Lord of Darkness
By Elizabeth Hoyt
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2013 Elizabeth Hoyt
All right reserved. ISBN: 9781455508303
Have you ever heard tell of the Hellequin?…
—From The Legend of the Hellequin
The night Godric St. John saw his wife for the first time since their marriage two years previously, she was aiming a pistol at his head. Lady Margaret stood beside her carriage in the filthy St. Giles street, her glossy, dark curls tumbling from the velvet hood of her cloak. Her shoulders were square, both hands firmly grasped the pistol, and a murderous gleam shone in her pretty eyes. For a split second, Godric caught his breath in admiration.
In the next moment, Lady Margaret pulled the trigger.
The report was deafening but fortunately not fatal, as his wife was apparently an execrable shot. This did not reassure Godric as much as it should have, because Lady Margaret immediately turned and pulled a second pistol from her carriage.
Even the worst shots could get lucky on occasion.
But Godric hadn’t the time to meditate on the odds of his wife actually murdering him tonight. He was too busy saving her ungrateful hide from the half-dozen footpads who had stopped her carriage here, in the most dangerous part of London.
Godric ducked the enormous fist coming at his head and kicked the footpad in the stomach. The man grunted but didn’t go down, probably because he was as big as a draft horse. Instead, the robber began a counterclockwise circle of Godric as his compatriots—four of them, and every one quite as well fed—closed in on him.
Godric narrowed his eyes and raised his swords, a long one in his right hand, a short one in his left for defense and close fighting, and—
God’s balls—Lady Margaret fired her second pistol at him.
The gunshot shattered the night, echoing off the decrepit buildings lining the narrow street. Godric felt a tug on his short cape as the lead ball went through the wool.
Lady Margaret swore with a startling breadth of vocabulary.
The footpad nearest Godric grinned, revealing teeth the color of week-old piss. “Don’t like ’e much, now, do she?”
Not precisely true. Lady Margaret was trying to kill the Ghost of St. Giles. Unfortunately, she had no way of knowing that the Ghost of St. Giles happened to be her husband. The black leather mask on Godric’s face hid his identity quite effectively.
For a moment, all of St. Giles seemed to hold its breath. The sixth robber still stood, both of his pistols aimed at Lady Margaret’s coachman and two footmen. A female spoke in low, urgent tones from inside the carriage, no doubt trying to lure Lady Margaret back to safety. The lady herself glared from her stance beside the carriage, apparently oblivious to the fact that she might be murdered—or worse—if Godric failed to save her from the robbers. High overhead, the wan moon looked down dispassionately on the crumbling brick buildings, the broken cobblestones underfoot, and a single chandler’s shop sign creaking wearily in the wind.
Godric leaped at the still-grinning footpad.
Lady Margaret might be a foolish chit for being here, and the footpad might be merely following the instincts of any feral predator who runs down the careless prey that ventures into his path, but it mattered not. Godric was the Ghost of St. Giles, protector of the weak, a predator to be feared himself, lord of St. Giles and the night, and, damn it, Lady Margaret’s husband.
So Godric stabbed fast and low, impaling the footpad before his grin had time to disappear. The man grunted and began to fall as Godric elbowed another footpad advancing behind him. The man’s nose shattered with a crunching sound.
Godric pulled his sword free in a splatter of scarlet and whirled, slashing at a third man. His sword opened a swath of blood diagonally across the man’s cheek, and the footpad stumbled back, screaming, his hands to his face.
The remaining two attackers hesitated, which in a street fight was nearly always fatal.
Godric charged them, the sword in his right hand whistling as it swept toward one of the footpads. His strike missed, but he stabbed the short sword in his left hand deep into the thigh of the fifth footpad. The man shrieked. Both robbers backed away and then turned to flee.
Godric straightened, his chest heaving as he caught his breath and looked around. The only robber still standing was the one with the pistols.
The coachman—a thickset man of middling years with a tough, reddened face—narrowed his eyes at the robber and pulled a pistol out from under his seat.
The last footpad turned and fled without a sound.
“Shoot him,” Lady Margaret snapped. Her voice trembled, but Godric had the feeling it was from rage rather than fear.
“M’lady?” The coachman looked at his mistress, confused, since the footpads were now out of sight.
But Godric knew quite well that she wasn’t ordering the murder of a footpad, and suddenly something inside of him—something he’d thought dead for years—woke.
