"Wait." She rose from the table and began walking backward, toward the corridor. "Wait right there one moment, and I will prove it to you."
She hurried up to the next floor, then down the corridor, and tapped her way up all thirty-four stairs to the turret. There, she rummaged through her saved correspondence until she found the envelope she wanted, and clutching it, raced back down.
She arrived breathless and triumphant.
"Here," she said, clutching the weathered envelope. "Right here in my hand, I have proof that my father's stories made a difference in people's lives. Proof that true love will always triumph."
"I shall brace myself." The duke lifted his wineglass and drained it in one swallow. "Carry on."
Izzy unfolded the letter and began to read.
My dear Miss Goodnight,
We have never met, and yet I think of you as a close friend. Perhaps even as a sister. My governess began reading me your father's stories when I was but a girl of six, and for as long as I can remember, the good people of Moranglia have populated my dreams-just as I imagine they have populated yours. When I learned of Sir Henry's untimely death, I wept tears for you every night for months.
I am grown now, as you must be. This year, my father engaged me to a suitor not of my choosing. He is not a cruel or violent man, but he is unfeeling and cold. I am sure he does not love me and probably never could. He intends to acquire me, and he has gone about his goal with less feeling and attention than other men display when buying a horse. I dread the prospect of a life with him.
This will all sound so familiar to you. Am I not just like Cressida in the thirty-fifth installment, when her father betrothed her to that horrid Lord Darkskull? Excepting the windowless tower and the helpful mice, of course.
And, in the same way as Cressida, my heart has belonged to another for years. Oh, Miss Goodnight. I wish you could know him. Like Ulric, he comes from humble circumstances. But he has proved his worth time and again, displaying such understanding and devotion as I have never known from my closest friends and family. I love him with everything in my soul.
I face a fearsome choice. But I have sought the counsel of my heart and come to a brave decision.
I will follow Cressida's example and escape. With or without the helpful mice.
Doubt not. Tomorrow I shall be with my true love, and together we will embark on our life's adventure. All thanks are due to you, Miss Goodnight, and to your dear father, who lives on in his tales and in a nation's hearts.
A tear burned at the corner of Izzy's eye as she lifted her head. "And it's signed, 'Yours in boundless gratitude, Lady Emily Riverdale.' "
She lowered the letter on a note of victory. There, now. He couldn't possibly listen to that letter and be unmoved.
He was moved, indeed.
Without a word, Ransom rose from his chair. He loomed at the head of the table, big and dark and ominous as a human thundercloud. His hands were clenched in fists. She expected at any moment he would start launching lightning bolts.
The hairs on the back of Izzy's neck prickled.
Ever-proper Duncan was waving both arms in a frenzy, gesturing for Izzy's attention.
"What is it?" she whispered to the valet. "What's wrong?"
Duncan's eyes widened as he pointed at the letter in her hand and mouthed, That.
As the duke stormed from the room, she searched the letter again, trying to find the words that would cause such dramatic offense. Nothing, until . . .
Until her eye landed on the sender's name. Her heart and her stomach switched places.
Oh, no. No.
Lady Shemily Liverpail.
Lord, but she was an idiot.
The letter in Izzy's hand was from Ransom's own intended. The flibbertigibbet. The same woman who'd run off with a farmer, leading to the duke's disfigurement and brush with death. And she'd just read this letter aloud to him as proof of everlasting love.
Izzy gave the letter to Duncan in passing. Then she picked up a candlestick in one hand and her silk skirts in the other.
"I must go after him."
Moving as fast as she could in her sausage casing of a gown and corset, she chased him down the corridor. "Ransom, wait."
He didn't break stride, firing a warning over his shoulder. "Not now."
The words hit her square in the sternum, stopping her in place. His wasn't a tone one could easily ignore. Eleven generations of ducal authority rang out in that command.
He was angry, hurt, and on a very short fuse to explosion.
Izzy gathered her nerve and followed anyway.
She struggled to keep pace with him. He knew these rooms and corridors so well, having walked them every night in the dark.
At last, he turned into a room, and Izzy knew she would have him cornered.
He'd ducked into the library.
Ironically enough, the library was one room Izzy had avoided thus far. Though the vastness of the space and the floor-to-ceiling mahogany bookshelves were grand, for a true lover of books, the scene was unbearably sad. A cursory glance on the first day had revealed that any books of interest or value had been removed or looted. The only volumes remaining were dry agricultural treatises or outdated almanacs, and even those had been mildewed or chewed to the point of being unreadable.
Someday, Izzy had told herself, she would find the money to clean this out and fill it with lovely books again. Books bound in every available shade of rich, buttery leather: green, blue, red, brown. Someday, she would pass a rainy day sitting by that massive stone hearth, cuddled up in an overstuffed armchair and caught in the grips of a thrilling gothic novel.
Tonight, she would have to settle for living in one.
She stopped in the center of the room and placed the candlestick on a forgotten, dusty table
. "Ransom, I-"
He held her off with an outstretched hand. "I'm warning you, Goodnight. Don't push me right now."
