limbs, strong and true, surging with such force and power that he felt the truth of what he would soon become. For one hateful moment, he welcomed it. The sharp-edged card crumpled in his fist as he stood. He threw it all into the fire. Watched it burn. Heaven help the son of a bitch who’d sent it.
Even as the thought filtered through his brain, damp fingers of dread crawled along his spine to clutch his heart. He sank back into his seat. Who had sent it? And whose eye was it?
An eye for an eye. The phrase hit his mind like the clang of a buoy. It had been a favorite saying of Rossberry’s. Archer fingered his jaw in contemplation as he gazed at the roaring fire. Rossberry. A man who had been driven to the brink of madness by fire’s cruel kiss. Archer swallowed hard, the heat from the hearth strong enough to warm his outstretched legs. But Rossberry was locked away, had been for years. They had seen to that. A light snort left his lips; they had sent Archer away as well, yet here he was.
He nearly jumped out of his skin when a light rap came from the door. He raked a hand through his hair. “Yes?”
Gilroy opened the door only as far as necessary. “Pardon the intrusion, my lord, but there is a gentleman here to see you.”
“Hang it, Gilroy, it is the middle of the night. Why the devil haven’t you sent him packing?” Even as he spoke, it occurred to Archer that Gilroy was too proficient a servant to let just anyone in at an ungodly hour. “Who is it, Gilroy?” he asked with growing dread.
The man held himself correctly erect. “Inspector Winston Lane with the Criminal Investigation Department.”
Miranda’s hand glided over the crystal stoppers. Firelight caught in the prisms, sending little rainbows scattering over her skin and upon the bottles. A drink would settle her nerves, then perhaps she could sleep without thinking of masked men, or a certain voice as decadent as dark chocolate. She stopped at the simplest decanter, an elegant thing shaped like a teardrop. Around its neck was a silver plaque engraved with the word “Bourbon.” American whiskey. She remembered vaguely hearing her father mention tasting it once long ago.
Out of all the decanters, this one had the least liquor left in it. Archer’s favorite, if she had to guess. The stopper came loose with a harmonious ring and released the smoky sweet notes of the liquor.
She poured herself a measure, relaxing at the sound of the decanter letting its treasure loose in a soft glug-glug-glug, and the crackle of the ash—not coal—fire within the grate behind her. No wonder men coveted the simple ritual of having a drink and kept such things away from women. To the victor always went the spoils.
Caramel and smoke and heat, the bourbon burned a slow delicious path down her throat. Miranda closed her eyes in pleasure. And then snapped to attention as she heard Archer’s voice join with that of another man’s out in the hall. Footsteps sounded, heading her way, and she tensed.
Her stomach turned at the notion of facing Archer so soon.
“Let us talk in here, Inspector.”
“As you wish, my lord.”
Alarm lifted the hairs at her nape. She knew that voice. It was Winston Lane, newly appointed inspector for England’s Criminal Investigations Department. Winston Lane, her eldest sister Poppy’s very dear husband and Miranda’s very dear brother-in-law. She most certainly did not want to face Winston and Archer with her hair down and wearing a ratty old dressing gown, or explain why she felt the need to partake in a man’s drink in the middle of the night.
With a wild look around, she considered her options. The door handle turned, and Miranda made her choice. Not a very good choice, she conceded as she all but dove behind the large chinoiserie screen in the corner. She was now trapped like a mouse.
From the cracks between the screens, she saw slices of her brother-in-law’s face: pale and thin with a long mustache the color of straw embracing his upper lip. His hair, of the same color, was carefully swept back. He had not taken off his tweed overcoat but held his bowler in his hand. Once in the room, he set the hat down upon a small table by one of the armchairs. A bit of boldness on Winston’s part as it was an obvious sign that this visit would not be easily rushed.
Miranda tensed and slipped farther into the corner as Winston slowly surveyed the room. He did as she had done, inspecting its contents, looking for clues to what might lie inside the infamous Lord Archer’s head.
Then the man himself moved into view. Though Winston inclined his head toward him, Archer was looking at the bar, she realized in cold horror. She could almost feel his eyes upon her discarded glass, still half-full.
“Inspector Lane,” he said finally, turning so that only his arm was visible from her hiding spot. “What unfortunate news do you have for me?”
“Lord Archer, I do apologize for the late hour. However, I thought it best to come when I did. I fear by morning my presence here would bring an even greater inconvenience.”
For everyone would note it, and tongues would wag.
“Whom should I thank for such a courtesy?” Archer asked dryly.
Winston took a step closer to Archer. “Forgive me, but I have not yet offered my congratulations in your marriage to my good sister, Miranda.”
Archer’s arm flinched. “Miranda is your sister?”
“She is sister to my wife, Poppy. I am quite fond of Miranda. I was pleased to hear that she had found a husband who could see to her welfare.”
Miranda’s cheeks colored. She knew what was behind his proper words. He was pleased she had finally left Father. For a cold moment, she wondered whether Winston had heard tales of her less than lawful activities.
“Had I not been away on business this morning, I would have accompanied my wife to the ceremony.”
Would he have? Miranda was not so sure. Clearly, he was not altogether pleased at her choice of husband, or he would have said as much.
“Since we are family”—Archer’s voice tightened on the word—“let us speak plainly. What do you want?”