His nostrils flared as he stepped over the body of the man he’d killed for her. “No need to thank me.”
He spoke in a whisper to disguise his voice, but she seemed to have no trouble hearing him.
The bloodthirsty wench actually clenched her teeth, hissing, “I wasn’t about to.”
“No?” He cocked his head, his smile grim. “Not even a kiss for good luck?”
Her eyes dropped to his mouth, left uncovered by the half-mask, and her upper lip curled in disgust. “I’d rather embrace an adder.”
Oh, that’s lovely. His smile widened. “Frightened of me, sweeting?”
He watched, fascinated, as she opened her mouth, no doubt to scorch his hide with her retort, but she was interrupted before she could speak.
“Thank you!” cried a feminine voice from inside the carriage.
Lady Margaret scowled and turned. Apparently she was close enough to see the speaker in the dark even if he couldn’t. “Don’t thank him! He’s a murderer.”
“He hasn’t murdered us,” the woman in the carriage pointed out. “Besides, it’s too late. I’ve thanked him for both of us, so climb in the carriage and let’s leave this awful place before he changes his mind.”
The set of Lady Margaret’s jaw reminded Godric of a little girl denied a sweet.
“She’s right, you know,” he whispered to her. “Believe it or not, toffs have been known to be accosted by footpads in this very spot.”
“Megs!” hissed the female in the carriage.
Lady Margaret’s glare could’ve scorched wood. “I shall find you again, and when I do, I intend to kill you.”
She was completely in earnest, her stubborn little chin set.
He took off his large floppy hat and swept her a mocking bow. “I look forward to dying in your arms, sweeting.”
Her eyes narrowed on his wicked double entendre, but her companion was muttering urgently now. Lady Margaret gave him one last look of disdain before ducking inside her carriage.
The coachman shouted to the horses, and the vehicle rumbled away.
And Godric St. John realized two things: his lady wife was apparently over her mourning—and he’d better make it back to his town house before her carriage arrived. He paused for a second, glancing at the body of the man he’d killed. Black blood wound in a sluggish trail to the channel in the middle of the lane. The man’s eyes stared glassily at the indifferent heavens. Godric searched within himself, looking for some emotion… and found what he always did.
He whirled and darted down a narrow alley. Only now that he was moving did he notice that his right shoulder ached. He’d either damaged something in the brawl or one of the footpads had succeeded in landing a blow. No matter. Saint House was on the river, not terribly far in the usual way, but he’d get there faster by rooftop.
He was already swinging himself up onto the top of a shed when he heard it: shrill, girlish screams, coming from around the bend in the alley up ahead.
Damn it. He hadn’t the time for this. Godric dropped back down to the alley and drew both his swords.
Another terrified cry.
He darted around the corner.
There were two of them, which accounted for all the noise. One was not more than five. She stood, shaking, in the middle of the reeking alley, screaming with all of her might. She could do little else because the second child had already been caught. That one was a bit older and fought with the desperate ferocity of a cornered rat, but to no avail.
The man who held the older child was three times her size and cuffed her easily on the side of the head.
The older girl crumpled to the ground while the smaller one ran to her still form.
The man bent toward the children.
“Oi!” Godric growled.
The man looked up. “What th—”
Godric laid him flat with a right haymaker to the side of the head.
He placed his sword at the man’s bared throat and leaned down to whisper, “Doesn’t feel very good when you’re on the receiving end, does it?”
The oaf scowled, his hand rubbing the side of his head. “Now see ’ere. I ’as a right to do as I please wif me own girls.”
“We’re not your girls!”
Godric saw out of the corner of his eye that the elder chit had sat up.
“ ’E’s not our da!”
Blood trickled from the corner of her mouth, making him snarl.
“Get on to your home,” he urged in a low voice to the girls. “I’ll deal with this ruffian.”
“We don’t ’ave a ’ome,” the smaller child whimpered.
She’d barely got the words out when the elder nudged her and hissed, “Shut it!”
Godric was tired and the news that the children were homeless distracted him. That was what he told himself anyway when the rogue on the ground swept his legs out from under him.
Godric hit the cobblestones rolling. He surged to his feet, but the man was already rounding the corner at the far end of the alley.
He sighed, wincing as he straightened. He’d landed on his injured shoulder and it was not thanking him for the treat.
He glanced at the girls. “Best come with me, then.”
