© 2023 by Jordan Summers

ROSE'S RAPTURE CHAPTERS 1-3

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

"The next man I take to my bed will be of my choosing," Rose whispered the vow under her breath. The unmarked carriage her friend, benefactor, and resident vampyre, Richard Sebastian Stuart, the sixth Earl of Lyon insisted she take whisked her and a chambermaid out of London at a brisk pace.

After ten years of forced whoring, she was well and truly free. Men no longer held power over her, neither did conniving women. A picture of the brothel's female owner, Josephine flashed in her mind. She'd taken advantage of the young naïve woman Rose once was, but only after her family had abandoned her. She had long ago forgiven Josephine because like Rose, she’d made the best of a bad situation. Her family on the other hand was a different story. So concerned about their reputation, they’d turned their only daughter out to fend for herself. Some things were unforgivable.

One mistake with a gentleman Rose had thought she'd loved had cost her everything. Never again.

Bitterness over Lord William Longfellow’s betrayal threatened to swamp her. She brushed aside the emotion. It was wasted on a man who’d never truly cared for her and as useless as trying to hold water with her fingertips. Truth told, she'd stopped feeling sorry for herself a long time ago. What's done was done. The past was just that. As a wealthy woman with extensive property, she need not accept unwelcome advances from anyone. It was time to enjoy her hard-won freedom.

The hooves of the four matched geldings thundered on the cobbles as the soot-covered buildings of London began to fade into a patchwork of lush green countryside. It had been years since she had left the city.

Rose stuck her face against the cool window and stared out, soaking in the beauty. She inhaled, attempting to draw in the freshness through the beveled pane. Even the air smelled different away from the city, crisp, clean, new. She shivered, tucking a throw around her skirt for warmth. She glanced over at Gladis, whose nose remained buried in her stitching.

Grateful for the silence, Rose sat back against the cushioned leather seat, rocking gently with the sway of the carriage. She tried to focus on the scenery, but her lids drooped time and again. The landscape became a green blur.

The carriage's jerky halt brought Rose out of her slumber and into awareness. Her neck ached from remaining in the same position for too long. She blinked against the fading sunlight and then squinted. Where was her home?

For a half second fear enveloped her, until she glimpsed an inn and livery sitting outside the carriage window. Rose scooted across the leather seat to peer out the other side. The road stretched on out of sight. She harbored no wish to delay arrival at her new home. She wanted to continue on, anxious to get settled in.

"We'll be stopping here for the night," the coachman said, holding out a hand to assist her.

Rose took his hand and stepped down from the carriage, eyeing the inn warily. She opened her mouth to protest.

"Lord Lyon directed we rest here for the evening. He gave orders to ensure your comfort and safety, my lady. We were not to vary them under anycircumstance. The road north is too dangerous to traverse at night."

Rose wouldn’t question Richard’s orders even though she’d hoped to be sleeping in her own bed tonight. She nodded at the coachman and then strolled toward the door, holding her skirt in one hand and her reticule in the other with Gladis in tow. The door opened before she reached it. A portly gentleman stepped out, wiping his hands on an apron as he welcomed her inside.

"I'm Mr. Bottlesworth, inn keep and owner. We've been expecting you, Lady Carlson."

Rose's brow furrowed and she shifted uneasily. It felt like a lifetime ago since anyone had addressed her by her proper name and title. Stunned, she stood frozen, trying to recall how to reply. The man waited patiently. Rose said the first thing that came to her befuddled mind. "You've been expecting me."

The man beamed. "We have your accommodations ready, my lady. Lord Lyon has taken great care of making the arrangements, sparing no expense. He said you are to be cared for as if he himself were staying with us."

Of course, Richard would think of everything. She smiled to herself. He’d had over a century's worth of experience.

"If you prefer to dine in your room let me know. I'll have a tray prepared and delivered to you."

"Thank you." Rose stepped past Mr. Bottlesworth and entered the inn. The place was cozy and clean with a massive fireplace on one wall. Scattered tables surrounded the blaze. A few travelers dined, while others drank ale. The aroma of fresh baked bread and bubbling stew filled the air. Rose’s stomach growled. She blushed, turning her face away. Warmth from the fire permeated her bones and she shivered. Perhaps stopping was the correct thing to do.

Rose squared her shoulders and lifted her head. She watched everyone cautiously, waiting for any sign that someone had recognized her. Other than an appreciative glance or two from a couple of the ale-drinking men, none seemed to pay much attention. She released the breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding.

“Does it meet your standards?” Bottlesworth asked, wringing his hands.

“It’s perfect.” Rose relaxed slightly, her gaze raking the crowd once more, before turning to face him. "I think I'd like to dine in my room."

"As you wish, my lady. I'll have your things delivered to your room and then send a meal right up. My wife's a fine cook. Best in these parts, if I do say so myself. I'm sure you'll be pleased."

"I have no doubt. The food smells wonderful." Rose smiled and gave the man a small nod. His chest puffed out and he grinned back. He led her to her room and opened the door for her, before depositing the key into her palm.

"If you need anything else, do not hesitate to ask."

"Thank you. That'll be all. Good night." She closed the door and leaned against the wood. Rose felt her shoulders curl inward. She raised trembling fingers to her chest. Her heart pounded against her palm like a cornered deer surrounded by hounds.

Ten years away from society had left her shaky in social situations, even ones this minor. It would take her a while to remember all the subtle nuances, not that she planned to do much socializing. No, her plans were of the quiet variety, tending her garden, reading in her library, and enjoying the solitude. The thought calmed her nerves and she settled in for the night.

 

They arrived at her new home at dusk two days later. The well-kept weathered manor looked like a fortress in the gloam. Not a surprise, considering the previous owner and the land’s history. Richard would be prepared for anything, including cannon fire. Neatly trimmed hedges lined the drive leading to the house.

Strangely carved creatures sat sentry on stone pillars at either side of the entry. Their mouths thrown open wide, exposing their long tongues and curved fangs. Definitely not a welcoming sight, but Rose supposed that was the point of placing them there. A shadow flickered, giving Rose the impression of movement.

She shivered, then frowned, squinting into the fading Scottish light, but the statues and everything around them remained still. She must be more nervous than she thought if she was jumping at shadows.

“You’ll get used to the gray, ma’am,” Gladis said. “If you like, I can stay a couple of days until you get settled.”

Rose smiled. “That won’t be necessary. Besides, you’ve got family waiting for you in Glasgow.”

“They’ll still be there in a few days,” Gladis said.

“That’s okay. You’ve done enough already.” Rose was beyond grateful that Gladis had traveled to Hyde Hall with her. No one in good society could claim social impropriety, since she’d had an escort.

“Well, if you’re sure,” Gladis said, hesitating.

“I am,” Rose said.

Gladis beamed. “Then I’ll be off tomorrow. I’m hoping to get there before my sister’s babe arrives.”

