He bounced her weight, plumping her backside with his forearm. "There's so little to you."
The dismissive words jarred her tongue loose.
"You're wrong," she said. "There's a great deal to me, Your Grace. More than you know. More than anyone supposes. You can carry me outside, if you like. I'll come back in. Again, and again. As many times as it takes. Because this is my castle now. And I'm not leaving."
Ransom shook his head. A brave speech, for a tiny scrap of a woman currently slung over his shoulder. Miss Goodnight could say whatever she wished. The truth of it was, she was a defenseless, near-penniless, unmarried woman, and he was a duke. The decisions were his to make.
What remained of his logic-and that smarting finger on his right hand-insisted she was a problem. With his impaired vision, Ransom depended on an elaborate mental map of the place. That map included every room, every stair, every stone. It did not have room for scampering weasels or distracting, tempting women.
She needed to leave.
But now that he had her in his grasp again, with her breasts pressed against his back and her sweetly rounded bottom resting on his forearm, other parts of him-parts located far from his brain-were making other suggestions. Dangerous suggestions.
Which meant she really needed to leave.
Even before his injuries, he didn't allow women close. Oh, he took a great many women to bed. But he always paid them handsomely for the indulgence-with pleasure, gold, or both-and then he bid them farewell. He never woke beside them in the morning.
The one-and only-time he'd sought a more lasting arrangement, it hadn't ended well. He'd landed here in this decrepit castle, blinded and broken.
But then, there was a part of him-a withered, neglected corner of his soul-that had grown painfully aware of how small and alone she was. And that for all her brave words, she was trembling.
Good Lord, Goodnight. What do I do with you?
He couldn't let her occupy this castle. Any sort of "sharing" arrangement was out of the question. But was this truly all that was left of him? A cruel, unfeeling brute who would cast a defenseless young woman out into the night?
He didn't want to believe that. Not yet. He didn't surrender anything lightly, and that included what few shards remained of his broken soul.
He set Miss Goodnight back on her feet. As he lowered her to the floor, her body slid down his, like a raindrop easing down the surface of a rock.
Ransom knew he'd regret the words he was about to speak. Because they were the decent thing to do, and if there was one thing he'd learned in his life, it was that every time he did the decent thing, he paid for it later.
"One night. You can stay one night."
He'd been a fool to waste all that time arguing legalities. The castle itself would do the convincing. Once she'd spent a night in Gostley Castle, she wouldn't be able to run away fast enough.
Miss Isolde Goodnight was about to have a Very Bad Night indeed.
You can stay one night.
Izzy could have whooped with triumph, but she restrained herself.
Instead, she stepped back, smoothing her skirts and hair. Her cheeks burned, but at least he couldn't know.
"Just one night," the duke said. "And I'm only agreeing to that much because I expect one night in this place will be enough for you."
It was a small victory, admittedly, but it was a start.
"Come along, then. I'll show you to a room. My manservant will bring your things later."
Izzy followed him out of the great hall and up a spiraling flight of stairs. The closeness of the stairwell made her shudder. Once darkness fell, these stone stairways and corridors would feel like a tomb.
"You'll want the finest chamber, no doubt. Since you seem to believe it's your castle now."
They emerged into a long corridor. Heavy steps carried him down the center of it. He didn't count aloud, but she could feel him taking the measurements in his head. His mastery of the space was a marvel.
At last he stopped, then made a brisk quarter turn.
"Here you are. I expect this will suit."
When Izzy peered inside, she was surprised to find a richly furnished chamber. A massive bed occupied one half of it, situated on a raised dais with mahogany posts soaring nearly to the ceiling. Velvet and tapestries hung on all sides. The rest of the furniture didn't consist of much-a chair with a caved-in seat, a few abandoned traveling trunks, and a dressing table covered in dust an inch thick. A gallery of arched Gothic windows lined the far wall, but the glass had been broken out of nearly all of them.
"Oh," she said, struggling to take in the room's decrepit state. "My."
"Take it all in," he said wryly. "View the full splendor of your supposed inheritance. Until I arrived some months ago, no one had resided in this place for decades. It's been looted thoroughly. There are only a few furnished rooms, all of them in states of decay."
"If that's the case, I'm grateful this many furnishings have survived." Izzy moved into the room. A patterned carpet covered the floor. A threadbare one, but to have lasted this long, it must have been well made. "Just look at this bed."
"Eight paces wide. Big enough for a duke and a half dozen women, besides. Makes a man yearn for the medieval ages."
"It wasn't for sleeping," she told him. "At least, it wasn't for . . . that. This would have been the castle's great chamber. The medieval lords conducted business from these beds, the way kings sit on thrones. That's why it's raised on a platform and built to such an impressive size."
"My father was an expert on these things
." Izzy approached the bed, peering at the hangings. She pulled a face. "It looks as though the moths have feasted on these tapestries. What a shame."
"Yes. And the rats have had their way with the mattress."
Rats? Izzy jumped back. She put her hands over her face and peered through her fingers at the bed enclosed by shredded hangings. Yes, the mattress had been disemboweled-its straw and horsehair contents strewn about and arranged into . . .
Oh, goodness, those could be nests.
If she stared hard enough, she could have sworn she saw the rotted straw moving.
She forced herself to say, "Snowdrop will be happy. And very well fed." A distant moaning startled her. "What's that noise?"
He shrugged. "Probably one of the ghosts."
"This is a borderlands castle, Miss Goodnight. If you know about castles, you should know what that means."
Gostley Castle's original purpose would have been to quell Scottish rebellion. Quelling rebellion meant capturing rebels-and not to keep them as houseguests. There was no telling how many people had been imprisoned in this castle, even tortured and killed, over the centuries. By the duke's own ancestors, no less.
"I don't believe in ghosts," she said.
He smirked. "Give it a night."
Night. It would be nightfall soon. Izzy's stomach twisted in a knot at the thought.
"I take it you're pleased with your accommodations." He leaned one shoulder against the archway. " 'Pleased' isn't the word."
The word was something more like "horrified." The thought of spending the night in this room reduced her insides to a quivering, whimpering puddle.
But she couldn't let on. That was just the reaction he hoped for. He wanted her to run away.
This would have to be home for tonight. Rats and moths and all.
She forced an enthusiasm she didn't quite feel. "I'm sure this will make an enchanting bedchamber, with a bit of work and imagination. The proportions are majestic. The bed only wants a new mattress and hangings." She walked to the row of windows. "And there's a lovely view of the sunset."
"For those who can view it."
Izzy winced, regretting her insensitive comment. "I could describe it for you."
"Don't bother. I've seen sunsets."
"But you haven't seen this sunset."
The prospect from the window was breathtaking. The cloud-covered sky had fragmented into puffs of gray, alternating with swatches of vibrant blue and rosy orange. From this vantage, one could see the castle walls rambling through romantic evening mists that curled all the way from the sea.
"The sun is setting just beyond the tower. But 'setting' is the wrong word for this. Too peaceful. This sun is struggling. Going down like a bloodied fighter in the jaws of a great, stony beast."
Heavy footsteps carried him to stand behind her. "Has it disappeared yet?"
"Almost. One final flash of gold, as it slips into the beyond, and . . ." She released her breath. "There. It's gone."
"There's a rule about sunsets in this castle, Miss Goodnight."
"Yes." He turned her to face him. "And a man and a woman standing in this very place are compelled to heed it. No choice. There's only one thing to be done."
Her pulse stumbled. Surely he couldn't mean to . . .
He lowered his head and made his voice a seductive whisper. "Duck."
She was still blinking at him in confusion when a strange sound tugged her attention aside. It sounded like . . . a great amount of wet laundry, flapping on the line in a stiff breeze.
She turned away from the window.
Before her eyes, the vast bed canopy seemed to come alive. First, it began to shimmer, then to ripple-like a quicksilver cloak caught by the wind.
Then small pieces of it began to break away, one by one, each following the other.
"Oh, no." She stiffened. "Those can't be . . ."
An entire colony of them had been roosting in the highest reaches of the canopy. Now they took wing one by one, then ten by ten . . . and then hundreds all at once.
She turned-just in time to see another black, swarming cloud pouring down the chimney. There must have been thousands.
And all of them were flooding straight for the windows.
"Duck," he repeated. "Now."
When she didn't immediately react, the duke wrapped his arms about her and hauled her toward the floor.
In seconds, the bats were everywhere, swarming above them in a roiling black cloud. Izzy ducked her head and took the shelter he offered. His chin tucked hard on her head, and she could feel his whiskers rasping against her scalp.
And through it all, his heart pounded, strong and steady. She clutched his shirt in both hands, burying her face in that constant rhythm, until it was all she could hear. No flapping. No screeching. Just thump-thump-thump.
At last, he lifted his head.
Izzy did the same. "I thought you said this was the best room."
"Nothing wrong with it," he said. "They're all out. Won't be back until morning. It's safe now."
Oh, it was anything but safe. Now it was nightfall, and she was stuck in this haunted, infested castle. In the arms of this tormenting, intriguing, devious duke. She didn't know what to do with him. She didn't even know what to do with herself.
Flailing her hands and stammering were all that came to mind. Neither idea seemed useful in the least.
And then . . . she felt a little scratching sensation.
Just behind her ear.
And all she could do was shriek.
Ransom was just about to release her when she latched onto him with sudden force.
"Help me." Her whisper trembled. Her body did, too.