Arabella heard him pursuing her. No, she could feel him following her. Her heart pounded up into her throat. Whatever she did, she couldn't let on she knew of his chase. If she'd felt threatened, she would have used her talents on him. The fact that she'd been a bit rattled meant little. She would've eventually gained control of her racing heart...wouldn't she? Never had a man made her feel so vulnerable. But she didn't fear him hurting her...she only feared she'd lose her heart to him.
She'd never believed in love at first sight before but now...she didn't know what to think. How could you lose your heart to someone you barely knew? Unless, shaking her head, she began the long descent to the ballroom below. She trailed her hand along the banister. Chateau Belle Roche boasted a magnificent staircase made of Italian marble, and yet it always gave her a feeling of foreboding when she walked down its slippery slope.
Straining her hearing, she hesitated briefly and heard him stop at the same time she did. She couldn't read him like she did other men. What did that mean? She couldn't dwell on him she had an objective to accomplish.
Her heart stopped. Pierre strutted into view. He reminded her of a peacock. She hated peacocks...they made her skin crawl. They were revered for their beauty...but they were hollow beings on the inside...much like her so-called uncle.
Could she bolt before he noticed her? She'd hoped to avoid him for the entire night. She knew he would not like it if she gained Napoleon's attention. Indecision plagued her.
Pierre sipped at his flute of champagne and looked up to catch her eye. Panic flared inside of her. Summoning her powers, she leveled her gaze on the painted Cyprian that stood to the left of Pierre. Within seconds, the slut had moved to fawn over Pierre. He reluctantly wrenched his gaze off her to attend to the loose woman's flirtations. Tucking her arm beneath his, they sauntered out of sight.
Arabella would always be able to use Pierre's lascivious nature to her advantage.
"That was fortuitous." The Wolf's smooth voice startled her.
She resisted the urge to toss him an irritated glance, over her shoulder. "Why don't you just leave me alone?"
"Ah, if only I could, Jewel."
"Pray my lord, do not let me hold you back."
He chuckled. She quickened her steps.
Napoleon awaited her, if only she could shake her second shadow.
"Could I interest you in a dance?"
"I wonder what it would be like to dance with a wolf," she laughed. "I think not, no my dance card is already full. But feel free to pay attention to the other ladies that are in attendance."
"Ladies, is that what you'd call them? By the heavy paint on their faces and their garish attire, I would call them something entirely different. Ah, I guess we do have different opinions in the character and measure of a woman. I hear they will be playing the waltz several times tonight...we could tempt fate and take a turn or two on the ballroom floor."
She stopped. By now, she'd made her way into the main part of the ballroom. Swan sculptures made of ice lined the refreshment sideboards.
They passed a cluster of Napoleon's advisors.
"The British scoundrels have a mad King, so that can only make them a mad people." The men laughed and continued to jeer and make rude comments. "They should have a revolution to free themselves of their King's lunacy. We could show them how to do it--if they didn't persist in making war with us."
Cold silence blanketed her. Her shadow didn't seem to like that particular remark. Odd, perhaps, there truly was more to her Wolf than met the eye. Her heart thundered in her chest...wolves mated for life...she felt a blush warm her cheeks.
When she turned to confront him again, she noticed that he'd vanished from her line of sight. She searched the crowds for him, to no avail. Her heart fell. Why did she feel disappointment and confusingly enough a sense of loss? She'd only known the scoundrel for a scant few minutes...and yet, he'd made an impression on her life that no other man had ever made. She almost felt vulnerable without him by her side.
An aid of Napoleon's stepped forward. "His Imperial Majesty wishes to have a moment of your time." The aid gripped her elbow and steered her toward the front of the ballroom.
She swallowed. So, she had gained his attention...a little bit more so than she would have preferred.
Her heart raced. In for a penny in for a pound, she'd have to keep a cool and level head...hoping that her powers of persuasion would work on the little Corsican. She'd been rattled when they hadn't worked with her Wolf, her Wolf. She smiled, funny how she would think of him like that.
When she was presented to Bonaparte, she dipped into a low curtsy, and murmured, silkily, "Your Imperial Majesty." Her skin crawled when his eyes lingered a little too long on her breasts. Thoughts of The Wolf continued to plague her. Why had he come into her life? Did he intend to torment her until she'd gone half mad? Why did he weigh so heavily on her thoughts? She barely knew him. Her fascination with him was beyond ludicrous.
