He halted at the foot of the stairs. He didn't bother to turn on the light. "A very dangerous night."

Verity didn't need the overhead light to detect the strange excitement in Damon Kincaid. There was something very wrong about him. Her fingers trembled and she found herself clasping the folds of her velvet gown with enough force to whiten her knuckles. But her smile never wavered. She had a special restaurateur's smile reserved for occasions when a difficult patron made a fuss. It was the one she used now.

"Were you getting some fresh air outside?" she asked pleasantly. "I don't blame you. It's awfully crowded in the salon." How much longer would Jonas be upstairs? she wondered. The next question was whether he would use this staircase or the front stairs when he returned to the party.

"I agree. The crowd is a bit much," Kincaid said easily. "Perhaps I'll join you upstairs." He put one foot on the bottom tread.

Verity sucked in her breath as she instinctively retreated to the step behind her. She wished she had turned on the light at the foot of the staircase. Light would be comforting right now.

She no longer tried to ignore her queasy stomach. In the shadows Kincaid was suddenly terrifying. He wore his Renaissance clothes with the nonchalance of a Borgia, looking as much at home in them as Jonas looked in his. The entire evening was taking on an air of unreality, aided and abetted by the elaborate masquerade arranged by Caitlin Evanger.

"I'm afraid I'm heading for a powder room," Verity managed to say brightly. "If you'll excuse me, I'll see you in a few minutes back in the salon." It took an incredible amount of courage to turn her back on him and start up the stairs with the air of a woman who was merely looking for a place to freshen her lipstick.

The tactic was a mistake. Kincaid leaped soundlessly up the stairs behind her and whipped an arm around her throat. Verity felt the cold steel nose of a small gun on her neck and the sickening strength in his arm.

"Not a sound, my lady, or I'll squeeze the breath out of your windpipe." Kincaid's voice implied he would like nothing better than to carry out the threat.

Verity didn't doubt him for an instant. Her father had a saying for such moments, she recalled. It flashed through her head: Things have gone from sugar to shit. Where was Jonas?

"What do you think you're doing?" Verity demanded in a husky whisper.

"Rearranging tonight's agenda. Let's go." He urged her up the stairs. "We'll give Tresslar a few minutes to finish the job he's working on now, and then I'll signal him and have him remove you to a less crowded location. I want to take my time having a little chat with you, Verity Ames. You're going to give me some answers to some questions I didn't have an opportunity to ask Quarrel."

Verity tried to turn her head and found the gun pressing into her throat. "What are you talking about?

Who's Tresslar? And where is Jonas?"

"Tresslar is an employee of mine. And as for your friend Quarrel, I'm afraid he's no longer a factor in this interesting charade we're all playing. But I think it's safe enough to dispense with him because I have you. And you, Verity, will tell me all I need to know. But we'll conduct that conversation much later. I don't have time for it now. I've got to get back downstairs before too many people notice we're both missing."

"You're crazy! What have you done to Jonas?"

"Don't waste any time worrying about your ex-lover. He's out of the picture for good."

"Damn you, what did you do to him?" Verity's voice rose in spite of the gun and she started to struggle fiercely.

Kincaid responded by tightening his arm until Verity could no longer breathe. Panic raced through her as she grew dizzy. She twisted violently in his grasp, trying to hit him with her fists. The heavy velvet skirts she was wearing made it almost impossible to kick out at Kincaid's legs.

"Stop it, you little bitch!" Kincaid lost patience and slammed the barrel of the gun against the side of her head.

The blow wasn't hard enough to knock Verity unconscious but it dazed her. She collapsed weakly, nearly taking Kincaid down the stairs with her. He staggered beneath her unbalanced weight but recovered within a couple of steps.

"Be careful, Miss Ames, or I may decide it's more trouble than it's worth to keep you alive for a while."

Verity couldn't speak. The impact of the gun against her head had had a disorienting effect. The staircase wavered sickeningly as she tried to clear her fuzzy brain. By the time the world settled down again, Kincaid had yanked her to the top of the stairs. She took deep breaths, trying to gather enough strength to scream as he jerked her down the hall.

The back stairs had been built against the side of the house and did not bisect the corridor as the main staircase did. Kincaid and Verity emerged next to Jonas's room.

Kincaid didn't hesitate. "I think we'll stash you in your own room for now. Tresslar went through the house earlier and figured out which ones you and Quarrel were using. You'll be safe here until Tresslar can get up here to retrieve you." He came to a halt in front of the door, twisted the knob, and thrust Verity into the darkened room.

Verity reeled from the force of Kincaid's push. She stumbled, tried to regain her balance, and struck the bed. Desperately she reached out to grab a post. Once again she opened her mouth to scream. This time Kincaid backhanded her with such force that she sprawled across the bed. Her velvet skirts were flung high above her knees. When she rolled frantically to one side, they went higher, riding up above her thighs.

Kincaid dropped the gun on the nightstand and used both hands to subdue Verity. She still hadn't completely recovered from the blow against the side of her head and her resulting weakness made her an easy victim.

Furious with herself and enraged with Kincaid, Verity lashed out again and again as Kincaid anchored her heaving body with his own and slapped a pillow over her face.

Verity gasped as the stifling softness came down over her nose and mouth and then it became impossible to get a complete breath. She was going to die here in this terrible bed. Kincaid was going to suffocate her. Jonas might already be dead.

She could feel Kincaid's heavy body all along the length of her own. Dimly she realized he had an erection. The knowledge that he was getting sexually turned on by her death struggles inflamed her further. In desperation she dug her nails into his arms, determined to leave whatever scars she could.

"Dammit," he hissed as she scraped futiiely at him. "Stop fighting me or I'll have to kill you now,"

The bedroom door slammed open and the light came on as someone struck the wall switch.

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