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Catching Caroline (PROLOGUE)

London, 1810

"Wicked men are a weakness of mine."

"Good heavens, Julienne." Lady Caroline Seton smothered a laugh as she entered the Dempsey ballroom. "You are incorrigible."

Julienne La Coeur arched a brow. "You have no notion of how fortunate you are to be unhindered by the rules of Society. You may do and say whatever you wish. You can associate with the rakes you prefer and marry whomever you like. I, however…" She paused and shot a glance at her aunt behind her. Lowering her voice, she continued, "Am destined to do whatever I'm told."

Caroline offered a quick commiserating smile as she waited at the top of the staircase for the majordomo to announce their party. Her gaze drifted across the occupants below, taking in the various gowns and the number of guests in attendance. At one time she had attended such events with her own family, but they had passed on to their reward long ago and she had learned to manage on her own. Her comfortably sized trust funds and lack of familial ties afforded her a freedom other women of her station, women like Julienne, did not enjoy. Unfortunately, it was also very lonely.

With her thoughts elsewhere, Caroline might have passed over impressively broad shoulders and hair as dark as night had the tiny hairs on her nape not stood at attention and her jaw not begun to ache in a wholly unfamiliar way.

She stilled, her attention riveted on the tall man whose powerful torso tapered to a narrow waist and lean hips. His black hair gleamed under the golden glow of the chandeliers, the ends curled lovingly around the top of his starched cravat. The evening attire of stark black and white appeared to have been made with him in mind, showing off the austere beauty of his features to perfection, a beauty enhanced by the statuesque blonde who clung to his arm.

Caroline stared at the man shamelessly, knowing that even if the animal inside her had not felt the singular attraction, she would have wanted him anyway.

With his full lips and intense gaze, he was gorgeous, his face so perfect as to outshine any classical painting or statue of her recollection. She'd never witnessed a more resplendently masculine being in her life. There was something about him, a dangerous edge, a predatory alertness she found utterly mesmerizing. Just looking at him made her nipples hard, her body soft, and caused moisture to pool between her thighs, readying her for his possession.

Just one look and she was nearly undone.

"Jack Shaw."

Caroline glanced aside at Julienne. "Beg your pardon?"

"The man you are presently drooling over is Jack Shaw, an American. Obscenely wealthy I've been told, due to his shipping interests."

"He's…stunning," Caroline murmured, acknowledging even as she spoke what an understatement that was.

"Yes," Julienne agreed. "With a fabulously wicked reputation. How I envy you your choice of men such as him."

Wicked. Caroline shivered with desire. She knew he would be, just from the sight of him.

As if he could feel the longing and need in her regard, he looked up and caught her gaze, revealing the molten silver color of his irises.

The connection was devastating. Caroline was unable to halt her instinctive reaction. Her own blood flooded her mouth before she realized her fangs had descended.

It took everything she had to prevent leaping from the staircase and biting deep into his neck. The desire to pierce his skin, to drink him in, was so overwhelming she didn't trust herself to be around him. In the century she'd been vampire, she'd never experienced such a soul-deep pull to another being.

Startled, confused, and deeply afraid she would do something she'd regret forever, Caroline covered her mouth and spun blindly away. She ran past gaping guests in the crowded foyer and fled to the safety of the night beyond.

* * * * *

"You're coming with me, Caroline. Whether you like it or not."

Caroline watched Julienne pace across the Aubusson rug in her parlor and released a deep breath. Arguing with Julienne La Coeur about anything was a chore. Her friend was too stubborn by half.

"I told you, Jules. I'm not feeling well." Settling more comfortably into her seat, Caroline attempted to look ill.

"Nonsense," Julienne scoffed, coming to a halt directly before her. "You look the picture of health as always. Besides you've been convalescing for a week, plenty of time to recover from what ailed you when you ran out of the Dempsey affair."

Shaking her head, Caroline knew she couldn't continue to hide in her residence forever, but the fear she would chance upon Jack Shaw again was strong enough to make the idea appealing. He'd come calling twice already, bearing lovely bouquets of flowers, and both times he had been turned away. Any notion she might have held that she'd gone unnoticed was completely dispelled. He knew her name. Worse yet, he wanted to court her. The thought sent her into a mild panic. Even if she could control the animal within her, she was not free to accept his attentions as long as she was promised to another.

Julienne sighed. "You are attending the Moreland ball with me. I won't take no for an answer." She dropped to a crouch beside the settee. "Please, Caroline," she begged. "These events are positively dreadful when you're not around. Aunt Eugenia fusses all evening."

"Why is the Moreland ball so important to you?"

Blushing, Julienne admitted, "Lucien Remington is rumored to have been invited."

"Good grief. Talk about wicked men, Jules."

"Ummm…isn't he? So you see, you must come with me and distract my aunt so I can ogle Remington at my leisure."

Staring into her friend's hopeful features, Caroline couldn't find the heart to refuse. "Oh, very well then," she gave in with a laugh. If she was very careful and very fortunate, she might be able to survive the evening without crossing paths with Jack. "But I'm taking my leave early. So ogle with haste."

* * * * *

Jack traversed the lamp lit garden trails with his customary noiseless tread, his heart rate quickening as he followed the woman who had occupied his mind ceaselessly for the last sennight. He turned a corner on the gravel walk and paused, staring at the dark-haired beauty who stood drenched in moonlight. Dressed in ice blue satin with pearls in her hair, Lady Caroline Seton was a vision he almost doubted was real.

His gaze drank in every detail of her–the creamy swell of her breasts above the pearl encrusted bodice…the graceful curve of her spine…the delicate arch of her throat that begged for the brush of his lips…

"Breathtaking," he breathed, awed by the sight of her.

She turned to face him.

Slender, with shoulder length raven curls surrounding a face of such beauty he was robbed of his breath, Caroline caused a sharp stab of recognition deep within him.

"Mr. Shaw," she whispered, taking a stumbling step backward. She'd seen him in the ballroom, he was certain of it, but she'd quickly turned and headed in the opposite direction. He'd had a devil of a time finding her after that.

Smiling, he sketched a low bow. "Lady Caroline. It is a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance." He straightened and then stepped closer.

Caroline backed away, but seemed unaware of the hedge at her back that would soon halt her retreat. Jack saw no reason to point it out.

To the untrained eye, she might seem frightened, but the heat in her gaze betrayed her. She stared at him with a burning intensity so hot it sparked a fiery awareness.

She looked beyond his shoulder, her fingers twisting restlessly in her skirt.

"We are alone," he said softly, taking another step. "I won't harm you. I simply wish to speak with you."

That wasn't entirely true. He'd wanted to meet her, yes, and talk with her. But if they suited, as he suspected they would, he also wanted to claim her.

"Wh-what is it you wish to discuss with me, Mr. Shaw?"

"Jack," he corrected, stepping closer still.

She smelled like vanilla and spice, a scent that was at once familiar and unknown, a scent that urged him to bridge the gap between them until nothing separated his body from hers.

Caroline swallowed and Jack's entire body hardened. Her gaze was ravenous, filled with a hunger that ignited a similar need within himself. No woman in his life had ever looked at him as she did.

"Mr. Shaw, it's best that you stay away from me."

His mouth curved. "You could ask anything of me, sweet, and I would do my best to grant your desire. To stay away, however, is not something I'm capable of doing."

"You don't understand–"

"Are you still unwell?" he asked gruffly, frowning with concern.

"No." The low tone of her voice made his blood heat in his veins. Eyes wide, Caroline took another backward step only to be brought up short by the hedge.

Jack tugged off his glove and reached out to her, brushing a finger along the edge of her bodice. His breathing deepened at the feel of her satiny skin. "Your heart races as fast as mine."

"Please…"

He stared into her eyes and saw the longing there, a longing he reciprocated. "If you have a care for me at all, love, you would ease my torment."

"Jack…you must go. Forget I exist."

"Tell me I'm not what you want, Caroline, and I will walk away. Otherwise, I intend to kiss you."

She started to speak, her eyes wide and pleading, but in the end she said nothing.

With unsteady hands he reached for her, lowering his mouth to hers. Her taste, sweet and ripe, flooded his senses, and Jack groaned, clutching her more tightly to him. He had not been mistaken. The fit of her body against his was perfect. She was perfect.

Caroline melted into his embrace, returning his kiss with welcome fervor. Her lips parted and her tongue slid along his, licking and tasting the deepest recesses of his mouth. Jack shuddered, his entire body aching as her gloved fingers curled around his nape, holding him to her.

And then suddenly he was alone, his arms empty.

Bewildered, Jack spun about, searching the garden around him. He found no trace of the woman he'd just held.

Like a dream or misty apparition, Caroline was gone.

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