Without seeing Macane cross the dance floor, without any memory of peeling herself from the far wall, their shadows intertwined and those eerily beautiful green eyes were piercing her to her soul.
“I—” Ellie faltered, unsure what she’d meant to say, or whether there was anything to say.
He frowned, which only served to unnerve her even more. “You’re not—”
“I forgot to make introductions,” gasped Miss Breckenridge, at Ellie’s shoulder. “Of course. Mr. Macane, allow me the honor of presenting Miss Elspeth Ramsay. Miss Ramsay, this is Mr. Mártainn Macane.”
Yes. Obviously. But all Ellie could do was stare up at him, enthralled by the tiny crease between his brows, as if he were as puzzled as she was to find herself the object of his attention.
Who had he thought she was?
And would he leave, now that his hopes had been disappointed?
Mr. Macane’s brow smoothed, and his chiseled features relaxed into a mask of perfect ennui. He inclined his head and favored her with a close-lipped smile.
Miss Breckenridge would no doubt assume he did so to hide unsightly fangs. Ellie knew better. Close-lipped smiles were what one did when one was only pretending. Her mastery of the art enabled her to mask her own humiliation at not being worthy of a true smile.
His unexpected interest had been nothing more than a case of mistaken identity. More than understandable, given the crowd and the distance they’d had between them. Now that the dancing shadows thrown by the glass chandeliers no longer masked her features, he could finally see her for who she really was: no one.
Never had she felt her lack of status so keenly.
He gazed at her a moment longer than was proper, undoubtedly determining the best way to extricate himself from an undesirable situation.
To Ellie’s surprise, he extended his hand. “Shall we?”
She blinked at him until her addled brain deciphered his meaning, then she croaked, “Dance?”
“Certainly.” The edge of his mouth lifted as if he found her amusing.
Ellie was not amused. She was mortified. And determined not to let it show.
“Go,” her client hissed, sotto voce. “I shan’t blink.”
This dance would secure her place in infamy. After this, she’d no longer be able to cavort unnoticed amongst the ton. How was she to earn a living without her anonymity?
Head held high, she allowed him to lead her onto the parquet. Even though she knew she shouldn’t, she thrilled to be noticed by him. Ellie would be different. She would be… immune.
And if not, well, at least she would act like she was.
As he led her about the dance floor, keeping time with the music, she was delighted to discover her feet did in fact know the right steps, even if her head didn’t. Unfortunately, that meant she needed something else to concentrate on.
The dark-haired Scotsman perfectly embodied London fashion—except for one detail. Ellie’s gaze settled upon his bare neck. Strong, pale, and all the more striking due to an inexplicably absent cravat.
Miss Breckenridge had mentioned that was one of his affectations. Whilst the dandies peeked above clouds of starched linen, Mr. Macane was shockingly unique. He did as he wished. He danced with whomever he wished.
And, if Miss Breckenridge was to be believed, he drank from whomever he wished.
Ellie’s eyes widened as she realized the thought of his lips at her throat quickened her pulse more from excitement than fear. What was wrong with her? Why did her blood thrum faster, as if calling out to him?
She focused on the curve of muscle between his neck and his shoulder, attempting to shame herself into behaving properly by proving his heartbeat was steadier than hers.
Except… she couldn’t find a pulse point.
Frowning, she tilted her head and listened for the sound of his breathing. She couldn’t hear that, either. Strange, for her senses tended toward the extraordinary. She could see the individual fibers in the fine linen stretched across the expanse of his chest, but could not detect the pulse at the base of his neck. She could discern the fine leather of his shoes and the worn satin of her own, but could not detect the merest breath exhaling from his nose.
She leaned into him a bit more than she ought. But even with her face close enough for her breath to send a stray curl brushing against his powerful chest, all she could hear was the pounding of her own heart, and all she could see was herself acting like a proper ninny.
Ellie pulled back and glanced up at him in embarrassment.
His eyes were not on hers. His gaze was locked on the base of her neck, where her own pulse point fluttered like a butterfly struggling to break free from its cocoon.
A slow smile curved his lips, gapping just long enough to flash a sliver of white teeth. Not fangs, Ellie told herself. Just teeth. As normal as hers. She took a deep breath and shivered as she inhaled the scent of cologne and clean linen.
Everything had an explanation. Macane was an accomplished rake, not a vampire. He happened to be brilliant at the art of illusion. With his absent cravat and his close-lipped smiles, he lent just the right touch of mystery and illicit adventure to woo the golden flock. Genius, actually. If she’d thought of it first, perhaps she’d be the celebrated Original of the ton, rather than the spinster who investigated frivolous claims for the rich.
She glanced up at him again. His mouth was no longer curved in a smile, but it was still wide and firm. The swooning ladies could keep their macabre fantasies. She’d much rather have that sensual mouth kissing her than biting her. If there weren’t such a crush of people…
As if they shared one mind, his next artful spin took them from the sparkling dance floor to a spot behind the hand-painted folding screens that hid the entrance to the gardens.
Before she could object—presuming she would have objected—Ellie was out through the door and beneath the moonlit sky, still cradled in Macane’s arms.
A frisson of trepidation caused her to catch her breath. She stared up at him in panic. Might he actually kiss her?
As far as she could remember, no one had ever tried. No gentleman had ever noticed her long enough to think of it. And now—what if she did it wrong? What if she did it right? What would be expected of her then?
“You’re beautiful,” he murmured. “You dazzled me even as you tried to hide.”
Well, that was laying it on a bit thick.
Ellie wasn’t ugly, but nor were artists dueling for the honor of painting her portrait. Wracking her brain for an appropriate set-down to such ridiculous flattery, she narrowed her eyes at him… and nearly swooned at his expression.
He was sincere. Or if not, he gave a bloody good impression of it.
His eyes were rapt on her face, as if he had been searching for her all his life. His gaze had softened, making his features less harsh and more open. His arms cradled her gently. His hands splayed at the curve between waist and hips. He was being far more familiar than anyone of her acquaintance—far more familiar than any right-minded young lady should allow—but Ellie was so enamored by the idea of having entranced him that she couldn’t bring herself to pull away.
His lips parted. Hers did too, mostly because she was having trouble remembering to breathe. Her lips suddenly felt too dry. She edged out the tip of her tongue to lick them and gasped when his hold tightened painfully. She felt strangely powerful, as if she really was beautiful.
He lowered his face to hers. His eyes were no longer the crystal green of the sea, but rather a shimmering black. Rather than try to process the transformation, Ellie cleared her mind and let her own eyes flutter closed.
She was going to be kissed for the first time.
And she was going to enjoy it.
Her brow creased when the delicious pressure of his parted lips brushed the base of her throat rather than her waiting mouth. The sharp edge of bared teeth grazed the tender skin at the curve of her neck.
He wasn’t going to kiss her—he was going to bite her!
Instinct forced her to react at lightning speed. But instead of shoving him away as she could’ve sworn she had instructed her limbs to do, Ellie returned the favor and sank her own teeth into his cravat-free neck.
Mutual shock held them immobile for an interminable moment.
Realizing the ignominy of what she’d just done, Ellie pulled away in horror before he could thrust her from him bodily. To label him thunderstruck would be the understatement of the century.
He touched his neck. The pad of his finger came away pink with blood.
“Good Lord,” he growled, his expression fierce. “Did you just bite me?”