When Lorelei Sundun first finds Sir Argus Wherlocke in her garden, she's never heard of the mysterious Wherlocke clan--or their otherworldly abilities. That changes the moment she watches Argus--the most tantalizing man she's ever seen--disappear before her very eyes. What she's witnessed should be impossible. But so should falling in love with a man she's only just met. . .
Pursued by a madman intent on harnessing the Wherlockes' talents as weapons, Argus meant to seek help from his family, not to involve a duke's lovely daughter in the struggle. But now, the enchanting Lorelei is his only hope for salvation--and the greatest temptation he's ever faced. . .
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If He's Dangerous
By HANNAH HOWELL
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Hannah Howell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEngland—Summer, 1790
There was a naked man in her father's rose garden.
Lorelei Sundun blinked her eyes several times, but the man was still there. She wondered why he was staring at her in astonishment. She was not the one standing naked in a garden, a fat white rose the only thing protecting her modesty. Lorelei was certain she should be the one doing the gaping. In fact, she mused as she allowed her gaze to travel the long length of his lean body, she should be on her feet and racing toward the manor, perhaps even screaming for help. Loudly. Instead, she was utterly fascinated.
For a moment she wondered if she had been sitting in the sun contemplating her lack of a husband for too long. She was not wearing a hat. Could one get a brain fever from sitting hatless in the sun? Lorelei was not sure that even a brain fever would cause her to see a naked man. Certainly not one with a big, fat white rose hiding his manly parts, the part of a man she was most curious about. Lorelei was certain that the drawings in a book she had found hidden in her father's massive library could not be accurate concerning those parts of a man. A man could never hide something that large in his breeches. She doubted a man could even walk properly with such an appendage and suspected the looks on the faces of the women in those drawings were not ones of ecstasy but excruciating pain.
He was, she decided, a very handsome man. It might be why she found it impossible to look away as any woman of sense would do. His hair was thick, hanging far past his broad shoulders, and a black so deep and true the sunlight caused it to glint with faintly blue highlights. His features were harsh, almost predatory, but there was no fear in her heart. His eyes were dark and she was tempted to move closer to see what color they really were. He was tall and lean, but she could see the firm muscles beneath his smooth, swarthy skin. There appeared to be the remnants of bruises marring his fine body. Lorelei clasped her hands together in her lap to quell the sudden, and startling, urge to touch that sun-kissed skin, to soothe those hurts. He had good teeth, straight and white, she mused even as he shut his mouth and revealed lips that had a seductive hint of fullness to them. Those lips and his enviably long lashes were the only soft features on his hard face.
"Who are you?" he asked, his deep voice holding such a strong note of command she could feel it tug at her mind, and had to quell the instinctive urge to immediately refuse to answer him.
"Lady Lorelei Sundun, seventh child of the Duke of Sundunmoor," she replied, thinking that she ought to be the one making demands. "And you are?"
"Sir Argus Wherlocke." He scowled at her. "This is not where I wished to be."
"I suppose it is somewhat awkward to find oneself standing unclothed in a duke's garden."
"And you should not be able to see me."
"You have no Wherlocke or Vaughn blood, do you?"
That was no answer to her question, she thought, but swallowed a flare of annoyance. "Neither name appears in the family lineage."
Lorelei decided she could not leave the man unclothed any longer. His state of undress was stirring an unwelcome curiosity within her. She stood up, walked over to him, and handed him her fine shawl made of Italian lace. His eyes widened as he took it in his hand and she could see that those eyes were the dark blue of the night sky. When she realized how close she stood to him, how her palm itched to touch his skin, she took a step back. She briefly averted her eyes as he tied her shawl around his waist, for he had to step back from the shelter of the rose. Before looking away, however, she had noticed that the look of utter astonishment on his face had begun to lessen.
"This is most strange," he muttered and frowned at her. "You should not be seeing me. You most assuredly should not be able to hand me this shawl nor should I be able to hold it."
"And you should not be standing unclothed in my father's rose garden," she said. "Yet here you are. Where did you wish to find yourself?"
"I sought out one of my family." He cursed softly. "I am being pulled back."
"Pulled back where?" Lorelei knew her eyes were widening as the man appeared to be slowly losing all substance, the roses behind him beginning to show through his body. "You appear to be fading away, sir. Are you a ghost then?"
"No, not a ghost. Heed me now, for I have little time left. You must find someone in my family, a Wherlocke or a Vaughn. Tell them that I am in need of help. A man who calls himself Charles Cornick is holding me captive. He seeks knowledge of our gifts."
"Your gifts?" The man was so faded now that she could see right through him and had to clench her hands tightly against the urge to grab hold of him and try to hold him in place.
"He seeks a way to steal them, to take them into himself. You must contact my family so they can help me. Soon. I need help soon."
"Where are you? Where does this man hold you?"
"In the country. I know not where. I smell lavender and sweet peas."
Between one blink and the next, he was gone. Lorelei stepped up to the rosebush he had stood behind, but there was no sign that he had ever been there, not even a footprint left behind in the soft dirt. He could have been standing on one of the rune-marked stones her father had surrounded with his roses, but there should have been footprints leading to the stone.
Lorelei was just convincing herself that she had dreamt the whole incident when she reached to tug her shawl more closely around her shoulders. It was gone. A chill that had nothing to do with the late-afternoon breeze went straight through her. Her shawl had been tied around the man's waist. That small fact proved that something had happened, something she could not explain but could not deny.
"But what?" she muttered and lightly rubbed at her temples to push away the faint ache of an approaching headache. "A man simply cannot appear and disappear like that. Nor should a spirit be able to hold fast to a shawl and disappear with it."
It had to have been a dream, she firmly told herself. Lorelei started toward the manor house only to stop and look back at the place where the man had stood. She was certain she was awake. She pinched herself just to be sure and cursed at the pain. There was no doubt that she was awake, yet it was difficult to believe all that had just happened. It would be so much easier to believe that she had left her shawl in her room and had just had a little dream while sitting in the sun.
Soon. I need help soon.
Lorelei hurried into the house. This matter needed looking into. If it had not been some delusion brought on by sitting too long in the sun, then there was a man in trouble somewhere. She needed to know more about the family he wanted her to summon to his aid. Her father and his extensive library was a good place to start.
Roland Sundun, Eighth Duke of Sundunmoor, looked up from his book as his youngest daughter burst into his library. "M'dear, is something wrong? Have the twins misbehaved again?"
"No, Papa, Axel and Wolfgang are with their tutor," Lorelei replied.
She stood still for a moment to catch her breath, surprised that she had actually run all the way to the library. Her tall, almost too thin father looked a little startled and she could not blame him. Her impetuous entrance must have made him think there was some emergency. In truth there might be, but she would keep that knowledge to herself for now.
"Papa, do you know anything about a family named Wherlocke or Vaughn?" she asked.
"Oh, yes, m'dear." He stood up and carefully set his book aside. "I have studied them for years. Why do you ask?"
"Just some gossip I heard. Something about them being, well, a bit strange."
"Not strange. Gifted. Wondrously gifted. Fascinating people. Utterly fascinating."
Lorelei watched her father stride over to a set of shelves that reached up a full two stories. It held papers and books about a subject dear to his heart. Dissertations on ghosts, magic, witchcraft, and all manner of strange happenings filled the shelves to overflowing. She sighed even as she experienced a surge of interest. The answers she sought would be a long time in coming, but the very fact that her father went straight to that shelf told her that what she had seen in the garden could well have been real.
Argus grimaced as he fought the nausea and cold sweats he always suffered when he sent his spirit out from his body. It was wrong that he should suffer so only to have failed in his mission, he thought crossly. He moved a hand down his body to rub at his roiling belly and tensed as his fingers brushed against soft lace. Opening his eyes, he looked down at the delicate shawl tied around his waist.
"Damn my eyes, she was real," he whispered.
Hope surged in his heart, easing his discomfort. She had called herself Lorelei, seventh child of the Duke of Sundunmoor. Argus sorted through his vast knowledge of the aristocracy until he dredged up a few scraps about the duke. Wealthy, powerful, eccentric, three wives, a widower who preferred books to people, and a small army of children. As far as he knew there never was and never had been any connection between his family and the Sunduns, yet she had seen him, nearly touched him. Unless she was gifted as those in his family were, she should not have seen him at all.
What he could not be certain of was that she had believed what she had seen and would now act upon his request for help. He could see her clearly in his mind, her big, dark green eyes holding a glint of curiosity and no fear. She had looked small, delicate yet fulsome, her breasts lushly rounded and her hips nicely curved. A delightful armful, he mused, with thick dark red hair tumbling wildly over her slender shoulders. What she did not look like, however, was someone who could help free him.
The scrape of a boot on the stairs leading down to his prison pulled him from his thoughts. He quickly undid the shawl and stuffed it beneath the thin, straw-filled mattress that made up his bed. Once assured it was completely hidden, he crossed his arms beneath his head and waited. His calm was a hard-won façade, but he was determined to reveal no fear to his captors. After a fortnight of scant food and water, torture, and lying naked and chained to a bed by the ankle, that façade was getting harder to cling to.
Charles Cornick strode into the room, two thick-necked men right behind him, all three wearing tinted spectacles. Light came with him as all three carried lanterns that they hung from the hooks on the walls of his prison. Argus struggled to hide the furious hatred that surged through him at the sight of his captor. The air of arrogant calm he maintained annoyed Charles and, for that pleasure alone, Argus meant to hold fast to it. The fury and hate that gnawed at his innards grew stronger every day, however. Argus knew it was born of his helplessness.
"You are looking surprisingly hale, Argus," said Charles as he sat in a chair just beyond Argus's reach. "Mayhap we are treating you too kindly."
Argus wished he had the gift of being able to move things with his mind. He would like to slam Charles against the hard stone walls a few times.
"Your hospitality has been all I could have expected of you." Charles's muddy brown eyes narrowed and Argus suspected his words had been a little too heavily weighted with sarcasm, but he inwardly shrugged. "I am not sure stripping a man and chaining him to a bed will become de rigueur, however."
"A shame. I can think of many who would benefit from such treatment." Charles smiled. "Ones who would be far more cooperative than you are."
Yet another threat to my family, Argus thought. He fought to hide his anger over those continued threats, to hide his aching wish to wrap his hands around Charles's throat. The man constantly threatened his family and Argus knew it was no empty threat. Charles refused to believe that the gifts the Wherlockes and Vaughns had were not things that could be taught, given away, or stolen.
"Are those scratches on your stomach?" Charles asked, staring hard at the lower half of Argus's body. "How did you come by such wounds?"
It was on the tip of Argus's tongue to say rosebushes, but he bit the words back. Charles was a believer. The man did not understand how one gained such gifts, but he did believe in them, respect them, and covet them. Charles would not be angered by what he would see as impertinence, or shocked, or confused, as many another would be. The man would be curious. There would be questions, demands for an explanation that would grow increasingly brutal.
"Small injuries incurred while attempting to unchain myself," Argus replied.
"Unchaining yourself would do you no good. There is no way out of this room. Your talent does not allow you to open locked doors or break down walls. I believe one of the younger members of your very large family has that gift."
The man knew far too much about his family. It was one reason Argus had risked sending his spirit out to seek help despite the growing weakness captivity and repeated beatings had inflicted on him. His family needed to know that Charles had learned far too many of their secrets and that the man might not be working on his own.
"You have put too much faith in rumor," Argus said, filling his voice with the demand that Charles believe him.
Yet again he tried to use his gift, but none of the men fell under his spell. The tinted glasses they wore blocked the power of his gaze. The small bits of cotton each man tucked into his ears muffled the power of his voice to bend them to his will. From the moment he had seen the glasses and the cotton, Argus had known that Charles was aware of his gift and believed in it. It did not stop Argus from trying every time Charles and his brutes came to visit, however.
"I would think you would weary of that game. Your gift does not work on us." Charles rested his left ankle on his right knee and idly rubbed at a smudge on his boot. "And, please, do not deny, yet again, that you have any gift. That, too, has grown tiresome after a fortnight. Are you not bored with this game yet?"
"'Tis no game. Even if I had a gift, as you claim, I doubt I could but hand it to you."
"Perhaps not, but you could share it."
"As one shares the gift of writing music or poetry? You cannot truly believe that is possible."
"Why not? You have a skill, and skills can be taught, shared, learned about. The ability to make people tell you all they know, to pull the truth from a person even when they do not want to tell you it, is a very useful skill. I can think of many ways to make use of it."
"There is no skill I can give you."
"So tiresome. So stubborn. You bring this discomfort upon yourself."
"Do I? And what would happen if I had the skill you claim I do and gave it to you as you ask? Am I to believe that you would then kindly set me free?"
It did not surprise Argus when Charles did not answer, just smiled and signaled his men to begin their work. Argus put up a fight as he always did. The chain holding him to the bed, a fortnight of beatings, and a lack of enough food and water to keep a man healthy and strong made it impossible to hold his own against Charles's two brutes. The few injuries he did inflict before they subdued him gave him some pleasure, however. He would have felt more except that he suspected Charles enjoyed watching the uneven match and that was why he had never fully restrained Argus.
By the time the two men finished pounding him, Argus was hanging on to consciousness by a very thin thread. There was not a part of him that was not crying out in pain. When Charles leaned over him, Argus glared at the man even though he suspected Charles could see little of it due to Argus's rapidly swelling eyelids.
"As I have said, this grows tiresome," said Charles. "Very tiresome indeed."
"So sorry to bore you," replied Argus, not surprised to hear how slurred his words were for his mouth was bruised, bleeding, and swelling up as fast as his eyes were.
"This may end soon. We think we have found a way to get what we want."
Alarm swept through Argus, pushing aside the rapidly approaching dark of unconsciousness, as he feared Charles was about to use one of his family to try and break him. "I have told you that, if I had a gift, it would not be something that can be taught or given away."
Excerpted from If He's Dangerous by HANNAH HOWELL Copyright © 2011 by Hannah Howell. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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