The smaller child obediently began to rise, but the elder pulled her back down. “Don’t be daft, Moll. ’E’s as like to be a lassie snatcher as the other one.”
Godric raised his eyebrows at the words lassie snatcher. He hadn’t heard that name for a while. He shook his head. He hadn’t time to dig into these matters now. Lady Margaret would reach his home soon, and if he wasn’t there, awkward questions might arise.
“Come,” he said, holding out his hand to the girls. “I’m not a lassie snatcher, and I know a nice, warm place where you can spend the night.” And many nights hereafter.
He thought his tone gentle enough, but the elder girl’s face wrinkled mutinously. “We’re not going wif you.”
Godric smiled pleasantly—before swooping down and scooping one child over his shoulder and the other under his arm. “Oh, yes, you are.”
It wasn’t that simple, of course. The elder cursed quite shockingly for a female child of such tender years, while the younger burst into tears, and they both fought like wildcats.
Five minutes later he was within sight of the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children when he nearly dropped them both.
“Ow!” He swallowed stronger language and took a firmer grip on the elder child, who had come perilously close to unmanning him.
Grimly, Godric stalked to the back door of the St. Giles orphanage and kicked at it until a light appeared in the kitchen window.
The door swung open to reveal a tall man in rumpled shirtsleeves and breeches.
Winter Makepeace, the manager of the home, arched an eyebrow at the sight of the Ghost of St. Giles, holding two struggling, weeping girls on his doorstep.
Godric hadn’t time for explanations.
“Here.” He unceremoniously dumped the children on the kitchen tiles and glanced at the bemused manager. “I’d advise a firm hold—they’re slipperier than greased eels.”
With that, he swung shut the home’s door, turned, and sprinted toward his town house.
LADY MARGARET ST. John started shaking the moment her carriage left St. Giles. The Ghost had been so large, so frighteningly deadly in his movements. When he’d advanced on her, his bloody swords gripped in his big, leather-clad hands and his eyes glinting behind his grotesque mask, it had been all she could do to hold herself still.
Megs inhaled, trying to quiet the quicksilver racing through her veins. She’d spent two years hating the man, but she’d never expected, when she finally met him, to feel so… so…
She glanced down at the heavy pistols in her lap and then across the carriage to her dear friend and sister-in-law, Sarah St. John. “I’m sorry. That was…”
“An idiotic idea?” Sarah arched one light brown eyebrow. Her straight-as-a-pin hair varied from mouse-brown to the lightest shade of gold and was tucked back into a sedate and very orderly knot at the back of her head.
In contrast, Megs’s own dark, curly hair had mostly escaped from its pins hours ago and was now waving about her face like a tentacled sea monster.
Megs frowned. “Well, I don’t know if idiotic is quite—”
“Addled?” Sarah supplied crisply. “Boneheaded? Daft? Foolish? Ill-advised?”
“While all of those adjectives are in part appropriate,” Megs interjected primly before Sarah could continue her list—her friend’s vocabulary was quite extensive—“I think ill-advised might be the most applicable. I am so sorry for putting your life in danger.”
Megs blinked. “What?”
Sarah leaned a little forward so that her face came into the carriage lantern’s light. Sarah usually had the sweet countenance of a gently reared maiden lady—which at five and twenty she was—belied only by a certain mocking humor lurking at the back of her soft brown eyes, but right now she might’ve been an Amazon warrior.
“Your life, Megs,” Sarah replied. “You risked not only my life and the lives of the servants, but your life as well. What could possibly be important enough to venture into St. Giles at this time of night?”
Megs looked away from her dearest friend. Sarah had come to live with her at the St. John estate in Cheshire nearly a year after Megs’s marriage to Godric, so Sarah didn’t know the real reason for their hasty nuptials.
Megs shook her head, gazing out the carriage window. “I’m sorry. I just wanted to see…”
When she didn’t finish the sentence, Sarah moved restlessly. “See what?”
Where Roger was murdered. Even the thought sent a shard of dull pain through her heart. She’d directed Tom the coachman to drive into St. Giles, hoping to find some lingering trace of Roger. There hadn’t been, of course. He’d been long dead. Long lost to her. But she’d had a second reason to look around St. Giles: to learn more about Roger’s murderer, the Ghost of St. Giles. And in that, at least, she’d succeeded. The Ghost had appeared. She hadn’t been adequately prepared tonight, but next time she would be.
