As Sophie stepped off the boat onto the dock leading to Raven Island, frigid rain came down in a horizontal pattern and pelted her face with icy cold bullets of water. The wind whipped with vicious warning, the force nearly pushing her sideways. Her slender, five-foot-four frame might not look like much to those who only glanced at the surface, but Sophie considered herself to have something of a deceptively steely core. Regular self-defense classes--started years ago at Royce’s behest--kept her fit.
After planting her rain boots securely on the slick dock, Sophie looked up, up, up, and gulped. She’d seen this castlelike mansion from the water dozens of times, but standing this close to the stone-step path that led up at a steep angle to another set of steps, to finally the front door, shook Sophie with awe. Straight out of a medieval romance novel, the multi-level stone structure stood foreboding against the torrential downpour. Warm yellow light glowed from a downstairs window, but otherwise the house appeared cast in darkness. The dark-wood, double doors loomed huge. Silver doorknockers with what looked like lions’ heads sat so high Sophie wasn’t sure she would reach them, even on tiptoes.
The light in the downstairs room suddenly snuffed out, and Sophie shivered. Cold washed through her, down into her bones. If she’d been a ghost, she would have sworn someone had just walked over her grave.
Right then, a hand curled around her shoulder, and Sophie jumped about a mile into the air.
Magnus circled around her, and she exhaled a ridiculous sigh of relief. She’d been so taken with the aura of the castle she’d completely forgotten the big man who’d brought her to Mr. Cabot’s home.
“Are you all right?” Magnus asked. Such obvious sympathy deepened the purple in his odd stare that it poked Sophie’s pride and made her feel pitied. “Perhaps you’ve changed your mind?”
Sophie’s spine stiffened under her slicker. “No. Absolutely not.” With a silent order to quit feeding into atmosphere and silly superstitions, she said, “I can’t wait to meet your boss and see the house. Lead the way.”
With an abbreviated bow, Magnus lifted his arm toward the stone stairs. “Very well.” He indicated for her to get in front of him. “The stones get slippery when they’re wet. Be careful.”
Sophie took a cautious first step, then the next. As she neared the house and its owner, life started buzzing within her, first with a flicker and then with a flame. By the time Sophie reached the front door, her entire being burned with anticipation of what lay on the other side of the threshold. Of the man inside too, and she knew it.
Before Magnus could wrap his hand around the enormous door handle, the door opened from the inside.
Sophie exhaled unsteadily. Here we go.
Jet-black hair and skin so alabaster it almost held a silvery sheen registered in Sophie’s mind first. She kept her wits together enough to process the black sweater, dark jeans, and heavy boots, as well as a sleekly muscular, efficient predator’s body that stood at about six feet. She even guessed his age at somewhere in his mid to late thirties. But she did all that peripherally, for once she looked into this man’s luminous amber eyes, he locked her there, and her mouth went dry. Oh my
. Her nostrils flared, and just afterward, her sex pulsed. Sophie swore she could smell this man’s power and masculinity.
Something of a smile tipped the edge of his mouth. “You must be Miss Emerson.” Smooth, aged bourbon soaked his tone.
Sophie swallowed down the thickness his intimidating presence created in her throat, and kicked into work gear. “And you must be Mr. Cabot.” She stuck out her hand. There. Nice and steady
. “Thank you for this opportunity.”
The man clasped Sophie’s fingers in the heat of his strong handshake. “Call me Lucien. Please”--he stepped aside--“welcome to Ravenstoke.”
A second chill swept through Sophie as she walked into Lucien Cabot’s home.
* * * *
An hour into the official tour, Lucien’s hand still burned where Sophie had touched it. He rubbed his palm against his jeans, irritated the sensation from their brief contact had yet to go away. The young woman strolling next to him took in the wide, polished stone hallways and empty rooms with such open wonder Lucien swore he could see sparks literally glinting from the depths of her eyes. His blood warmed, and he almost succumbed to a twinge of guilt that she’d so easily and quickly tangled herself in his web.
Don’t back down now. An eye for an eye. It’s right there in the Bible.
A dead hazel stare sunken into a broken face superimposed itself on the pretty picture Sophie made in front of him, and Lucien easily transitioned into the next phase of his plan.
He steered Sophie into the darker east wing of the humongous home. With his hands clasped behind his back, he asked, “May I tell you the secret I unearthed about this castle?”
Sophie pushed a mess of blonde hair behind her ear. “I would love to know everything.” She stepped ahead of him and started walking backward. Her eyes remained bright, and she constantly gestured with her hands as she spoke. “This place is incredible.”
Her enthusiasm pulled Lucien into her orbit. “The man who commissioned it was British royalty--a duke--ousted from England. The person the duke had the home built for was enamored with knights, damsels, and things of that nature. The duke wanted to recreate a fantastical castle that would please this person. The duke wanted his love happy above all things, and could think of nothing better than building this home.”
“The duke did a fantastic job.” Sophie slowed and ran a finger along a suit of armor, lingering on the shiny metal. “It would be a great story for our viewers.”
. Lucien tossed more chum into the water. “Would your viewers consider it as heartwarming were I to tell you the person this ousted duke wanted to please was another man?”
Sophie’s eyes widened but nothing more. Lucien had already known the idea of two men in love would not shock or repulse her.
With a nod, Sophie murmured, “Go on.”
“The duke was apparently in love with his wife’s younger brother,” Lucien shared. “This young man was apparently a reader and a dreamer. The duchess invited her brother to live with them, and the duke found him charming, witty, and intelligent. It seems they became lifelong friends.”
“Did they become lovers?” Sophie asked, making eye contact once more. “Is that why the duke had to leave his country?”
Lucien shrugged. “There is no written evidence they were ever anything more than friends who spent a great deal of time in each other’s company. The wife accompanied the duke to America, along with the brother. She lived here as well, so one could speculate the duke and the wife’s brother’s relationship never became sexual.”
Sophie turned slowly in a circle, and Lucien watched her gaze land on every stone within her sight. “They were soul mates, though,” she murmured.
“I would say so.” Lucien kept his voice low too, even as his heart hammered with every moment he watched Sophie entrench herself into his world. “One doesn’t commission a castle like this for someone he only considers a friend.”
Facing him, Sophie began walking backward again. “You have evidence to prove the intimate relationship between these men and the inspiration behind the castle?”
“Possibly. I have various documents and journals, as well as some correspondences I tracked down from the architect and his apprentice. The two of them comment many times on theodd
”--Lucien put his fingers in the quote formation--“friendship between the two men.”
Sophie’s stare narrowed. “This is the story about Ravenstoke you really want told.” She came to a stop so abruptly Lucien almost bumped into her. Her blue, blue stare pinned him to the floor. “You don’t want us to share anything about who Lucien Cabot is, or why he bought this island, and why nobody ever sees him leave it.” She crossed her arms under her perfect little breasts. She wore a white, long-sleeved T-shirt. Even though she clearly had a bra on, Lucien had noticed the chill in the air kept her nipples in a pebbled state throughout their entire walk. He wondered if she even realized it, or how fucking arousing a sight she presented.
Years of training kept a hard-on at bay, but Lucien barely suppressed the groan that wanted to accompany a deep-seated pull in his balls. “I’m not very interesting.” Lucien started walking, forcing her to do so or get left behind. She quickly caught up, and he added, “On the other hand, why this house came to exist, and the mystery of whether these two men ever became lovers, or somehow managed to keep their friendship platonic, is fascinating.”
“Or it could be viewed as intrusive and lurid and look as if these two men who cannot confirm or contradict the story are being dragged through the mud.”
Yes. I have you now. So utterly simple.
“That is why I chose you.” Lucien reeled little Sophie in. “You have an ability to hit the right tone with every story you produce. You won’t let these men become a laughingstock or a joke. You’ll highlight and celebrate the wonderful friendship they shared while also striking the right chord about the heartache and pain they must have experienced every day believing the connection they shared was unnatural.”
On the second level of the castle, they landed back in a central sitting room that served as the heart of the home. Each corridor of private rooms in the house veered from this main chamber. Lucien guided Sophie to a grouping of couches and chairs and waited for her to sit before taking the seat across from her.
Immediately, Sophie leaned in. She looked right at him, and it seemed to shrink the space between them by half. “This seems very personal to you,” she said softly. “Why is that?”
What the fuck? She couldn’t know... Oh. Right. Of course she would think that
. “If you’re asking if I’m gay and trying to make some political or social statement by telling this story, I’m not.”
Sophie’s brow furrowed. “That’s not what--” She glanced up and suddenly zipped her lips.
Right on time
. A shadow fell over them. Lucien looked up just as Magnus came to a stop next to where Lucien sat.
Magnus dipped his head in Sophie’s direction first and then put his attention on Lucien. “Sir?”
“What is it, Magnus?” Lucien asked while keeping an eye on Sophie.
“The swells on the water from the storm have grown more quickly than anticipated. I would not feel comfortable putting Ms. Emerson on a boat tonight.”
“Understood.” Lucien turned to Sophie. “If you do not object, Miss Emerson, we would be happy to prepare a room and put you up at Ravenstoke tonight.”
Sophie wore a smile--a tight one. “I don’t want to put anyone in danger on the water.” As she said that, she plucked repeatedly at the cording on the couch. “Myself included.”
Lucien ignored the twist the frantic movement of her fingers created in his gut. “Then it is done.” He glanced at Magnus. “Have Emma ready the blue room for Miss Emerson, please.”
“Yes, sir.” Magnus bowed--Lucien didn’t miss the glower directed his way as the man dipped his head--and left the room.
Alone again, Lucien put his attention on Sophie. Christ, vitality crackled in the air around her, like the lightning absent from the storm outside. He could not overlook, however, that she continued to torture his couch. He’d researched and seen her from afar for long enough that her life force didn’t surprise him; he just hadn’t realized her unique energy would leap off her and snake its way around him too.
Lucien shook himself mentally and murmured, “I apologize.”
Sophie crooked an eyebrow. “You apologize on behalf of nature?”
That shocked a rough chuckle out of him. “No, I suppose I don’t. I can’t control the weather.” Even if I did obsessively observe and wait for this perfect storm
. Abruptly, beyond his conscious command, Lucien shot to his feet. “And since we cannot predict what damage she will do tonight, I must go make sure the generators are prepared should we need them.” He backed away to the hall that would lead to his study and rooms in the north wing. “If you’ll wait here, someone will come shortly to show you to your room.”
“Wait!” Sophie spun on the couch and leaned her stomach against its back. “My cell phone isn’t getting any reception right now.” No longer mangling the cushions, Sophie instead trapped Lucien in the depths of her clear, bright stare.
Son of a bitch. Remember
. Lucien fought to regain his superior position. Don’t get caught up in her eyes
. The horrible whirring of breathing machines and the beeping of heart-rate monitors filled his ears and put the frigid line back in his spine.
Cool once more, Lucien said, “Feel free to use any of the landlines in the house.” He pointed at the phone on a side table. “There is also open Wi-Fi. I’ll see you again after you’re settled.”
Bowing formally, as Magnus had done, Lucien did an about-face and moved down the hall. He began with an easy pace, knowing she watched him. By the time he hit the split in the walkway, Lucien strode with such purpose anyone spying would have thought demons from hell reached through the flooring and tried to grab his ankles to pull him under into the fire.
Once in his study, Lucien bit off a slew of curses and threw himself into his desk chair.
From the tall windows, where darkness already swirled with the rain and wind beyond, Magnus stirred. “It’s not as easy as you thought it would be,” he said, his voice gentle when Lucien needed him to be anything but caring right now. “She’s a nice person, and she doesn’t have a bit of deception in her.”
With a snarl, Lucien muttered, “Shut up.” He closed his eyes, but the action did nothing to block the image of the vivacious, slightly nervous young woman perched on a much too formal brocade settee in his home.
The rustle of footsteps told Lucien that Magnus moved from the window. They stopped, and Lucien calculated that Magnus now stood at the desk.
“She doesn’t deserve to be destroyed, Lucien.” Magnus’s tone remained soft.
A growl rumbled through Lucien. “Neither did Josh.” He looked up through narrowed eyes. “Get the fuck out of here, and make sure her curiosity is properly whetted tonight.”
His arms crossed against his wide chest, his mouth set in a hard line, and his birthmark appearing to deepen in color to signify his darkening mood, Magnus would have made any other man cower under the desk. “How do you know I won’t go tell her everything?” he challenged.
Lucien didn’t even blink. “Because you loved him too. Now go.”
In silence, Magnus left. After the door clicked closed, Lucien flipped off his desk lamp, dousing the only light in the room. He needed the shadows. His head pounded like a motherfucker, and his stomach churned with sick.
Lucien told himself it was a migraine and not the result of guilt.
* * * *
Sophie started at the sound of the feminine voice and tap on her shoulder. She’d been so engrossed in a series of miniatures depicting this castle from various angles she hadn’t heard anyone enter the sitting room.
“Miss?” the petite, curvy redhead said again. “My name is Emma. I’ll show you to your room.”
“Please”--Sophie stuck her hand out--“call me Sophie.”
Pink tinged Emma’s peachy cheeks. “Sophie, then.” After exchanging a handshake, Emma moved to the east hall. “Come with me.” As soon as Sophie fell into step beside the young woman, Emma added, “I pulled a few pieces of clothing from my closet for you. They might be a bit loose”--she eyed her ample curves and then glanced at Sophie’s much more modest ones--“but at least they’ll be clean and dry.”
“That’s generous of you,” Sophie replied.
Upon reaching a door at the end of the hall, Emma came to a stop. With one twist of the handle, Emma swung the door open wide. “Here is your room. If you do not mind eating with Mr. Cabot later, then that will save me from making a special tray for you.”
As she stepped into the opulent room, Sophie murmured, “That’s not a problem.” She tried not to drool on the expensive rug covering what was surely a freezing stone floor, or to fling herself onto the four-poster bed. After hearing Lucien’s story, though, the richness in these restored rooms now had true meaning for her, and she wondered if the duke had ever shared this very room with his soul mate. I can’t believe I didn’t ask Lucien their names.
Sophie spun and grinned at Emma. “I have a million questions for your boss and am looking forward to dinner.”
“I wish you luck.” A shadow crossed Emma’s emerald eyes before she turned to leave.
“Wait.” Sophie rushed to the door. “Why luck?”
Emma sucked in her lower lip but then blurted, “A little advice, Miss--I mean, Sophie?”
“Absolutely.” Possibilities of cracking the elusive Lucien Cabot’s code pulled Sophie closer to Emma. “I’ll take anything I can get.”
Emma glanced down the cold, empty hall and then said, “Be mindful of Mr. Cabot turning your questions back around on you. He has...secrets, as anyone does. But I have yet to see him share them with a single person in this world. It’s unlikely he will spill them for a TV news story.” Her gaze then softened along with her voice. “Or for the woman behind the camera.”
Emma’s comment pricked Sophie’s pride and drew a bit of metaphorical blood. “How long have you known Mr. Cabot?”
“I’ve worked for Mr. Cabot in one way or another for over ten years.”
Sophie’s mouth gaped. “Really?”
“I’m older than I look. Listen”--Emma’s peachy skin lost its healthy color--“I’ve probably said too much, but I don’t like to see good people bang their heads against a wall.”
Sophie thought about the imposing man who’d given her a tour of his home--hard in more ways than the physical--and arched a brow. “Mr. Cabot being the wall.”
“He has been called intractable by more than one of his previous employees.” Emma grinned just then, and it instantly brought life back to her features. “A certain one still calls him ‘stubborn bastard’ as much as he calls him Lucien.”
Another big man filled Sophie’s mind. “I’d bet money Magnus calls Mr. Cabot something in that vein every day.” At Emma’s widening stare, Sophie added, “It’s impossible to miss a certain glint in Mr. Larsen’s eyes when he speaks of his employer. I get the feeling Magnus sees himself as Mr. Cabot’s equal and has no fear of losing his job.”
“They have a mutual respect. Magnus is not afraid of Mr. Cabot. Nor am I or Jade or Cale or even Owen, for that matter.” Sophie could only assume Emma rattled off the names of other Ravenstoke employees. “Mr. Cabot does not see us or treat us as inferior, but rather...” She expelled what looked like a held breath and smiled sheepishly. “He keeps himself separate, even when in the same room, if that makes sense.”
“It does.” Sophie breathed a heck of a lot easier. She knew how to handle quietly intense men who sometimes seemed to live behind an impenetrable wall. Her brother had been such for as long as she could remember. “I hear what you’re saying, and I will keep it all in mind when dealing with Mr. Cabot. Thank you.”
Red suddenly filled Emma’s cheeks. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” She rolled her eyes and laughed, clearly at herself. “I have a tendency to ramble, and you’re a new face in the castle, and we don’t get many visitors, and you seem so genuine, and...well...anyway... I’m sure you know very well how to take care of yourself. If you want to rest”--Emma backed into the hallway--“I’ll collect you in time for dinner. Bye.” She took off down the hall at something just shy of a run.
“Bye.” Sophie waved halfheartedly, uncertain about what had just happened.
Had Emma just warned her off Lucien? Not in a “he’s mine, don’t touch him” way but rather just a sympathetic heads-up that Sophie wouldn’t get anywhere with the man, even if she tried.
Sophie might look naive--those same people who thought her physically weak tended to view her as an empty-headed lightweight--but in point of fact, she could see shades of a set-up in Lucien Cabot’s insisting on meeting with her today and today only. As she’d told him, he was not responsible for Mother Nature, but she also knew it was easy enough these days to track an oncoming storm 24-7 on the Internet. He easily could have planned for her to have to spend the night, or even a few days, at Ravenstoke. The question then became, why?
Her personal life didn’t open any avenues to an answer. No boyfriend; hadn’t had a real one since college. And her friends didn’t have much more in the way of money, prestige, or power than she did. Her brother had some money, but not enough for anyone to start some grift game through her, or even to make it worth kidnapping her.
She did have a job in news, though, even if she wasn’t in charge. Lucien must have thought her gullible and wanted her to be a mouthpiece for some story he wanted told--beyond the one of the duke and his male companion. I can work with that little bit of information, as a start.
Sophie jumped off the bed with renewed energy and bolted for the wardrobe on the other side of the room. If she had any hope of figuring out Lucien Cabot’s plan for her, she actually had to be in his presence. Walking around a drafty castle in damp jeans would not put her at the top of her game. She swung open the double doors and made a face. Two dresses with spaghetti straps hung on the bar--one black and one white. Not gonna work for me.
Sophie pulled open the first of two drawers. A gray hoodie sweatshirt lay folded neatly there, and two pairs of panties lay directly next to it. A yank on the second drawer revealed nothing but an empty, cavernous space. Sophie almost slammed it shut but at the last second narrowed her stare. “Wait a minute.” She stuck her hand in the deep drawer and measured its depth almost halfway up her forearm.
After closing the second drawer, she pulled the first one open again. When she stuck her hand in this one, the depth barely went past her wrist. A quick check of the fronts showed them to be the same size. Hmm
. Sophie fingered the perimeter and knocked her knuckles against the base. It held, but something in the hollowness of sound when she tapped had her dropping the hoodie and underwear onto the floor. Sophie smiled, and a nice hum of adrenaline made her sit up on her knees a little bit straighter. At the front of the false base, a small black ribbon stuck out. Sophie hooked her finger into the loop and lifted the board of wood right out of the drawer.
. Covering her mouth, Sophie took in the neatly soldiered items, each in its own velvety cubby. Right in her drawer sat a whip, ropes, and over a dozen sex toys.