To some, the Wedgeworth soirée might appear a splendid crush of debutantes, dandies, and music, but to Miss Elspeth Ramsay—inveterate bluestocking, indifferent spinster, and, most damning of all, tradeswoman—the evening’s crush was simply her latest assignment. She’d been commissioned to enter the world of the ton.
If Ellie were a fidgeter, she might have been nervously smoothing nonexistent wrinkles from the nicest of her outdated gowns. She did not fidget. If she were a coquette, perhaps she would be twining one of her wayward curls about her finger whilst simpering at the eligible bachelors. Ellie did not simper. If she were socially ambitious, she might be near to a swoon at being invited to a High Society fête by the daughter of a viscount.
She did not swoon.
Instead, Ellie stood in the farthest corner from the orchestra, surreptitiously surveying the crowd and hoping none of them would notice her in the shadows. After mentally cataloguing and discarding each of the revelers as harmless, she turned to her benefactress with a raised brow.
“Well?” she said, impatient to calm her client’s irrational fears and escape the oppressive splendor of the ball. “Where is he?”
Rather than being affronted by this impertinence, Miss Lydia Breckenridge beamed with self-satisfaction. “He has not yet arrived.” Miss Breckenridge nearly bounced on her satin-slippered feet. “I knew you’d be able to discern human from inhuman upon sight, you being an authority on the paranormal—”
“I am no such thing!” Ellie was unable to bear this speech with continued calm. “I am a woman of science, Miss Breckenridge. If anything, I am a ‘professional skeptic.’ To date, every such claim I’ve investigated has been quickly proven false, and I don’t doubt this one shall unfold in the same way.” As much as she and her mother desperately needed the coin, Ellie couldn’t help but give a slight shake of her head. “Vampires, indeed.”
“But don’t you see?” Miss Breckenridge insisted, eyes shining. “That’s what makes your involvement perfect. When even you are forced to admit true evil walks amongst us, the rest will be obliged to take heed.”
“And do what?” Ellie asked sensibly. “Drive a stake through his waistcoat?”
“What a horrid image.” Miss Breckenridge’s brow creased. “To be honest, I had not thought so far in advance.”
Ellie forbore mentioning she doubted her client had thought over any portion of her preposterous belief. Rudeness was never warranted, and besides, she planned to earn the promised ten-pound note. “At what point did you first suspect the new earl in town to be a vampire?”
“No, no,” gasped Miss Breckenridge. “You’ve got it all wrong.”
Ellie blinked. “He’s not a vampire?”
“He’s not a lord.” Miss Breckenridge sniffed. “Despite his sobriquet. He’s a younger son of a family in the Scottish Highlands, distantly related to the head of some forgotten medieval clan. He’s no member of the peerage whatsoever. How could he be, if he’s an undead immortal?”
“How indeed,” Ellie said faintly. “How, then, did he cut such a swath?”
For a moment, Miss Breckenridge’s eyes turned dreamy. “Mártainn Macane may be penniless and a cursed bloodsucker, but he’s devilishly handsome.”
“Penniless!” Ellie exclaimed, forming a much sharper impression of her quarry. His motive might not be much different than hers, but his method stood in stark relief. She had never feigned bloodlust for gain. “I deduce he puts himself forward in order to take advantage of innocent debutantes.”
Miss Breckenridge gestured at the swirling crowd. “No need for such actions, when young and old alike throw themselves and their purses in his path at every opportunity.”
Ellie’s lip curled. “I presume a ‘gentleman’ cannot be expected to resist such temptations. Are the women aware of his… nature?”
“Aware? He’s nigh irresistible,” Miss Breckenridge confessed in a whisper. “Undoubtedly part of his dark magic. The competition to be the devil’s chosen has eclipsed the judgment of every otherwise sensible woman who finds herself caught in his gaze.”
Ellie’s client clearly thought herself the heroine of a gothic novel. Either the higher the social rank, the lower the intelligence, or this Mr. Macane was an extremely skillful magician indeed. She’d bet he was nothing more than a two-bit actor who had changed his venue from the streets to soirées. “How can he be such a successful villain?”
“How?” Miss Breckenridge blushed prettily. “Because he’s bad in a very, very good way. They’ve gone so far as to dub him Lord Lovenip. My brothers tell me the betting books overflow with wagers as to which female he shall claim next.” Her eyes widened in horror. “Oh, I do hope you yourself do not fall prey to his wicked charms!”
“Oh, for the love of—” Ellie coughed daintily into her fist. Money earned for a fool’s errand was still money earned. She’d be wise not to let her mouth get in the way of the Breckenridge coffers. “Have no fear on that front, Miss Breckenridge. I have yet to find the man capable of turning my head.”
Her benefactress cast a discerning eye at Ellie’s drooping curls and woefully out-of-fashion gown, managing to convey without a single word that Ellie’s spinsterhood was far more likely due to Ellie’s own inability to turn heads, rather than to any fault inherent in the eligible gentlemen.
Be that as it may, Ellie’s distinct lack of position in Society afforded her the perfect disguise: insignificant wallflower. Unlike third-daughter-of-a-viscount Miss Breckenridge, Ellie had the ability to stay both in sight and unnoticed at gatherings such as this. Granted, this was the first time she’d been commissioned to investigate a vampiric Scotsman, but she held complete confidence that she would definitively refute such nonsense in short order.
Her spine straightened as a wave of whispers rippled through the ballroom like froth chasing the tide. An unnatural hush immediately followed.
Although the orchestra kept playing, the music now had a tinny, street-corner quality, as if the melody were being strained through a battered ear horn. The dancers did not falter, but their steps became disjointed and mechanical, as if they were marionettes painted to resemble aristocracy, rather than the pleasure-seeking lords and ladies they’d been just moments ago.
Ellie’s senses became overwhelmingly acute. Miss Breckenridge’s breathing seemed to echo about the chamber, her perfume suddenly noxious. Ellie’s pulse thundered with such force, she fancied she felt the heat of her blood coursing recklessly through her veins. For the first time in her life, she had the inexplicable desire to flee the premises whilst her heart still beat.
Then there he was.
A leather thong tied thick chestnut hair at the nape of his neck. Seventeen stone of solid muscle sculpted effortlessly into ebony breeches and bone-white muslin. His skin was just as pale, yet managed to convey the strength of marble rather than the fragility of fine china. Impossibly bright sea-green eyes gazed knowingly from beneath dark lashes. Blunt cheekbones accentuated a wide, firm mouth set in a smirk above a strong jaw.
He was too big, too pale, too predatory.
He should not have been beautiful, but he was.
The music bobbled in his wake, losing its rhythm, then tumbled forth at twice the tempo. The sharp-edged lords and ladies loosened their joints until they too were fluid and swirling about the ballroom once again. Widows and debutantes alike spun in and out of his path, inventing steps where there should be none, dipping to expose both cleavage and bared necks, twirling ever closer even when the music ceased.
A giddy countess lost her equilibrium when she could not keep her eyes from him. Without facing in her direction, the alleged vampire righted the countess with a mere touch of his palm against the small of her back. She fainted into her husband’s arms.
The remaining ladies were too entranced by Mártainn Macane to take notice.
Ellie swallowed hard.
Lord Lovenip, indeed. For there could be no other man capable of stirring a stately crowd into such a frenzy with nothing more than a moment of his presence.
With what was surely superhuman strength, Ellie cut her gaze from the man sucking all the air out of the previously well-ventilated ballroom and forced her eyes to her benefactress.
The act of severing the inexplicable connection to the rakish Highlander made Ellie think the unreality of the moment had been entirely in her mind. Once the arresting Scotsman no longer filled her vision, the rest of her senses shifted back to normal. Her pulse no longer clogged her ears, her blood no longer simmered beneath her flesh, and Miss Breckenridge was no longer breathing like—
All right, yes. Miss Breckenridge was still breathing like a broodmare in labor. If her bosoms heaved any more vehemently, they’d fling themselves right out of their fashionably low bodice. Ellie uncurled fingers she didn’t recall clenching and pressed a trembling hand to her own bosom to assure herself she was in no danger of exposing any womanly curves.
None of the other ladies seemed afflicted with such spinsterish sensibilities.
He could have his pick of anyone in the room, Ellie realized with a start. Could and, most likely, did. Young, old, married, widowed—they were all shamelessly, shockingly available if he but wished it.
The well-favored Scot seemed indifferent to the tiny dramas of gentlemen clinging desperately to their negligent wives and turned instead to the buffet of virginal misses fairly leaping from their duennas’ custody and into his arms.
The steps of country-dances led him to one, then another, then yet another, leaving them all flushed and breathless and smitten, panting and clawing for the chance to tumble into his embrace once again, as if addicted to his scent.
It was horrifying and appalling and… more than a little exciting.
Every time he chose a pastel angel from the adoring crowd, Ellie’s flesh tingled as if it had been her hand he had touched. Every time he spun an enraptured young miss out of his arms for a beat or two, Ellie felt the loss of contact down to her bones.
It was as if she could feel what they felt, both the delicious sense of vulnerability as one wide-eyed innocent after another let herself be trapped in his arms, as well as the darker thrill of possession, of mastery, of control over everyone who fell within his line of vision.
Although, as expected, Ellie had seen no signs whatsoever of the handsome Lord Lovenip’s being tempted by blood rather than by the ladies themselves, he was certainly dangerous in his own right, and a volatile addition to any throng. Not to mention provocative.
“Miss Breckenridge—” Ellie sucked in a breath, shocked to have heard a stammer in her voice. One would think this man had cast a spell over the ballroom. “Miss Breckenridge,” she began again, once she had regained her command over both voice and body. “Presumably, the man who has enraptured the entire party without uttering a single word is the infamous Lord Lovenip. I see him dancing with those he should and those he should not, but nothing more untoward than that. I thought you said he… bites?”
“Not all of them.” With obvious difficulty, Miss Breckenridge tore her eyes from the man in question. She turned toward Ellie, her movements sluggish, as if she yearned to tilt back toward Macane. “And not all the time. That’s what makes him harder to catch.” Her shoulders lifted with a sigh. “And it’s why nobody believes me.” Miss Breckenridge’s voice lowered. “He’s not playacting, Miss Ramsay. He’s a predator.”
Unconvinced of dark magic afoot, Ellie pursed her lips and considered. “What is he waiting for, then? A solicitation?”
“A temptation, rather.” Miss Breckenridge lifted one of her slender arms and gave a flick of the wrist at the teeming crush. “He’s bored. He’s danced with these women before, many times. Such is the burden of the Beau Monde—there are a limited set of us at any given party.”
“A trial, to be sure,” Ellie murmured.
“I have had a devil of a time catching him in the act,” Miss Breckenridge continued. “My own sister doesn’t acknowledge the truth, which is what prompted me to hire a professional. Nothing short of impartial corroboration will gain me her ear.” She gave a sharp nod. “I shall now step aside and allow you your head.”
“Very well.” Ellie returned her gaze to the riveting Highlander who somehow made six-plus feet of controlled muscle seem elegant and graceful. She strongly suspected the virginal misses swarming about were in danger of losing something far more irreplaceable than a ration of blood, but how on earth could Ellie prove it?
“Dance,” she suggested to her client. “Dance with him, and I promise to watch closely. I shan’t even blink.”
Miss Breckenridge recoiled as if Ellie had suggested eating spiders with tea. “Are you mad? I’ve no wish to be nibbled upon by Lord Lovenip, no matter how handsome the devil’s spawn might be. Dance with him yourself if you’d like to tempt him into action.”
Nibbled upon. Yes. That did sound—Ellie gave her head a violent shake. No, rather. What bug was in her brain today? She had no wish to be nibbled upon, by this charlatan or anyone else. Furthermore, whilst Mr. Macane might be a rake of the first order, that hardly made him an undead creature bent on draining the blue blood from London’s finest.
Should she risk a dance to prove it? Certainly. Miss Elspeth Ramsay was more than willing to get her hands dirty in the name of science.
No one knew her. She was a dowdy spinster in outdated attire, hidden in a shadowy corner of the ballroom. Anonymity was the crux of any covert investigation. That’s why every time she infiltrated a crowd, she spent the first quarter hour mentally chanting, Don’t look at me, Don’t remember me, at everyone who passed her by.
It went well against the grain to wish for the opposite. And if the unthinkable happened and Lord Lovenip did happen to notice an unremarkable old maid flanking the third daughter of a viscount, he’d suppose her Miss Breckenridge’s chaperone before he thought her a viable partner.
Besides, did she even know how to dance? Ellie frowned, realizing for the first time that her ability to perform dance steps—or not—was one of the many maddening holes in her memory.
Her mother had cautioned against taking this assignment, as if Ellie might forget herself and never return home. Utter nonsense. What Ellie could not forget was how badly their pockets were to let. They could ill afford to turn down money, and this was just a simple ball.
Ellie would stick to the shadows, as always, and hopefully return home overlooked but a few pounds richer. And life would go on as always.
But she couldn’t stop the traitorous voice inside her head from whispering, Look at me; notice me as she stared at Mr. Macane’s devastatingly handsome form.
Unsurprisingly, nothing happened. His attention was on his simpering dance partner.
Chest tight with resentment and envy, Ellie shifted her gaze to the beautiful debutante in his arms, who had thrown herself into the arms of a man she believed deadly. The chit was wealthy and popular—everything Ellie was not.
I hope you fall.
The girl’s legs collapsed beneath her.
Ellie gasped in shock at the coincidence, unconsciously pressing her back against the uneven wall.
Macane extended a graceful hand to the trembling girl at his feet, but his dark gaze focused over her head, as if he could see through the throng and through the shadows, to the young lady trying desperately to melt into the wainscoting.
“You can’t see me. You can’t see me,” Ellie whispered, suddenly and unreasonably terrified.
“He can,” Miss Breckenridge corrected her, her voice faint. “I fear you’ve been marked.”
Ellie’s body fought to free itself from the wall, as if pulled toward him by a force more powerful than her self-control. Every sense, every pore, screamed danger. Her breathing faltered and her heartbeat sped until her only reality was herself… and him.
The melody ended, and a new one began. Without taking his eyes from Ellie, Macane handed the young girl off to her mother and strode forward, his step purposeful, his eyes determined.
Despite the crowd, despite the music, despite her own breath rasping loudly in her ears, from across the ballroom she could clearly hear him speak his first word of the evening.
And then he pounced.
Previously published as “Never Been Bitten” in “Born to Bite”.