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His Dark Kiss
By Eve Silver
Kensington Publishing Corp.Copyright © 2006 Eve Silver
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTo travel on a day such as this was a task only for the addled or the desperate.
Allowing herself one small sigh, Emma Parrish pressed her back against the seat of the ancient coach, the hope and courage that had fueled her decision to leave Shrewsbury flagging under the onslaught of exhaustion and too many hours spent with naught for company but her own jumbled thoughts. A brutal rain battered the carriage as the high wheels dipped and lurched on the rutted road, threatening disaster.
A particularly violent pitch sent her careening across the bench, the harsh contact of her shoulder cracking the far wall, forcing a gasp. The stink of mildew and decay hung heavy in the stale air, sullying her very breath, and the storm eroded her composure. Rubbing her shoulder, she scooted forward and then rested one hand against the window frame. 'Twas better sitting thus. The contact with the solid frame kept her from sliding across the cracked seat onto the dark, wet stain that had grown with each passing hour as the rain leaked through the thin fissures that patterned the roof.
After a time, the rain eased, slowing to a drizzle, and Emma peered out the side window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the passing countryside. Bleak sky stretched as far as the eye could see, a dreary canopy ofendless gray. Then the clouds parted. A single ray of brilliant light descended from the evening sun, breaking through the gloom to touch the earth.
A chill of foreboding raced along her spine. There, in the distance, silhouetted in sharp relief against the backdrop of that solitary ray of sunshine, stood a jagged shape, a stark Mephistophelean castle set high atop a lonely hill. Darkness in the light.
Her choice. Her future.
A whisper of unease teased her senses, making her skin prickle and her heart race.
The end of her journey was close at hand, though any comfort to be found in that thought was tinged with a heavy measure of apprehension. She had fled from the certainty of a fate she refused to bear to the possibility of one that was even worse.
And so she traveled on a day such as this. To a place such as this. To the home of the man who was-
Emma jerked back, startled, her musings scattering like raindrops in the wind as the churning wheels of the carriage flung up clumps of mud that splattered against the window with a solid thunk. And then the downpour resumed, drumming steadily on the carriage roof as the creak and sway of the coach marked the passing time and the deepening gloom heralded the dusk.
The minutes dragged into hours, and the shadows lengthened into the full blackness of night. Finally the vehicle rolled forward and back as it lurched to a stop, and after a moment the door was jerked open, letting a blast of damp and chilly air into the carriage. The coachman leaned in, lifting his lantern high, the sudden burst of light leaving Emma blinking against the glare.
"We're here, miss," he said, his gaunt face a study in shadows, the collar of his greatcoat pulled up about his chin. Water spilled from the edge of his low-crowned hat, and with a frown, he swiped at the damp brim. "Though I do question if here is where you truly want to be. Are you certain, then, that you don't wish to return to Shrewsbury? I'm thinking this is no place for an innocent young miss."
Emma pressed her lips together. Shrewsbury was no place for a young miss, at least not for this young miss. And innocent? Well, she had escaped her aunts' home with her virtue intact, but she had left the ashes of her innocence behind. She suppressed a shudder and leaned forward to look out the open door, peering into the darkness beyond. Night was upon them.
"Are we arrived at Manorbrier Castle?" she asked.
"No, miss. This be the meetin' place yer aunts told me to bring you to. There be another carriage to take you to Manorbrier. I've already given the gent yer bag." The coachman's face tightened with unease. "I heard it when I stopped to water the horses. There's tales that mark that place, miss. Stories that turn honest folk away."
Yes. She knew those tales. From the day she had arrived on her aunts' doorstep, orphaned and alone, with naught save a single portmanteau housing her every possession, Emma had been besieged with stories of Manorbrier Castle and its dark lord. Sinister tales of murder. Tales of evil that could disquiet the most stable constitution. Her pregnant cousin Delia had died there, and Delia's unborn child with her. She was thrown to the bottom of a staircase by the man who had sworn to love, honor, and cherish ... Lord Anthony Craven. Delia's husband. Delia's murderer.
Emma's new employer.
The coachman cleared his throat and said, "I can still take you back the way you came."
Back the way she came. Back to the home of her aunts, who viewed her as a terrible burden, an unwanted and unasked for responsibility tainted by the stain of her illegitimate birth. Back to the fate they had ruthlessly decreed was hers. She shivered, thinking of Mr. Moulton, with his broken teeth and groping hands. Her aunts had cared only for his fat wallet.
"Thank you, no. I will go on to Manorbrier Castle," she said firmly. "I am expected." And I have nothing to go back to. Her aunts had been only too eager to put her in this coach and send her to an uncertain fate. And if truth be told, she had been only too eager to let them.
She would never go back. She had made her decision and had no intention of reneging.