Next time she wouldn’t let him get away.
Next time she’d blast a bullet through the Ghost of St. Giles’s black heart.
“Megs?” Her friend’s gentle murmur interrupted her bloody thoughts.
Megs shook her head and smiled brightly—perhaps too brightly—at her dear friend. “Never mind.”
“Goodness, are we here already?” Megs’s change of subject was not subtle, but the carriage was slowing as if they’d finally arrived at their destination.
She leaned forward, peering out the window. The street was dark.
Megs frowned. “Maybe not.”
Sarah crossed her arms. “What do you see?”
“We’re on a narrow, winding lane and there’s a tall, dark house up ahead. It looks very… um…”
Megs glanced at her companion. “Yes?”
Sarah nodded once. “That’s Saint House, then. It’s as old as dust, didn’t you know? Didn’t you see Saint House when you married my brother?”
“No.” Megs pretended to be engrossed in the dim view out the window. “The wedding breakfast was at my brother’s house and I left London a sennight after.” And in between she’d been bedridden at her mother’s house. Megs pushed the sad memory from her mind. “How old is Saint House?”
“Medieval and, as I remember, quite drafty in winter.”
“And not in the most fashionable part of London, either,” Sarah continued cheerfully. “Right on the riverbank. But that’s what you get when your family came over with the Conqueror: venerable old buildings without a lick of modern style or convenience.”
“I’m sure it’s quite famous,” Megs said, trying to be loyal. She was a St. John now after all.
“Oh, yes,” Sarah said, her tone dry. “Saint House has been mentioned in more than one history. No doubt that’ll comfort you when your toes turn to blocks of ice in the middle of the night.”
“If it’s so awful, then why did you accompany me to London?” Megs asked.
“To see the sights and shop, of course.” Sarah sounded quite cheerful despite her gloomy description of Saint House. “It’s been forever since I was last in London.”
The carriage jerked to a halt at that moment, and Sarah began gathering her needlework basket and shawls. Oliver, the younger of the two footmen Megs had brought with them, opened the door to the carriage. He wore a white wig as part of his livery, but it didn’t disguise his red eyebrows.
“Never thought we’d make it alive,” Oliver muttered as he set the steps. “Was a close one with them footpads, if’n you don’t mind me saying so, m’lady.”
“You and Johnny were very brave,” Megs said as she stepped down. She glanced up at her coachman. “And you, too, Tom.”
The coachman grunted and hunched his broad shoulders. “Ye an’ Miss St. John best be gettin’ inside, m’lady, where ’tis safe.”
“I will.” Megs turned to the house and only then noticed the second carriage, already drawn up outside.
Sarah stepped down beside her. “It looks like your great-aunt Elvina arrived before us.”
“Yes, it does,” Megs said slowly. “But why is her carriage still outside?”
The door to the second carriage popped open as if in answer.
“Margaret!” Great-Aunt Elvina’s worried face was topped by a cloud of soft gray curls intertwined with pink ribbons. Her voice was overly loud, booming off the stone buildings. Great-Aunt Elvina was rather deaf. “Margaret, the wretched butler won’t let us in. We’ve been sitting in the courtyard for ages, and Her Grace has become quite restless.”
A muffled yelp from inside the carriage emphasized the statement.
Megs turned to her husband’s house. No light betrayed human habitation, but obviously someone was at home if a butler had earlier answered Great-Aunt Elvina’s summons. She marched up to the door and lifted the great iron ring that served as knocker, letting it fall with a sharp bang.
Then she stepped back and looked up. The building was a hodgepodge of historical styles. The first two floors were of ancient red brick—perhaps the original building. But then some later owner had added another three stories in a paler, beige brick. Chimneys and gables sprouted here and there over the roofline, romping without any seeming pattern. On either side, low, dark wings framed the end of the street, making a de facto courtyard.
“You did write to tell Godric you were coming,” Sarah murmured.
Megs bit her lip. “Ah…”
A light appearing at a narrow window immediately to the right saved her from having to admit that she hadn’t notified her husband of their trip. The door opened with an ominous creaking.
A lone servant stood in the doorway, stoop-shouldered, his head topped by a flaking white wig, a single candlestick in one hand.
The man drew a slow, rattling breath. “Mr. St. John is not rec—”
“Oh, thank you,” Megs said as she walked straight at the butler.
