Strange, the way we met. In a drawing-room circle
With its empty conversation,
Almost furtively, not knowing one another,
We guessed at our kinship.
And we realized our souls' likeness
Not by passionate words tumbling at random from our lips,
But by mind answering mind,
And the gleam of hidden thoughts.
“W AITING FOR SOMEONE?” A man's voice cut through the rustling quiet of the garden. The Russian accent was soft and guttural, falling pleasantly on Emma's ears. Turning with a wry smile, Emma watched as Prince Nikolas Angelovsky stepped out of the shadows.
With his golden skin, his sun-streaked hair, and his unpredictable cruelty, Nikolas was more like a tiger than a human being. Emma had never seen such a perfect blend of beauty and menace in any other man. She knew from personal experience that there was good reason to fear him. But she was an expert at handling dangerous creatures. The only sure way to be hurt was to show her fear.
Emma relaxed her spine and settled more comfortably on the stone bench, located in the most secluded section of the formal estate garden. “I'm certainly not waiting for you,” she replied briskly. “Why are you out here?”
He smiled at that, his white teeth gleaming in the darkness. “I felt like taking a walk.”
“I'll thank you to walk somewhere else. I'm trying to meet someone in private.”
“Who is it?” He slid his hands into his pockets, walking around her.
“Go away, Nikolas.”
“You can't order me about on my own estate, child.” Nikolas stopped a few feet away from her. He was a tall man, one of the few in London whom Emma didn't tower over. He had big hands and feet, and a spare, powerful build. A shadow fell across his face, obscuring all but the piercing yellow gleam of his eyes.
“I'm not a child. I'm a full-grown woman.”
“So you are,” Nikolas said softly. His gaze swept over her, taking note of her slender figure wrapped in a simple white gown. Emma's face, as always, was unpowdered and unpainted. Her hair had been pinned into a tight chignon, but exuberant curls sprang around her face and neck. Her hair was a sublime shade of red, burning with bronze and cinnamon lights.
“You look beautiful tonight,” he said.
Emma laughed. “Don't flatter me. ‘Attractive’ is the best I can do, and I know it. It's hardly worth having my head stuck with hairpins and my ribs crushed with tight lacing until I can't breathe. I'd much rather go ‘round wearing boots and breeches and be comfortable, as men are. If one can't be beautiful, one shouldn't have to try at all.”
Nikolas didn't argue, though he had his own opinion on the matter. Emma's unique attractiveness had always fascinated him. She was a strong, resilient woman, with the grace of a tall-masted ship. Her face was a composition of delicate angled cheekbones, a lush mouth, a scattering of golden freckles across the bridge of her nose. Long-limbed and slender, she reached a height of nearly six feet, even in her flat slippers. Nikolas topped her by a scant two inches. He had often imagined her body matched exactly to his, her legs and arms wrapped around him.
They were right for each other. Strange that no one else could see it, but it had been clear to Nikolas for years, ever since he had first met her. She had been a devil-child, an explosive bundle of gangly limbs and wild red hair. Now she was a young woman of twenty, with a ruthless honesty that was a perfect foil for his own secretive nature. She reminded him of the women he had known in Russia, women with fire in their souls…so unlike the tepid European creatures he had known for the past seven years.
Aware of his inspection, Emma made a face at him. “I don't mind being plain,” she said. “As far as I can tell, beauty is a terrible inconvenience. Now you really must go, Nikolas. With you hovering around, no man will dare come near me.”
“Whomever you're waiting for, he won't last any longer than the others.”
Emma scowled in sudden defiance. “This one will.”
“They never stay,” he continued idly. “You send them all away, in the exact order they come to you. Why is that?”
Emma's vivid flush clashed with her hair. She clamped her lips together. His arrow had found its mark. This was her third Season after having been presented. If she didn't marry soon, she would be considered a failure in the marriage market and on a rapid road to spinsterhood.
“I don't see why I need a husband,” she said. “I don't like the idea of being owned by someone. You probably think that makes me unwomanly.”
“I consider you very much a woman.”
Her auburn brows inched upward. “Is that a compliment or mockery? With you, it's hard to tell.”
“I never mock you, Emma. Other people, yes. You, no.”
She gave a disbelieving snort.
Nikolas came forward then, stepping into the light that spilled gently from a garden lantern. “You will accompany me back inside now. As your host—and a distant cousin—I can't allow you to stay out here unchaperoned.”
“Don't try to claim any kinship between us. You're my stepmother's relative, and you have no ties to me whatsoever.”
“We're cousins by marriage,” he insisted.
Emma smiled at that, knowing that as cousins, they could have a far more informal relationship, calling each other by first names and talking privately without the need of a chaperone. “Whatever you say, Your Highness.”
“Perhaps you would like a tour of my art collection,” Nikolas suggested. “I have an icon wall that might interest you. Many of them are works from thirteenth-century Novgorod.”
“I don't care for art, and I certainly don't want to look at any gloomy old icons.” Emma gave him a skeptical glance. “Why do you keep them? You're the last person I'd expect to collect religious paintings.”
“Icons are the windows to a Russian's soul.”
Emma's wide mouth curled derisively. “I've never seen any evidence that you have a soul.”
“Perhaps you haven't looked closely enough.” He took a step forward and then another, until his feet nearly touched the flowing hem of her white dress.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
For a moment Emma didn't move. Nikolas had never spoken to her like this. He seemed relaxed, his ungloved hands loose at his sides, but she had seen such calculated stillness before, in a cat about to strike. Emma obeyed uneasily, straightening as tall as possible until they stood almost nose to nose.
“What do you want, Nikolas?”
“I want to hear more about this friend of yours. Does he hold you in his arms? Does he whisper love words to you? Does he kiss you?” His fingers closed over her arms, the warmth of his palms sinking through the fragile silk sleeves.
Emma jumped and made a small sound in her throat. Her heart began to beat painfully hard. It was unimaginable, undreamed of, to feel Nikolas Angelovsky's hands on her, to stand so close that her br**sts touched his chest. She tried to pull away, but his grip tightened.
“If you're finished amusing yourself, Nikolas, then kindly remove your royal paws. I don't appreciate your sense of humor.”
“I'm not making a joke, ruyshka.” His arms slid around her, locking her against his body. At her gasp of bewilderment, he explained, “That means ‘little redheaded one.’”
“I'm not little,” she said, straining to break free. He contained her struggles without effort. Although they were almost the same height, he was double her weight, his body muscled and bigboned, his shoulders broad as church doors.
He continued to speak softly, ignoring her gasping protests. “You could easily pass for a Slav, you know, with your red hair and fair skin. Your eyes are the color of the Baltic Sea—the darkest blue I've ever seen.”
Emma thought of calling for help. Why was he doing this? What did he want from her? She recalled all the rumors she had heard about Nikolas. His past was filled with betrayal, murder, treason. He had been permanently exiled from Russia for crimes against the Imperial government. Many women found his aura of danger exciting, but she wasn't one of them.
“Let me go,” she said breathlessly. “I don't like your games.”
He held her so easily, as if she were a doll or a kitten. She sensed that he relished his power over her, that he wanted her to know how much greater his strength was. Her head fell back, her eyes closing. Any moment she would feel his mouth on hers. She held her breath, waiting, waiting…
One of his arms loosened, and his hand camp up to her throat, fondling lightly. His thumb stroked the driving pulse beneath her jaw. The unexpected lightness of his touch made her shiver. Emma lifted her trembling lashes and looked at him. His face was very close to hers. “Someday I will kiss you,” he said. “But not tonight.”
Emma jerked away in an offended flurry. Retreating a few yards, she folded her long arms across her chest. “Why don't you return to your guests and play host?” she snapped. “I'm sure there's any number of women inside who are dying to be near you.”
Nikolas remained in the lampglow, his hair glittering, his mouth twitching with a smile. In spite of her annoyance, Emma couldn't help noticing how indecently beautiful he was.
“Very well, cousin. Enjoy yourself in the arms of your…friend.”
“I will.” Emma didn't move until she was sure he was gone. She made her way back to the bench and sat, sprawling out her long legs. Nikolas had left her shaken…and strangely disappointed.
Someday I'll kiss you…He had only been mocking her, of course. She was hardly the kind that men lost their heads over. Emma remembered all the childrens' parties when spotty-faced boys had made fun of her for being taller than anyone else in the room; and her coming-out, when all the bachelors had ignored her in favor of the pretty, petite girls nearby. She had been a wallflower at seventeen, even though she had the attraction of a large family fortune behind her.
But now she finally had a suitor of her own. She was in love with Lord Adam Milbank. He had been courting her secretly for months now, since the beginning of the Season. Her heart thumped impatiently at the thought of him. Adam should have been here by now. What was taking him so long?
The Angelovsky garden was laid out in a series of “rooms,” each bordered by hedges, flower beds, or trees. Nikolas circled the clearing where Emma sat, keeping himself concealed behind a row of towering Irish yews. Finding a good vantage point, he stopped and waited for Emma's mysterious suitor to appear.
Thinking herself alone, Emma fidgeted on the bench, tried to flatten her red curls, and arranged her legs several times to make them appear shorter. Evidently deciding her efforts were useless, she slumped in resignation. Nikolas smiled at her antics. Emma rose to her feet, brushed off her skirts, and stretched her back, standing in profile to him. Nikolas admired the elegant length of her body, the roundness of her breasts. She paced around the bench and broke off a sprig of honeysuckle from a hedgerow.
A man's voice cut through the serene rustling of the garden. “Darling!”
Emma turned, dropping the honeysuckle. A dazzling smile appeared on her face. “You're late,” she accused, and rushed to the visitor. Flinging herself into his arms, she lavished a storm of kisses on his face.
“I had to sneak away without causing suspicion.” The young man laughed as he tried to defend himself. “You know nothing would stop me from coming to you.”
“Every time I see you across the room, I want to run into your arms.”
“Soon we'll be together.”
“How soon?” she asked impatiently.
“Very. Now, hold still so I can kiss you.” He grasped Emma's curly head in his hands and pressed his mouth to hers.
Nikolas watched the lovers, his eyes narrowed and intent. The man's back was turned to him. Patiently Nikolas circled them. He pushed aside a low-hanging branch to get a good view.
The man drew back slightly, the light falling on his face. It was Lord Adam Milbank.
Suddenly Nikolas relaxed. “Perfect,” he said under his breath, and meant it.
Now he understood Emma's need for secrecy. Milbank was an impoverished viscount. A fortune hunter. Emma's father would never allow his only daughter to marry a penniless manipulator like Milbank. No doubt Stokehurst had forbidden them to see each other. Nikolas turned and walked back to the ballroom, almost purring with satisfaction. It would be easy to get rid of Milbank. Nothing would stand in the way of his having Emma.
Emma linked her arms around Adam Milbank's neck. She breathed in his smell, clenched her hands in his jacket, luxuriated in his nearness. He was a tall, good-looking man of twenty-four with an appealing boyishness. “I'm more in love with you every day,” she said, staring into his velvety brown eyes. “I think about you all the time.”
Tenderly Adam stroked the side of her face. “You've bewitched me, Emma Stokehurst.” He kissed her for a long moment, his mouth warm, his arms locked around her narrow back. When he lifted his head, they were both slightly out of breath. “We'll have to return to the party soon,” he said. “Separately, of course. It won't do to have anyone suspect us. And don't scowl like that. You know it's necessary.”
“It seems as if we've been doing this forever, Adam. Ten minutes here and there…it's not enough. Now that we're both certain of how we feel, we should confront Father together. And if he won't give his blessing to our marriage, we'll elope.”
“Hush, darling,” Adam soothed, his face shadowed with sudden wariness. “I don't want to hear the word ‘elope’ from your lips ever again. I know how important your family is to you. I won't be the cause of a separation between you and your father.”
“But Papa may never approve.”
“He'll come around in time.” Tenderly Adam kissed her furrowed forehead. “I can be very patient, Em.”
“I can't.” Emma gave a frustrated laugh. “Patience may be one of your virtues, but not mine.”
“Try talking to your stepmother,” Adam suggested. “If you can win her to our side, she might soften your father's heart toward me.”
“Maybe,” Emma said thoughtfully. Her stepmother, Tasia, had always been like a kind older sister, unfailingly sympathetic to Emma's problems. “I suppose if anyone could change Papa's mind, it would be Tasia. But if that doesn't work—”