The wind swirled through the open door, and she shivered as the cold penetrated her worn cloak. His expression resigned, the coachman waited off to one side, his lantern casting out a paltry circle of light. Emma forced a weak smile, then turned her attention to the distance, to a second light that flickered and bobbed against the night sky. The lantern of the coach that had come to greet her.
Taking a fortifying breath, she dragged her cloak close about her person and stepped into the night. The heavens seemed to frown on her arrival, pouring forth a deluge that left her soaked to the skin before she had taken three steps.
She closed the distance between the two conveyances, shivering as she hastened toward the light of the unfamiliar carriage, barely visible now through the heavy sheeting of rain. Her heart pounded a wild and disturbing tattoo. A harsh gust of wind caught her hair from beneath her bonnet, tearing it loose from its secure roll at the nape of her neck. Wet strands twined about her throat, snarling in the fastening of her cloak.
Tugging at the tangled curls, she turned slowly back, eyes straining against the wall of darkness and storm as she anxiously sought a glimpse of the coachman who had brought her. One last look at a familiar and friendly face. But the light of his lantern was not there.
No kindly coachman. No hired carriage. Only black, black night behind her, and before her an open door and a single yellow light that bobbed and twisted in the frenzied wind, tethered by a precarious clasp to the side of the coach that had come to carry her to Manorbrier Castle. She was well and truly alone here in this bleak and distant spot.
Alone. No novelty that. She had been alone for a very long time, and this was her chance to end that loneliness, to build a life, a place for herself. To make a difference in the life of one small, solitary boy. He was the reason she had made this journey.
Bending into the storm, she took a step, and another.
"Stuff and nonsense. Stuff and nonsense." She chanted the words out loud to herself, a mantra against the tug of unease in the pit of her belly, but the raging storm snatched them from her lips and carried them away, to be drowned out by the drumming of the rain against the earth.
As she drew near, the looming bulk of the unfamiliar carriage blocked the worst of the wind. Resolutely, she grasped the edges of the door frame and pulled herself into the relative warmth of the vehicle. She settled herself on the seat and looked up to find that the hired coachman had not vanished after all. He had followed her, and now his broad frame filled the doorway, his face barely recognizable in the sickly light shed by the bobbing lantern outside. She forced herself to give him a reassuring smile before she realized that he likely could not see it, so wrapped was she in the shadows of the carriage.
He waited, squinting into the darkness, giving her one final chance to change her mind.
"Thank you," she whispered.
His shoulders slumped. Stepping back, he tipped his hat and shut the door, closing out the paltry lantern light, leaving her in inky darkness.
With a muffled thump the coach lurched into motion. Emma made an effort to right her ragged appearance and calm her anxious thoughts. Struggling to still the quaking of her chilled body, she forced her fingers to obey her mental command. After untying her bonnet and placing it on the seat, she began the arduous task of blindly unsnarling her wet hair.
Of her portmanteau there was no sign. She murmured a fervent prayer that the hired coachman had indeed passed it to the driver of the carriage in which she now rode. All her worldly possessions were in that bag. Small mementoes of her mother, of value only to a daughter's lonely heart. And her books, treasures whose well-thumbed pages whispered of hopes and dreams.
As Emma continued to work her fingers through her hair, the unkempt snarl was reduced to a slightly untidy mess, and even that soon gave way under her patient onslaught. Within a short time, she had rolled the wet strands into a tidy bun at the base of her skull and secured the lot with the pins she had dug out of the tumbled mass at the outset.
She could only hope that she would make an adequate impression upon her arrival at Manorbrier, and that her appearance would prove acceptable. That she was no raving beauty was in her favor, given that few wished to hire a governess who was considered a diamond of the first water. Her complexion was smooth and unmarked, and she did allow herself a small measure of pride in her thick, long tresses. She had inherited her dark hair from her mother, along with her brown eyes and her temperament, a cheery, practical nature that boded well for her success in the face of adversity, for she preferred to see life as an exciting challenge with trials and tribulations viewed as part of a pattern, like a detailed design on her aunts' best woven rug.
Lulled by the sound of the rain, which had abated to a dull patter on the carriage roof, she relaxed her posture and rested against the seat back to await her arrival at the castle. The inside of the coach remained a dark cocoon, enfolding her in its interior, blocking out the night.
A sound, so faint as to be almost imperceptible, caught her attention. Emma shivered. Surely she was imagining the steady rhythm of soft breathing. She sucked a slow, steady breath in through her nostrils. There was a slight whooshing sound as she pursed her lips and blew the air out through the tiny round hole she had shaped with her mouth.