For a moment she feared the man wouldn’t move. His rheumy eyes widened and then he shifted just enough so that she could glide by.
She pivoted once inside and began removing her gloves. “I am Lady Margaret St. John, Mr. St. John’s wife.”
The butler’s shaggy eyebrows snapped down. “Wife—”
“Yes.” She bestowed a smile on him and for a moment he merely goggled. “And you are…?”
He straightened and she realized his posture had made him look older than he really was. The man couldn’t be past his midthirties. “Moulder, m’lady. The butler.”
“Splendid!” Megs handed him her gloves as she glanced about the hallway. Not impressive. There appeared to be a veritable village of spiders living in the beamed ceiling. She spotted a candelabra on a table nearby and, taking the candle from Moulder, began lighting it. “Now, Moulder, I have my dear great-aunt waiting in the carriage outside—you may call her Miss Howard—as well as Miss St. John here, Mr. St. John’s eldest little sister… if that makes any sense at all.”
Sarah grinned cheerfully as she deposited her own gloves in the bemused butler’s hands. “I haven’t been to London in several years. You must be new.”
Moulder’s mouth opened. “I—”
“We also have our three lady’s maids,” Megs continued, handing the candle back to the butler as he snapped his mouth shut, “four footmen between ours and my great-aunt’s, and the two coachmen. Great-Aunt Elvina would insist on her own carriage, although I have to admit I’m not sure how we’d have all fit in only one carriage anyway.”
“It would never have worked,” Sarah said. “And your aunt snores.”
Megs shrugged. “True.” She turned back to the butler. “Naturally we brought Higgins the gardener and Charlie the bootblack boy because he is such a dear and because he’s Higgins’s nephew and rather attached to him. Oh, and Her Grace, who is in a delicate condition and appears to take only chicken livers well minced and simmered in white wine these days. Now, have you got all that?”
Moulder goggled. “Ah…”
“Wonderful.” Megs shot him another smile. “Where is my husband?”
Alarm seemed to break through the butler’s confusion. “Mr. St. John is in the library, m’lady, but he’s—”
“No, no!” Megs patted the air reassuringly. “No need to show me. I’m sure Sarah and I can find the library all by ourselves. Best you deal with my aunt’s needs and see to the servants’ supper—and Her Grace’s. It was such a very long journey, you know.”
She picked up the lit candelabra and marched up the stairs.
Sarah trotted up beside her, chuckling under her breath. “Luckily you’ve started in the right direction, at least. The library, if I remember correctly, is on the first floor, second door on the left.”
“Oh, good,” Megs muttered. Having once screwed her courage to this point, it would be fatal to back down now. “I’m sure you’re looking forward to seeing your brother again just as much as I.”
“Naturally,” Sarah murmured. “But I won’t be so gauche as to ruin your reunion with Godric.”
Megs stopped on the first-floor landing. “What?”
“Tomorrow morning is soon enough to see my brother.” Sarah smiled gently from three steps below. “I’ll go help with Great-Aunt Elvina.”
Megs’s feeble protest was made to the empty air. Sarah had already scampered lightly down the stairs.
Right. Library. Second door on the left.
Megs took a deep breath and turned to face the gloomy hallway. It’d been two years since she’d last seen her husband, but she remembered him—from the little she’d seen of him before their marriage—as a nice enough gentleman. Certainly not ogrelike, anyway. His brown eyes had been quite kind at their wedding ceremony. Megs squinted doubtfully as she marched down the corridor. Or were his eyes blue? Well, whatever color they’d been, his eyes had been kind.
Surely that much couldn’t have changed in two years?
Megs grasped the doorknob to the library and quickly opened it before any last-minute second thoughts could dissuade her.
After all that, the library was something of an anticlimax.
Dim and cramped like the corridor, the room’s only light came from the embers of a dying fire and a single candle by an old, overstuffed armchair. She tiptoed closer. The occupant of the ancient armchair looked…
He wore a burgundy banyan frayed pink at the hem and elbows. His stockinged feet, lodged in disreputable slippers, were crossed on a tufted footstool so close to the fireplace that the fabric nearest the hearth bore traces of earlier singeing. His head lolled against his shoulder, casually covered by a soft, dark green turban with a rather rakish gilt tassel hanging over his left eye. Half-moon spectacles were perched perilously on his forehead, and if it weren’t for the deep snores issuing from between his lips, she might’ve thought Godric St. John had died.
