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The Haunting of a Duke

By:Chasity Bowlin

ther curious. She was known to the ton as a psychic, yet disdained any discussion of ghosts. For that matter, she was reputed to be an innocent, and yet she was wandering the halls practically nude, displaying her figure to any passerby. As the only passerby, he really couldn't complain overmuch, as he found himself enjoying the display quite thoroughly. Of course, he wasn't the only man to have noted Miss Walters’ many charms. Nearly every man present had been intrigued by her, including the lecherous Lord Pommeroy.

Rhys’ ruminations were cut short by a widening arc of light at the door to the billiard room. It froze Miss Walters’ in her tracks as well. Swiftly, he considered his options. Allowing her to be discovered and ruined would result in her being packed off to her family. It was an effective method of removing her as a complication in his own life, but hardly an honorable course of action. It seemed, he thought grimly, he was to play the knight in less than shining armor.

Acting decisively, he stepped forward, grasped her wrist and pulled her to him. He brought his other hand up to quickly cover her mouth as he pulled her into the deeper shadows beneath the stairs. He turned them so that her body was imprisoned between him and the wall, his body shielding her from view. His black evening clothes blended with the shadows, rendering them almost invisible.

When he whispered next to her ear, his voice was low and gruff. “It's a bit late for a stroll, Miss Walters."

He felt her shiver against him. Was it fear or something else equally primal? The delicate scent of her skin was heady. It was as soft and feminine as the lush curves of her body that pressed so intimately against him. His body's libidinous response to her nearness was immediate. It had been far too long since he'd held a woman in the circle of his arms, and felt the yielding of softer flesh, the satin of pampered skin. It was torture, but he relished it.

In the hard circle of his arms, Emme managed to turn her head slightly, so that she could see over the curve of his arm. Raucous laughter boomed down the hall and the shadows of two gentlemen came into view, dark shapes distorted over the pale marble of the floor.

As they neared, Emme blushed at their ribald comments. She could feel her face heating as they discussed the attributes of one of the female guests. Her face flamed even hotter when she realized that she, or more particularly, her bosom, was the subject of their speculation.

Their coarse laughter and even coarser comments dissipated as they turned onto the staircase. Their voices faded to the merest whisper, but they were hardly the only danger she faced.

Emme shivered with something that was not entirely fear as the whiskered chin of her captor and possible savior rasped against the shell of her ear and his breath fanned over the delicate skin of her neck. She struggled for a moment against his hold, but he shushed her, hissing sharply against her ear. Quickly, she catalogued her avenues of escape and came upon the disturbing realization that she had none. If she continued to struggle, the other gentlemen might overhear and return and she would be discovered. If she stayed where she was, and remained quiet, she might avoid discovery, but risked being compromised fully, rather than in name only.

She could hear her aunt's snide voice drifting through her mind. “It is possible to have a good reputation in the absence of virtue, but virtue in the absence of a good reputation is worthless.” Counting the number of times Lady Isabella had uttered that phrase was impossible. Detest her social climbing aunt, she might, but given her current predicament, she could not doubt the wisdom of her words. Against every instinct she possessed, Emme stilled against him, as it seemed to be the best option.

Rhys sensed the tension draining from her. He couldn't imagine that it was anything other than the girl's will that prompted the reaction. Hoping that he was not overestimating her state of calm, he removed his hand and stepped back, allowing her to step away from him. Instantly, he felt the loss. He resisted the urge to reach for her and pull her back into his arms.

He doubted that the gesture would be well received. His belief was borne out when she wasted no time in quickly putting at least an arm's length between them. When she turned to face him, the moonlight rendered her night rail all but transparent, revealing every sensuous curve. His breath caught and his desire, already piqued, spiked within him. It was only years of intense self-discipline that allowed him to tamp down his response. With purpose, he stepped forward out of the shadows to meet her defiant stare.

He saw the recognition in her eyes, and the spark of fear that followed. Did she believe the rumors, then? Did she think him a murderer? Of course, it was quite possible that he had not managed to fully disguise his response. If she had recognized his body's reaction to her nearness, then perhaps she was more experienced than he might have originally imagined. If so, there was no reason for him not to pursue her, discreetly, of course. The spark of hope that flared in him with that thought was ridiculous.

Emme's bravado faltered as she met the shuttered gaze of her host. The Duke of Briarleigh still wore the impeccable evening clothes he'd looked so fine in at dinner, though his artistically knotted neck cloth was now hopelessly rumpled.

His close-cropped, dark hair was disheveled as well. Even in the dim light, the dark shadowing of whiskers on his square jaw was visible, deepening the cleft of his chin and silhouetting his sculpted mouth. Looking at his mouth made her breathless, so she quickly brought her gaze up to his startling eyes.

They pinned her to the spot, rooting her to the floor with as yet unasked questions. She recalled their color from her earlier meeting with him, even as the moonlight concealed it