It Happened One Midnight

By: Julie Anne Long

Chapter 1

  

THE MOON LAY ON its side like a discarded pickax, the stars’ diamond smithereens strewn all around it. It was a rare clear London night thanks to a stiff broom of a breeze off the Thames, and everything Tommy had seen on her way to her destination—barrels full of old rain capped thinly in ice, a narrow black cat holding its tail aloft in the shape of a question mark, each bar on the low wrought iron fence she’d just slipped through—seemed etched into the night, distinct as puzzle pieces, shimmering with portent and beauty and danger.
Just the way she liked it, in other words.
Just like her, some of the ton’s bloods might say.
And oh, how they loved to hear themselves talk. Granted, she’d done little to discourage it. She could find something to like in each of them, but there was a sameness to them, to their self-absorption and to their compliments—and to her ability to manage them. Not one of them saw anything more than what they wanted to see. Or what she wanted them to see.
Still, it wasn’t as though she hadn’t been enjoying herself.
She hadn’t realized things had gone a little too far until the pearls arrived.
Pearls notwithstanding, the most valuable thing she owned was a short broad ribbon hung with a gold wide-armed cross. The most important words of her life were etched into it. She gripped it so tightly now she wouldn’t be surprised to find the heat had seared them permanently into her palm.
It would only be fitting. Her body told the story of her life in scars.
She hovered in shadows in the terraced gardens, crouching slightly. She had a flawless view of French doors and enormous windows and a room lit only by a fire burning low. Not a typical row house, oh no; only a recreation of a French palais would suit the grandeur of its owner, who had built it decades ago.
Her heart launched into her throat when a man moved into the room.
Every cell in her body seemed to loan itself to seeing. She gulped glimpses as he passed through. Nose like the prow of a ship: conspicuous, arrogant, but right for his face, which was all sharply hewn edges and broad planes. An edifice of a face.
Tommy absently rested the back of her hand against the smooth curve of her own cheek.
He seemed hewn from eons of privilege. She could very nearly feel the weight of it from where she stood. It was in the way he entered the room, cutting through it with the purposeful confidence of a warship as he headed for the bookcase.
It was him. It was him. She knew it.
He turned a fraction toward the window, and that’s when she saw that his ruthlessly cropped hair was gray. More, more, more. She wanted to know more. The color of his eyes, the shape of his hands, the sound of his voice. Impatience thrummed through her, drew her nerves tight as harp strings.
Which is why she nearly leaped out of her skin when she heard the faint “snick” of a struck flint right behind her.
The blood instantly vacated her head. She nearly fainted.
Still, she was no stranger to surprise. She whipped about so quickly her cloak slapped at her calves, and the knife in her sleeve slid down to prick her palm, but remained hidden. She gripped the shaft.
A sucked cheroot flared into life, and round the light of it a man came into focus.
His posture was unmistakable. She’d inadvertently memorized it this afternoon at her salon, because he’d spent much of his time simply leaning against the wall opposite her and watching her through hooded eyes. Smiling very faintly, as though he was in on a private joke. As though he knew her, although they’d only just met, and never spoke after that first introduction. Then there was the fact that he was the sort of man no woman with blood in her veins would ever forget once she’d seen him. His face, shadowed intriguingly now, rather embossed itself on one’s memory. So few men actually caused a sharp intake of breath.
Judging from his reputation, he took full advantage of this.
None of this mattered to Tommy. He hadn’t a title, and he was a rake, and everyone knew she had rules about these things.
Ironically, however, he’d said the only thing that truly interested her all afternoon. She’d overheard it.
“Well, if it isn’t the celebrated Miss Thomasina de Ballesteros. What could possibly bring you to—” He peered into the window. “—a crouching position outside the window of a powerful married duke?”
His voice was very quiet, very baritone, and intolerably amused.
“It’s not what you think, Mr. Redmond,” she managed with icy elegance. Or as much elegance as once could muster whilst whispering. “And one might ask the same of you.”
Above their heads, framed in the square of light of his French doors, the man moved to kindle another lamp, and even more gaslight flared into the room. He was as illuminated as if he was a player on a stage now. How very helpful.
Now she just had to get rid of the sudden new audience member.
“I’m smoking a cheroot. I’m the last to depart a dinner party at this very residence, to which I was invited. It took place inside the house. I must say, however, that I’m unutterably touched that you care what I think.”
“Oh, I don’t,” she hastened to disabuse. Distractedly, because the Duke of Greyfolk was choosing a book from a bookcase now. Which book? What does he read? “It’s just that it’s too difficult to keep lies in order, and I’m busy enough as it is. Now if you would just leave me to my business, there’s a good lad, Mr. Redmond, and good night.”
Jonathan Redmond exhaled smoke. Politely, away from her, toward the sky.
“You speak from experience. The lying,” he said after a moment. They still spoke in hushes.
She cast a glance his way. She resented every second her eyes weren’t staring through the window. Inside, the duke settled into a chair with a book, and seemed to take his time burrowing in, finding just the right position for his buttocks. A new chair? Or one that bore his imprint and he was just trying to wriggle into it properly?
How she wanted to know the title of the book.
“Naturally. Everyone lies. Even you, I’d warrant. Perhaps especially you, given your reputation, Mr. Redmond, and the company you keep. The reason I’m standing here is most assuredly not what you think, so you may save your innuendoes for the next fashionable salon you choose to grace with your presence.”
He merely nodded along, as if everything she said followed a script. The rudeness was very unlike her, but one tended to revert to childhood defenses when cornered.
Above their heads the duke stood up, reached beneath him, and gave his trousers a tug; they had lodged between his buttock cheeks when he’d sat down. He resettled himself.
“You still haven’t told me what your business here is, Miss de Ballesteros.”
She turned toward him and straightened to her full height, which was unfortunately a foot or more less than his. She counted to ten silently. She could feel her temper crawling up an internal thermometer. The temper was evidence of how accustomed she’d become to men vying to do her bidding.
“Why are you tormenting me?” she asked, almost lightly.
“Why are you holding a knife?” he asked, mimicking her tone.
Shock blurred her vision.
The ease had gone out of his posture. Suddenly she knew he was a man poised to spring if he needed to. And this was what he’d been leading up to all along.
She cleared her throat. “Oh . . . this?”
“Yes,” he said softly. “That.”
She remained silent. She idly tested the tip of the knife with her fingertip. Very sharp. Perfectly deadly.
“Let me guess. It’s not what I think.”
Think, Tommy, think. “I’m carrying a knife,” she said slowly, “because . . . I don’t own a pistol.”
He nodded at this inanity thoughtfully. “Oh, one should always carry a pistol. In fact, I’m carrying one now.”
And so he was. There it was, gleaming in his hand. How had he done that?
She stared at it.
“It’s a very fine pistol,” she commented politely, thinking of ways to divest him of it or run, should it prove necessary. A knee to the baubles? A bloodcurdling scream?
“It is. Thank you.”
More silence. He wasn’t precisely aiming the thing at her, but he held it with the same casual ease with which he held the cheroot. She had no doubt he knew how to use it. She’d heard about how he allegedly, nonchalantly shot the hearts out of targets at Manton’s with tedious predictability.
“Mr. Redmond, do you really think my intent is murderous? If it was, I assure you I would have done you or him in by now, rather than just taking in the sights.”
He made an impatient sound. “You never would have gotten the chance to do me in, I assure you. Come. Do better.”
She inhaled deeply.
“Very well. I carry a knife for protection if I’m out at night. I do know how to use it. And I’m here now because I learned he’d just returned to town, and I’d heard so much about him I simply wanted to see what he looked like. As you may have guessed, we hardly move in the same circles. I swear it on . . . my mother’s memory.”
It came out more piously than she intended.
Though it wasn’t untrue.
“Your Spanish princess mother? Oh, well, then. I don’t imagine swearing gets any more sacred than that.”
She flinched. She ought to be angry—she wanted to be angry. She felt a faint sizzle somewhere on the periphery of her awareness.
Trouble was, she’d begun to find him interesting. And it was a rare enough sensation, when it came to men.
“I can’t tell you why I wanted to see him, and I won’t. But it’s absolutely true that I simply wanted to get a look at the famous Duke of Greyfolk, and I knew he would be in this evening. I swear to you. Call it . . . curiosity. Will you leave it be now?”
Above their heads, the object of her curiosity scratched his great nose and turned a page.
God, how she wanted to know what he was reading. The light glinted from an enormous signet ring he was wearing.
“Why are you so concerned about the duke’s welfare, Mr. Redmond? Pure heroics?”
He hesitated.
“I shouldn’t like to see him murdered until I can persuade him to invest in one of my projects.”
He’d startled a laugh from her. The self-deprecating humor surprised her. “You didn’t succeed tonight?”
A thoughtful hesitation. A suck on the cheroot.
“Let’s just say that I will.”
She liked the quiet arrogance. No bluster, just a sort of calm certainty. It reminded her of her own.
“Shall we?” Jonathan said after a moment, gesturing with his pistol.
Simultaneously they tucked their weapons away.
“I’m amazed you recognized me in the dark,” he said. “You must have eyes like a cat, Miss de Ballesteros.”
“Difficult not to recognize someone who hardly took his eyes from me this afternoon.”
Another interesting little silence ensued. She could have sworn her frankness had rendered him silent with admiration.
“I couldn’t decide whether I found you attractive,” he said finally.
Her jaw dropped. She coughed a shocked laugh.
“I know I’m supposed to,” he added almost apologetically. And wholly wickedly. “Everyone else does. After all, you’re quite the thing now, aren’t you?”
She could practically feel him savoring her discomfiture.
All of a sudden she knew a wayward surge of delight at his pure effrontery.
“As you can see . . . I don’t care what you think, either . . . Tommy.”
Bastard was laughing softly now. But not in an unkind way. In a way that invited her to join him. To best him.
There ensued a fraught, invigorating little silence during which they retook each other’s measure. During which they were deciding certain things, silently, about each other.
And then at last she leaned forward confidingly.
“Quite liberating, isn’t it?” she whispered.
And after a moment, his wicked grin lit up the night.
She responded with one of her own.
It was as good as a handshake, that exchange. It was an agreement to like each other.
And later it was that she would remember about this particular midnight: the wicked flash of his grin in the dark, like a much more beautiful and dangerous twin of that moon.
She ought to have been warned.

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