Authors: Charlotte Featherstone
“Bah,” he grunted with a wave of his hand. “Elizabeth would never betray a friend. Whatever Lucy Ashton tells her will remain with Elizabeth until her dying day. I would not wait about with bated breath to discover what Elizabeth learns from Lucy.”
“Lizzy is concerned enough about Lucy to share what she discovers. Even now they are at Sussex House discussing matters. I have no doubt that Elizabeth will be able to discover what we need to know.”
“No doubt. Your sister has the unnatural ability to discover one’s most carefully hidden secret, doesn’t
she? I wonder how she’ll accomplish it, making Lucy part with her secrets?”
“The way females always do,” he answered. “By telling her one of her own secrets.”
The loss of color in Alynwick’s face was comical, and puzzling. So was the way he jumped up from the chair and left as though the devil were on his heels.
“Secrets,” Black murmured as he reached for his hat. “Damnable things aren’t they?”
Black didn’t know the half of it, Sussex thought, or the secrets he harbored. God help him if the world was to learn his. It would ruin everything.
N THE SHADOWS
, Orpheus waited—and plotted his revenge—a retribution that would be beautiful and painful. Much like that of a spider’s web—an intricate, glittering thing of exquisite beauty, but treacherous, offering a slow, suffocating death to those caught in its silken tendrils.
His web was no less complex, or less beautiful, but it was infinitely more dangerous. And the Brethren Guardians…well, they were wrapping themselves into the delicate silken weaves, just as he had planned. Soon, they would be cocooned, and their little group and the ancient artifacts they hid from the world would be his.
There was no stopping him, not even death could, for he had seen death and had battled his way back from its grip. There was nothing left now but to succeed, to lure and entice and destroy the three men who had destroyed him and everything he might have been.
But a spider is a clever thing, and constructs his web in a most abstruse manner. And while he was busily
lying in wait for his prey to draw to his web, he needed something else—a bait of sorts—to lay upon the silk to lure the Guardian he wanted most.
He watched this victim from the dark corners of his club—his house—the House of Orpheus. She was the adhesive his web needed to draw and hold his enemies. She was the one he could so easily entice into his silken world of mystery, beauty and forbidden passion. She was the next step in his plan.
He signaled his accomplice across the room, who moved through the crowd with predatory grace, compelled by the same soul-destroying need for vengeance that ruled him.
“It is time to be resurrected,” Orpheus murmured, and his minion’s breath stilled for a fraction of a second, then resumed with heat and excitement. Yes, this man had waited so long—so many months for this very moment. Now that it had arrived, Orpheus could sense the taut strength, the scent of bloodlust that suddenly rushed free from within the cold confines of his subordinate’s soul, which was consigned to hell—just as his was. “Do what you must, but bring her to me.”
“As you wish, Orpheus. It shall be done. But what of the pendant and the chalice?”
Anger seethed through him, and his body vibrated with the barely controlled shaking of that rage. Damn Wendell Knighton! The man had proved to be useless, and selfish. He had made a grave error by bringing Knighton into his fold. Weeks ago he had possessed one of the sacred three relics of the Brethren Guardian—the pendant—only to miscalculate the extent of Knighton’s own greed and thirst for power. Now it was gone, and
so, too, the chalice—which Knighton, curse his rotting soul, had managed to find and steal. No doubt by now, Sussex and the other two Guardians had both relics back in their possession. Leaving him with none.
But he had the upper hand. He had something the Guardians wanted—or at least one of them did.
Gnashing his teeth, he growled, “The girl, bring her to me, and I assure you, the rest will follow.”
Through darkness and shadows, Orpheus heard the retreat of his minion. The loss of both pendant and chalice was a momentary setback, one easily overcome. Soon, he consoled himself, soon he would have the woman in his web, and all too soon, the proud Duke of Sussex would follow the lovely bait, and thereby meet his greatest weakness—and his ultimate demise. And in the end he, Orpheus, would take his rightful place in the world. No longer would he be a footnote in time, but the leader he was born to be. And the world would bow at his feet.
