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Sussex, England July 1873
Great white wings illuminated the sky. Piercing the heavens the owl soared, majesty of his domain, as regal in his splendor as a mountain peak splitting the night.
Ariana leaned, spellbound, against the balcony rail, taking in the grace of his motions, the abandoned freedom of his flight. Already this summer she'd sighted several owls in her savored explorations, but never in all her eighteen years had she found one this pure in color. His bold downy feathers, stark as a snow bank, were bathed in the soft golden glow cast by twin gas lamps heralding his path.
A burst of laughter from within the crowded ballroom pricked at Ariana's conscience, pressuring her to return to the betrothal party. She owed that much to Baxter. And she had been enjoying herself most thoroughly all evening. After all, seldom did she have the opportunity to attend so grand a ball, to chat with hundreds of equally grand people, to dance until her feet barely touched the floor. The experience was glorious.
But it paled in comparison to this awesome spectacle.
So when the owl's haunting call beckoned her, thoughts of all else had vanished.
Her breath caught in her throat as the magnificent bird alit in the walnut tree before her, close enough to touch. He leveled his fiery topaz stare in her direction, holding her captive with his probing intensity. Ariana gazed back, praying that the evening mist would delay its descent a few moments longer, delay concealing nature's priceless treasure from view.
For a time, the mist complied with her unspoken request, hovering just above the tree, and Ariana lingered, silently vowing to retrace her steps through the open French doors ... in just a minute.
At last the mist lost patience, settling over the vast estate like a milky blanket. The owl blinked once, then raised his great head, solemnly contemplating the heavens. With a resounding cry, he spread his wings and took flight.
"Wait!" Ariana called, grasping the air as if that action alone could summon him back. For an instant, she followed him with her eyes. Then she acted.
Gathering the full skirt of her mauve satin ball gown, she hastened down the winding steps that led to the gardens and raced off in pursuit.
The labyrinthine maze loomed ahead, stretching its wealth of manicured hedges as far as the eye could see. She reached the opening in time to see the flash of white soar inside.
She didn't hesitate.
She ran in after him.
Engulfed in fog, the owl disappeared in scant seconds, with only a reverberating call in his wake. Relentlessly, Ariana dodged through the winding paths, determined to find him.
A quarter hour later, two realizations occurred.
The owl was lost.
So was she.
Dark, forbidding, the man stared through the imposing iron gates toward the barely visible mansion, his eyes burning with hatred, his soul burning with anticipation.
Six years of exile, of scorching hatred spawned by the crime of another. Six years to plan the perfect revenge. At last it was time. Within the hour, his lordship, Baxter Caldwell, the eminent Viscount Winsham, would solidify his fate.... But the outcome would not be the one the bastard expected.
Lifting the glowing cheroot to his lips, the man inhaled slowly, then blew out, watching the wisps of smoke swirl above him and vanish into the engulfing fog.
A sudden burst of cheers and applause split the hush of night, audible even from this great distance.
A toast, no doubt, the man deduced. To the happy couple.
He raised an imaginary glass in mock tribute. Yes, at this very moment the viscount was triumphantly celebrating, what was considered to be the match of the Season: his betrothal to the captivating Suzanne Covington. Caldwell was on the brink of realizing his most fervent dream: mating the old and respected Caldwell name with the widely sought-after Covington wealth.
A title for an empire. That heinous prospect would be untenable, were the marriage actually going to occur.
Idly rolling his cheroot, the man gave a malevolent smile, envisioning the mass pandemonium that would ensue when he issued his ultimatum and Covington made the only choice he possibly could. There were some motivators even more powerful than securing the right social position. Motivators such as blackmail.
So the betrothal's demise was a fait accompli.
After which, the viscount's demise—and his own revenge—were but scant moments away.
Inside the manor the music and dancing had resumed, and the French doors were once again thrown open to admit the fragrant July air. Strains of a lively Strauss waltz spilled forth, rolling across the grounds and through the iron gates.
The man went taut, the image of Baxter Caldwell instantly replaced by a more loathsome substitute. For the weak, unprincipled, lazy parasite of a viscount held not a candle to his deceitful bitch of a sister.
Memories hurtled back in hard, stunning blows to his head.
Heaven alone knew how many rich men had been the recipients of that perfect smile ... how many she had been willing to whore herself for in exchange for the promise of wealth.
With a quick, savage snap of the wrist, he sent the cheroot rolling to the grass, grinding it beneath his heel.
He slipped through the gates and moved toward his quarry.
The day of retribution had finally arrived.
Ariana wrung her hands in frustration. The mist had indeed grown thicker, plunging the maze into an opaque prison. Pangs of guilt intensified her worry. By now Baxter had discovered her absence and was undoubtedly furious. Not that she blamed him, given the cause of the night's celebration. She simply had to find her way.
The fog settled lower, shrouding the night's wonders in warm, hazy mists, eclipsing her earlier elation and clarifying the grim reality. When would she ever learn to listen to her head and not her heart?
Straining her ears, she listened for sounds of the ball, the music and laughter that had accompanied her on her walk. In reply, she heard only the chirp of an occasional cricket and the sweet call of a nightingale.
Lord only knew how far she'd wandered, Ariana conceded with a frown. The Covington estate was massive; the maze she walked within meandered endlessly. She quickened her step, stumbling on every unseen stone, hastening along the cold ground.
One hedge was the same as the next, leading nowhere but to another facet of the puzzle. Groping her way down each open path, Ariana carefully searched for the avenue that would guide her to safety. She found none. Nor did she hear even the faintest murmur to reassure her the manor was near.
Minutes ticked by.
Panic set in.
Breaking into a blind run, she cupped her hands over her mouth, hoping that, by calling out, she would alert someone to her plight.
The shout never emerged.
With a telltale tug, the full skirt of Ariana's gown lodged beneath her slipper, upsetting her balance and toppling her to the ground. Shards of pain shot through her right ankle as it bent awkwardly beneath her.
Biting back a cry, Ariana waited until the physical agony had subsided to a dull throb. Then, shakily, she gathered up her skirts and resolutely hoisted herself to a standing position—but collapsed just as quickly to the grass. Gingerly, she touched her ankle, wincing at its tenderness. It was badly sprained, at best. Walking was out of the question.
Gritting her teeth, Ariana silently admonished herself for hot having the good sense to tell someone of her destination. When it came to embracing nature's splendor, she seemed unable to retain a whit of judgment, continually succumbing to some foolhardy, whimsical inner voice that dominated her reason, urged her to relent. And inevitably got her into trouble.
She considered crawling, then dismissed the idea as ludicrous. How far would she get with copious layers of petticoats in her way? Trying once again to stand, she fell to the grass with a soft whimper of pain. It was no use.
She gazed around, acutely aware of the darkness, the seclusion that enveloped her. The ball would still be at its ebullient peak; how long would it be before anyone searched for her?
With a frightened shiver, she gave in to her earlier intent. Raising her face to the ominous hedges, she cried out, "Help!"
Only the sound of her own voice echoed through the mist.
He heard the scream.
Startled, he stopped in his tracks and scanned the milky darkness, trying to assess the direction from which the sound had emerged. He saw nothing. He had almost decided he'd imagined the cry, when he heard it again.
It was definitely real. The voice belonged to a woman, one who was obviously in distress.
Scowling, he cast a brief glance at the manor, contemplating his choices. He had waited this long. A few more minutes wouldn't matter.
That decided, he made his way through the fog.
Ariana brushed a damp auburn strand from her forehead, feeling the heavy tresses tumble free of their restraining pins to settle in a limp, disheveled mass on her back.
No one had responded to her call. That meant she was even farther away than she'd realized. Well, she couldn't just sit here forever, praying to be rescued. Perhaps if she managed to pull herself upright she could put all her weight on her uninjured foot and hop—but in what direction? She hadn't an inkling of her whereabouts. And she couldn't remain standing long enough to discover them. The throbbing in her ankle was intensifying, as was the swelling.
She bit her lip in frustration. Futile though it might be, she tried once again. "Help!"
Holding her breath, she waited. Silence. Surely she couldn't be the only one who had ventured from the party to stroll the grounds. But apparently she was. She dropped her head wearily.
A twig snapped, and Ariana's head came up in a flash. "Help! Please help me!" she cried out, flooded with relief when the soft but distinct plod of footsteps reached her ears.
"Keep talking," a deep, resonant voice instructed. "I'll follow the sound."
"I'm inside the maze," Ariana called, desperately wishing the mist would lift. She had no idea who her rescuer was; his voice was unfamiliar but disturbingly close. Uneasily, she wondered why he was walking alone in this particularly isolated section of the estate. On the heels of that thought came the reality of its absurdity: She, who had gone in avid pursuit of an elusive owl and was now hopelessly lost in a forest of trees, was concerned about a stranger's motives for strolling the Covington grounds?
"Can you hear me?" the stranger called, closer this time.
"Yes!" Ariana sat up straighten "Yes, I can hear you!"
A moment later the hedges parted and a towering figure emerged. "And now?" a deep-timbered baritone boomed into the night.
Ariana swallowed. "I can hear you. I can also see you. I'm sitting about ten paces to the left of where you stand."
The dark silhouette paused, then moved toward her with long, pantherlike strides. He stopped, so close to her that the powerful muscles of his thighs were practically touching her face. Involuntarily, she shifted, the movement causing a shaft of pain to shoot through her ankle. She grimaced, fear mingling with physical anguish as, abruptly, she became aware of how precarious her situation was. She was alone, injured, unable to protect herself, in a secluded, private maze with a massive and forbidding stranger. What in God's name had she gotten herself into this time?
Hindered by the fog, Ariana was unable to see anything above the solid columns of her rescuer's thighs. Nonetheless, she could feel the intimidating force of his scrutiny. Instinctively, she tucked her skirts around her, wishing he would identify himself or declare his intentions. She felt totally vulnerable, defenseless. And bewildered. Surely he had stared long enough. Why didn't he say something?
"Thank you for answering my plea," she managed in a deceptively calm voice.
The thigh muscles rippled, then flexed, and the next thing Ariana knew she was gazing into burning cobalt eyes and the hardest, most starkly handsome face she had ever seen.
"Are you hurt?"
Mutely, she nodded.
Ariana licked her lips nervously. Squatting so close beside her, his expression and tone rock-hard, her rescuer seemed more formidable than ever.
"I saw the most breathtaking owl," she began. "He had white feathers as pure as snowflakes and moved as gracefully as a Thoroughbred." Warming to her subject, Ariana's eyes sparkled with exhilaration. "Then he called out to me. Naturally, I had no choice but to follow. He led me into this maze. I became lost. I fell. My ankle ..." Abruptly she stopped, realizing she'd been rambling. Staring up through the veiled layers of night, she studied the man's unreadable features.
For a long moment he was silent, his eyes boring into her. "Don't you know how unsafe it is for a beautiful woman to go for a midnight stroll, alone, on so expansive an estate as this?" he questioned at last. "Why, the mist could swallow up so ethereal a creature as you.... And never set you free."
Ariana felt gooseflesh break out on her arms.
He said nothing more, but his brazen stare consumed her from head to toe, as if memorizing every inch of her. Then, without warning, he reached for the hem of her gown, tugging it upward.
Ariana froze, recoiling automatically, crying out at the resulting pain she caused herself.
His hand paused in its purpose, his pensive gaze returning to hers. "Don't be frightened, misty angel," he murmured. "I have no intention of harming you." He glanced down at her injury. "But your ankle is badly sprained and needs to be tended to."
Ariana nodded, feeling foolish. This was what she had wanted, was it not? To be found, given assistance?
He bent his dark head over her leg, his brow furrowed in concentration. "Tell me if I hurt you."
Ariana nodded again, candidly surveying him as he examined the swelling. He was striking, yet frighteningly feral; tall and broad-shouldered, with black hair that framed a hard and arrogant face. His features were severely masculine, his nose straight, his jaw square, his lips chiseled and full. His brows and lashes were thick and dark, highlighting the blazing blue of his eyes. It was the harsh lines around his eyes, Ariana guessed, that made him appear dangerous, as if he were capable of extreme cruelty if threatened.
"Are you in pain?" His tone was gruff, but his touch was gentle.
"No," she whispered, stunned that she'd forgotten her injury entirely—despite the fact that he had been probing it for the past few minutes. "I'm not in pain."
A slow, knowing smile curved his lips and Ariana was shocked by the transformation it made. When he smiled, he was magnificent.
"What's the matter, misty angel?" he queried, reaching out to lift her chin. "Are you still afraid of me?" Ever so lightly, he trailed his thumb along the pulse in her neck.
Ariana shivered, shook her head. "No. I'm not afraid of you."
"Then you are the first."
She recoiled from the severity of his tone, a harshness that was totally refuted by the gentleness of his touch. Added to that was her own confusing, quivering awareness of his blatantly sensual caress, a caress that left tingles of pleasure in its path. But in the end, it was the tenderness, as unintentional as it was palpable, that struck a chord within her, gave her the courage to continue. "If others are afraid, it could only be because you haven't gifted them with your smile," she blurted out.
He looked startled.
"Are we far from the manor?" she asked anxiously, remembering, in the unsettling silence, how long she'd been missing and how angry Baxter would be.
The ruthlessness returned, hardening the man's expression. "Yes. You've wandered quite a distance. It will take some time to get back."
"I don't think I can walk."
"You won't even attempt it." It was a command, not a suggestion.
"Then how ..."
She never finished her question. In one motion he slid his hands beneath her and stood, lifting Ariana effortlessly in his arms.
She gasped, clutching his shoulders for support, feeling the hard wall of his chest against her body. Once again she was face-to-face with those incredible, penetrating cobalt eyes ... eyes that reached to the very depths of her being.
Excerpted from Echoes in the Mist by Andrea Kane. Copyright © 1994 Andrea Kane. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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