She wanted to dance.
Her toes in silken slippers tapped beneath the hem of her white—no, blue—no, her green silk gown, in time with the elegant strains from the orchestra.
Innumerable twinkling candles on the crystal chandeliers cast a golden haze over the ballroom, where pairs of gliding dancers whirled through the steps of the new, daring waltz: ladies in rich, pale, luminous silks, gentlemen in stately black and white.
Suddenly, through the crowd, she sensed someone staring at her. Peeking over her painted fan, she caught only a glimpse of a tall, imposing figure before the swirling motion of the dancers hid him from her view again.
Her pulse leaped. A thrill rushed through her, for she could sense him, feel him coming to ask her to stand up with him for the next quadrille.
Wide-eyed, her heart pounding, she waited, yearning for a clearer look at the face of her mystery man, her destined hero—
At that moment, a prickle of instinctual warning on her nape summoned Eden Farraday back from her lovely reverie.
Her rapt gaze focused slowly as reality pressed back in on her reluctant senses, bringing with it all the ceaseless sounds and pungent smells of another black, humid night in the tropical forest.
Instead of crystal chandeliers, a lone, rusty lantern gleamed on the bamboo table beside her hammock, which was draped beneath a cloud of filmy white mosquito netting. In place of lords and ladies, pale moths danced and flittered against the lantern’s glass, and beyond the palm-thatched roof of the naturalists’ jungle stilt-house, the darkness throbbed with teeming life.
Insects sang in deafening cadence. Monkeys bickered for the most comfortable branches to sleep on in the trees, but at least the raucous parrots had quit their noisy squabbling. Far off in the distance, a jaguar roared to warn a rival off its territory, for the great stealthy beasts’ hunting hour had come.
Its fierce echo chased away her shining vision of London glamour, leaving nothing but the artifact that had inspired it—a yellowed, crinkled, year-old copy of a fashion magazine, La Belle Assemblée, sent by her dear cousin Amelia all the way from England.
The sense of danger, however, still remained.
She glanced around uneasily, her jungle-honed instincts on alert; her hand crept toward the pistol that was always by her side.
And then she heard it. A faint and subtle hiss from much too close overhead.
Lifting her gaze, she found herself eye to cold, beady eye with a monstrous eight-foot fer-de-lance. Fangs gleaming, the deadly serpent flicked its forked tongue in her direction. She shrank back slowly, not daring to move too fast.
Seeking warm-blooded prey, the big snake seemed to sense the vibrations of her pounding heart. The species invaded many a human dwelling in the torrid zone: humans left crumbs; crumbs brought mice; and the mice brought the fer-de-lance, a notoriously ill-tempered viper with a reputation for attacking with the slightest provocation.
Its bite spelled doom.
Slim and sinuous, it had slithered up into the weathered crossbeams of their shelter. It must have gone silently exploring then in search of a plump rodent entrée, for at present it was coiled around the post from which her hammock hung, and was studying her like it wondered how she’d taste.
To her amazement, it had sliced through the mosquito netting with those daggered fangs that dispensed a venom capable of killing a large man in under half an hour. Eden had seen it happen, and it was not a pleasant death.
When the fer-de-lance arched its scaly neck into that ominous S shape, she had a fleeting fraction of a second to see the attack coming, then it struck—angry reptile snapping out like a whip, a flash of fangs.
She flung herself onto her back on her hammock, brought up her pistol, and fired.
A disgusted yelp escaped her as the snake’s severed head plopped right onto the center of her treasured magazine.
“Bloody—!” she started, then stopped herself from uttering the rest, only mouthing the epithet, for refined London ladies did not curse aloud. Still!
That dashed magazine had taken a blasted year to reach her, coming via courier by way of Jamaica. Rolling nimbly out of her hammock, Eden scowled at the wide-mouthed snake head that now marred the elegant publication. She flipped her long plait of auburn hair over her shoulder, brushed the mosquito netting aside and stepped away, shaking off her latest brush with death.
“Everything all right, dear?” her father, Dr. Victor Farraday, called in a casual tone from his work tent across the naturalists’ camp, located deep in the heart of Venezuela’s green, steaming Orinoco Delta.
She shot a distracted glance in his direction. “Fine, Father!” she yelled back and, with shaking hands, put her gun away. Lord, I can’t wait to get out of here.
With a grimace, she picked up the magazine like a tray, balancing the dead snake’s head on it, and marched stoically to the rustic railing that overlooked the wide, onyx river. She flung the head into the current without ceremony, and heard it plop down into the Orinoco with a small splash.
Well, no doubt something would eat it in minutes, she thought. That was the law of the jungle: Eat or be eaten. Sending a wary glance out across the inky river, she saw a number of red eyes gleaming by the lantern’s glow, and then a large thing submerged with barely a ripple in the silver moonlight.
