The door to the town house opened, and the viscountess emerged, drawing the reporters' attention. He couldn't make out the details of her features from where he stood, yet he knew she was lovely the same way he knew the reporter closest to her had consumption, the disheveled and singed ladies who left in a hackney would return home to share the same bed, and the doorman seeing her out was not all he seemed.
"I am too old for this," he muttered, more to himself than to Grey. "After this commission, I am finished."
Arthur took a step forward as the lady made her way down the stairs, laughing at something one of the men in front of her had said. Beneath her voluminous shawl, she'd a well-rounded figure—sweetly curved hips and a generous bosom—and her curls were mussed as if she'd just risen from bed. The image took him aback.
"I promise, Arthur," Grey said, "this will be the easiest assignment you've ever taken. You won't even know you're working. In fact—"
Arthur never learned what Grey would have said. He was running straight toward the lady, who was now standing on the walkway beneath a first-floor window.
Barreling through the crowd of reporters, Arthur could finally see her face. Long, thick black lashes opened and closed, revealing dark brown eyes the color of coffee. Smaller than the men surrounding her, she had to tilt her perfect little chin up as she traded jokes. Her lips were the color of ripe plums and prompted a surprising stir of lust.
The world was full of women more beautiful than Violet Greycliff. Arthur had met some of them, slept with some of them, and taken a massive head wound from one of them. None had called forth such an instantaneous, primal attraction.
At that moment, an explosion sent the second-floor windows shattering outward, and Arthur leaped the two-foot distance separating them. Estimating the amount of force necessary, he shielded her body without hurting her as they toppled to the ground.
What he hadn't counted on was the stupendously ugly armchair flying out the window, smashing to pieces inches from his face and sending splinters flying. Chaos broke out around them.
Rustication couldn't come soon enough.
AFTER VIOLET'S NIGHTLY ritual of brandy and a bath followed by a journey to her empty bed, she concluded her routine with one final step. She would imagine someone climbing into the bed from the opposite side, blowing out the candle, and taking her into their arms before falling asleep.
These nighttime visitors remained firmly in her head. Violet's late husband had insisted that a woman with a physical appetite was both unladylike and distasteful. Although she suspected this might not always be the case, she'd never searched out a real-life lover to prove him wrong. Her reputation was too important to the future of Athena's Retreat.
Worse, what if he was right?
In all those lonely nights, Violet had never conjured a pair of arms that surrounded her like this man's holding her now. The sensation of a warm, solid body against her stunned her more than the chaos and the scattered shards of glass and wood. The soles of shoes whipped past; all around, voices were raised in angry, frightened cries.
None of this touched her.
She was safe.
Not because the man holding her had rasped those words in her ear, although that was delightful, how his lips had brushed against the sensitive lobe. No. Something else told her everything would be well.
She had seen him before the explosion, standing next to Grey. In the commotion around her, the dark figure at Grey's side had remained preternaturally still until he burst into motion.
A typical reaction might have been to step back or shy away from a strange man hurling himself at you. Instead, as he came closer, Violet had the strangest urge to step toward him.
Nothing about his appearance signaled safety. He wore a dull brown frock coat, a few years out of date. He was tall, but not too tall. Broad, but no more than an average laborer. His top hat of felted wool was nondescript, as was his dark, curly hair and the whiskers halfway down the sides of his cheeks. Deep lines evidenced exposure to the elements over many years, and he'd broken his nose at some point.
In any other setting, he would have slipped her notice, as though he were a shadow or a slight blur at the edge of her vision.
Except she happened to look into his eyes.
Not even when she'd had no idea why he would have laid hands on her, in the seconds it took between the time he grabbed her until the explosion—not even then—was she frightened.