NTICIPATION AND NERVOUSNESS
coursed through Lucy as she watched Elizabeth elegantly sip her tea. What would Lizzy ask her in return for the secret she was about to shed? Perhaps she should take a dare instead? After all, there were some secrets she wanted to fiercely guard—like the one about Thomas.
Silly game, she thought. She should not have allowed herself to be drawn in so easily. It was a game for children, not grown women who needed to keep their secrets protected and buried.
Except the lure Elizabeth had dangled so temptingly before them had made her weak. Not that she desired to know anything more about the Marquis of Alynwick, but because she dearly wanted to know Elizabeth better. On the outside, the duke’s sister was a vision of loveliness. Despite her blindness, Elizabeth carried herself with pride and confidence, and a cool, sophisticated elegance that Lucy would never be able to achieve. Lizzy was refined, demure and proper. Lucy couldn’t imagine her stepping one toe out of place. But upon occasion, Lucy saw something more complex in Elizabeth’s gray eyes. A shadow of sadness, a flicker of deep pain. She had seen the same in her brother’s eyes. What did they share? What trauma from the past did they try to hide from the world?
Elizabeth cleared her throat, and Lucy saw how her pale fingers trembled slightly as they raked through Rosie’s silky fur. Whatever she was about to share with them, it was meaningful and, Lucy sensed, painful. In truth, there was nothing like the shedding of secrets to bring females together.
“Twelve years ago— No,” Lizzy said with a small smile that conveyed only sadness, “I must go farther back than that. Almost from the moment I became aware of the male species, I have fancied myself in love with Alynwick.”
Lucy found herself biting her lip as she watched Elizabeth gather her self-control. What she wouldn’t give to take back her words. She had hurt Lizzy with the gossip of Alynwick and Lady Larabie.
“Twelve years ago, I gathered the courage to tell him. He confessed that he reciprocated that love, and we…” She swallowed hard, and her grays eyes began to well with tears, tears she held back with a ruthless determination. “We began an affair. It was the summer my father took my brother to the continent for his grand tour after convalescing, and I was left home alone with only the servants to keep an eye on me. Alynwick’s ancestral estate abutted ours, and we spent the entire summer together. I was already losing my sight by then, but he claimed he didn’t care. He persuaded me that it didn’t matter, and I believed him. I…” She lowered her head, her eyes closed. “I gave him my virginity, and the next day—Sunday—his wedding banns were read at church.”
Lucy and Isabella both gasped, and a small sound like a strangled sob was wrenched from Lizzy. “It ap
peared that his marriage had been arranged for years—yet I had never heard of it. Of course, I behaved like a simpering chit, I was barely eighteen and he was only nineteen. Oh, when I think of how I clung to him, crying and sobbing. But to no avail. While I pleaded and begged him, and spoke of my love, he was…remote. He claimed he thought me amusing, and in truth, my impending blindness disturbed him. It took some time for me to reconcile it all, but I finally came to the conclusion that I had been a fool. I was nothing to him but a diverting interlude to while away the summer days.”
“Black and I shall cut him dead!” Isabella announced with outrage.
“You cannot, what would you say? What grounds would you give? No one but us knows what happened, and until today, I’ve never told a soul what transpired that summer.”
“Lizzy,” Lucy murmured as she reached out to grasp her friend’s hand. “I had no idea. Had I, I would never have told you about what I saw last night.”
“If it had not been you, Lucy, I would have heard it from another source. The marquis does attract gossip, and there are no ends to the females who are willing to create it with him.”
“How you must have suffered,” Issy murmured as she reached forward and rested her palm on Lizzy’s arm.
“Endless nights of wailing into my pillow,” Lizzy said with a deprecating smile, “only to be followed by hours of humiliation whenever I thought on my actions
after. I vowed then never to make a spectacle of myself ever again. And especially over a man.”
“If only we had known each other then, Lucy and I would have boxed his ears!”
Elizabeth’s laugh was soft and genuine. “Time heals all wounds. However, I do upon occasion allow myself to reflect upon that summer, and remember those days when he had been everything to me.”
“He’s not worth it,” Isabella sniffed. “To be so careless with you, Lizzy, he doesn’t deserve you, or your love.”
“Oh, I haven’t loved him in years. But tell me,” she asked quietly, “what does he look like? I haven’t dared ask another soul that, for fear of how it might be taken. But I would be a fool if I did not admit that there are some nights, when I lie awake in bed, and wonder about him. Is his hair still dark?”
Lucy felt her own eyes well with tears, and she glanced to her right, to discover that Isabella was discreetly blotting the corner of her eyes with her napkin.
“Yes,” she answered Lizzy. “His hair is dark, like coal—”
“And when the light hits it, does it have the blue of a raven’s wing?”
“Yes, I think it must, for it is black as jet, and given to curl. He wears it unfashionably long, to his shoulders, and when he talks with Black and your brother, he occasionally brushes it behind his ears.”
Elizabeth’s eyes closed, as if she were savoring the images of the marquis. “And his eyes? Are they still dark blue? I always thought the color reminded me of the sky at twilight.”
“I…I don’t know, Lizzy. I thought his eyes dark. There is a hardness to them, and when he looks directly at you, well…one cannot help but to think that he is looking directly past you. There’s coldness there, nothing soft or comforting.”
“Eyes consumed by sin,” her friend whispered. “How sad, for the man I thought I knew that summer was not hard or cold, just…lost and hurting. But then, I didn’t really know him, did I?”
“Sometimes, our hearts won’t allow our eyes to see what is really there, Lizzy.”
Where those words had sprung from, Lucy had no idea. She only knew how right they felt. For it was true, the eye was blind when love and desire was involved. Or was it only blinded by lust? Did the eye truly see love, or was it just for the heart to feel it? Thomas had claimed to love her, had made the same sort of promises to her that Alynwick had made to Lizzy. Only Lucy was certain that but for the fire, Thomas would not have left her the way the marquis had left her friend.
The bit of lace in her pocket reminded her that Thomas was indeed alive. There could be no other explanation for the reappearance of the handkerchief, and for the identical description of Thomas that the duke had given her of the man who had dropped it.
He was alive, and because of those very promises he had given to her, Lucy knew without a doubt he would find a way to come for her.
Squeezing Lucy’s hand, Lizzy replied, “Yes, one can be blind, can’t they, even when they possess the gift of sight. I was young and naive and I learned a difficult lesson.”
“What happened to the woman he was supposed to marry?” Isabella asked. “I hope she made him utterly miserable. He deserved no less after what he did to you.”
Lizzy shrugged. “I do not know the particulars. Only that the marriage did not come into being, and after their broken engagement, he went to the East with Black. Upon his return home, he was changed, much as he is now, irreverent and uncaring, consumed with pleasure and gain. There is nothing left of the man I had given myself to.”
“He didn’t deserve you,” Lucy said, truly meaning it. “One day, you will meet with the perfect gentleman.”
“I have given up on that. Besides, I believe that once given, the heart does not easily love again. Especially when it’s been betrayed.”
For some reason, Lizzy’s words struck fear inside her. Gray eyes flashed before her, and she startled, not understanding where the image had sprung from. Only knowing she had no wish to see them, or to be drawn in by the ghosts that looked out at her. She thought of her young friend and her father’s cruel treatment of him. She had been betrayed then, and she was quite certain that although she had been very young, her friend had quite captured her idealistic heart. It had not been easy to allow someone in, after that. She had mourned his loss for quite a while, and still did.
“Oh, love, what a burden it can be. How can something so heady and perfect cause such deep-rooted despair?” Isabella asked.
How indeed? She had only ever known that love led to despair. The two were synonymous to her. “I sup
pose,” she answered, “it is because there is such a fine line between passion and despair.”
Elizabeth looked up, and in that brief second, Lucy could have sworn her friend glimpsed inside her soul. “You have felt despair while in love?”
Glancing quickly at Isabella, Lucy struggled for an answer. Isabella knew her secret—most of it at any rate. She would know if she lied to Lizzy.
As if sensing her inner turmoil, Elizabeth inched forward and reached out her hand, which Lucy took in hers. “Tell me, Lucy, have you ever given up everything you are, everything you believed in, for one moment of passion?”
Truth or dare…at last, the dreaded moment had arrived.
AVED BY HIS GRACE
Never in her life had Lucy been more delighted to see the large-bodied presence of Sussex lurking in the doorway. With typical cool indifference and ducal autocracy he strolled into the salon, his high glossed boots ringing against the marble floor. His gaze swept over her as he prowled closer to them, and Lucy fought the urge to give in to a tremble. The last time she had seen him he had been handing her the lace handkerchief, and warning her away from her lover. She had refused to listen, and now…now she suspected they were enemies.
There was no denying that his grace would make a formidable one. What he lacked in passion, he more than made up for with a determined tenacity, something Lucy knew he would use to discover Thomas. She
could almost find herself admiring that trait in him, if it wasn’t for the fact that he was now her—and Thomas’s—enemy.
With an elegant arch of his dark brow he stood before them. “Am I interrupting something?”
“Of course you are, brother. Off with you!” Elizabeth drawled as she shooed him away with a wave of her hand. “You have the most inopportune timing.”
“Don’t be silly, your grace, do come in,” Lucy said a little breathlessly as she avoided Isabella’s astonished gaze. “The tea is still hot, and there are plenty of sandwiches left.”
She saw the way Elizabeth frowned and the speculation in Isabella’s eyes. Even though the duke really was the last person she wanted to see, at the present he was the lesser of two evils, the greater evil being the question Elizabeth had asked her.
Truth or dare…well, she dared not give the truth, and if suffering through tea with Sussex was to be the reprieve from having to answer, then so be it.
Taking the vacant cushion between Elizabeth and Rosie, the duke slouched deeply onto the soft settee and reached for a plate. With a glance, he peered up at them from a veil of thick lashes. “You don’t mind, do you?”
Swallowing hard, Lucy bit her lower lip and thought back to that evening when she had visited the Fraser Witch and the feelings she had experienced. They were the same ones she felt now—in the duke’s presence. And it was damned inconvenient, she thought churlishly, especially since she sought to dislike everything about his grace.
She couldn’t understand it, this new reaction in her body whenever Sussex’s cool gray eyes locked with hers. Every nerve ending seemed overly sensitized and raw; her spine tingled with warning and a sense of foreboding she had never once experienced in the presence of another man. Sussex had a way of looking at her that made her think he was peeling back her carefully placed layers and peeking into the core of her. It was disconcerting, his way, and no less now, when his gaze briefly flickered along her face. For Lucy knew that despite that deft sweep of his eyes, the duke missed nothing.
For all his propriety, his grace never let on that they had drawn their respective lines in the sand. Lucy found herself wondering if the duke ever thought of that afternoon, and what he had discovered of her past. No doubt it riled his sense of propriety and surely he now found her lacking and utterly unsuitable in the role of his duchess.
There was relief in that thought. Now if only her father would accept the fact that his grace would no longer be calling upon them.
“For heaven’s sake, Sussex. Take your sweets and go along with you,” Elizabeth muttered, which made Sussex grin. And that grin…what it did to his normally somber face. Lucy found herself blinking in surprise, and…no, not wonder. She would never admire his grace in that fashion. Yes, he was tall, dark and very handsome. But there wasn’t anything about the duke that tempted her. He was rigid and controlled, stuffy and proper. Aloof and cool, which only made her realize how very much like her father he was. And that sort
of man was the furthest kind she desired. She craved warmth, and emotional intimacy. Never would she marry the sort of a man her father was. Her mother may have chosen her cold, polite matrimonial bed, but Lucy would not endure the same in her marriage.
From across the tea table, the duke studied her, and Lucy suffered beneath that heavy, watchful stare. How he looked at her…there was something vaguely familiar about that stare, but of course she was being fanciful. His were not the eyes she had seen in her vision when she visited the Scottish Witch. She was sure of it.
“Are you quite finished pillaging our tea tray, Adrian?” Lizzy demanded. “We have a pressing matter of business yet to discuss.”
“Dear me, Lizzy, your mood has turned sour since I left. What has transpired to make you so irritable?”
“How can you be so obtuse, brother? Your arrival has put a damper on our conversation.”
His dark brows rose in question, causing a scar that bisected the left one to be more noticeable. “What then were you discussing when I arrived that I might not listen to now?”