Arian's fingers glided over the sheets, puzzled to encounter the sinful sleekness of satin instead of the scratchy weave of faded homespun. One of her mama's lovers had insisted on satin sheets. Had it been the petulant Pierre or the mustachioed Jacques? A duke or a musketeer?
Snuggling deeper into the firm tick, she murmured something half English and half French, all vowels and slurred consonants. She could sleep away the entire morning if she liked. Her mama's temper was capricious at best and if Arian dared trouble her before noon, she was likely to get a hairbrush hurled at her head. Arian winced at the thought. Her head already ached as if she'd forgotten to duck.
She rolled to her back and knuckled open her eyes, expecting to see a carved cherub leering down at her from a gilded tester.
The heavenly creature glowering down at her possessed neither dimpled cheeks or a simpering pout. His honey-hued hair had been cropped above the ears, accentuating the chiseled strength of a brow creased with determination. A tantalizing hint of a cleft marred a chin that would have been too pretty without it. His slightly off-center nose was complimented by the jaded quirk of his lips.
Arian's eyes lingered there, captivated by the insouciant grace of that mouth. He was less cherub than rebellious angel--divine, seductive, and dangerous enough to imperil her vulnerable soul.
As if he also possessed the power to read her thoughts, he said, "I suppose you were expecting Lucifer? My competitors have called me much worse on occasion, but even they've never accused me of impersonating the Prince of Darkness."
She jerked her gaze from his lips to his eyes, the sharp motion making her head throb. She touched her fingertips to her temples, remembering through a muddled haze her dizzying flight, her desperate attempt to elude the dragon's steely claws, her reckless plummet from the sky.
She would have sworn this man had been waiting to catch her. That his strong, warm hands had soothed her brow. That his pewter-gray eyes had misted with tender concern.
Those eyes were narrowed now, the mist in them chilled to frost. Arian had awakened once when she'd been seven to find one of her mother's paramours sitting on the edge of her bed, gazing down at her in just such a predatory manner. Her shrill scream had jarred her mama from a champagne-induced stupor and Arian had been shipped off to live with her grandmama three days later.
She snatched the sheet up to her chin, knowing Marcus would have been gratified by the unexpected surge of Puritan modesty. "You should be ashamed of yourself, sir. Leering at a defenseless maiden while she sleeps. Have you no scruples?"
"None to speak of." He stroked his immaculately shaved chin. "The face of an angel. The voice of a siren. Charming." The flinty gleam in his eyes warned her he was in little danger of being enchanted.
Arian dared a peep under the sheet and was mollified to find her drab Puritan garments intact. She was even more relieved to discover the amulet still draped around her neck. A single lamp burned high on the wall, its flame as disarmingly steady as the stranger's gaze.
"Where am I?" she whispered, peering around in a vain attempt to escape his scrutiny. "What is this place?"
Unable to resist the magnetism of those eyes, she stole a sidelong glance at him. "And you, sir, would be...?"
"Tristan Lennox. You disappoint me. Didn't you bother to do your homework before staging that idiotic stunt?"
"Home work?" Arian parroted, wondering if his French would be as incomprehensible as his English.
"I find it difficult to believe your employers didn't provide you with a detailed dossier on Lennox Enterprises. Shareholder profiles? Stock portfolios? A current photo of the CEO?"
She shook her head, but he mistook her confusion for denial.
He arched one tawny eyebrow. "The rules and restrictions of the magic competition?"
Arian seized eagerly upon the only phrase she understood. "Magic?"
He tossed a folded sheaf of paper in her lap. She recognized it as a newspaper, similar to the pamphlets she'd seen distributed on the street corners of Paris as a child. Pamphlets denouncing the extravagant pensions Louis bestowed on his nobles or deriding the excesses of his most recent mistress. Still eyeing Lennox warily, she wiggled to a sitting position and tilted his offering so she could read it. The bold script seemed to leap out at her--One Million Dollar Prize Offered for Proof of Magic.
Arian jerked the paper up to her nose, fearful her eyes would reveal a glint of avarice. "One million dollars? 'Tis an uncommon amount of wealth, is it not? Just how many francs would that be?"
"Sorry. I don't do foreign exchange rates in my head."
Lowering the paper, she wrinkled her nose hopefully at him. "Did I win?"
His sharp bark of laughter erased her timid smile. The wintry spice of his cologne made her nose tingle as he leaned forward. She shrank back into the pillows.
"That remains to be seen." His tone swerved from menacing to conversational with dizzying swiftness. "But if I'm not able to discredit you for the clever little fraud you obviously are, what name would you like on your check--Glenda, the Gold Digging Witch of the North?"
Arian felt the blood drain from her cheeks. She'd barely just arrived in this curious place and this arrogant stranger was already accusing her of witchcraft. He had judged and convicted her without a trial. The hint of mischief playing around his mouth warned her he was capable of far more deliciously diabolical punishments than the Reverend Linnet had ever plotted.
But Linnet had been a thorough tutor. She would never again be bullied into confessing anything. Not without first considering the possibility that this man's magic competition might have been nothing more than bait to lure some unsuspecting witch into his trap.
Folding her arms over her chest, she said coolly, "My name is not Glenda. 'Tis Arian. Miss Arian Whitewood." She sniffed disdainfully, wishing her nose was less pert and more aristocratic, then uttered the four words Marcus had so frequently used to explain her many eccentricities. "I am from France."
"And how many frequent flyer miles did you earn crossing the Atlantic on your broom, Miss Whitewood?"
When she only blinked at him to hide her bafflement, he swore beneath his breath and rose from the bed. Arian's relief was spoiled by a shiver. An unnatural chill seemed to permeate the air in his absence. As he crossed the enormous salon, her gaze drifted back to the newspaper, only to be riveted by the innocuous line of print at the top of the page.
October 25, 1996.
Breath of Magic
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