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If He's Wild
By Hannah Howell
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Hannah Howell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAlethea Vaughn Channing looked up from the book she was trying to read to stare into the colorful flames in the massive fireplace and immediately tensed. That man was there again, taking shape within the dancing flames and curling smoke. She tried to tear her gaze away, to ignore him and return her attention to her book, but the vision drew her, ignoring her wants and stealing her choices.
He was almost family, for there was no denying that they had grown up together. She had been seeing glimpses of the man since she was but five years old, although he had been still a boy then. Fifteen long years of catching the occasional peek into his life had made her somewhat proprietary about the man, even though she had no idea who he was. She had seen him as a gangly, somewhat clumsy youth, and as a man. She had seen him in dreams, in visions, and had even sensed him at her side. An unwilling witness, she had seen him in pain, watched him weep, known his grief and his joy and so much more. She had even seen him on her wedding night, which had been oddly comforting since her late husband had been noticeably absent. At times, the strange connection was painfully intense; at others it was only the whisper of emotion. She did not like invading his privacy, yet nothing she had ever done had been able to banish him.
This was a strong vision, she thought as the images before her grew so clear it was as if the people were right in the room with her. Alethea set her book down and moved to kneel before the fire as a tickle of unease grew stronger within her. Suddenly she knew this was not just another fleeting intrusion into the man's life, but a warning. Perhaps, she mused as she concentrated, this was what it had all been leading to. She knew, without even a hint of doubt, that what she was seeing now was not what was or what had been, but what was to come.
He was standing on the steps of a very fine house idly adjusting his clothes. She smelled roses and then grimaced with disgust. The rogue had obviously just come from the arms of some woman. If she judged his expression right, he wore that smirk her maid, Kate, claimed men wore after they had just fed their manly hungers. Alethea had the suspicion her vision man fed those hungers a lot.
A large black carriage pulled up. She almost stuck her hand in the fire as a sudden fierce urge to pull him back when he stepped into it swept over her. Then, abruptly and without warning, her vision became a dizzying array of brief, terrifying images, one after another slamming into her mind. She cried out as she suffered his pain along with him-horrible, continuous pain. They wanted his secrets, but he would not release them. A scream tore from her throat and she collapsed, clutching her throat as a sharp, excruciating pain ripped across it. Her vision man died from that pain. It did not matter that she had not actually seen his death, that the fireplace held only flame and wispy smoke again. She had suffered it, suffered the cold inside his body as his blood flowed out of him. For one terrifying moment, she had suffered a deep, utter desolation over that loss.
The sound of her servants hurrying into the room broke through Alethea's shock as she crawled toward the table where she kept her sketchbooks and drawing materials. "Help me to my seat, Kate," she ordered her buxom young maid as the woman reached for her.
"Oh, m'lady, you have had yourself a powerful seeing this time, I be thinking," said Kate as she steadied Alethea in her seat. "You should have a cup of hot, sweet tea, you should, and some rest. Alfred, get some tea," she ordered the tall, too-thin butler who no longer even attempted to explain the hierarchy of servants to Kate.
"Not yet. I must get this all down ere I forget."
Alethea was still very weak by the time she had sketched out all she had seen and written down all she could recall. She sipped at the tea a worried Alfred served her and studied what she had done. Although she dreaded what she had to do now, she knew she had no choice.
"We leave for London in three days," she announced, and almost smiled at the look of shock on her servants' faces.
"But why?" asked Kate.
"Where will we stay? Your uncle is at the townhouse."
"It is quite big enough to house us while I do what this vision is compelling me to do."
"And what does it compel you to do, milady?" asked Alfred.
"To stop a murder."
"You cannot meet with Hartley Greville. He is the Marquis of Redgrave you know."
Alethea frowned at her uncle, who was only seven years older than she was. She had been too weary to speak much with him when she had arrived in London yesterday after three days on the road. Then she had slept too late to breakfast with him. It had pleased her to share a noon meal with him, and she had quickly told him about her vision. He had been intrigued and eager to help until she had shown him the sketch she had made of the man she sought. Her uncle's handsome face had immediately darkened with a scowl.
"Why not?" she asked as she cut a piece of ham and popped it in her mouth.
"He is a rake. If he was not so wealthy, titled, and of such an impressive lineage, I doubt he would be included on many lists of invitations. If the man notches his bedpost for each of his conquests, he is probably on his third bed by now."
"Oh, my. Is he married?"
"Ah, no. Considered to be a prime marriage candidate, however. All that money and good blood, you see. Daughters would not complain, as he is also young and handsome."
