Rayworth Court, Summer 1891 Wilson Ruffington was bored, bored, bored. I shouldn't have come here. I knew it would be tedious. These affairs always are. He looked this way and that, up and down the landing. Rayworth Court was an ugly rambling pile, badly designed in the first place and made worse by haphazard additions. Even he was having trouble finding his way around, when usually he could create a floor plan of any building in his mind, hypothesizing from only a limited amount of data. Frowning at a particularly hideous ancestral portrait, Wilson sighed. He'd come to this country house party for a change of scene, to shake off his ennui, but it wasn't working. He'd never been a great one for the social scene at the best of times, but in the past two months or so, since the split from Coraline, he'd barely even left his house at all. With his mistress gone, what was the point? Work, study, writing, building things and tinkering with things, devising more things to build and tinker with, all this had occupied him. Technical commissions and consultations and his intense intellectual schedule had neatly allowed him to avoid the fact that the first woman in seven years that he'd actually considered proposing to had deserted him. Jiggered off with barely a "by your leave" in order to marry a seventy-five-year-old Italian duke. "Bitch!" He spat out the word, but without any real fire. Did he even care anymore? It was only his trivial male ego that was affected by her departure. The greater part of him, the compartment of Wilson Ruffington that contained his intellect, simply trundled on as normal. His sexual appetite was a bit put out by her absence, and he certainly missed a regular diet of plentiful, vigorous and inventive fucking and other carnal activities. That lack, and his wounded pride, were the only things really getting his spirits down. Stupid, stupid, stupid. To feel insulted and frustrated, and let it bother him. I'll go home, back to my workroom and my workshop. The people here don't interest me at all, and the women are ninnies. Feeling more cheerful already, Wilson whipped his notebook out of the pocket of his dressing gown and scribbled down a quick list of readily available chemicals and other ingredients. During a brief foray into the kitchen gardens at the back of the house he'd noted an interesting form of blight on some of the vegetable varieties. If he gave this formulation to the earl's head gardener, instructing the man to apply it as a soil dressing, it would at least go some way toward recompensing Lord Rayworth for his being such an abysmal guest. Wilson closed his eyes and called up his imaginary floor plan, which worked this time. Left it was, then left again, and he'd find himself at the main staircase. Then up one floor and to his left again, and finally, the blessed sanctuary of his room. Perhaps he'd order up some tea, and some of that delicious plum cake he'd purloined from the kitchen when he'd passed through on his way in from the garden. He would instruct his man Teale to make arrangements for his departure, and while he waited, he'd lie in bed and think about a thorny problem with the submarine plans that was taxing him. The project was a government secret, so he'd brought no papers along, but he could do the calculations in his head. There had to be a way to make those damned flanges marry up correctly in such a confined space. And if the submarine wouldn't behave, he might toss himself off instead, as a diversion. Smiling, he opened his eyes again and turned to the left. Only to swivel back instantly to his right. What was that? A flash of black, barely glimpsed in the periphery of his vision, then gone again. He'd got the impression of a woman. A female in an inky-black gown, dashing purposefully along the landing at right angles to where he was standing. It'd been only a split second, but there was something…something familiar, and it grabbed at him. A fleeting recollection so astonishing that it made his heart leap. No, surely not? Not her… In stealth, he padded forward, sweeping back the panels of his open dressing gown, lest he create a flash of blue silk paisley that would attract her attention. But if it wasn't who he imagined it might be, who was she, this swift and graceful figure, this dark, beguiling wraith, moving at speed? He'd seen no female guests wearing black thus far. It was all showy summer gowns, lace and muslin confections of the sort in which Coraline looked so fine. Unless a person was in mourning, black was an illogical choice for swanning around playing croquet, watching impromptu cricket games and admiring the rose garden, because it didn't reflect back the sun, and it made one hot. Even the dowager Lady Rayworth, she of the grim brow who'd frowned at his own sartorial choices, had been wearing light gray in response to the heat. All the fussing young belles were flouncing around in white or flower-sprigged pastels. Wilson faltered. From somewhere in his memory storehouse, a compartment flipped open and the image of a white muslin frock rose up like a phantasmagoria, taking his breath away. White muslin against green willow. To his astonishment, his somnolent cock stiffened in his linen, firming so hard and so fast it made him grunt in pain. Great God Almighty! Now there's a turnup. At the corner's apex, Wilson flattened himself against the paneling and peered around the edge. He'd always enjoyed a spot of subterfuge, and hopefully, all this creeping around like an agent of secrecy might take his mind off his raging erection. The woman in the black gown was standing with her back to him, trying the handle on a heavy, polished oak door. The hardware defied her, and as she twisted it this way and that, with prodigious force for one so slender, another memory escaped Wilson's capacious storehouse. It must be you. Nobody else would attack like that. No lady, at least. The inner photograph displayed another locked door, in another great country house, with another, or perhaps the very same, determined woman grappling to gain entrance. Wilson didn't know whether to laugh or curse. Both were appropriate. What the hell are you doing here? He'd seen no guest list, and made no inquiries. It'd been potluck. So there was nothing to say she couldn't be here. Especially if her matchmaking mother had anything to do with anything. Were parent and daughter both up to habits of old? The parent attempting to marry off the offspring; the child attempting to breach locked doors and gain access to dubious treasures. Plus