Of old age.
Megs blinked and straightened. Surely her husband couldn’t be that old. She had a vague notion that he was a bit older than her brother Griffin, who had arranged their marriage and who was himself three and thirty, but try as she might, she couldn’t remember her husband’s actual age being mentioned.
It had been the darkest hour of her existence, and, perhaps thankfully, much of it was obscured in her mind.
Megs peered anxiously down at the sleeping man. He was slack-jawed and snoring, but his eyelashes lay thick and black against his cheeks. She stared for a moment, oddly caught by the sight.
Her lips firmed. Many men married late in life and were still able to perform. The Duke of Frye had managed just last year and he was well past seventy. Surely Godric, then, could do the deed.
Thus cheered, Megs cleared her throat. Gently, of course, for he was the main reason she’d come all the way to London, and it wouldn’t do to startle her husband into an apoplectic fit before he’d done his duty.
Which was, of course, to make her pregnant.
GODRIC ST. JOHN turned his snore into a snort as he pretended to wake. He opened his eyes to find his wife staring at him with a frown between her delicate brows. At their wedding, she’d been drawn and vague, her eyes never quite meeting his, even when she’d pledged herself to him until death do they part. Only hours after the ceremony, she’d taken ill at their wedding breakfast and been whisked away to the comfort of her mother and sister. A letter the next day had informed him that she’d miscarried the child that had made the hasty wedding necessary.
Now she examined him with a bold, bright curiosity that made him want to check that his banyan was still tightly wrapped.
“What?” Godric started as if surprised by her presence.
She swiftly pasted on a broad, guileless smile that might as well have shouted, I’m up to something! “Oh, hello.”
Hello? After two years’ absence? Hello?
“Ah… Margaret, is it?” Godric repressed a wince. Not that he was doing much better.
“Yes!” She beamed at him as if he were a senile old man who’d had a sudden spark of reason. “I’ve come to visit you.”
“Have you?” He sat a little straighter in the chair. “How… unexpected.”
His tone might’ve been a trifle dry.
She darted a nervous glance at him and turned to aimlessly wander the room. “Yes, and I’ve brought Sarah, your sister.” She inhaled and peered at a tiny medieval etching propped on the mantel. Impossible that she could make out the subject matter in the room’s dimness. “Well, of course you know she’s your sister. She’s thrilled for the opportunity to shop, and see the sights, and go to the theater and perhaps an opera or even a pleasure garden, and… and…”
She’d picked up an ancient leather-bound book of Van Oosten’s commentary on Catullus and now she waved it vaguely. “And…”
“Shop some more, perhaps?” Godric raised his brows. “I may not have seen Sarah for an age, but I do remember her fondness for shopping.”
“Quite.” She looked somewhat subdued as she thumbed the crumbling pages of the book.
“Why have you come to London?” he inquired.
Van Oosten exploded in her hands.
“Oh!” She dropped to her knees and frantically began gathering the fragile pages. “Oh, I’m so sorry!”
Godric repressed a sigh as he watched her. Half the pages were disintegrating as fast as she picked them up. That particular tome had cost him five guineas at Warwick and Sons and was, as far as he knew, the last of its kind. “No matter. The book was in need of rebinding anyway.”
“Was it?” She looked dubiously at the pages in her hands before gently laying the mess in his lap. “Well, that’s a relief, isn’t it?”
Her face was tilted up toward his, her brown eyes large and somehow pleading, and she’d forgotten to take her hands away again. They lay, quite circumspectly, on top of the remains of the book in his lap, but something about her position, kneeling beside him, made him catch his breath. A strange, ethereal feeling squeezed his chest, even as a thoroughly rude and earthly one warmed his loins. Good Lord. That was inconvenient.
He cleared his throat. “Margaret?”
She blinked slowly, almost seductively. Idiot. She must be sleepy. That was why her eyelids looked so heavy and languid. Was it even possible to blink seductively?
“How long do you plan to stay in London?”
“Oh…” She lowered her head as she fumbled with the demolished book. Presumably she meant to gather the papers together, but all she succeeded in doing was crumbling them further. “Oh, well, there’s so much to do here, isn’t there? And… and I have several dear, dear friends to call on—”
She jumped to her feet, still holding Van Oosten’s battered back cover. “It simply wouldn’t do to snub anyone.” She aimed a brilliant smile somewhere over his right shoulder.
