London, England 1842
Rose Morgan hastened up the steps of the large townhouse and knocked on the door. In her opinion, it was best to get uncomfortable things over with as soon as possible.
She cast a nervous glance back at her carriage when no one responded. Her driver raised his brow in silent question, but she wasn't quite ready to dismiss him yet. Being a widow gave her a certain degree of freedom, such as traveling around London alone, but one could never be too careful. Galen was a trusted servant and could always be counted on in a fix.
Not that she would have to deal with any threats on this bright, sunny afternoon. At least, no threats to her physical body.
She placed her valise at her feet and knocked on the door again, her irritation growing. Where could everyone have gone? Any butler worth his station would have answered by now. Did everyone take a holiday?
When Rose had received the missive from Lady Denville, it said that the matter was urgent. Then again, everything seemed to be urgent where Lady Denville was concerned. The woman was one of the most self-centered dowagers in London. Unfortunately Rose wasn't in a position to ignore the price the dowager was willing to pay for her services. Otherwise Rose would have dismissed the summons.
Finally the door swung open. Rose took a small step back when she saw Lady Denville standing before her instead of the butler. How odd for the dowager to be answering her own door. A wide smile broke out on the old woman's face, creating deep creases in her translucent skin.
"Oh, thank goodness you've come. I was worried you'd ignore my summons." Lady Denville wrung her hands and stared at something over Rose's shoulder.
"I wouldn't dream of it." As long as Rose had bills to pay, she'd keep making the rounds. Her husband had died two years earlier, leaving her with more debt than she'd thought possible. Why had the bank continued to lend him money when he had no means to repay it? The question baffled Rose and kept her up late at night.
"Is there something wrong?" Rose put her hand on the old woman's arm, drawing her attention to the present.
"Come inside." Lady Denville glanced at Rose's small valise by her feet and then ushered her inside.
Rose waved to the carriage, picked up her bag, and stumbled over the foothold. Lady Denville shut the door behind her and peeked out the window.
What on earth was she doing? Lady Denville's behavior was odd, but Rose didn't care. The sooner she could complete her task and collect her money, the better. Lady Denville was only nice when she needed something, and Rose had no doubt that once their deal was finished, the dowager would turn her nose up at her once more.
"Shh." The dowager's hush startled Rose, and she fought against her rising anger. She was twenty-three, not some unschooled child. Lady Denville needed to treat her with more respect. All of London society needed to, it seemed. It was amazing how quickly everyone turned on her when her husband died. Unfortunately respectability only came with money, and that was in short supply.
Rose smoothed out her skirts, determined to use good manners. She had been brought up to respect her elders and knew how important it was to put her best face forward when out and about in London society. Lady Denville's behavior was unusual, perhaps a little disturbing, but she was also a big gossip, and Rose didn't need any more rumors floating around about herself.
Rose inclined her head and cleared her throat. "Lady Denville. I know that I'm a little early. I apologize--"
Lady Denville turned away from the window. "Never you mind, my dear. I'm just glad you're here. You're the only one I could think of who could help me with this...this...situation." She flashed a bright smile, but Rose could see the worry lines along her temples and the dark circles under her eyes. The baroness was at least twenty years Rose's senior and liked to use heavy cosmetics to hide her age. She must have applied them in a hurry this afternoon, for powder caked between the fine lines on her face and neck. The red on her lips had smudged, and the paint on her eyes appeared smeared.
A strange noise drifted down the staircase to their left. It sounded like whispering. Rose strained her ears but couldn't make out the words. "Did you hear something?"
The dowager grabbed Rose's arm with a viselike grip. "Are you worn out from the trip? Traveling always takes such a toll on the body. Maybe you should rest."
Rose glanced at the stairs. "What was that noise? Do you have company?"
Lady Denville cleared her throat. "Oh no dear. No company."
A low moan cascaded like rippling water from the second floor, and Rose raised her brows at the dowager.
Lady Denville frowned. "To be honest, I'm not quite certain what is making the noise. That is why I called you here."
Ah, of course. Rose slipped her arm out of the dowager's grasp. They both stared in silence at the staircase and listened to the rise and fall of the voice as it drifted through the house.
"Well, I promise to do what I can to help you with your...predicament. How long have you heard this...noise?" Rose asked.
"Ever since I came back to London for the Season three weeks ago." Lady Denville wrung her hands and turned her attention to Rose. "Do you think you can get rid of them?"
"Get rid of them?"
The dowager inched closer. "The ghosts," she whispered.
Rose took a step back, eager to spare herself from the dowager's heavy floral perfume. "Lady Denville, I'm quite sure you don't have ghosts in your house."
"What are they, then?"
Rose thought for a moment. "I do not know. Probably rats."
"Rats?" Lady Denville glanced at the stairway. The moaning became louder. "That is quite a rat," she said.