"Come and sit with me, my dear lady." Napoleon extended his hand to help her step up to sit beside his makeshift throne on the red settle reserved for his mistress of the moment. She shivered. Terrible visions swarmed her line of sight. She swayed and nearly fainted. Greed and lust boiled beneath Bonaparte's surface. He would not be a welcome adversary--as an ally he would prove invaluable. She had to play her hand right...or she risked losing more than her life. When his lips brushed her hand she had to hold back a shudder. She wanted to run from the room and never look back...but she'd gone too far into the lion's den. She had to see this through.
She trilled out a shaky laugh, while she settled her silky skirt around her legs. The ballroom loomed out before her and she had a clear view of nearly everyone. So, why couldn't she find him?
A jolt ran through her when she finally spotted the wolf. They made eye contact. Licking her lips, she leaned forward. She wanted to run toward him. No matter what he'd said to her...and even though she didn't know him from Adam, she still wanted to be with him. He beckoned to her, almost as if he'd be her safe harbor. And right now, she desperately required a safe haven.
"I must say, Lady Arabella that you are by the far the loveliest woman in the room." Her stomach rolled. When they said Bonaparte could charm the ladies they weren't telling long tales. If he'd been speaking to just about any other woman, he'd probably have been able to sell his little act. But, she wasn't any ordinary woman. Her talent made her extraordinary.
The Wolf still held her gaze. Snapping her attention away from him, she drew in a lengthy breath and smiled.
"I thank you for your compliment, Your Imperial Majesty." She bowed her head to him. While she could have called him 'my lord' or 'sir' she knew she had to stroke his ego a bit more by using the title he cherished. She held her mask steady in her hand to shield part of her face from him. Bitterness stung the back of her throat.
Bonaparte gave her an indulgent grin. "You do have a lovely glow about you, my dear." He patted her hand. She fought the urge to draw it away. She thanked God for the elbow-length gloves she wore...she knew she wouldn't be able to touch him with her bare skin...especially when he was affecting her through the barrier the material served.
"Your Imperial Majesty, I beg of you a moment of your time...,"
"Say no more, Lady Arabella. My advisors have told me of the plan you've concocted. I think you would make a fabulous secret agent in my service. I trust you have been given the necessary information that you require?" Even though they were discussing secretive matters, he obviously trusted everyone within earshot and for those that were dancing the music would drone out their conversation. He paused briefly and then continued, "If you do travel to Great Britain...you will have certain tasks to perform. Some of those tasks...will be unsavory to say the least...others will rock your world with pleasure." His lips curled into what passed for a smile. "If you prove a valuable asset you will be greatly rewarded with whatever you desire."
She swallowed, and tried shaking the uneasiness that had draped across her.
The Wolf continued to watch her. He looked like he wanted to tell her something...but couldn't. Why did she want to give her apologies to Napoleon? Suddenly, her little plan didn't come as such a great idea.
"I do. I have been given the information I require. I will do as you ask to serve my country...and you."
The corners of his mouth lifted into a jubilant grin. "Then, in that case, I wish you a safe journey across the channel. I hear the waters can be rough this time of the year. You will leave as soon I determine the time is right. And, enjoy your time with your family."
Her breath hitched in her throat.
"Ah, yes...I will."
"Of course you did know I knew of your family in England?" She nodded her head and held her breath. "Just remember, where your true loyalty lies. If you wish to have your French family legacy restored to you...you'll do well to remember that you need me."
"How could I ever forget?" Her heart danced in her chest. She wanted to get as far away from him as she possibly could.
She looked away from him. Searching the crowd, she found The Wolf on the other side of the ballroom. An advisor of Napoleon's rushed toward him and whispered something in his ear.
"My dear lady, it would seem that Madame Martine requires your assistance. She has fallen gravely ill...I would appreciate it if you were to hasten to her bedside."
Escape. Thank the heavens.
"Certainly, I would be more than happy to minister to her ills, a good evening to you, sir." She almost jumped with joy. Standing up, she raced through the ballroom and had almost made her escape when her wolf moved to block her path. Holding her mask steady over her face, she sighed.
"Now my darling you can't leave so quickly...why you haven't graced me with a dance yet and I did not think you'd go without saying goodbye to me. Why, my Witch, I am crushed." His full lips formed a smug line.
"I am not running away, you fool. I have been asked to attend to Madame Martine."
"Ah." His demeanor changed in the blink of an eye. "What ails her?"
"I do not know. They would not tell me. But I am rather well known for my healing skills...so if you wouldn't mind getting the hell out of my way, I'd be most obliged."