"Then he cannot be quite so bad, can he? I mean, if mothers view him as a possible match for their daughters ..."
Iago Vaughn shook his head, his thick black hair tumbling onto his forehead. "He is still a seasoned rake. Hard, cold, dangerous, and the subject of a cartload of dark rumor. He has just not crossed that fine line which would make him completely unacceptable." He frowned. "Although I sometimes wonder if that line is a little, well, fluid as concerns men like him. I would certainly hesitate to nudge my daughter in his direction if I had one. And I certainly do not wish to bring his attention your way. Introduce a pretty young widow to Greville? People would think I was utterly mad."
"Uncle, if you will not introduce me, I will find someone else who will."
"Do you think he has done anything that warrants his murder?"
"I suspect there are many husbands who think so," muttered Iago as he turned his attention back to his meal, frowning even more when he realized he had already finished it.
Alethea smiled her thanks to the footman who took her plate away and set several bowls of fruit between her and Iago. The moment Iago silently waved the footman out of the room, she relaxed, resting her arms on the table and picking out some blackberries to put into her small bowl. As she covered the fruit with clotted cream, she thought carefully over what she should say next. She had to do whatever she could to stop her vision from becoming a true prophecy, but she did not wish to anger her uncle in doing so.
"If wives are breaking their marriage vows, I believe it is for more reason than a pretty face," she said. "A man should not trespass so, yet I doubt he is solely to blame for the sin." She glanced at her uncle and smiled faintly. "Can you say that you have not committed such a trespass?"
Iago scowled at her as he pushed aside his plate, grabbed an apple, and began to neatly slice and core it. "That is not the point here, and well you know it. The point here is whether or not I will introduce my niece to a known seducer, especially when she is a widow and thus considered fair game. A rogue like him would chew you up and spit you out before you even knew what had happened to you. They say he can seduce a rock."
"That would be an intriguing coupling," she murmured and savored a spoonful of her dessert.
"Brat." He grinned briefly, and then quickly grew serious again. "You have never dealt with a man like him."
"I have never dealt with any man, really, save for Edward, and considering how little he had to do with me, I suppose dealing with my late husband for a year does not really count for much."
"Ah, no, not truly. Poor sod."
"Me or him?" She smiled when he chuckled. "I understand your concerns, Uncle, but they do not matter. No," she hastily said when he started to protest. "None of them matter. We are speaking of life and death. As you say, I am a young widow. If he seduces me, then so be it. That is my business and my problem. Once this difficulty is swept aside, I can return to Coulthurst. In truth, if the man has anywhere near the number of conquests rumor claims, I will just disappear into the horde with barely any notice taken of my passing."
"Why are you being so persistent? You may have misinterpreted this vision."
Alethea shook her head. "No. 'Tis difficult to describe, but I felt his pain, felt his struggle not to weaken and tell them what they wanted to know, and felt his death. There is something you need to know. This is not the first time I have had visions of this man. The first was when I was just five years old. This man has been visiting me for fifteen years."
"Good God. Constantly?"
"No, but at least once a year in some form, occasionally more than that. Little peeks at his life-fleeting visions, mostly, some clearer than others. There were several rather unsettling ones, when he was in danger, but I was seeing what was or what had been. Occasional dreams, too. Even, well, feelings, as if we had suddenly touched in some way."
"How can you be so sure that this vision was not also what was happening or had already happened?"
"Because amongst the nauseating barrage of images was one of a newspaper dated a month from that day. And, of course, the fact that the man is still alive." Alethea could tell by the look upon her uncle's face that he would help her, but that he dearly wished he could think of another way than by introducing her to the man. "I even saw him on my wedding night," she added softly.
Iago's eyes widened. "Dare I ask what he was doing?"
"Staring into a fireplace, just as I was, although at least he had a drink in his hand. For a brief moment, I felt as if we were sharing a moment of contemplation, of loneliness, of disappointment, even a sadness. Not an inspiring vision, yet, odd as it was, I did feel somewhat comforted by it." She shrugged away the thought. "I truly believe all that has gone before was leading up to this moment."
"Fifteen years of preparation seems a bit excessive," Iago drawled.
Alethea laughed, but her humor was fleeting, and she soon sighed. "It was all I could think of to explain why I have had such a long connection to this man, to a man I have never met. I just wish I knew why someone would want to hold him captive and torture him before killing him. Why do these people want his secrets?"
"We ... ell, there have been a few rumors that he might be working for the Home Office, or the military, against the French."
"Of course! That makes much more sense than it being a fit of revenge by some cuckolded husband or jealous lover."
"It also means that a great deal more than your virtue could be in danger."
"True, but it also makes it far more important to rescue him."
"Damn. I suppose it does."
"So, will you help me?"
Iago nodded. "You do realize it will be difficult to explain things to him. People do not understand ones like us, do not believe in our gifts or are frightened by them. Imagine the reaction if, next time I was playing cards with some of my friends, I told one of them that his aunt, who had been dead for ten years, was peering over his shoulder?" He smiled when Alethea giggled.
Although his example was amusing, the hard, cold fact it illustrated was not. People did fear the gifts so many of her family had. She knew her dreams and visions would cause some people to think she had gone mad. It was one reason she shunned society. Sometimes, merely touching something could bring on a vision. Iago saw all too clearly those who had died and not yet traveled to their final destination. He could often tell when, or why, a person had died simply by touching something or being in the place where it had happened. The only thing she found unsettling about Iago's gift was that, on occasion, he could tell when someone was soon to die. She suspected that, in many ways, he was as alone, as lonely, as she was.
"It does make life more difficult," she murmured. "I sometimes comfort myself with the thought that it could be worse."
"We could have Cousin Modred's gift." She nodded when Iago winced. "He has become a hermit, afraid to touch anyone, to even draw close to people for fear of what he will feel, hear, or see. To see so clearly into everyone's mind and heart? I think that would soon drive me mad."
"I often wonder if poor Modred is, at least just a little."
"Have you seen him recently?"
"About a month ago. He has found a few more servants, ones he cannot read, with Aunt Dob's help." Iago frowned. "He thinks he might be gaining those shields he needs, but has yet to gather the courage to test himself. But, then, how are we any better off than he? You hide at Coulthurst and I hide here."
"True." Alethea looked around the elegant dining room as she sipped her wine. "I am still surprised Aunt Leona left this place to me and not to you. She had to know you would be comfortable here."
"She was angry that I would not marry her husband's niece."
"Quite. I fear she changed her will when she was still angry and then died before the breach between us could be mended."
"You should let me give it to you."
"No. It suits me to rent it from you. I keep a watch out for another place, and, if this arrangement ever becomes inconvenient, we can discuss the matter then. Now, let us plan how we can meet up with Redgrave and make him understand the danger he is in without getting the both of us carted off to Bedlam."
Two nights later, as she and Iago entered a crowded ballroom, Alethea still lacked a sound plan, and her uncle had none to offer, either. Alethea clung to his arm as they strolled around the edges of the large room. Glancing around at all the elegant people, she felt a little like a small blackbird stuck in the midst of a flock of peacocks. There was such a vast array of beautiful, elegant women, she had to wonder why her uncle would ever think she had to worry about her virtue. A hardened rake like the Marquis of Redgrave would never even consider her worth his time and effort when there was such a bounty to choose from.
"Are you nervous?" asked Iago.
"Terrified," she replied. "Is it always like this?"
"Most of the time. Lady Bartleby's affairs are always well attended."
"And you think Lord Redgrave will be one of the crowd?"
Iago nodded. "She is his cousin, one of the few family members left to him. We must keep a sharp watch for him, however. He will come, but he will not stay long. Too many of the young women here are hunting a husband."
"I am surprised that you would venture forth if it is that dangerous."
"Ah, but I am only a lowly baron. Redgrave is a marquis."
Alethea shook her head. "You make it all sound like some sordid marketplace."
"In many ways, it is. Oh, good, I see Aldus and Gifford."
"Friends of yours?" Iago started to lead her toward the far corner of the ballroom, but she was unable to see the men he spoke of around the crowd they weaved through.
"No, friends of the marquis. He will be sure to join them when he arrives."
"Misery loves company?"
"Something like that. Oh damn."
Before Alethea could ask what had caused her uncle to grow so tense, a lovely, fulsome redhead appeared at his side. If she judged her uncle's expression correctly, he was not pleased to see this woman, and that piqued Alethea's interest. Looking more closely at the woman's classically beautiful face, Alethea saw the hint of lines about the eyes and mouth and suspected the woman was older than Iago. The look the woman gave her was a hard and assessing one. A moment later something about the woman's demeanor told Alethea that she had not measured up well in the woman's eyes, that she had just been judged as inconsequential.
"Where have you been, Iago, darling?" the woman asked. "I have not seen you for a fortnight."
"I have been very busy, Margarite," Iago replied in a cool, distant tone.
Excerpted from If He's Wild by Hannah Howell Copyright © 2010 by Hannah Howell. Excerpted by permission.
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