ca change… Or deja vu, which I don't believe in. Calculating the precise distance he could advance without being seen, Wilson leaned a little farther around the corner, and his heart skipped when he saw something he hadn't noticed before. The mystery woman had been carrying a portfolio with her, what looked like a leather-bound sketchbook tied with ribbons. It was now lying on the carpet runner at her feet. She must have dropped it in order to apply two hands to the door handle. Definitely you. Who else could it be? There were too many similarities now for it not to be her, statistically. That slender female form was unmistakable, her shape indelibly branded into his memory. Likewise her glossy nut-brown hair, so thick and willful that it appeared ever in danger of escaping its coiffure. Even the black dress was right. Yes, she might well still be wearing mourning. Do I want to see you? Wilson braced himself. The last time he'd faced up to this determined cuss of a creature alone, just the two of them, it hadn't been a pleasant experience. In fact, it'd been a disaster, and peculiarly disturbing. The juxtaposition of hurling insults at each other and him developing a raging erection had unnerved him. And he didn't easily become unnerved. In fact, she was the only one in seven years who could make it so. Not even Coraline had produced quite the same effect. Wilson debated turning away. There was no logic in courting unpleasantness. No advantage for either of them. Oh, don't be a whining coward, man! You're not scared of her, are you? Ninny. So he stayed where he was, watching, waiting for the right moment, waiting to see if she still had the nefarious skill he'd taught her once, that day long ago, when she'd wanted to get into a forbidden library and explore its exotic treasures. Deja vu indeed. The Earl of Rayworth was reputed to have a fine and very extensive collection of erotic books and scandalous works of art stashed away somewhere here at the court, a secret library of the proscribed and the profane. Wilson had a keen interest in all forms of esoterica, too, and the earl's hoard was said to include choice items from all over Europe and Asia, rich in words and pictures both divine and disgusting. "Stupid, dratted, wretched, provoking thing!" Wilson edged forward again, suddenly enjoying the sight of his quarry kicking out at the oak with a slender foot clad in a black boot of glace kid. The thump of footwear against door and her sudden yelp of pain sent his memory spinning back again, retrieving hot, wild cries that weren't stubborn or impatient in the slightest, but full of passion and joyous, sensual satisfaction. About to wade into the fray, Wilson froze when a slender white hand reached up and prized first one substantial pin from her thickly coiled hair, then another. Crouching, her full skirt a black pool around her, the mysterious yet infinitely familiar woman applied her makeshift picklocks to the source of her frustration. If any last specks of doubt had lingered, they dissolved now. This was the final conclusive echo of the past. Cracking the secret library's lock was precisely what he'd have done himself, and he always carried a set of picklocks and other miniature tools in his pockets. There were very often private cases in the many libraries he consulted, and he was too impatient to spend time parlaying with librarians who were overprotective of their scientific and literary treasures. The graceful burglar beyond wasn't quite as accomplished at breaking into strongholds as he was, but he was the one who'd shown her how to do it, in that different mansion, and it seemed she hadn't lost the knack. After a few moments an audible click announced her success, and she straightened, her spine a shallow, exquisite arc as she reached up and jammed the pins back into her abundant hair, dislodging a few shiny, nut-brown strands in the process. The wayward tresses tumbled down against her neck, and absentmindedly she pushed at them. Wilson's hand flexed in a physical memory--of running his fingers through that lush, silky fall as she clung to him, gasping. Without a backward look, the slim felon swooped down again to snatch up her leather binder, then opened the door and passed swiftly into the room beyond, her skirts gliding and floating as she swirled them out of the way to shut the door behind her. Wilson sped forward, experiencing a mix of curiosity, irrational happiness and an uncharacteristic apprehension as he went. Would they argue like cat and dog again? Would it be the more recent bones of contention they scrapped over…or the older ones? What's wrong with you, man? Surely you can meet her with equanimity? You've got the upper hand now. How cold that sounded. He shook his head, focusing his attention on the moment rather than the larger picture of their tortuous familial complications. With his fingers on the doorknob, he cocked his head, listening. What was she doing in there? Was she already perusing lewd Oriental etchings and obscene writings? He imagined her pale, narrow face flushing pink with the sly tickle of arousal. Arousal? Good God, his own state was far more than a sly tickle now. He was up so hard that he was in agony, and if his hand could remember the touch of her, his damned cock had perfect recall. The throb in his rigid flesh was a direct conduit between past and present. Stilling himself, Wilson set his ear against the thick door, but heard nothing. The only way to discover what she was up to was to throw open the door and surprise her. And quickly, because lurking here like a randy adolescent only laid him open to the danger of discovery. Not that he cared two pins for his reputation, but his presence would draw attention to hers, and she had enough problems already. But even as Wilson prepared to make his move, a faint sound did issue through the thick door, and it wasn't the languorous female sighs for which his libido had been hoping. What the devil is it? A humming whir and an odd repetitive clacking noise were quickly followed by a delicious feminine chuckle. Wilson turned the handle and pushed open the door to find his lady in black standing in front of a broad, leather-topped desk. On it stood what appeared to be a rather substantial but badly balanced praxinoscope, if he wasn't mistaken, and as she whipped around, she snatched her hand back and the thing slowed to a halt. "Oh! It's you! I might have known." Excerpted from Diamonds in the Rough by Portia Da Costa All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.