Eden shook her head. Man-eating crocodiles, poisonous snakes, bloodsucking bats—and Papa said London was dangerous. Patience, she told herself, doing her best to keep her hunger for civilization in check. It wouldn’t be much longer now. They would soon be going home to England whether Papa liked it or not.
Turning to gaze in the direction of her father’s work tent, her face filled with determination. She gave herself a small nod. Yes. The suspense was torture. She had to hear Papa’s decision—now. She tore off the pages of her magazine that could not be saved and put them aside as fuel for the cooking fires, then strode out of their native-style dwelling, known as a palafito. She fixed her sights on the naturalists’ main work tent across the camp.
A ring of torches burned around the perimeter of the clearing to keep the beasts at bay, but there was little help for the mosquitoes. She swatted one away as she passed the fire pit in the center of camp, where she greeted their three black servants with affection. Their bright grins flashed in the darkness. Now that the heat of day had passed, the servants, dressed in flowing, light, tropical garb, were cooking dinner for themselves.
Eden exchanged a few teasing remarks with them and forged on. The skirts of her cotton walking dress swirled around her legs and her thick leather boots sunk firmly into the soft turf with every stride. Her forward stare was confident, but in truth, her heart was pounding as she waited for the verdict.
Ahead, beneath the three-sided military-style tent, Dr. Victor Farraday and his brawny Australian assistant, Connor O’Keefe, bent their heads together in close discussion, poring over a weathered map. The field table was strewn with the latest specimens they had collected today on their trek, led by the local Waroa shaman to where the medicine plants grew. For now, however, their new finds were forgotten. Their faces were tense and serious by the dim orange glow of the lantern.
It was no wonder why. Her treasured magazine was not the only item the courier had brought today from the outer world, smuggling their mail and a few supplies in past the Spanish fleet trolling the coast.
There had also been a letter, equally out of date, from the solicitor representing Papa’s aristocratic patron back in England. The letter announced the sad tidings that the old, philanthropic fourth Earl of Pembrooke, alas, had gone on to his eternal reward some months ago.
His Lordship’s heir, the fifth earl, was young and dashing, rumored to be quite handsome and, if the Society pages of La Belle Assemblée could be believed, he was also known as a gambler and a bit of a rakehell. The new Lord Pembrooke was building himself a fine new country house, and as far as he was concerned, all the artists and scholars, musicians and sculptors and scientists that his grandfather had for so long commissioned could go hang. So he had instructed his solicitor to say.
In short, the famed Dr. Farraday had lost the funding for his research, and Eden had nearly cheered aloud to hear it.
She had bitten her tongue, however, and suppressed her joy, for Papa had turned pale at the news, committed as any obsessed genius to his work. Oh, but it wasn’t as though they would starve once they reached England, she reasoned with a hardheaded practicality that usually balanced out her dreamy side.
A trained physician and now a prestigious author as well, Dr. Farraday had a standing offer of a highly respectable teaching post at the Royal College of Medicine in London. When he accepted it, as he surely must, it wouldn’t be long before she and Cousin Amelia would be promenading in Hyde Park among the other elegantes, causing the young bucks to wreck their stylish phaetons for turning to stare at them.
Soon—who could say?—she might actually have a normal life.
Clasping her hands behind her back, Eden cleared her throat politely to get the gentlemen’s attention.
The two scientists had been so absorbed in their discussion they had not noticed her standing there. At once, they fell silent, halting their low-toned discussion.
“Well, boys,” she said with a jaunty smile, trying with a touch of humor to lighten some of the tension they all were feeling about the sudden change in their situation. “When are we finally going to leave?”
Alas, her jest fell flat. The pair exchanged a guarded glance. Belatedly, Connor stood in the presence of a lady, knowing how she loved these small gestures of civility.
Connor O’Keefe was a tanned, blond, towering Australian, over six feet tall and twice as broad as the tribal warriors of the Delta. He was a strong man of few words and a specialist in zoology; his sensitivity to the forest animals was endearing to Eden, but more and more frequently of late, his unbroken stares made her uneasy.
“Everything all right?” he asked, resting his hands on his waist with a concerned frown. “Why did you fire?”
“A fer-de-lance got into the house. Sorry, Con. It was either your snaky friend or me.”
“Good God, are you all right?” her father exclaimed, whipping off his spectacles and starting forward in his chair.
“I’m fine, Father,” she assured him. “I wondered if Connor would take the vile thing away. Most of it’s still stuck in the rafters,” she said with a wince.
The Australian nodded firmly, then glanced at her father. “I’ll be right back, sir.”
“Yes, er, give us a moment, my boy. I should like to have a word with my daughter.”
“Of course.” Connor paused to give Eden’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. “You’re sure you’re all right?” he murmured.
Excerpted from His Wicked Kiss by Gaelen Foley. Copyright © 2006 by Gaelen Foley. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.