Rose had to agree. She had heard rats before, and none of them made noises like that. It was difficult to tell, but it almost sounded like two voices, not one. Both were low, but one had a much smoother cadence while the other sounded more rugged.
Rose cleared her throat, drawing Lady Denville's attention. "Have you ever seen these ghosts?"
The moaning faded, and the dowager reached for her sky blue wrap. "You did such a great job with Lady Spenborough's problem last Season. I only thought it natural to ask you to come when the noises began."
Either the old woman was hard of hearing, or she didn't want to answer the question. Rose suspected the latter. She forced herself to smile. "Of course."
The truth was Rose almost didn't respond to Lady Denville's missive. Like the rest of the older set in London, the dowager thought Rose was "special," meaning she had powers from the great beyond. It was silly, really. Rose had been lucky in determining that a few ghosts were actually branches scraping against windows, rats, or overcurious grandchildren. Somehow she had developed the reputation of a ghost hunter. The fact that she had never encountered a real ghost--not once--did nothing to dampen the whispers behind her back or the curious looks she had received at house parties.
As much as Rose hated the rumors, she needed the money. Once again she promised herself that as soon as she paid off her husband's debts, she would quit this nonsense for good.
"How is Lady Spenborough?" Rose asked, desperate to change the subject. Not that she cared. Lady Spenborough was a worse gossip than Lady Denville. Not a breath could take place within all of London without them both knowing about it.
"What?" Lady Denville looked away from the stairwell. "Fine, fine." She draped her wrap over her shoulders and inched toward the front door. "Once you determined that her ghost was nothing more than a bird caught in the chimney, she hired an exterminator and has been sleeping soundly ever since."
Rose pressed her lips together to bite back a retort. She suspected Lady Spenborough hadn't done much sleeping since the bird-in-the-chimney incident last year. The Season had been in full swing for only three weeks, and Rose had gotten more invitations to exhume ghosts than she had hours in the day. It could only mean one thing--Lady Spenborough had been gossiping to anyone who would listen about how Rose could clear a home of "ghosts."
The moaning ceased, and the odd, whisperlike noises began once more. Lady Denville froze and glanced at the staircase.
"Are you sure that it isn't just the staff?" Rose asked.
"N-no." Lady Denville tightened the wrap close around her shoulders and peered out the front window. "I sent the staff away for the night. I thought you'd need the privacy." She opened the front door and then took Rose's hands. "I appreciate what you're doing. We all do. Good luck."
Rose tugged the old woman's fingers. "What? Where are you going?"
"I'm going to stay with my sister tonight."
"Why?" When Rose's services were requested, she normally stayed the night since that was when the noises were at their peak, but she had never had to stay alone in a strange house before.
"I think it would be best if I wasn't in the way," Lady Denville said.
"But...but I'd be alone in the house by myself. It isn't proper."
"Tut, tut." The old woman smiled and patted Rose's hand. "You're a dowager, not a young miss, and it's only for a night." Lady Denville nodded to the stairwell. "Now you go and talk to those ghosts and tell them to leave. I have my big dinner party next weekend and can't have my reputation ruined by these...these..." Another low moan filled the house, and Lady Denville pressed her lips together. "I'll be back in the morning." She pulled away and made it to the bottom of the front steps before Rose could think of voicing another objection.
Rose watched the carriage roll away in horror. Lady Denville's graying hair bobbed in the backseat as the carriage rolled over the bumpy street and around the corner.
Well, that was strange. Rose waved off her own carriage, closed the door, and rubbed her temples. Lady Denville must have really been frightened if she left in such a rush. What had gotten her so worked up?
Another moan echoed through the abandoned townhouse. Rose listened to the low, throaty sound. She placed her palm over her middle as a strange tightening began in her lower abdomen. She became hot and light-headed as a dull ache formed between her legs. Odd to have such feelings when there was nothing around to prompt them.
Rose had never considered herself a sexual being; she had barely become aroused the handful of times her husband visited her bedroom. Never before had she felt anything so strong, so...thrilling. Rose reached into her valise and retrieved a handkerchief. On the next moan, she dabbed at her temples. How did it get so hot in here?
Then the moan faded, and whispers began. The two voices were easier to distinguish now. Each one spoke in hushed tones. A cool breeze blew over Rose, and her skin tingled with awareness. She looked around, but all the windows and doors were closed. How odd.
The whispers rose and fell like music. As the seconds passed, her desire increased. Rose closed her eyes and tried to understand the words. What were they saying? The voices encircled her body like a lover's embrace. One was as gentle as the summer wind, the other hard like arctic air. Her body heated, and she moistened her lips. It was almost as if the whispers were calling to her, urging her to seek them out.
Rose opened her eyes and stared at the spiral staircase before her. There was only one way to find out.
She ascended the stairs slowly, concentrating on the whispers around her. They grew in volume, but it was still difficult to understand any words. It seemed as if the more she concentrated on the noises, the harder it was to make out the words being spoken. The upstairs appeared dark compared to where they were standing, which was odd for midafternoon. Had Lady Denville closed it off? Why? By the time Rose made it halfway up the stairs, the whispers ceased, and the moaning started once more.
Rose stood at the top of the stairs and listened. The moans were louder now, and she could easily distinguish the two distinct tones. She scanned the area around her, but it was too dark to see much beyond her hands.
Rose straightened her light green dress, chosen to match her eyes, and poked a wispy blonde curl back into her twist. Gathering her strength, she picked up a candle off the nearby end table and lit it. The soft glow illuminated the hallway, which looked as if it hadn't had a good dusting in ages. Thick velvet curtains had been pulled over the windows, blocking any light. It was so unlike Lady Denville to keep her upstairs closed up like this.
Besides the depressing atmosphere, nothing seemed out of the ordinary with the crimson carpet and dark wood walls. Rose took a deep breath, steeled her jaw, and stepped forward.
The noises filled the air, fanning her desire from a small spark into a large flame. They were smooth and melodic, almost blending with each other. Her body warmed, and she placed her hand to her cheek.
Her husband wasn't overly amorous, and it had been a long time since she had enjoyed the pleasures of the bedroom. The noises spoke to something feminine and primal deep inside her body. It awoke and rushed through her system, leaving her breathless.
The sensations felt...strange. She had not felt anything so strong before, not even with her own husband. What could be making her feel this way, and could it alleviate the ache forming between her legs? She inched forward a step, then two. With each small advance, her desire grew until she found it difficult to concentrate on the matter at hand. She paused as a name echoed off the walls.
Her skin tingled with sexual awareness as the deep, commanding voice rippled through her body. Rose slid her fingers along the low-cut edge of her dress, then dipped them between her breasts. How did it get so warm in here?
And who was Jonathan?
She continued to the very end of the hall. It was darkest here, the heavy curtains in the windows blocking all light. She heard new noises now, like the shifting of furniture. They seemed to be coming from behind the large wooden door. A low glow shone through the cracks as the moans grew louder. Desire rose up as she stared at the strange light. A light breeze blew over her skin, just like it had when she was downstairs moments ago. It did nothing to cool her rising temperature or the fluttering in her stomach. The flame on the candle flickered, then extinguished.
She fought back the sudden urge to shed her clothes as confusion filled her mind. She had to know what was behind the door, not just for Lady Denville's sake, but for her own. Rose needed to find out what was making her feel like some animal in heat.
Rose was desperate for something to ease the building pressure between her legs, but nothing suitable was available. She resisted the urge to rip off her clothes and touch herself, for she suspected such an act would do little to alleviate the growing ache. She craved something bigger and stronger to satisfy her. The whole situation felt strange and barbaric, yet thrilling at the same time.
Rose moistened her lips and turned the knob.
Darkness settled around her. The only light came from the rays of the late afternoon sun peeking in through the crack in the heavy velvet drapes on the far side of the room. It spilled through the open space and fell upon two figures on the bed. Sweat glistened on their naked bodies, reflecting the light and giving them an ethereal appearance.
She took in the muscular, blond-haired man bent over the edge of the mattress. His hands had been tied to the bed posts. His face was turned toward her, his eyes shut, and a look of ecstasy crossed his tanned features. Muscles flexed along his arms, shoulders, and back as he groaned and pulled against his restraints.
A second figure, also male, stood behind him. His naked body was more tan than the first, but no less glorious. His dark hair fell around his face as he looked down at his companion, making it difficult to see his expression. He gripped the hips of the man in front of him and pushed his hips flush with the bound man's body. The loud slap of flesh on flesh filled the room, and they both moaned in response. Then he eased back and repeated the movements, this time a little faster. He curled his fingers into his lover's hips, grim determination etching his features.
"Oh my." Rose placed her palm to her chest, embarrassed at having walking in on such an intimate moment but unable to tear her attention away from the gorgeous men before her. The desire she felt earlier spiked to new levels, and she felt her heartbeat quicken.
The tall, dark-haired man never slowed his movements. As he drew back, he raised his head and met Rose's gaze. A sultry smile passed over his lips as he drove his cock deep inside the man before him.
Rose wanted to run, but the man's gaze held her immobile. Need slid down her center and made her legs shake. Intercourse with her husband had only been a quick obligation to marital duties. She had heard that the act could be enjoyed but never really believed it. The fact that it was happening between two men only heightened her interest.
What they were doing was illegal, punishable by death, and yet it didn't seem to matter to them. She knew that she should be shocked at their behavior, but instead of being appalled, she was intrigued.
Their movements were so joyous and uninhibited, and Rose craved that kind of freedom in her own life. She wanted the same wild abandon, the same recklessness.
The image fascinated her, excited her. Desire slipped like silken fingers around her body. She wanted to touch them, to feel their skin next to her own. Were they real or just some figment of her imagination? If it was a dream, then she didn't want to ever wake up.