"Please. I don't want to argue. Just allow me to apologize. I'm so, so sorry. It was terribly thoughtless of me to read that. I've had the letter for ages now, and I never drew the connection. I had no idea she was your Lady Emily."
Rage flared from him. "So you know."
"Yes. I know."
He took two confrontational steps in her direction. The candlelight sent fearsome shadows playing over his scarred face. "You've been gossiping about me. Or maybe it was somewhere in my stack of correspondence. Have you been snooping through my letters on your own?"
"No," she hastened to say. "Nothing like it. I learned about it from Duncan."
"Duncan. He told you." He cursed violently as he turned away. "That's it, then. There's not a soul remaining on this earth I can trust."
"No, no. Please don't take it that way." As she talked, she drifted closer, erasing the gap between them step by cautious step. "Duncan worries over you so much. He didn't want to gossip, I promise. And he didn't, exactly. He told me about a Duke of Mothfairy and a Lady Shemily, and I had to extrapolate the rest."
Izzy slapped a hand to her brow. "Never mind. Please forget I said anything about that part."
Before she knew what was happening, he was upon her. He caught her by the waist and pressed her up against the nearest wall-one lined with empty bookshelves.
"I warned you," he growled. "I warned you not to push me. Now I'm going push back."
He braced his hands on the shelves, caging her between his arms. One hard ridge caught her along the back of the thighs. Another scored the small of her back. The smell of wine was overpowering.
He had her trapped, and her body responded like any trapped creature's would. The hairs on the back of her neck lifted. Her diaphragm worked like a bellows, pushing air in and out of her lungs. Her pulse accelerated to a mad, frantic thunder in her chest.
"I'm s-sorry," she stammered. "So very sorry."
"Sorry for what? Sorry you read me that letter? Sorry for my pain? Sorry that you had a hand in destroying my life?"
Oh, Lord. So he did blame her.
"I'm sorry," she said carefully, "that Lady Emily never understood the kind of man you are."
"Really." One of his hands moved to her waist. His palm slid up and down over the liquid-smooth silk, idly tracing the curves of her breast and hip. "And what kind of man is that?"
"A good one. One who's gruff some of the time, and off-puttingly arrogant a great deal of the rest. But loyal and protective when it counts. You went after her, Ransom. You rushed after her, when you could have let her go."
"Yes, I rushed after her. And if you think that made me the hero in her little story, you have it all wrong. Everything she wrote was the truth. I didn't love her. I never would have loved her. To her, I was always the villain."
I didn't love her.
The words should have made her relieved for his feelings. Instead, Izzy was selfishly relieved for her own.
"You have no idea." He leaned close. The heat of his breath rushed over her ear. "You have no idea how tempted I am to ruin you. Right here and now. The revenge would be so damned sweet. England's precious little innocent, spreading her thighs so wide for my cock."
At his carnal words, her knees went weak. She couldn't draw enough air. These wretchedly tight corset laces. With every shallow breath, her breasts pushed higher against the restrictive red silk. The exquisite friction chafed her nipples to hardened peaks.
"You wouldn't do that." She swallowed hard. "You're not the sort of man to take advantage."
"I don't need to be a man who takes advantage." He sent one hand to burrow under her skirts. "Just one who takes an invitation."
He hooked a hand under her knee and lifted, drawing her leg to the side and propping her heel on the first shelf above the ground. Using the weight of his own knee, he pinned her in this lewd position.
Her heartbeat stalled as he pushed the folds of her petticoats and shift aside. She wasn't wearing anything but stockings beneath. But she couldn't bring herself to protest or shy away. His possessive touch excited her, and she found herself growing aroused even before his hand moved to cradle her sex.
She didn't want to scurry back to the dining room and continue pretending. She wanted to be here with him, raw and craving. Her flushed, breathless response to his touch . . . This was honest. The need gathering between her legs . . . It was real.
His thumb slipped over her crease, parting her gently for his explorations. Pleasure shuddered through her, and she gripped the nearest shelf for strength.
"Yes." He groaned. "I knew it would be like this. I knew you'd be so wet for me."
The crude words made her wild. He slid a finger inside her, and she bit her lip to keep from crying aloud.
He knew just what she needed. He worked in and out, stroking a fraction deeper every time.
And still she craved more. She rocked her hips back and forth, trying to draw him deeper, deeper. She needed him. She needed him so deep inside.
"No one else has any idea, do they? What a naughty, wanton girl you are. No one else sees what I see. No other man makes you twist and pant and moan."
She arched off the shelves, gasping. "No."
"Only me." His fingers thrust deep. "Say it."
With a soft groan of approval, he bent his head to lavish kisses on her breasts. Using his teeth, he tugged her bodice downward. Before she could protest that the gown was borrowed and already stretched to its seams, she felt the small rip of fabric.
Her breasts spilled forward, and a dizzying rush of air flooded her lungs.