Just For Her
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The secrets they keep are priceless. Under cover of darkness, they will steal something more precious. . . Beneath the sparkling façade of wealth and elegance, Jules Habsburg is living a nightmare--blackmailed into marriage by the unscrupulous robber baron Dominic DeRohan, the same man who gunned down her lover. Until the night she awakens to find a stranger in her bedroom--the notorious cat burglar known to Cote d'Azur as the Panther. Her blood pounding, she recognizes in him the one man strong enough to free her from the sadistic shackles of her husband. . . But the Panther is not one to be manipulated, even by a woman whose provocative beauty is matched only by her determination. Now, in the hedonistic playground of artists, actors, and aristocrats, Jules is losing her closely guarded heart to a man without identity. As forbidden passion deepens to love, is there even more danger for her in an alliance with a seductive man whose secrets could destroy them both?
Release date: July 1, 2008
Print pages: 369
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Just For Her
Katherine O' Neal
Jules awoke with a start.
Without moving, her eyes scanned the vast bedroom of her hilltop Mediterranean villa. The floor-to-ceiling French doors were open as she’d left them, the breeze billowing the gossamer white curtains into the room, playing with the moonlight that spilled in with a silvery glow. Beyond the windows she could see the conical tops of the cypresses that towered above the gardens below. All was quiet. The world around her seemed peaceful, serene.
Something had jarred her awake.
She lay motionless in her bed, listening. What time was it? The moon was still high in the sky. She hadn’t meant to doze off, but the hours she’d spent waiting the night before had caught up with her. How long had she been asleep? Minutes? Hours? Her brain felt numb, heavy. She couldn’t seem to think.
But then she heard the faint tinkle of the tiny bell she’d fastened to her study window before it was abruptly silenced. The hush that followed was dense, fraught with an expectation—a waiting—that throbbed in the air around her. She knew what that brief muffled tinkle meant. Someone had opened the window.
He was here!
And now her mind was sharp, her senses bristling. She lay frozen in her bed.
She could almost see him in her mind’s eye—a dark mysterious figure, creeping up to her soaring terrace, finding the window to her study, testing it to find it unlocked. Startled by the bell, grasping it in his fist to silence it. Waiting, breath held, for some evidence of alarm, some movement in the house. And only when he was certain it was safe—only then climbing in through the window to the study beyond.
The study that was next to her bedroom, just on the other side of the wall.
She realized she hadn’t been breathing and took a slow shallow breath. She realized, too, that her heart was pounding so violently it hurt her chest. It seemed to her that the sound of it must be reverberating through the night, and that even from the next room, he could hear it as loudly as she could in her own ears.
A cold panic seized her.
What have I done?
When she’d envisioned this scene in the light of day, it had seemed daring and romantic. But now that it was actually happening, everything in her screamed it was a ghastly mistake. The man in that room was no longer a projection of her naïve fantasy, but a living, breathing human being. And a dangerous one, at that.
The notorious cat burglar who’d been terrorizing the villas of the Côte d’Azur these past several months…
The audacious thief who’d stolen Lady Westley’s ruby ring from her finger as she’d slept…
The scoundrel who’d lifted the Duchess of Parma’s hundred-carat aquamarine collar from her wall safe without rousing a soul…
Like a slide show flickering on a blank screen, the headlines flashed through her mind.
PANTHER ONCE AGAIN ELUDES POLICE TRAP…
GUARDS FAIL TO OVERPOWER FLEEING CAT…
IN FEAT OF MARKSMANSHIP, STRAIGHT SHOOTING CROOK
EMBARRASSES PURSUING POLICE OFFICIALS…
From Menton to Hyères, the idle rich were in an uproar, endlessly retelling the tales of the Panther’s exploits in casinos, beneath the striped umbrellas of La Garoupe beach, and all along the circuit of cocktail parties up and down the coast. But as the stories had floated around her like snippets of melodrama from the silver screen, Jules had painted this phantom of the night with an entirely different brush, imbuing him with colors of a larger-than-life character from a storybook. And slowly, the desperate plan had taken shape in her mind.
Two days ago, assured of the brilliance of her scheme, she’d calmly told Lady Asterbrooke, the most notorious gossip in the South of France—a woman guaranteed to blab to the winds—that she had no fear of this bandit. “In fact, Bunny,” she’d told the society clarion in a deliberately breezy tone, “I have every intention of wearing my emeralds to the Richardson ball on Saturday. I shall remove them from the Nice vault, and secure them in the wall safe of my upstairs study.”
She felt confident the word would reach him. The Panther seemed to have an ear in high society, knowing when people would be out of their villas and even where their jewels were kept. So she’d laid the trap and waited for him to take the bait. She’d stayed awake the night before, certain he would come, excited by the prospect, even disappointed when he hadn’t shown.
But now that he was actually in her house…only steps away…her actions seemed impetuously risky and downright foolhardy.
I must have been out of my mind!
Because the reality was neither daring nor romantic. It was terrifying. Her mouth was so dry she couldn’t even swallow.
She listened in the trenchant silence for some indication of his movements. What was he doing? The study wasn’t a large room. Once inside, he would look around, see the Fragonard on the far wall, step lightly to it, remove it from its hanger, set it on the floor.
Then he would get to work on the safe. Rolling the dial of the lock back and forth. How long would it take him to crack the combination? From his reputation, not long. Soon, he would pull the door open and see there was nothing inside.
What would he do then? Flee into the night?
I could just stay here, where I am, and he’ll be gone. I don’t have to go through with it.
But what then? What other choice did she have? There was nothing else she could think to do.
No, she had to go through with it. As demented as it seemed, it was her only chance.
But she’d have to hurry.
Determined now, she reached under her pillow for the pistol she’d placed there. It had seemed so solid and reassuring when she’d taken it from her father’s gun collection. Now it suddenly felt flimsy and inadequate. But she gripped it tightly. Then, taking a gulp of courage, she rose from her bed. She fumbled for her robe, but in her agitated state, she couldn’t find it. There was no time to search. He could be gone at any second. She’d have to go without it.
Her legs feeling like jelly, she quietly made her way across the darkened chamber to the connecting door. She’d purposely left it open, but it was now closed.
He had closed it. Without her even hearing that he had.
She placed a clammy hand on the knob. Slowly gave it a turn. Silently pushed it open.
And saw him across the room. A dim figure, standing at the safe, working the tumblers.
Once again, panic choked her. Her hand, holding the gun, was trembling uncontrollably.
What will he do when he realizes I’m here?
Her imagination conjured up a swift succession of images. The intruder rushing her…overpowering her…hurting her…maybe even killing her…
And she, through self-preservation, forced to shoot him…
She’d never shot a gun in her life. She wasn’t even certain she knew how.
Unbidden, she remembered Scott Fitzgerald saying, with drunken wisdom, “A burglar is only dangerous when he’s been surprised in the act.”
Stop it, she scolded herself. You can do this. You have to. Be firm. Unafraid. You have him in your power.
Just then, she heard the metallic click as he turned the handle and opened the safe. Within an instant, he would know it was empty.
As he reached inside, she said in French, “You won’t find what you’re looking for, I’m afraid.”
He jerked around, into the moonlight streaming through the window from which he’d entered.
And as he did, she saw him more clearly—a tall figure, clad in all black, the fitted material clinging to a body that was muscular and sleek. A specially fashioned mask, also black, concealed the top of his face…hiding his nose and cheeks…sweeping over his head to cover his hair…The only feature visible was a clean-shaven jaw and the faint gleam of dark eyes through the slits of his disguise. He stood poised and alert, his hands at his sides, ready to pounce. The effect was both masculine and feline, calling to mind images of the jungle cat to which he’d been so aptly compared.
All at once, he darted for the open window. But she was closer. Instinctively, she stepped in front of it, blocking his path, reaching behind her to pull it closed.
He stopped in his tracks.
“I have a gun,” she told him, her voice shaky.
She could see his head swivel as he quickly surveyed the room, looking for another escape. Two doors. One, behind him, led to the hallway, but it was closed. The other, the one connecting to her bedroom, was closer and open. He stared at it, then back at her, no doubt wondering if she would really shoot him if he made a dash for it.
Astonishingly, despite her advantage, she sensed no fear in him. His presence sparked and sizzled in the room, sucking the air from it so she could barely breathe. A raw stalking presence, wholly male, predatory and sexual in nature, made her suddenly aware that she stood before him in nothing but a lace and chiffon nightgown. She could feel the vulnerability of her soft female flesh, of the swells and hollows of her body, in a way that made her feel it was he who held the upper hand.
For a moment—an eternity—he didn’t move. He just stood there, his gaze locked on her. She could feel the heat of that gaze as though his hand was passing over her. She tried again to swallow. Heightened by the danger, it seemed that every pore of her skin radiated and throbbed with her awareness of him.
And then, like lightning—so suddenly, she had no time to react—he lunged across the room and wrenched the pistol from her hand.
For a moment he just stood there, the weapon aimed at her. Her hand aching, Jules could feel the frightened rasp of her breath. Her imagination running wild again, she pictured him pulling the trigger, heard in her mind the roar of the gun’s report.
The silence was deafening. Her nerves were raw.
But then—quickly, efficiently—he flipped open the barrel, let the bullets drop to the floor, and tossed the pistol aside. Jules felt a momentary relief. But it was short-lived. Unthreatened now, he skirted around her and started for the window from which he’d come.
In desperation, she sprang to block his exit, flinging herself back against the window, her arms spread wide to prevent his escape.
“Please, don’t go.”
He stopped at once, his instincts honed. She imagined him grabbing her and hauling her aside.
Instead, with a stealthy grace, he veered to his left and started for the open door that led to her bedroom and the terrace beyond. Realizing his intention, she ran after him.
“Wait!” she cried.
He wheeled on her threateningly, his hand raised. “Stand back,” he warned, speaking in Italian—a deep, whispery, dangerous growl.
Switching quickly to Italian, she told him, “I just want to speak with you. That’s why I lured you here.”
“Lured me?” He glanced about warily, as if expecting a contingent of police to burst into the room.
“There’s no one here,” she rushed to assure him. “I don’t want you captured. I just—”
He wasn’t listening. She could feel his urgent need to get away. He crossed the room, rounding the bed on his way to the French doors, the terrace, and freedom beyond.
Fueled by despair, Jules shot after him and grabbed him by the arm. Beneath the black sweater, it felt like iron.
He jerked free with a strength that sent her tumbling back. “I don’t want to hurt you, but I will.”
Jules was past caring. All she knew was that she couldn’t let him walk out the door and out of her life.
She grabbed onto him once again. This time he shoved her back onto the bed. “Don’t you care what happens to you?” he snarled.
“No,” she confessed. “I have nothing to lose.”
“You’re mad,” he rasped.
“Am I?” She stood slowly, careful not to cause alarm. “Perhaps. All I know is that fate has brought you to me.”
“Destiny has sent you to me, Panther. You can’t run away now.”
He turned to leave, but she gasped out, quickly, “I have a proposition for you.”
That stopped him. Slowly, he asked, “Now, what kind of proposition could a woman like you have for a man like me?”
Her eyes roamed the feral black-cloaked phantom before her. Unbidden, the first line of Byron’s Don Juan sprang to her lips: “‘I want a hero.’”
“You want what?”
She took a breath and spat out the words.
“I want you to kill my husband.”
The intruder hadn’t counted on this.
He hadn’t counted on her waking up and catching him in the act.
He hadn’t counted on how ravishing she would look in the filtered moonlight: a vision to take one’s breath away. The blond hair, falling about her shoulders in slumberous disarray, gleaming like spun gold; the white lace bodice of her nightgown clinging to the voluptuous curves of her breasts; the chiffon skirt swirling gently in the breeze around the slender legs; the pampered skin dewy from Parisian lotions and tanned by the southern sun. Her voice, cultured, silky, carrying the faintest trace of an appealing Austrian accent—the sound of it alone was enough to make any man hard. She had the face of an angel and the body of a Botticelli nymph. With her aura of innocence and vulnerability, he couldn’t have envisioned a more ideal embodiment of a fairy-tale princess.
And yet, this delicate beauty was telling him she’d lured him here to…
“You want me to…kill your husband?”
When he spoke, the words sounded as crazed to Jules as they did to him.
“It wasn’t my intention to blurt it out that way,” she said. “But that is, indeed, what I am proposing.”
Slowly, incredulously, he asked, “Why on earth would I want to kill your husband?”
“Because he’s a monster.” She said this with a sense of poise and delicacy, as if she’d just told him her husband was cutting roses in the garden. “And because I shall compensate you for the service.”
He was still staring at her as if she’d lost her mind.
Have I? she wondered.
Deliberately he said, “Let me see if I understand you. You want me to kill the man in cold blood?”
“Of course not. I’m not a murderess.”
He shook his head as if to clear it. “What, then?”
“I want you to kill him in a duel.”
“What I’m going to do,” he told her evenly, “is leave this house and never look back.”
He headed for the open doors.
“Do you know who I am?”