The other sound continued, a soft, steady huff of inhalation and exhalation that was not her own. What had been suspicion coalesced into certainty. She was not alone in the coach. Something occupied the shadowed interior with her. Oh, what she would not do for a lamp. Even the tiny glow of a single candle would shed adequate illumination.
"Hello?" she whispered. "Is anyone there?"
Her imagination conjured a beast with glowing red eyes and a tongue that lolled from an open mouth replete with razor-sharp teeth set in massive jaws. Emma squinted into the darkness. There were no glowing red eyes looking back at her. No sharp teeth. No fetid animal breath. In fact, there was no longer even a hint of sound.
There was also no reply to her softly voiced query.
Perhaps she had imagined it. Imagined the faint breathing sounds. Just as she had imagined the beast in the corner, poised and ready to pounce. She almost laughed aloud at her own foolishness.
Then a quiet, scratching noise brought the worst of her fears swirling up from their subdued place, to surface again and take control of her every thought. Before she had opportunity to take those roiling emotions in hand once more, there was a flare of light that illuminated a being curled in the shadow in the far opposite corner of the coach. The glow came from a point close to the creature's face, but below it, thus allowing a play of light and shadow that cast eyes, nose, and mouth in fearsome relief.
Emma reacted without thought or logic and from the back of her throat came a tiny squeak of terror, which grew and gave way to a resounding noise that ricocheted off the interior of the carriage before escaping into the night. She paused to draw breath, and the brief silence was filled by clipped masculine tones.
"Good Lord, woman! Have you not the sense that God gave a mouse? My ears are ringing from the sound of you!"
She resented the comparison. Mice were meek creatures, and Emma was not meek. But she was cautious. Her fear subsided with near laughable speed, replaced by a niggling suspicion that the man across from her might be her new employer or, at the very least, was acquainted with him.
And she had shrieked in the man's ear. Oh, dear. Pressing one hand to her breast, she willed her racing heart to slow to a more reasonable pace.
The small flame glowed in the interior of the coach, continuing to reveal the planes and hollows of what she now realized was a man's face, and just below that, his hand holding the remains of a friction match. The fire raced down the length of the match, burning the fingers that held it. Emma knew that fingers had been singed because she heard a hiss of pain just before the match was abruptly blown out, leaving her alone with the man, and the dark.
"You startled me, sir," she ventured into the silence. "Had I known of your presence from the outset, I would not have reacted with such ... such volume."
He did not reply immediately, but when he did, his voice reached across the carriage, deep and smooth. "See that you do not raise your voice to my son."
His reply gave confirmation of his identity. She was in the company of Lord Anthony Craven, and she had behaved ridiculously. Not an auspicious beginning.
Uncertain how to reply, she sat in tense silence, her back ramrod straight, a part of her thinking that he ought to apologize for giving her a fright.
"There is no need to perch on the edge of your seat like a little brown wren." He sounded more amused than angry.
Emma's eyes widened. The man must have the vision of a cat to be able to see her when the inky blackness veiled him from her sight. The eyes of a cat, and the manners of a baboon.
He made a sound low in his throat. "Do you think I purposely lurked here in the darkness, waiting for the opportunity to frighten you out of your skin?"
She had thought exactly that, but hearing the question put so bluntly made the idea sound preposterous. "No, of course not," she lied.
The silence lengthened, and then he grudgingly said, "I fell asleep. When I awoke, I had no idea you were unaware of my presence. And then you screamed."
"I see." Well, she now knew that her employer did not habitually lurk about purposely terrifying young women in his employ. At least, it seemed he had not done so on this occasion.
"Where is the chaperone I requested?" he asked.
Chaperone? For a moment she was strangely touched that he had thought to send funds for such. Yet the very idea was laughable. Aunt Cecilia would never spend money on a hired chaperone. She would consider it an arbitrary and foolish waste of coin, given that Emma was already tarnished beyond repair by the circumstances of her birth. In fact, given the choice, Cecilia would gladly have sold Emma into-
"Ah, let me guess ... your Aunt Cecilia felt my monies could be better spent on herself, and your Aunt Hortense, having imbibed at least half a bottle of good brandy, hidden in her tea of course, was too insensate to argue on your behalf. Not that she would have bothered had she been conscious. She would have simply helped herself to more tea and muttered 'quite so, quite so.'" His tone was biting, but a subtle hint of humor softened the sound.
Emma swallowed a startled giggle at his irreverent monologue, a small amount of her fear allayed by his sarcastic, and accurate, description of Aunt Cecilia and Aunt Hortense. She frowned, wondering at this odd conversation.
Neither spoke for a time, and then Lord Craven said, "The rain has stopped."
She listened. There was no longer the sound of water beating on the carriage roof. "Yes, it has."
Excerpted from His Dark Kiss by Eve Silver Copyright © 2006 by Eve Silver. Excerpted by permission.
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