She yawned widely. “Do forgive me. I’m afraid the trip has quite fatigued me. Oh, Daniels”—she turned in what looked like relief as a petite lady’s maid appeared at the doorway—“is my room readied?”
The maid curtsied even as her gaze darted about the library curiously. “Yes, my lady. As ready as ever it can be tonight anyway. You’ll never credit the cobwebs we—”
“Yes, well, I’m sure it’s fine.” Lady Margaret whirled and nodded at him. “Good night, er… husband. I’ll see you on the morrow, shall I?”
And she darted from the room, the back cover of poor Van Oosten still held captive.
The maid closed the door behind her.
Godric eyed the solid oak of his library door. The room without her spinning, brilliant presence seemed all of a sudden hollow and tomblike. Strange. He’d always thought his library a comfortable place before.
Godric shook his head irritably. What is she about? Why has she come to London?
Theirs had been a marriage of convenience—at least on her part. She’d needed a name for the babe in her belly. It’d been a marriage of blackmail via her ass of a brother, Griffin, on his part, for Godric had not fathered the child. Indeed, he’d never spoken to Lady Margaret before the day of their wedding. Afterward, when she’d retired to his neglected country estate, he’d resumed his life—such as it was—in London.
For a year there’d been no communication at all, save for the odd secondhand bit of information from his stepmother or one of his half sisters. Then, suddenly, a letter out of the blue, from Lady Margaret herself, asking if he would mind if she cut down the overgrown grapevine in the garden. What overgrown grapevine? He hadn’t seen Laurelwood Manor, the house on his Cheshire estate, since the early years of his marriage to his beloved Clara. He’d written back and told her politely but tersely that she could do as she wished with the grapevine and anything else she had the mind to in the garden.
That should’ve been the end to it, but his stranger bride had continued to write him once or twice a month for the last year. Long, chatty letters about the garden; the eldest of his half sisters, Sarah, who had come to live with Margaret; the travails of repairing and redecorating the rather decrepit house; and the petty arguments and gossip from the nearby village. He hadn’t known quite how to respond to such a flurry of information, so in general he simply hadn’t. But as the months had gone by, he’d become oddly taken with her missives. Finding one of her letters beside his morning coffee gave him a feeling of lightness. He’d even been impatient when her letter was a day or two late.
Well. He had been living alone and lonely for years now.
But the small delight of a letter was a far cry from the lady herself invading his domain.
“Never seen the like, I haven’t,” Moulder muttered as he entered the library, shutting the door behind him. “Might as well’ve been a traveling fair, the bunch o’ them.”
“What are you talking about?” Godric asked as he stood and doffed the banyan.
Underneath he still wore the Ghost’s motley. It’d been a near thing. Both carriages had been drawn up outside his house when he’d slunk in the back. Godric had heard Moulder trying to hold off the occupants even as he’d run up the hidden back stairs that led from his study to the library. Saint House was so old it had a myriad of secret passages and hidey-holes—a boon to his Ghostly activities. He’d reached the library, pulled off his boots, thrown his swords, cape, and mask behind one of the bookshelves, and had just tugged the soft turban onto his head and wound the banyan about his waist when he’d heard the doorknob turn.
It’d been close—too damn close.
“M’lady and all she brought with her.” Moulder waved both hands as if to encompass a multitude.
Godric arched an eyebrow. “Ladies do usually travel with maids and such.”
“ ’Tisn’t just such,” Moulder muttered as he helped Godric from the Ghost’s tunic. In addition to his other vague duties, Moulder served as valet when needed. “There’s a gardener and bootblack boy and a snorty sort o’ dog that belongs to Lady Margaret’s great-aunt, and she’s here too.”
Godric squinted, trying to work through that sentence. “The dog or the aunt?”
“Both.” Moulder shook out the Ghost’s tunic, eyeing it for tears and stains. A sly expression crossed his face just before he glanced up innocently at Godric. “ ’Tis a pity, though.”
“What?” Godric asked as he stripped the Ghost’s leggings off and donned his nightshirt.
“Won’t be able to go out gallivanting at all hours o’ the night now, will you?” Moulder said as he folded the tunic and leggings. He shook his head sorrowfully. “Right shame, but there ’tis. