Sighing in frustration, Amelia finished off the glass of punch she'd brought with her then pulled the five-candle candelabra that sat at the far edge of the desk toward her. She'd been reluctant to light any candles, lest the hint of light was seen under the door and she was discovered. But she could no longer avoid it. The moon was falling behind a neighboring house, stealing her light, and this blasted drawer had to have some sort of trick release and she was helpless to find it in the dark.
She quickly lit a single candle, snuffed the match, and froze.
In the low glow the candle had given off, she could see the outline of a decidedly male form sitting on the settee not fifteen feet away.
Panic pounded in her chest, but she was too terrified to move, much less speak or think.
A moment stretched into two, the silence of the room growing louder than the din just outside the room.
Wordlessly, the man stood and began to walk in her direction while she sat still frozen behind the desk. Her eyes stayed focused on his face, which was ridiculous since, like her, he wore a mask that concealed everything except his eyes.
Unlike most men she knew, his boots made no noise as he made his way over to her, then just as quietly, he reached a single hand in front of her and pushed the section of wood directly in front of her that marked the front of the drawer that she knew had to be there. As soon as he moved his fingers, the drawer popped open.
“As you were,” he said in a deep voice that sent a shiver down her spine and woke her from her fog.
Amelia licked her lips, feeling somewhat naked and vulnerable in this stranger's presence. “How long?” she heard herself ask.
“How long have I been here?” the man asked. His voice so low and soft it was a miracle she'd heard him over the blood roaring in her ears.
She nodded. It was all she could do.
“Long enough.” He walked back over to the spot he'd vacated on the settee and took a seat. “Don't let me stop you.”
Amelia's blood turned to ice. When Philip brought her to their cousin's costume party tonight, he told her that everyone would be too interested in the activities going on in the drawing room to notice her exit and she'd have as much time as she needed to locate the papers as long as she did nothing to attract attention to her whereabouts.
But somehow she'd attracted attention. But whose and how, she didn't know.
“You do plan to continue, do you not?”
Amelia stiffened. “Just who are you to inquire about my intentions?” she asked, inwardly congratulating herself on her frosty tone that didn't falter once.
“And who are you to go through a man's desk?”
“How is that your concern?” she countered. “Did you attend tonight's party with the same intent?”
“I don't know,” he said slowly. “Why don't you tell me exactly what you're doing and I'll tell you if my intentions are the same?”
Amelia's mind raced. Whoever this man was, he was a master in turning the conversation around on her.
“Don't let my presence interrupt you,” he said again a few minutes later.
Who was this man? He wasn't her cousin, she was certain of that. She'd recognize his loud voice and even louder footsteps anywhere. Besides, he wouldn't be half this calm if he'd found someone digging around in his desk. And then there was the way her skin tingled and her stomach became uneasy each time he spoke...
Or perhaps those responses could be because she was nervous. That was actually a very logical explanation, and likely the right one.
“And what of my presence? Why are you letting it keep you from your task?” she asked with a sudden urge to giggle.
The man didn't respond, or if he did, Amelia couldn't hear his soft voice because just at that moment, she opened her mouth to ask him yet another giggled question, but instead of words coming past her lips, she belched. Then she giggled. “Oh dear,” she said, covering her mouth. What was wrong with her? A minute ago she was able to form a coherent thought and now... Now she was giggling and making the most unladylike noises.
She'd have been embarrassed by her sudden outbursts, to be sure, if only she could stop giggling.
Just then, something appeared in front of her. It was like a circle made up of dozens of shades of every color she'd ever seen and it was swirling.
She grabbed for it, giggling. But she couldn't reach it.
She reached again, this time standing—or trying to, at least. But just as she half-stood to grab it, it moved out of her reach, and for some reason, this made her laugh all the more.
Amelia turned to where the voice had come from right beside her. When had he gotten so close? And when had that wheel of vivid and vibrant colors joined him? She reached forward again in an attempt to grab it and her hand collided with something hard, his chest, perhaps. Or possibly even his shoulder. She really couldn't tell because her big ball of spinning colors was blocking her view of him.
Her subsequent endeavor was halted by two strong hands that clasped onto her wrists and didn't let her go. He pulled her to a standing position and before she knew what she was doing, she wrapped her arms around his neck.
“Hullo,” she trilled, tipping her face up to his.
“Did you have something to drink?” His voice reminded her of when she was younger and she and the Banks twins would go underwater in their creek and one of them would say something then when they came up, everyone would guess what it was.
“Perhaps,” she said, giggling as if it were the most humorous thing she'd ever heard. “You're tall.”
“What did you drink?”
“Some punch,” she said on another peal of uncontrollable giggles. She let go of her hold around his neck and bent backwards at the waist, spreading her arms as if she were falling backwards into an endless pit behind her.
His hands kept their firm grasp on her hips and didn't let her fall despite the way she swayed and arched against him. “You need to go lie down.” He pulled her back into a standing position and her breasts pressed against his chest.
Her skin prickled and tingled as he slid his hands up toward her arms, exciting her in ways she'd never known existed until now. Her blood pumped and her body sang with a need she couldn't comprehend.
“Come,” he said; his lips so close to hers she could almost feel them against her heated skin as he said the word.
She couldn't come. Or go. In fact, she couldn't move at all. Her legs felt as if they'd suddenly turned to lava. Two hot, tingling, burning columns of immovable lava.
As if sensing her inability to leave the room on her own accord, the stranger scooped her into his arms and carried her across the room.
She opened her mouth to ask where he was taking her; but doubted the correct words came out because he didn't respond.
The steady rhythm of his footsteps was reminiscent of a lullaby; a very upbeat and strangely lively lullaby with his heartbeat now joining in the harmony. She closed her eyes and her circle of color returned, bursting with each “beat” she heard.
The sounds of boot heels on rock soon added to the music. She had the strangest sensation she was being carried up stairs, but couldn't pry her eyes open to confirm her suspicion.
Suddenly she felt cold and realized the stranger was moving her away from his body and down...down...down she went to fall against a soft feather mattress.
Exhaustion—or perhaps a strange hallucination—took over and suddenly she was transported back to a game of chase she'd played with Elijah Banks where she'd threatened to kiss him if he didn't play. “Wait,” she called—whether in her dream or in real life, she'd never really know.
There was a response, but what it was, or who said it—eight year old Elijah or the stranger who'd found her in Nigel's study—she may never know.
She reached forward, trying to grab Elijah by the suspenders, or the twin shirttails flying behind him, or any part of him she could get her hands on really. Fabric. So many times she'd reached for him and never gained purchase. But this time she held fabric.
Amelia clenched her fingers into a fist so not to let him get away and gave a hearty tug to pull him to a stop. “I got you, Elijah Banks,” she declared proudly before yanking him closer to her and planting her lips squarely on his.
This was the moment in which Elijah's hands usually found her shoulders and threw her off, no matter who was watching or how undignified it made them both look. But this time it was different. His hands came to her shoulders, but instead of pushing her way, he held her in place and the strangest thing happened: he kissed her back.
Soft yet firm, demanding yet gentle, his lips moved with hers in a kiss far more intoxicating than she'd ever dreamed possible.
In the next chapter, she wakes up with a severe hangover headache and looks down only to find that the gentleman she was with might or might not have pushed the bounds of propriety. She doesn't know. My husband, who reads all of my books commented in the margins at the end of the whole debacle: The moral of this story is never drink the fruity punch!
For more information on the book and to read about just what Amelia found when she awoke the following morning, you can find His Jilted Bride at: