Merripen picked up a heavy, clattering box of discarded odds and ends, and hoisted it to his shoulder with ease. A smile crossed his face. "She's getting better." He strode to the door and shouldered his way outside.
It was hardly an informed medical opinion, but Amelia was certain he was right. Looking about the dilapidated kitchen, she felt a surge of happiness. It had been the right thing to come here. A new place offering new possibilities. Perhaps the Hathaways' bad luck had finally changed. Armed with a broom, mop, dustpan, and a stack of rags, Amelia went upstairs to one of the rooms that hadn't yet been explored. She used her full weight to open the first door, which gave way with a cracking sound and a shriek of unoiled hinges. It appeared to be a private receiving room, with built-in wood bookcases.
There were two volumes on one shelf. Examining the dust-coated books, their aged leather covers shot with spidery cracks, Amelia read the first title: Fine Angling, A Symposium on the Fisherman's Art With Much on Roach and Pike. No wonder the book had been abandoned by its previous owner, she thought. The second title was far more promising: Amorous Exploits of the Court of England in the Reign of King Charles the Second. Hopefully it would contain some ribald revelations she and Win could giggle over later.
Replacing the books, Amelia went to open the shrouded windows. The draperies' original color had faded to gray, their velvet nap ragged and moth-eaten.
As Amelia labored to pull one fabric panel to the side, the entire brass rod came loose from the ceiling and clattered heavily to the floor. A cloud of dust enveloped her. She sneezed and coughed in the clotted air. She heard an inquiring shout from downstairs, probably from Merripen. "I'm all right," she called back. Picking up a clean rag, she wiped her face and unlatched the filthy window. The casing stuck. She pushed hard against the frame to loosen it. Another push, harder, and then a determined shove with all her weight behind it. The window gave way with astonishing suddenness, unsettling her balance. She pitched forward and caught the edge of the window in an attempt to find purchase, but it swung outward.
In the flash of forward-falling panic, she heard a muffled sound behind her.
Before another heartbeat had passed, she was snatched pulled back with such force that her bones protested abrupt reversal of momentum. She staggered, fetching hard against something solid and yet supple. Helplessly she tumbled to the floor in a tangle of limbs, some of them not her own.
Sprawled over a sturdy masculine chest, she saw a dark face below her, and she muttered in confusion, "Merri?
But these were not Merripen's sable eyes, they were light, glowing amber. A shot of pleasure went through her stomach.
"You know, if I have to keep rescuing you like this," Cam Rohan remarked casually, "we really should discuss some kind of reward."
He reached up to tug off her hair covering, which was askew, and her braids tumbled down. Mortification swept away every other feeling. Amelia knew how she must look, disheveled and dust-stippled. Why did he never miss an opportunity to catch her at a disadvantage?
Gasping out an apology, she struggled to get off him, but the weight of her skirts and the stiffness of her corset made it difficult.
"No… wait…" Rohan inhaled sharply as she squirmed against him, and he rolled them both to their sides.
"Who let you into the house?" Amelia managed to ask.
Rohan gave her an innocent glance. "No one. The door was unlocked and the entrance hall was empty." He kicked his legs free of her clinging skirts and pulled her to a sitting position. She had never known anyone who possessed such ease of movement.
"Have you had this place inspected?" he asked. "The house is ready to fall off its timbers. I couldn't risk coming in here without offering a quick prayer to Butyakengo."
"A Gypsy protective spirit." He smiled at her. "But now that I'm here, I'll take my chances. Let me help you up."
He tugged Amelia to her feet, not letting go until her balance was secured. The grip of his hands sent thrills through her arms, and she gasped a little. "Why are you here?" she asked.
Rohan shrugged. "Just paying a call. There isn't much to do at Stony Cross Park. It's the first day of fox hunting season."
"You didn't want to take part?"
He shook his head. "I only hunt for food, not sport. And I tend to sympathize with the fox, having been in his position once or twice."
He must have been referring to a Gypsy hunt, Amelia thought with concern and curiosity. She wanted to ask about it—but this conversation could not continue.
"Mr. Rohan," she said awkwardly, "I wish I could be a proper hostess and show you to the parlor and offer refreshments. But I don't have refreshments. I really don't even have a parlor. Please excuse me for sounding rude, but this isn't a good time to call?
"I can help you." He leaned a shoulder against the wall, smiling. "I'm good with my hands."
There was no innuendo in his tone, but her color deepened nonetheless. "No, thank you. I'm sure Butayenko would disapprove."
Anxious to demonstrate her competence, Amelia strode to the other window and began jerking at the closed draperies. "Thank you, Mr. Rohan, but as you can see, I have the situation well in hand."
"I think I'll stay. Having stopped you from falling through one window, I'd hate for you to go out the other."
"I won't. I'll be fine. I have everything under? She tugged harder, and the rod clattered to the floor, just as the other had done. But unlike the other curtain, which had been lined with aged velvet, this one was lined with some kind of shimmering rippling fabric, some kind of?Amelia froze in horror. The underside of the curtain was covered with bees. Bees. Hundreds, no, thousands of them, their iridescent wings beating in an angry relentless hum. They lifted in a mass from the crumpled velvet, while more flew from a crevice in the wall, where an enormous hive simmered. They must have found their way into a hollow space from a decayed spot in the outer wall. The insects swarmed like tongues of flame around Amelia's paralyzed form.