He stopped again, in the shadows of the terrace overlooking the gardens below. “I know exactly who you are. The Archduchess Maria Theresa Louisa Juliana von Habsburg. Formerly a royal princess of the Habsburg family, recently dethroned by the Great War and sent into exile. Currently wife of British business tycoon Dominic DeRohan. I make it a habit of researching my prospective—donors.”
“Then you know I can afford to compensate you for your trouble.”
“On the contrary. I know you have next to nothing of your own except this house and your share of the Habsburg jewels. Not being portable, I care nothing for real estate, but obviously my presence here tonight tells you I care about the jewels. So tell me…will you offer a few choice stones as payment for the…service? Say, for instance, the Marie Antoinette pearls?”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that. They’re my—birthright, if you will—all I have left of my family. But I do have some household funds at my disposal.”
He considered her for a moment. “Why do you want him dead? To get control of his money?”
“I care nothing for his filthy money. I want him dead because he’s the devil himself. Because he killed the two men in the world I cared about. And because I now know it’s the only way I can ever be free of him.”
He glanced about, taking in the suggestions of furnishings in the darkened room. “If you don’t mind, I’ll take myself out of the light. An old habit, I’m afraid. Since you insist on this conversation, I take it you won’t mind if I avail myself of one of your chairs?”
“Of course. I’m sorry. I seem to have forgotten my manners. But then, the circumstances are rather unusual. I was rigorously schooled in every aspect of entertaining, but I was never prepared to—”
“Entertain thieves in the night?”
“You’re the first thief I’ve ever—met, much less entertained.”
Suddenly she couldn’t believe she was having this conversation with this man. Once again, her heart began to beat erratically.
“And you’re the first quarry who ever asked me to do away with her lord and master.” He made his way to the far right corner of the room and a padded brocade chair. Once he sat down, he was completely hidden by the shadows. He might not have been there at all, except that his voice floated to her like a murmur from the bottom of a well. “If you hate him so much, why did you marry him?”
“I was forced into it.”
“What of it? Arranged marriages are an ancient royal custom, I understand. Particularly in the Habsburg line.”
“Except that mine wasn’t arranged. It was coerced. By DeRohan.”
There was a slight pause. When he spoke, it seemed to her that his tone expressed a more attentive, if still cautious, interest as he asked, “And just how did he manage that?”
“I’d rather not tell you.”
“Because you’ll think I’m merely feeling sorry for myself.”
“Ah, but you’ve intrigued me. You wouldn’t expect a cautious rogue like myself to join you in such an intimate conspiracy without an explanation, would you?”
Jules hesitated. She felt ridiculous, speaking to this disembodied voice, like a schoolgirl called onto the carpet by her tutor. “I suppose I owe you that much. It would help, though, if I could turn on the light.”
He snarled at her from the dark. “Lady, you so much as reach for that light switch and I’ll be gone before you turn around.”
She froze in place. “Please don’t go. I’ll tell you what you want to know.” She looked about her in the darkness. She hadn’t planned for this negotiation to take place in her bedroom. She couldn’t very well sit on her bed and talk to him, although she realized the absurdity of thinking anything unseemly at this point. Instead, she began to pace in the moonlight at the foot of the bed, the only glimmer of light in the room.
“You know about my family, so you must know how devastating the war was to us. The empire was broken up, we were ousted from power, stripped of our Austrian possessions, and sent into exile. My brothers and mother all died in one way or another as a result of the war. My father and I were the only ones to survive. All we had left was this house, which my grandmother had built in the last century, and the jewels my mother had sewn into the lining of our corsets and smuggled out of Vienna just before she died.”
“Forgive me, but that’s more than most people had after the war.”
“Believe me, I know how fortunate we were. We had so many friends who’d lost everything. At least we had a roof over our heads. But our accounts had been seized by the new Austrian state. We left Vienna in the middle of the night with what little money we could scrape together. We couldn’t afford to run this house, so we boarded up most of it and lived in two rooms like refugees.”
“Why didn’t you just sell your jewels?”
“To do so would have been unthinkable. They were our link with the past, the symbol of what we’d once been. To lose them would be to lose, finally, everything…what was left of our identity. Father always told me, ‘Your mother died to save those jewels. You must never part with them under any circumstance, even threat of death.’ But ultimately, ironically one might say, even they were threatened by—”
She stumbled on the words. It seemed that she was somehow betraying the father she loved by speaking of such things. Hadn’t he suffered enough, without her airing his weaknesses to a perfect stranger?
“By what?” he prompted.
She realized her pride was making her irrational. There was no way to tell it otherwise, so she admitted softly, “Father’s gambling. Something I wasn’t aware of until we were thrown into such close proximity.”
“Another royal custom difficult to give up.”
“I’m not excusing him. But you must understand his health and reason had been ravaged by all he’d been through. He desperately needed some diversion, as well as some hope of bettering our circumstances. So I permitted him to indulge his vice under strict limitations. But one week, when I was visiting a cousin in Belgium, he went to the casino at Juan-les-Pains and—despite his promise to avoid the tables in my absence—he was coaxed into a game of baccarat by DeRohan. In half an hour, Father had lost this house. A few minutes after that, in a frantic effort to win it back, he threw a marker for the jewels into the pot and lost them as well.”
“Lady Luck is a cruel mistress.”
“Luck had nothing to do with it. DeRohan cheated, just as he’s cheated in every other venture of his life. He’s always hated my family. Like so many people, he unfairly blamed us for the war—”
He cut her off. “After all, it was the assassination of a Habsburg archduke that started the war.”
“Was that our fault? That some maniac in Sarajevo gunned down my uncle?”
“Seems to me I recall hearing that certain of your family members pushed for a war for self-serving reasons.”
“I’m not here to argue history with you. My point is, DeRohan hated the Habsburgs—and he hated us long before the war. There was something more personal in his prejudice toward us, as if he harbored some private grudge. In any case, he deliberately lured Father into a fixed game so he would lose the few possessions he still had to his name. He wanted to destroy him.”
She heard him shift restlessly in his chair. “Where does the marriage come in?”
“It wasn’t enough that he had my father completely on his knees. It occurred to him that he could make his defeat even more humiliating. DeRohan—a commoner, scoundrel, and profligate rake—could marry the daughter who’d been groomed to marry a prince. He came to me and coldly told me he would allow us to retain the house and jewels under the condition that I give myself to him in marriage.”
“Obviously, you agreed.”
“What else could I do? I couldn’t allow Father to be thrown into the street like yesterday’s rubbish.”
“And then, too, there were the jewels.”
“Yes, I admit that was a consideration. I’ve told you what they meant to us. I married DeRohan in a private ceremony. Even Father didn’t attend. But in the end, it was all a terrible mistake. Just days later—here, in this very house—DeRohan went into Father’s study. He said something to him—I don’t know what it was. But that evening, Father shot himself. I heard the shot and ran down to his study. And there he was…lying in a pool of his own blood…and I felt someone beside me…I looked up and there was DeRohan…I’ll never forget his face. His lips were curled in the coldest, cruelest, most cynical smile…it was almost as if he were laughing to himself. My father was dead and this Lucifer I’d married was smirking!”
She put her face in her hands, reliving the awful memory. But once again pride rose to the fore. Fighting to control her emotions, she composed her face, then lifted her head. “Later, the authorities told me it was DeRohan’s pistol Father had used. DeRohan must have left it there for him when he went in to see him. He must have said something to Father to make him do it.”
“With your father dead, why didn’t you just leave him?”
“We’d signed a legal contract. DeRohan had agreed to put this house and the jewels in my name and to pay for the upkeep and running of the house until my death. In return, he insisted that I make my residence in London. So after Father’s funeral, I kept my word and sailed for England with DeRohan. But our agreement failed to specify where in London I had to live. So when we arrived at Victoria Station, I informed him that I intended to take my own house in Mayfair.”
“He agreed to that?”
“He didn’t have much choice. I’d found a loophole he hadn’t foreseen. Too, he was so busy in this particular period expanding his business empire that he didn’t have time to contend with my rebellion. But to keep him pacified, I allowed him to present me as his wife—his Habsburg trophy—at three or four social functions a season. This went on for three years. I expected it would continue forever. I was married to a stranger I detested, but at least I didn’t have to put up with him except occasionally in public. I’d long since given up any girlish hopes for happiness. But then, unexpectedly, I met someone I cared for.”
“The other man your husband—killed, you said. Your lover?”
She blushed slightly. “His name was Edwin. He was a tender, kind man—a poet—who understood the loneliness of my life and befriended me. Gradually, our friendship blossomed into a deeper sentiment. It wasn’t lewd or unseemly, I assure you. It was lovely and pure—a meeting of two minds who cherished poetry and beauty above all else. When we met, we were always careful and discreet. But somehow DeRohan found us out. He goaded Edwin into a duel—poor Edwin, who didn’t know one end of a dueling pistol from another. Before he’d even aimed, DeRohan had shot him squarely between the eyes. They say he had a sneer on his face when he did it.”
“That’s when you left London?”
She brushed away a tear. “Yes. I just didn’t care what happened to me anymore. I had to get away—away from that dreary town, away from him. And suddenly all I could think of was Rêve de l’Amour.”
“Rêve de l’Amour. Dream of Love?”
So he did speak French. “That’s the name my grandmother gave this house. The place I’d come to every winter as a child, the place I loved. Even the fact that Father had died here so tragically didn’t spoil my memory of it. He’d been part of this house, as had my mother and my grandmother through the years. It was infused with the spirit of our family. Here I could be a Habsburg once more, instead of a bought-and-paid-for DeRohan. I wanted to be myself again, if only for a week, or a day, or even an hour. I knew it wouldn’t last. I fully expected him to turn up at any moment—to take me back, or take the house away from me—something.”
“No. That was the most frightening thing of all. He didn’t do a thing. That was a year ago. At first, I lived day by day, always looking over my shoulder, feeling as if I had a sword hanging over my head. But gradually, as the months passed, I began to relax and even hope he’d decided I was more trouble to him than I was worth. I made new friends, built a life for myself here, and found—if not happiness, at least some measure of peace.”
“But something must have changed for you to ask me what you did.”
“A few days ago, I received a telegram—the first communication I’ve had from him since I left. He said he was coming here. To discuss our future.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. It could mean anything. He’s had a year to coldly plot his revenge. He’s a diabolically clever man. I don’t know what evil sorcery allows him to know the things he does, but he has a way of knowing the exact punishment that will debase his victim most. He could force me to go back to London with him, force me to live under his roof. But I’m very much afraid that what he really means is that he’s coming to force me to do the one thing that would disgust and horrify me the most.”
“Which would be…?”
She shuddered, feeling mortified. “To…give him his…” she swallowed, choking on the words, “…conjugal rights.”
“My, my,” he scoffed, “you are a damsel in distress.”
She whirled toward him, facing the dark corner where she knew he sat, watching her like a phantom. “Please don’t make light of me. I’ve only told you this because you insisted. I don’t want your sympathy. I want your help.”
For several moments, he pondered her words. Eventually he said, his tone softening, “Look, lady, I’d like to help you. I know who Dominic DeRohan is. I know he’s a ruthless, miserable bastard. A man capable of anything—even with his wife. A man who, Lord knows, deserves to be dispatched to his just reward. But I also know he’s a spectacular shot. And I have no intention of putting myself in the position of being his target.”
“But you’re a marvelous shot,” she cried with new enthusiasm. “That’s why I asked you. I heard the story of how you escaped from the Villa Cypress with a detachment of police on your heels. How you shot the hats off the heads of three pursuing gendarmes. They said, when they inspected the hats later, that each bullet hit squarely in the middle of each of the brass badges on the hats. You could just as easily have killed them, but instead you sent them retreating in terror, while at the same time letting them know you could kill them. Nice-Matin said the Panther was the best shot on the Côte d’Azur, if not in all of France.”
“Keystone Cops, all of them. Not a deadly shot in the bunch. Which, I shouldn’t have to remind you, Dominic DeRohan is.”
“But I have faith in you,” she insisted. “Oh, I know it sounds deranged, and I don’t blame you for thinking me mad.”
In a bitter tone, he said, “I don’t think you’re mad. I think you saw an opportunity and took it. After all, I’m just a common thief. What does it matter if I get myself killed dispatching your husband?”
Was it her imagination, or did he actually sound hurt?
“You couldn’t be more wrong.”
“How am I wrong?”
“To imagine that I think of you as dispensable. On the contrary, it’s as if you’d just stepped out of my dreams.”
“You must have dark dreams then. I pity you. I know, because my dreams are full of demons as well.”
She gazed into the darkness, wondering what he looked like, wondering why, if he was masked, he felt the need for such total blackness in which to hide. “Have you ever read Byron?” she asked.
“Lord Byron. He’s one of the romantic poets. He created a character they call the ‘Byronic Hero.’ An idealized but darkly flawed character, brooding, an outcast or outlaw with a lack of respect for rank or social institutions. A loner with a troubled past. But he’s also larger than life. A dynamic figure who takes what he wants and sweeps away the obstacles in his path. He defies convention and doesn’t care what others think. I’ve been reading about a man like that. . .
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