Pasha's gaze sharpened. "You were a prisoner?"
"His hostage," she bitterly replied.
"For what purpose?" Her story was bizarre even for Langelier.
She hesitated briefly, not sure how much of her life she cared to expose.
"For money obviously, knowing Langelier," Pasha interposed.
"Of course for money." Aversion vibrated in her voice.
"He was more of a cad than I realized," Pasha murmured, half to himself. "Did he have other women working for him?"
"No!" Shock registered on her face. "You misunderstand! I was never his mistress. He simply wanted my son's inheritance."
"He's a relative?" Sleeping with a niece was a bit of an outré relationship even for Langelier. Despite her avowal, he found it difficult to believe she wasn't his mistress, unclothed as she had been.
She sighed, looked away for a moment before facing his gaze once again. "It's all very personal."
"But then we had a uniquely personal meeting. And I'm not easily shocked."
She turned cherry red under his amused scrutiny. "He kept my clothes locked away in his armoire."
"Really," he murmured. "Always?"
"No, no, not like that," she hastily replied, reading the innuendo in his tone. "I had my dressing gown to wear."
"Not when I saw you." Softly put, it was more a statement than a challenge.
But she felt the need to explain for her own peace of mind. "I was going to sleep when Langelier ran into my room trying to escape his executioner."
"Really." That musing conjecture again.
"Yes, really," she staunchly affirmed. "I hated
him. Like others, apparently." She shut her eyes briefly to close out the stark, bloody vision of that awful scene, resisting the memories, not wanting to ever relive those terrifying moments. "He told me he had a wife and family, that I could stay with them while the lawyer worked on my case," she went on with a small weariness, the weeks under his custody like a nightmare. "I should have known better."
How trusting, Pasha thought, like a young schoolgirl on her first sightseeing trip to Paris. She was remarkably naive.
"I was never
his lover." She shuddered minutely at the thought. "In fact, I bargained away part of my inheritance in order to retain my respect."
"You're a virgin?" He gazed at her from under his dark lashes, faint disbelief in his tone. Her impetuous arousal short moments ago suggested something else.
Her blush deepened, her discomfort obvious. "I have a son," she quietly declared.
Of course. She'd said that, which explained why she didn't have the responses of a virgin. "So this is your husband's inheritance Langelier was trying to appropriate?"
He masked his surprise. "I see."
"The inheritance is in controversy."
"The father's family is resisting." A common response with a love child.
She nodded. "I'm a widow."
So she'd been married, but not to her son's father. Again, not a particularly rare circumstance. "My sister was recently widowed," he politely remarked, his speculation left unsaid. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be. My husband was a spineless drunkard."
"I see," he said again, mildly astonished. The lady was full of surprises, Pasha mused, and unconventional to all appearances. A pleasant thought.
"I would have preferred not telling you all this, but under the circumstances..."
"Your explanation clarifies things immensely," he said with a polished charm. "And rest assured, your disclosures will be kept in the closest confidence. I can't imagine--"
"I have a confession."
His gaze took on a sharpness as he anticipated a more realistic account of her relationship with Langelier. She was so flamboyantly female, he found her story of a virginal captivity difficult to believe.
"I'm glad Langelier's dead," she said, clearly uncomfortable. "I know I shouldn't be... but I am. I felt in a way as though the murderer was an avenging angel come to save me." Her violet eyes held a note of entreaty. "Do you think me mad?"
"No, of course not. Langelier was long overdue for an avenging angel."
"He wouldn't have let me go, you know. With each passing day I'd become more certain," she quietly declared. "I'm not mystical by nature, but I feel a profound sense of divine intervention with... first Langelier's"--she took a small breath--"death... and then your sudden appearance. Like a savior."
"Nothing so sanctified," Pasha protested with a faint smile. "We were on an avenging mission as well. My sister had fallen under Langelier's spell and my father and I were going to suggest he find some other prey."
"I'm so pleased you came," she simply said, "regardless the reason. And I appreciate all you've done for me."
"My pleasure," Pasha murmured. "You could hardly be left out in--"
A servant entered with the champagne.
"Just leave it, Jules." Pasha rose from his chair to take the ice bucket. "We can manage. Ah, the reserve bottles." He gave his majordomo a nod of gratitude. "You'll like this--" He looked up from placing the container on a table, the door closing with a faint click as he gazed at her. "What is
He paused in his manipulation of the cork. "You don't look like a Beatrix."
"This is what a Beatrix looks like." She smiled at his objection. "My family called me Trixi."
"There. I knew you had to have another name. You're a perfect Trixi."
"Pasha suits you."
It was her first personal remark. He was encouraged. "My maternal grandparents were Russian."
"How wonderfully exotic. My family is stolidly from Kent. Or were," she softly corrected. She still forgot that her family was gone--at times like this when her thoughts were in disarray, when she wasn't at home to be reminded of their absence.
"My family is in Paris at the moment. You met my father tonight." He handed her a glass of champagne. "To future success on all your ventures," he offered, lifting his glass to hers.
"I've rather given up on my ventures," she said with a rueful smile, lifting her glass. "But I'm looking forward to going home to my son."
They talked idly then of children. Pasha had four younger siblings, he told her, the youngest fifteen. Trixi's son was four and precocious, she said. She smiled when she spoke of him, of his favorite activities and his love for his pony. They shared memories of their childhood ponies for a time and he discovered small revealing bits of her background. An only child of a country gentleman, the Honorable Beatrix Grosvenor had spent an idyllic youth in Kent. She never mentioned her husband or the father of her son, however, and he had no intention of asking her. When they touched briefly on the money she needed for her return to England, she apologized for deceiving him.
"Keep the money," he said. "Buy something for Chris."
"You're too kind." She felt warmed by the fire, by the wine, by her host's convivial benevolence. By her liberation from Langelier. As for the money, she'd think about that later.
She laughed at something he said shortly after and he was charmed. Her smile was warm, expansive as she lounged back in her chair; her eyes held his for a glittering moment.
It must be the wine, she thought, startled at the sudden rush of desire.
I'll unbutton the small pearl buttons at her prim collar first, he thought, watching the flush rise on her beautiful face. Very slowly, and then...
Excerpted from A Touch of Sin by Susan Johnson. Copyright © 1999 by Susan Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, 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.