"You really must try to curb that wayward tongue of yours."
"I'll think about it." She tried to dart around him. He rested his hand on her arm.
"Why don't I accompany you up to Madame Martine's rooms?"
"I really don't think that's necessary. I can find my way on my own."
"I trust you can...but I have reason to believe that someone would like to kill you."
Her heart did another dance.
"You are one to blow things out of proportion, aren't you?"
"Someone doesn't want you to make it back to Great Britain, as you just planned with Bonaparte."
"Who are you, a spook?"
"I don't think I need to answer that question. In fact, the less you know, the better off you'll be."
"Whom do you work for?"
He seemed uneasy. "Let's go." Taking her by the arm, she brushed up against his side. Again, a shock of energy swirled through her. She gasped for air.
"We are leaving tonight."
"Leaving, you speak in riddles."
"I'm here to take you to England. You are a valuable asset to many across the Channel."
"And I'm a genie in a bottle." He pulled her along. A figure stepped out of the shadows and stepped in front of them. Her hands shook. Could it be?
"What is it, Gerard?"
Her muscles relaxed. She let out a disappointed sigh. She'd hoped that it had been someone from her past...someone that she'd welcome seeing, but alas, she'd been mistaken.
"The Fox wishes to see you."
"The Fox?" she whispered, leaning against The Wolf's warm body. He placed his arm around her waist. He was acting a wee bit too familiar with her. And yet, why didn't she pull away from him?
"Be quiet, Arabella."
She snorted. Focusing her attention on his arm that rested around her waist, she projected her power. This time...it gained her results.
"Hot. Blast it all, what did you do, witch?" He tore his hand away from her, and shook it in the air. In his moment of distraction, she sped away from him. "Damn it all...come back here!"
She could hear him running after her. She dashed up the steps. His heavier footsteps thundered after her. She had to escape him. He could read her all too well. She hadn't found out who The Fox was...but she knew enough to know that The Wolf was a man to be reckoned with.
She'd just made it to the top of the steps, when he caught up with her. Before she knew it, he'd pulled her against him. His hand closed over her mouth. She bit him...but to her chagrin he didn't pull away. Her struggles didn't even gain her any positive results. In her moment of agitation, the arm that held her mask slipped down to fall against her side. Her mask dangled from the silk chord that kept it attached to her wrist.
Weirdly enough, she wasn't afraid of him. She wondered at his motivation to take charge of her in such a way....
His voice broke into her thoughts.
"This way, Witch."
She heard a door open. Before she knew it, she was draped in darkness. He might as well have blindfolded her. She couldn't see a damn thing. But, she could feel him slinking in the shadows.
"Why do you want me?" Her voice trembled with emotion.
He laughed. "You are putting words in my mouth, Witch, but you are right, I do want you, badly. I just don't think we'll have time for that kind of merrymaking tonight, time is of the essence. We must get moving...before...,"
"Before what, I don't sense any...."
She jumped. Something or someone crashed against the door. Her breath hitched in her throat. The sound of The Wolf drawing a weapon caught her attention.
"The man on the other side of that door means to keep us from leaving this room and he doesn't intend to be kind about it." Her thoughts centering on the Wolf gravitated to her surroundings. Opening her senses, she felt the person's devious intentions. "He must be stopped." Her voice deadened with the utmost calm. She moved backward, and felt the back of her knees slam against the mattress of the bed. Her heart stopped.
"Stay here," his terse command caught her off guard.
"I don't think you know who you are dealing with here, sir."
"Oh, I think I know a great more than you'd warrant. You'd better hold your tongue and stay put until I return, Duchess."
Her heart hammered up and lodged in her throat. How did he know that childhood nickname of hers? Unless... No, it couldn't be....
"Who are you?" She tried to use her magic to push past the veil that surrounded him. Pain struck her temple. She breathed heavily. He rippled the air when he moved to face her. In the dark, she could only make out the faintest outline of his silhouette.
"I am someone that you should regard as a trusted friend."
"Does this friend have a name?" She hoped that for once, he would bend to her will. She willed him to give her his Christian name.
She could have sworn she saw his eyes glitter in the dark. Her emerald pendant lit up with green fire something it always did when danger lurked right around the corner.
"Your magical wiles will not work on me, Duchess. Nothing within the realm of your powers...seductive, or otherwise, will make me bend to do your bidding."
She'd see about that. She'd never met a man that she couldn't wrap around her pinky finger.
"You are playing with fire, my lord."