“Please wish her well for me.”

“I will, ma’am,” Gladis said.

Rose glanced back at the manor. Windows sporting candles blinked like several pairs of eyes, catching first glimpse of the new mistress of the manor.

This was it. The beginning of her new life.

Lazarus felt the pull of her gaze all the way to his soul. For a moment, he’d actually allowed hope to fill his being. A flicker of movement shook his body, but instead of shifting, he remained encased in stone.

“No!” he screamed even though no one heard him. He had been close, so close to escaping this misery, only to have hope dashed at the last second. Damn the gods and their mischief.

How many more years must he wait to break this blasted curse? He’d already spent lifetimes. Despite the stasis he existed in, Lazarus still felt hunger. It ate at him, devouring his soul and sanity piece by piece. His existence had become a living hell with no beginning and no end.

Madness would be a welcome respite, but the gods wouldn’t allow it. They rejoiced in his suffering—the suffering of all his kind. He needed to feed and for a brief moment there’d been a chance of that happening, only to be snuffed like a candle left to the Scottish wind.

He watched the copper-haired woman shake her head and then look toward the house. Lazarus closed his eyes, trying to ignore the need surging through him. How long had it been since he’d held a woman? Three hundred? Five hundred years? Longer?

He groaned as his body shuddered inside. Today would not be the day he found his freedom, but perhaps her arrival harkened new hope. Lazarus prayed that the day came soon for the sake of his soul.

Rose stepped out of the carriage and shook out her skirts. Her gaze traveled over the imposing stone structure she now called home. Hyde Hall. The name sent delicious shivers along her spine. She took a deep breath and strode toward the front door, while the coachman struggled with her trunk. Once again the door swung open and a well-appointed servant greeted her.

"Welcome home, Lady Carlson. We've been expecting you. I'm Geoffrey." He bowed low as she entered the front hall of the manor.

“You’re English?”

“So I’ve been told, madam,” he said with a straight face, but she got the impression he was laughing on the inside.

Rose gasped as her gaze fell upon the entryway. She couldn't help it. Her eyes drank in the grandeur, feeding on its beauty like the starved falling upon a banquet. The home was magnificent with its polished wood banister leading up to the second tier and the mosaic tile floor in the shape of a... She stepped back to get a better look. It was a rose. Her lips curled into a grateful smile.

"Is everything to your liking, madam? Lord Lyon left instructions for us to make any and all changes that you request."

Rose released a breath. Richard truly had thought of everything. "That won’t be necessary, Geoffrey. It’s perfect."

His chest puffed out with pride. "The staff is ready to meet you."

Staff? Rose almost giggled. It had been ten years since she'd had a staff at her disposal. "Yes, please," she said unable to keep the giddiness from her voice or the joyous heat from rising to her cheeks.

Geoffrey bowed again and then walked down one of the halls leading away from the entry. Soon a row of servants appeared. Geoffrey introduced each person. The women gave a little curtsy and the men bowed. It would take Rose a while to get their names straight, but she didn't care. She had all the time in the world now.

After meeting the staff, Geoffrey showed Rose to her room. Fresh pink linens covered the half tester mahogany bed and surrounded the pillows. A washstand lay next to her vanity and a wood writing desk sat against the far wall. A marble fireplace took up much of the other wall and was flanked by two over-stuffed burgundy chairs. The flames sent warmth into the room, chasing away the encroaching shadows outside. A tub of steaming water had been prepared, awaiting her arrival.

Geoffrey opened her wardrobe. New gowns hung inside, courtesy of Lord Lyon. Everything she could possibly need or want was here.

“Dinner will be served at eight, if madam wishes.”

“That would be fine, thank you.”

“I’ll send Harriet up to assist you with your bath, unless you prefer your own personal maid.”

“Gladis will be leaving tomorrow, so Harriet will be just fine.” Rose inclined her head.

Geoffrey bowed, and then closed the door as he left. Rose stepped deeper into the room, running her hands over the bed linens. They were soft to the touch, smooth and cool against her fingertips.

She glanced at the fire once more, then around the room. Rose whirled, her arms out at her sides. This was her room, her home. All hers. She fell back onto the bed, sinking into its downy depths. She couldn’t keep the laughter from spilling forth as contentment enveloped her.

A few minutes later a knock sounded on the door. Rose stood, then bade them to enter, expecting to see the maid. The coachmen placed her trunk in the center of the room and left. A quiet rap followed their departure.

“Come in,” Rose called out.

A mouse of a woman named Harriet entered, giving Rose a quick curtsy. She helped her bathe and dress for dinner, then Rose dismissed her.

Harriet walked to the door and stopped with her hand on the latch. “Would you like assistance unpacking your trunk, my lady?”

Rose smiled. “Thank you, but that won’t be necessary. I wish to take care of it myself.”

Harriet looked surprised, then quickly smoothed her features. “Very well, my lady.” She dipped a curtsy and left.

Rose opened the case and stared at her clothes a few moments. So much history, so many memories. She frowned, then proceeded to toss every last item into the hungry flames. Thus closing the door on her old life for good.

 

Hamish Colin MacDougall paced the confines of his opulent gold and blue brocade bedroom, waiting for the last rays of the sun to set. Candles lit the darkened room, their flickering light casting shadows deep into the cavernous corners.

His stomach rumbled in the silence, reminding him of his need to feed. The letter from Richard Sebastian Stuart, the sixth Earl of Lyon lay crushed in his hand. He opened his fist and carefully unfolded the crumbled parchment to re-read the message.

Hamish,

Forgive this short missive, but I desire your assistance. A dear friend has taken residence in Hyde Hall. Please make sure her needs be met and her way into society eased. She has suffered much and assisted me greatly throughout the years, giving her most treasured gift...freely. Consider this a personal favor for your recently wed friend.

Richard

Richard, married? After all these centuries? Hamish could hardly believe it.

His friend’s scrawled name lay across the bottom of the message like a slashed vein. Hamish inhaled, his nostrils flaring as he caught the elusive coppery scent. Richard had signed his name in blood, which meant he wasn’t asking the favor lightly.

Hamish groaned and crumpled the note again. He didn’t engage in social activities beyond bed sport. Richard of all people would know that. So why send him the missive? Surely, he had other friends whom he could impose upon. Hamish’s gaze flicked to his massive bed, trying to recall the name of the last female who’d graced his linens.

He growled in frustration. It mattered not. Richard knew his habits or used to before he got himself leg shackled, which was probably the real reason behind the letter. His dear friend thought to play matchmaker—again.

The last time Hamish had allowed Richard to talk him into meeting someone, the poor woman had paled and collapsed at the sight of his fangs curling over his lower lip. Hamish shuddered at the thought. His cock had wilted faster than a flower in the frost. From that moment forward, he’d kept his appetites a secret by manipulating people’s memories. Something that got easier and easier to do over time.

Admittedly, that had been six hundred years ago and he’d been a much younger vampyre at the time, but things hadn’t changed that much in the world. He was sure of it.

It mattered not that this woman allowed Richard to feed in the open. 'Twas not that uncommon. He grumbled. For the deuce of him, Hamish couldn’t recall the last time he’d heard of such a thing without the use of glamourie. His cock twitched beneath his kilt. Perhaps he was a little intrigued, but that didn’t mean he would drop everything to squire some mortal female around the Scottish countryside.

He grumbled under his breath.

Trouble was he already owed Lord Lyon a thousand favors, which until now, Richard refused to allow him to repay. Obviously, marriage had changed him. And not for the better.

The vein in Hamish’s forehead pulsed and his fangs exploded from his gums in frustration. Just the thought of playing nice in public gave his head the aches. He caught sight of himself in the mirror. His long black hair hung wildly about his shoulders and his moss-colored eyes glistened with flecks of red, exposing his true nature. He snarled at his reflection, flashing deadly canines.

He knew he’d do as his friend bid. He owed him that much, but naught more. He’d learned his lesson long ago not to trifle with humans beyond gaining sustenance and relief for his other insatiable appetites.

The one time he’d ignored that rule cost him everything. It had been six hundred years since he’d laid his dear Agnes in her grave. Six hundred years since he’d accidentally killed her—his one and only true love—by draining her during a feeding frenzy brought on by his emotional connection to her.

His love cost Agnes her life.

Never again.

Hamish no longer allowed his cock or his fangs to control his behavior, which meant never feeding from the women he knew. No matter how tempting they may be. Although not to his liking, Hamish hired common whores to assuage both needs. Their blood was hot and they kept their mouths shut. He refused to address or acknowledge his growing dissatisfaction of the arrangement. This encounter with Richard’s friend would be cordial, but indifferent. He’d see to it.

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Rose had been in her home for a month and the invitations for visits kept pouring in. She had no idea there would be so many gatherings in the country. The latest came in the form of a ball to be held at nearby McKeon Manor.

She had prepared a missive to decline the invitation when the Mistress of McKeon Manor, Abigail McKeon herself arrived on her doorstep for an impromptu visit.

“Lady Abigail McKeon is here to see you, madam,” Geoffrey said. “Are you available?”

“Yes, please show her in.” Rose put aside the invitations and stood to greet her unexpected guest.

Lady Abigail McKeon swept into the library like a golden-haired Athena. Not a curl was out of place and her light gray muslin dress fit her resplendently. “It’s so wonderful to finally meet you,” she said, clasping Rose’s hand and touching cheeks.  Her smile lit up the room.

“And you.” Rose smiled tentatively. “Please sit.” She gestured toward the chairs under the window. “Geoffrey, please ring for tea.”

He gave a slight nod, then the door shut leaving the women alone.

“I do hope you forgive my boldness,” Abigail said, “but I just had to meet the mysterious lady who had moved into Hyde Hall. You are quite the sensation. I daresay half the countryside has been trying to catch a glimpse of you. I had no idea Lord Lyon had parted with the property until a few weeks ago.”

“Do you know Lord Lyon well?” Rose toyed with a loose thread on the arm of her chair to hide her nervousness.

Abigail shook her head, sending a wayward curl bouncing against her heart-shaped face. “I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but my husband—God rest him—said he was a fine man.”

“He is indeed,” Rose said. “So you are a widow?”

Abigail’s blue eyes dimmed to match the gray of her dress. “Yes, it’s been five years now.”

“Any children?” Rose hoped she hadn’t been all alone. She knew firsthand how lonely life could be without family in it.

Abigail swallowed hard. “We were not blessed with any.”

“I’m sorry.” Rose touched her hand.

Abigail waved the concern away. “What’s for you won’t go by you. What about you, are you married?”

Rose froze as she considered how to answer that question without lying. It was one of the many reasons she’d kept to herself. She didn’t like lying, especially to people she hoped to call friend. She drew breath. “I lost my fiancé long ago.” It was the truth. He wasn’t dead to her knowledge, but he had left her when she needed him most.

“Well then, we’ll just have to keep each other company,” Abigail said, fluffing her skirt.

As the afternoon wore on, Rose realized that she’d found a kindred spirit in Abigail. Like Rose, she was now a woman of independent means and intended to stay that way. By the time tea had been served, they’d become fast friends.

Rose knew facing her neighbors would occur sooner or later. She simply preferred later. Yet, she couldn’t decline Abigail’s request that she attend her ball. Not after meeting her. Rose reluctantly agreed to be at the ball in a fortnight. She prayed she hadn’t made a mistake.

Abigail McKeon left Hyde Hall after securing Lady Rose Carlson’s acceptance. It was a social coup and would have the tongues wagging all over the countryside for months to come. The fact that she’d gained a friend only added to her happiness. As her carriage passed the pillars with the horrifying fanged stone creatures perched upon them, the hair on her nape rose. Heat suddenly infused her body, the likes of which she hadn’t experienced since her dear husband was alive, setting her aflame.

Her head whipped around in time to see glowing eyes fading in the distance. Abigail brought a hand to her heart and blinked. The stone statue appeared normal. Well as normal as a fanged monster with an insidiously long tongue could look. The creature’s eyes peered back from a set of empty sockets, not the glowing red fire balls she’d witnessed a moment ago.

Fire balls? What was she thinking?

Abigail shook her head at her folly, then turned back to stare at the road. Statues didn’t stare with red eyes and they most certainly didn’t come to life. Even as the thoughts crossed her mind, Abigail couldn’t ignore the sensation crawling over her skin.

Lazarus watched the golden haired woman pass by his perch, her beauty nearly causing him to lose form. Lose form? Shock infused him. How long had it been since a woman of her elegance entranced him? Five centuries? Ten perhaps? He couldn’t recall and didn’t care. All that matter was that he’d finallyfound her. After all these years of being trapped within the stone, he’d found the woman who could free him.

Her blue eyes widened when her gaze fell upon him. Awareness flared. He saw the flutter of her pulse and the deepening of her breath. The sight brought her ample bosom into sharp relief against her muslin dress. Her nipples all but begged for his touch. She pursed her full lips and swallowed hard, her delicate throat lightly convulsing.

She’d seen him. She had truly seen him. A mere moment perhaps, but it had been enough. Like a gasp of air on a warm spring morn, she’d brought life back to his frozen limbs. Or at least she would once night fell.

One chance encounter had released the first tumble of the invisible lock that held him. He could almost feel his body extending, his wings flapping, his muscles rippling to life. He wanted to stretch, to walk, to fly. But first, he needed to capture the woman. Once he seduced her and she accepted him for what he was, the rest of his bindings would fall away forever. The curse would be broken. He’d no longer be trapped in stone or subjected to roaming only during the night. Evening couldn’t come fast enough.

Soon he’d find…he’d find…

Lazarus had gotten so excited that he had forgotten one small detail. What an interesting dilemma. Who was this mysterious woman? And who now occupied Hyde Hall?

The only being he’d ever seen over the centuries had been the vampyre and he was in no hurry to release him. Or so it had seemed since he never heeded Lazarus’s call. When was the last time he’d seen him? Could’ve been five years, could’ve been a century. Time blurred into an eternal glom.

Mentally shaking himself, Lazarus smiled inwardly. It was a good thing he was no longer around. He didn’t need a baobhan sithinterfering with his seduction, when glorious freedom lie a fuck away. He closed his eyes, reveling at the thought.

Lazarus reached out with his senses, following the black carriage until it rounded the bend. She couldn’t be traveling far, she was neither packed nor dressed for a long journey. Which meant she lived somewhere close.

If he wasn’t already made of stone, he would’ve hardened at the thought. His tongue lulled from his mouth in a permanent lick, exposing his fangs for the world to see. Yet, she hadn’t turned away in horror. No, she’d looked upon him in fascination. He’d use her curiosity to draw her nearer, reinforce it with the aphrodisiac in his kiss, and then he’d pounce.

He would take the nights and use them to their full advantage, until he could secure the rest. He didn’t want to think about how long it had been since he’d felt the warmth of a woman or heard her gentle moans as he rode her to completion. For a creature that fed on passion, it was an eternity.

Soon, my lady. Soon.

 

It took Rose over two hours to pick out a suitable ball gown. No matter how many she tried on they all fit the same way, draping her legs, accentuating their length, while hugging her generous curves. Curse Richard and his expert eye. Wasn’t there something in her wardrobe that could blend with the wall?

One more fruitless search and Rose had her answer. Perhaps she’d been too hasty when she’d burned her clothes. She sighed, catching her reflection in the mirror. There was nothing immodest about any of the gowns, yet she felt exposed. Rose debated whether to feign a headache, but knew she wouldn’t. After all, she was no coward and she’d promised Abigail.

She entered McKeon Manor an hour later, her fingers trembling as she handed the servant her invitation. Packed with a colorful crowd, the room swelled with the sound of merriment. Musicians played in the corner of the great hall. It appeared as if the entire countryside had turned out in their finery. She was formally announced, which immediately caused a rush of whispers. Rose’s face flamed, but she held her ground.

Abigail rushed forward. She greeted her friend. Fear must have shadowed Rose’s features because Abigail gave her a reassuring squeeze before releasing her. Rose forced a smile, giving a quick nod of thanks. She took a deep breath then entered the fray.

Magnificent tapestries hung from the walls, depicting Scottish history. Rose marveled at the sheer opulence of the fabric. Curious glances darted her way. Rose did her best to ignore them. She realized as she continued deeper into the masses that they meant no malicious intent. It wasn’t their fault that she was on edge, terrified someone from her old life might recognize her.

Rose’s senses whirled as she inhaled, catching a cacophony of perfume and the scent of roasting meat. She brought a gloved hand to her cheeks, feeling their warmth beneath her covered fingertips. She couldn’t breathe.

The press of the crowd only made the sensation worse. She rose to her toes in search of a nearby door, any place to escape. Rose needed to get out of the ballroom, if only for a moment. Faces blurred in front of her as panic set in. Her chest squeezed, threatening to crush her heart.

Spotting open French doors on the far side of the room, Rose feigned casualness she did not feel and made her way toward them, slipping out onto a small terrace. She took a shuddering breath, inhaling the sweet grass filled air into her lungs. She strode along the balustrade, running her fingers over the flat stone slabs.

Something about this mysterious wild land soothed her, a healing balm to her shattered soul. Never in her life had she imagined that she’d end up in Scotland. Truth be told, Rose thought she’d die in the brothel from consumption. Sure, she’d dreamed of leaving, but hadn’t actually thought Richard, Lord Lyon would settle down. Rose had promised him that she’d stay in the brothel until he found his bloodmate, so she could supply him with blood and she’d kept her word. Unlike the men from her past, Rose neverwent back on a vow.

She strolled deeper into the darkness, allowing it to envelop her, calm her, hide her from prying eyes. Coming here was a bad idea. She wasn’t ready. She didn’t know if she’d ever be prepared to face good society again.

Rose had almost calmed her racing heart when she caught movement out of the corner of her eye. She swung around, her reticule raised above her head ready to strike. A man stepped out of the shadows, so dark in coloring that it was as if he’d brought them with him into the light. Rose gasped, staggering back as she craned her neck to get a better look at his face.

“You startled me.” Her hand went protectively to her throat. “I thought I was alone.”

The man’s eyes glowed red until the candlelight reached his face, dispersing the glom. He reminded her of a hungry fox thrown amongst a pen of chicks. She took a deep breath, trying to rein in her suddenly scattered wits. She had far too much experience to be so easily swept away.

She took in his features. Handsome didn’t even begin to describe his rugged beauty. Something about him reminded her of the untamed land. Rose’s pulse fluttered in her throat and her mouth went dry as he neared. His eyes, the color of the windswept moors, assessed her with a mixture of curiosity and…was that apprehension?

Rose almost laughed at the thought. Given his massive size, she saw no need for caution on his part. If anything, she should be concerned. With no effort at all he could easily overpower her. Laughter filtered out of the ballroom carried on the wind, reminding her that they weren’t in the brothel. They were on a terrace near a ballroom full of people. She had nothing to fear. He slowed, stopping within arms' length.

“I see you had the same idea as I.” His Scottish burr trickled over her skin like warm honey, leaving her pleasantly warm.

Rose suppressed a quiver. “I-It was rather stuffy inside. The crowd,” she added absently with a swish of her hand. The temperature outside had suddenly risen, too. “I didn’t realize anyone was out here. I hope I haven’t disturbed you.”

“Not at all.” He shook his head. “I haven’t seen you before. What’s your name, lass?” His gaze sought her red hair, before slowly lowering inch by excruciating inch down the length of her body.

The act was as intimate as a lover’s caress and just as devastating to Rose’s heightened senses. She swallowed hard. “I’m new to the area. My name is Rose Carlson. Lady Rose Carlson,” she added, realizing she’d made another social blunder. How many could she make before tongues began to wag?

“My Lady.” He bowed over her gloved hand, placing a chaste kiss upon her knuckles. “I’m Hamish MacDougall. Laird Hamish MacDougall,” he said, mirroring her words, an amused smile teasing his lips.

Rose felt the contact all the way to her toes, hot, searing, strangely intoxicating—and completely out of character for her.

“Will you stroll with me?” His voice dropped in cadence and he didn’t wait for a response. Hamish tugged her hand gently until it rested upon his sleeve, while he led her deeper into the shadows.

Without thought, Rose found herself following, her mind curiously blank. Something told her she shouldn’t go with him, that something wasn’t right, but the words refused to leave her lips. Everything around her faded, including the sounds from the ball. She couldn’t seem to focus. Rose felt blissfully light and airy as if she floated between wake and sleep.

“Has anyone ever told you, you smell like the flower that holds your name?” Hamish asked, sliding closer.

“No.” It took some effort to shake her head.

He bent near her ear until his hot breath brushed the curls at the side of her head. His lips trailed lower following her hairline until he reached the side of her neck. He inhaled and Rose felt, rather than saw, him shudder. “Where do you live, lass?” he asked.

She quivered in anticipation. Of what, she did not know.  Rose tried to concentrate on his question. “I reside at Hyde Hall,” she murmured breathlessly.

Hamish jerked back as if he’d been slapped. His pointed gaze shot to her face, narrowing slightly. His posture grew rigid and he took a step away.

Rose blinked in confusion, her mind slowly clearing. She looked around. How had they gotten to this end of the terrace? What had they been discussing? She couldn’t recall much. “Did I say something wrong?” she asked, trying to figure out what had happened.

His lip curled into what Rose thought was meant to be a smile, but looked more like a ghostly grimace. “No, of course not.” He gave her a curt nod, his social mask clearly back in place. “I was surprised by your answer. I didn’t know Hyde Hall was occupied. It’s been vacant for quite some time.”

“I moved in not long ago,” she said.

“I see,” Hamish said. His demeanor had gone from seductive to Artic from one breath to the next.

Rose frowned.

“May I escort you back inside?” he asked. “The dancing should be set to begin.”

“You dance?” She didn’t mean to sound so surprised, but Rose had difficulty imagining Hamish MacDougall waltzing around the room.

He glowered. “No, I do not.”

Rose forced a polite smile and inclined her head. “Very well.” She wasn’t sure what had happened. Everything seemed a bit hazy. One minute they’d been conversing congenially, she thought, the next he was practically rushing her back inside. Her mind remained curiously blank. She wished she had a better grasp of social graces. Maybe then she’d be able to ask. She’d obviously done something wrong, something that offended the Scottish laird enough to try to rid himself of her company. Rose knew she shouldn’t care, but for some reason Hamish’s rejection stung.

Hamish had smelled her before she’d come into view, a subtle scent of warm woman, with a hint of flowers, and delicious blood. For a moment, he couldn’t place the rare delicacy that had wandered near. Then he’d spotted her.

Copper-colored hair framed her delicate face, while her emerald gown and matching jewels draped her lush curves like a second skin. His cock had thickened as blood rushed south. He licked his suddenly dry lips, realizing that he’d actually punctured the inside of his mouth with his fangs. He’d swallowed the blood with a growl. He hadn’t wanted his own essence, not when she was so near at hand.

A simple taste of her would’ve filled his senses and prevented the maddening smell of the crowd from crushing his defenses and triggering bloodlust. All he’d had to do was wait.

But instead, he’d found himself leaving the shadows and stepping forward to introduce himself?

The second his hand clasped hers, he knew she would be the perfect nectar to squelch his insatiable need. Or she would’ve been, had he not realized who she was after a moment of conversation. Like a ray of light dispersing the early morning fog, his plans for sustenance disappeared.

So this was the delicate flower Richard called friend. No wonder he’d asked him to watch out for her. She was a rich bloom ripe for the picking. Hamish shuddered at how close he’d come to being the one to do so.

He cursed under his breath. How long had it been since he’d found himself drawn to a woman deeply enough to lure him from the shadows? He searched his memory. His blood grew cold as they answer came to him.

Agnes.

How had Richard known this woman would tempt him? Hamish shook his head. He couldn’t have. It was simply the illicit thrill of knowing he could feed from her without any mind tricks that drew him to her.

Then why had you wanted her before you knew who she was?

Hamish ignored the insidious question that taunted him. It mattered not. Things hadn’t changed. Rose slipped her hand on the arm he’d offered her. Her fingers fluttered before settling. The subtle warmth of her body seeped into him, whirling his senses, firing his blood.

His cock twitched and lengthened, coming to full attention beneath his kilt. Luckily, the material was thick and could hide his unwelcome condition. Only a fool would deny wanting her, and Hamish was no fool. But he wouldn’t take her. Not now. Not ever.

Out of self-preservation, he would lead Rose around the room and introduce her to his friends, before making his excuses and taking his leave. She would catch the eye of many. It wouldn’t take long before she had her pick of suitors.

Hamish’s muscles tensed and his insides boiled at the thought of another man drinking in her fragrance, tasting her loveliness. Where had those possessive feelings come from?He wasn’t a jealous man...or hadn’t been until now.

He shook himself from the dangerous path his thoughts had traversed. That way lay folly. He would introduce her to her peers and be done with his part, having honored his vow to Richard. Unpleasantness behind him, he’d return to his solitary life.

Hamish glanced at Rose’s face. Her eyes glowed in the soft lighting. At some point she’d moistened her ripe lips. His gaze locked onto their fullness as he imagined what it would feel like to kiss her, drink from that mouth, smother her moans with his embrace.

His breath caught and he fought to keep from quaking. Hamish had a feeling touching Rose would be anything but unpleasant. He fisted his hands until his knuckles hurt to keep from touching her delectable skin. Suddenly, the thought of leading a solitary existence didn’t sit well with him.

Keeping detached and performing this favor was going to be harder than he’d anticipated. Hamish glowered. Damn Richard’s black soul for getting him into this confounded mess.

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

London...

Lord William Longfellow strutted into Caulfield’s gaming den and brothel in Covent Gardens.  It had taken two glasses of port and a precarious carriage ride to get him here, but he’d finally arrived at the place that held the woman who’d destroyed his life. Anger erupted inside him, he couldn’t wait to get his hands on her.

A well-dressed doorman eyed him with suspicion as he approached, but let him pass without incident. William squinted, attempting to focus as his eyes adjusted to the dim lighting.

Tobacco and brandy assaulted his nostrils. He used the oak paneling on the walls to get his bearings. The club’s foyer dripped with swathes of burgundy, reminding him of blood.  His stomach churned as he considered what he was about to do.  He straightened, shoring up his courage. William didn’t tend to get his hands dirty. He hired people when delicate jobs were needed, but revenge on Rose was different, and well worth the small risk.

Taking her virginity cost him everything and it hadn’t even been that memorable. It was only fair that he take her life in exchange for hisruination. Maybe he’d fuck her first for old times' sake. She had to have gained experience working here. The death of a whore would never be reported. Not if this place wanted to stay in business. They’d simply scoop up the body and dump it near the docks. William strolled into the gaming area. He needed another drink. Eyes from around the room left their games long enough to focus on him. He scowled.

“Is there anything of interest I can help you with, gentlemen?” he asked, noting the looks of disgust.

Several shook their heads and looked away with newfound interest on the cards in their hands. Others glowered and gave him their shoulders. These men were once his peers and would be again as soon as he took care of his little problem. It had been sheer luck that an acquaintance had mentioned Rose Carlson worked here.  Of course, she’d gone by the moniker "Red Rose", but her appearance was much the same. Perhaps a little faded, but still containing the essence of the woman he’d once known or so he’d been told.

Her name, and the shock of hearing it, jolted William from his drunken stupor. He’d lost track of her over the years, but he had neverforgotten that she’d sent Richard Stuart, the sixth Earl of Lyon after him...the demon that posed as a man. Yes, William knew Lord Lyon’s dark secret, his need for blood in order to survive. That first sight of the man’s fangs would haunt him to the grave. He shuddered.

Of course, no one would’ve believed him if he’d told them what he’d seen, but William knew. That’s why he was here. Perhaps if he destroyed Rose, her death would bring about the destruction of the demon. At least it made sense to his vengeance-filled mind.

“Brandy,” he snapped as a servant walked by.

The man looked at him warily, then glanced at someone across the room before complying. William followed his gaze to a raven-haired woman dressed in a scarlet curve-hugging gown. He raised his glass in her direction, even though he couldn’t quite make out her features in the shadows. She might’ve smiled. He couldn’t tell. Didn’t care. He turned away intent on enjoying his brandy.

William’s topaz pinky ring winked in the low lighting as he tipped the glass and swallowed half his drink. The family crest surrounding the gem a permanent reminder of exactly how far he’d fallen.

“May I help you?” The question slid down his spine like a brush of fingertips, tempting and provoking at once.

Lavender-water perfume enveloped him. William turned quickly, spilling the last of his brandy down the front of his breeches. He swore under his breath, then glanced at the woman who’d asked the question. A scathing reprimand died on his lips as he caught sight of her up close. She was stunning. Moisture left his mouth and his heart thumbed loudly in his chest.

William drank in her raven beauty, his hungry gaze automatically dropping to her barely concealed voluptuous breasts. How he longed to lick and suckle her, feed from her ripeness while he plunged his cock into her. The thought of fucking her hardened his entire body. Perhaps afterwards he’d bring out the lash and leave luscious welts across her pale ass. She’d love that. They all did in the end.

“Should I thank you for the drink?” he asked, though he had no intention of doing so.

“Not at all. It’s my pleasure to have you in the establishment,” she said, raking him with her gaze.

He swallowed hard, attempting to banish the image of her naked from his mind. This was no time to get sidetracked. William cleared his throat. “I think quite possibly your assistance will be needed—later,” he said, his gaze flicking to her face in time to see her smile widen.

She was well aware of the effect she had on men. Like a feral cat toying with field mice, she played with them until she tired of the game, then devoured them whole.

William smiled. He loved women of experience. What would it feel like to have those full lips wrapped around his shaft? She looked more than ready to meet his every demand. For a second, his resolve to kill Rose faltered. No, he would not leave now. He was here for a purpose and no whore, not even one as beautiful as this one, would dissuade him.

Her gaze flicked to the empty glass in his hand. “I have everything a man desires and you look famished.” She glanced at his topaz ring, then regarded him with newfound appreciation.

William wasn’t flattered. He noted her undisguised interest in the only thing he owned of any value.  He kept his expression placid despite the rage beating at his brow. His gaze swept the length of her once more. She was ripe for the picking and seemed more than willing to allow herself to be plucked. Whores were so predictable. “What’s your name?” He did not give her the courtesy of addressing her properly, since it was more than obvious she was no lady.

“Josephine,” she answered, her French accent tickling the air.

“Josephine,” he repeated, letting her name curl around his tongue. He placed his glass on a passing tray. “Beautiful.”

“Thank you.”

He smiled. “I have a specific need tonight, Josephine—one that must be met before we continue this conversation somewhere more private.” He ran a knuckle along her collarbone.

She shuddered and her nipples came dangerously close to popping out of the top of her dress. “Pity, but I think you misunderstand me.” Her smile became a pout, but the move did not match the intent in her rich brown eyes.

“I don’t think so,” William said. “I believe I understand you perfectly and I accept your offer.”

Her spine stiffened. “This is my establishment. I do not ‘service’ clients anymore.”

“But you’d make an exception for me.” William closed the distance between them, allowing his coat to brush against her breasts. Despite his semi-downtrodden appearance, William knew he wasn’t unappealing to the eye. His looks alone had convinced innocents and not-so innocents alike to grace his sheets. From the expression on Josephine’s face, she was tempted, making her no different from the others.

She sucked in a breath and took a step back, her erect pink nipples clearly visible through the thin material of her gown. He shut his mouth to keep from crowing in victory. Josephine’s demeanor changed, whether from excitement or irritation, he did not know. Possibly a bit of both. Either way, it suited her. He enjoyed a woman’s anger and excitement in equal parts.

“What are your needs? We can meet anything you desire,” she said. Gone was the seductive minx. In its place stood a shrewd proprietress.

“Take care, ma petit, for I desire much,” he purred.

Her lips quirked and she arched a brow. “I have no doubt.”

William knew he’d intrigued her, but he couldn’t act upon it—yet. “Tonight, I’m in the mood for a red-head.” He straightened his rumpled waistcoat.

“I’m sure Marie will please you well,” she said.

William shook his head. “No, I have a specific girl in mind.” He allowed his gaze to linger on her upturned face.

“Is that so? Who may I ask?” Genuine curiosity flashed in her dark expressive cat-like eyes.

“Her name is Rose Carlson,” he said.

Josephine’s expression remained carefully blank. “There is no one by that name in my employ,” she said.

“I believe she’s known as ‘Red Rose’,” William said.

“Ah, yes.” Josephine laughed, but the sound held no humor. “She was one of my best. Losing her has cost me dearly.”

“What do you mean you lost her?” William grabbed her by the arms more forcefully than he’d intended. “To whom?” If she’d moved on to another house, he needed a name.

Josephine tossed her ebony hair back, then tilted her chin to meet his eyes. “She finished our contract over a month ago. She is free to do as she pleases.”

“Damn it!” William released her and slammed his fist on the bar, shaking the glasses nearby. He felt his face harden. “Do you know where she went?”

Josephine shrugged a delicate shoulder. “Perhaps.”

He reached out and grasped her arms again, this time making sure his fingers bit into her flesh.

She yelped.

“It’s important that I know exactly where she went. Was she alone or did she travel with Lord Lyon?” he asked.

“Lord Lyon wed. I doubt very much that his new bride would allow him to travel with a whore.” Her lips thinned. “Now release me this instant! You’re hurting me.”

William leaned close until their faces were but mere inches apart. His breath fanned her check, stirring the hair framing her face. “I’m going to do a lot more than hurt you, if you don’t tell me what I need to know. Where did she go?”

Josephine struggled to break his hold. “I’ve told you more than enough,” she growled, her accent thickening. She glanced over her shoulder and two bruisers appeared from out of the shadows, closing on them with the speed of a runaway carriage. The men’s noses were bent at strange angles and scars marred their meaty fists. Josephine turned back slowly to face him. “I am going to ask you again to release me. If you do not, then my friends will assist you out the door.”

William glanced at the two men, whose black eyes glittered with anger, and then at Josephine. She’d won this round, but this wouldn’t be their last encounter. He released her slowly, uncurling his fingers one by one. “You’ve made a mistake, madam. You have threatened a peer in front of witnesses.”

“Au contraire, monsieur. You are the one who is mistaken. I guarantee no one here saw a thing. Now get out before I change my mind and have my friends escort you into the alley instead.”

“You’ve not seen the last of me. I’ll be back after I take care of Rose and her demon lover, Lord Lyon.”

Josephine giggled with delight and a smile spread across her face. “I believe that is the brandy talking, monsieur.”

William pulled his coat down, straightening it with a snap. “I’m quite serious, madam.”

Josephine’s delicate brow arched. “You’re truly after Lord Lyon?”

William nodded.

“Then you are on a fool’s errand.” She gave an unladylike snort and shook her head, sending ebony curls over her creamy pale collarbone. “Now I’m afraid I must bid you adieu, for thiswill bethe last I see of you, monsieur.”  She turned and walked away, her lush hips swaying with each step.

“You underestimate me, madam. I will be back,” William called after her, ignoring the bruisers who stood by his side. Neither man touched him, but the threat was clear.

Josephine stopped and glanced over her shoulder.  “No, you will not, monsieur.”

“Why are you so sure?” he asked.

She shrugged. “It is simple. No one attacks Lord Lyon and lives.”

 

Pain streaked through Lazarus as the stone encasing him began to crack. The fissures widened, then crumbled, falling to the ground. He quaked as chunks of stone were absorbed into his body in place of tissue. Skin formed, stretching over the stone until it resembled hands and feet. Stretching his arms and legs, he wiggled his fingers and toes. Lazarus ran a hand over his new form, enjoying the rigid feel of flesh beneath his palms. He glanced down to make sure everything was where it was supposed to be and grinned. He had everything he needed to seduce his golden goddess. Glossy black wings sprouted from his back until they surpassed the length of a carriage. Lazarus flapped them once, twice, then leapt straight into the air, enjoying freedom once more.

Lazarus entered the McKeon manor by magic. He’d found some of Richard’s clothing tucked in the attic of Hyde Hall. Fortunately they were in good repair. Although a little snug, they fit him well enough to pass as a guest. It had been easy to trick the servant at the door into believing he possessed an invitation to the ball. Humans were often susceptible to suggestion and they had no defense against magic. Too bad he couldn’t use his magic on the woman. It would make things much simpler. It hadn’t taken him long to find her after she’d left Hyde Hall. He’d simply flown over the nearby estates until he’d spotted her in a window.

He stretched his muscles, enjoying the feel of flesh upon his bones. His wings were once again tucked safely inside his body. He glanced down at the stack of discarded invitations. The lady in question was hosting this event. He smiled. Lady Abigail McKeon, her name was a beautiful as the woman who owned it. He reached out with his senses. She was near, very near. A thrill shot through him.

Lazarus strolled down the corridor and into the throng. It took but a moment to spot his prey. She stood off from the crowd, overseeing the festivities. She held her regal head high, her golden hair neatly pinned at her nape, while her cobalt gown accentuated her eyes and caressed her length.

He stood for a moment, allowing his senses to reach out for her. Lust slammed into him as he absorbed her essence. Lady Abigail was not only beautiful, but she was bright and spirited. A lady through and through. That knowledge made him want her even more.

He forced his attention to her face and sought outside himself once more. Lazarus brushed her cheek with a thought. He saw Abigail’s eyes widen and her cheeks flush as her hand flew to her face. She glanced around warily until her gaze fell upon him.

Lazarus saw her quick intake of air from all the way across the room where he stood. He smiled. He couldn’t help himself. Their eyes locked and he took a step in her direction. Her lashes fluttered and she quickly looked away. The thrill of the hunt surged through Lazarus, as hunger nearly consumed him. One kiss would draw her, tempt her beyond reason. He’d waited lifetimes for this chance. He wasn’t about to let anyone or anything stand in his way.

People parted as he neared, subconsciously sensing the power within him. He’d almost made it across the room to her side, when a large Highlander stepped in front of him, blocking his path. Lazarus tried to sidestep, but the man mirrored his actions.

“What do you seek here, grotesque?” the coal-haired, green-eyed monstrosity of a man asked, his gaze coolly assessing Lazarus from head to foot.

Lazarus’s nostrils flared and his eyes widened in surprise. How? He opened his mouth to reply when it occurred to him that the man standing before him was not a manat all. Suddenly, his shoulders relaxed. So he wasn’t the only one here with a secret. Lazarus smiled, allowing his gaze to float to the redhead standing behind the vampyre.

He pushed past the Highlander. “I do not believe I’ve had the pleasure. My name is Lord Lazarus Hyde.” He bowed over her hand and gave her his best smile.

The vampyre hissed under his breath. Humans couldn’t hear it, but Lazarus could.

“Lady Rose Carlson.” She blushed and dipped into a slight curtsy. “Hyde? As in Hyde Hall?”

“One and the same. My family built the pile generations ago, but eventually retreated to a…quieterexistence. I know this is rather informal. Forgive my bad manners, but may I have this dance? Unless it is already taken.” His gaze swung back to the vampyre, daring him to object.

Rose glanced at the Highlander, and then back to Lazarus. “I’d be delighted since Laird MacDougall has informed me he does not partake of such frivolous activities.”

Lazarus arched a brow and grinned as the vampyre stiffened beside him. “Shall we?” He held his arm out for the lady. She did not disappoint him. In fact, if Lazarus didn’t know any better he’d say she enjoyed goading the vampyre as much as he.

He twirled Rose around the dance floor, while at the same time peppering her with questions. “So how do you know Laird MacDougall?” Lazarus spun her, bringing her close.

“Actually,” Rose flushed, “we just met.”

Lazarus’s gaze strayed to the Highlander. “He seems quite possessive of someone he barely knows.”

She laughed. “You are mistaken, my lord.”

He smiled. “When it comes to affairs of the heart, I’m nevermistaken, my lady.”

“I fear this time you are.” Rose pulled back. “Hamish has no interest in me. None whatsoever. He’s made it abundantly clear.”

“Hamish is it?”

She stammered, “I mean Laird MacDougall.”

Lazarus drew her close on the turns, allowing her body to gently brush his as he whirled her around. “We’ll see,” he said.

“I assure you, your concern is for naught.”

“Then do you have no interest either?” he asked. “Perhaps I was mistaken about that, too.”

Her eyes widened, and then she quickly looked away. “I didn’t say that.” Rose blushed to her ears. “I mean to say that I did not come here to attract interest from anyone.”

Lazarus hid his grin. “Ah, but my lady, that is impossible given your beauty. All the men would have to be blind not to notice.”

She balked. “You are too kind. Though I feel that your charm is wasted on me.”

“Charm cannot be wasted.” He spun her once more, his body grazing hers again. Lazarus heard a smothered male curse. “Tell me,” he said, “if the Highlander was by chance interested. Would you wish to attract his attention?”

Rose looked away, studying the other dancers around them as if she didn’t hear him.

Lazarus laughed. “I’ll take that as a yes.” They swayed to the music. “Perhaps,” he paused, “we can benefit each other.”

Rose’s eyes met his warily. “How so?”

He grinned and swept her down the ballroom. “I’m here for other reasons, but I do not wish to reveal my hand so soon.” His gaze strayed to Abigail. “We could use each other as a distraction, so that our true motives remain hidden.”

Her brows rose to her hairline. “What motives would those be, my lord?”

“Why love, my dear lady. Love,” he said, as if that were obvious.

Rose shook her head. “I daresay I am not looking for love. I don’t believe in it.”

Lazarus studied her, really taking the time to look at her. He’d asked her to dance on a lark, mainly to needle the vampyre. She’d seemed like the perfect foil. Yet, now he realized his mistake. There was more to Rose Carlson than he thought. She believed every word she’d spoken. Her expression hadn’t changed, but he hadn’t missed the pain that flashed in her eyes. He wondered if the vampyre had any idea. He considered telling him, then thought better of it. “Milady, we are all looking for love, even those of us who don’t know it yet,” he said, then glanced at Abigail again.

Rose stiffened in his arms. “You’d better not hurt her. I will not condone nor participate in any treachery that would bring harm to my friend.”

Lazarus met her searing gaze. “I’d never dream of requesting such a thing. Your loyalty is noted and appreciated. Now tell me about your friend.”

The vampyre’s attention never once left them, yet the lady in his arms seemed convinced that the man was indifferent to her. Lazarus knew better. He’d seen that look before. Hamish MacDougall may claim indifference, but that was not what he felt.

He met the vamp's eyes and pulled Rose closer. His lips whispered the command to laugh in her ear and she did so. The vampyre’s eyes flared red in warning. Lazarus’s lips twitched. He hadn’t had this much fun in centuries.

By the time the dance ended, Lazarus knew what he wanted to know about Lady Rose Carlson and her friend, Lady Abigail McKeon. She was a widow, fairly young, and wasn’t in search of an attachment. He looked forward to changing her mind.

He returned Rose to MacDougall’s side, not that he’d had much of a choice, since the vampyre practically met them the second the musicians plucked the last strings.

“What is your purpose?” Hamish ground out the question between clenched jaws.

“I have many. Do not concern yourself, brethren. For now, I’m here for other reasons.” He glanced first at Rose, then at the lovely blonde holding court.

Hamish’s moss-colored eyes narrowed menacingly. “If ye hurt her, I’ll kill you.”

Lazarus grinned in amusement. “You can try, but I don’t think that will be necessary. What I’m after is...” He allowed his voice to trail off and arched a brow.

“Ye have heard my warning,” Hamish said.

“I have indeed, dark one,” Lazarus said. “Now hear mine. If you stand between me and what I want, you might just find yourself perched on a pillar, locked in stone, guarding chamber pots in the future.”

They eyed each other steadily, sizing up their opponent like the warriors they were, before both slowly backing away. Lazarus laughed inwardly. And here he thought he’d managed to rid himself of vampyres.

Rose stared at the two men, who stood toe to toe.  There was something about them that struck her as ethereal. It wasn’t just their impressive height, the width of their broad shoulders, or their fierce expressions. They both seemed to glow from within, almost as if they absorbed light, then projected it out.

She shook her head at the fanciful thoughts as Lazarus glanced her way. The very devil danced within his eyes. He smiled and Rose felt the kick all the way to her toes. Poor Abigail truly didn’t stand a chance if he decided to focus all that charm on her. Rose almost envied her friend. Hamish took that moment to look at her. Then again, perhaps not. His frown deepened as Lazarus departed.

“What was that all about?” she asked innocently.

“Tis nothing, lass. Just catching up with a friend I hadn’t seen in a long while.” He squeezed her fingers.

“It didn’t look as if you two were old acquaintances. Lord Hyde gave me the distinct impression you’d never met,” she said. If their stares had gotten any harder, Rose feared there would’ve been fisticuffs or worse.

“He was mistaken,” he said absently.

“Truly? Then why was I afraid I would have to intervene to break up a row?”

Hamish laughed, then smiled down at her. “I know not, my lady, but seeing you do that would almost be worth thrashing the grote...him. You’d do well to give Lord Lazarus a wide berth.”

“Now why would I want to do that?” she asked.

“He’s not what he seems,” he said.

The same could be said about her. Rose covertly watched him, waiting to see if Hamish would say more, but he didn’t.

For the rest of the evening, Hamish didn’t allow Rose out of his sight. His warmth crept over her glove-covered fingertips and along her arm, until her nipples poked like pebbles through the thin material of her gown. It wasn’t just his size that impressed her, even though he was taller than any man in attendance, it was his demeanor. One moment she’d actually thought he was going to eat her up, while the next he escorted her around the ballroom like a perfect gentleman. The cool façade had disappeared with Lazarus’s arrival.

Rose sensed the hunger flowing beneath Hamish’s civilized surface. It actually pulsed under her palm like a living, breathing creature. She fought back a delicious tremor. Perhaps, he could be her first lover.

As quickly as the thought entered her mind, Rose squashed it. She couldn’t take a lover, at least for a while. She’d only been circulating in polite society for a few hours. It wouldn’t exactly put her in anyone’s favor if she did.

She glanced at Hamish from beneath her lashes. He was an extremely handsome man in a completely untamed way. He had hair black as night and a face that could make angels exalt. Even with his striking looks he still maintained an air of feralness.

Rose allowed a tiny bit of pressure to infuse her hand. Hamish flexed under her adjusted touch without breaking from the conversation he was having with the Earl of Dorchester. He might feign indifference, but Rose now knew better. Lazarus was right.

They meandered through the crowd for several minutes. Rose gradually relaxed. Hamish seemed to know everyone in attendance and more than a few raised a brow when he approached. Rose had assumed he attended these events with regularity, but from the snippets of conversation she’d caught that hadn’t been the case.

A gong sounded and everyone filed into the banquet area. Hamish led Rose skillfully through the crowd and stepped through the archway.

Rose caught a glimpse of Abigail through the throng. Lazarus stood to her right. Rose smiled. Her friend was in for a treat with this scrumptious morsel. She almost giggled as she imagined Abigail’s response when he decided to lay siege to her defenses. Rose turned back in time to see Hamish scowl. She shook her head. Men could be such...such...delightful cretins.

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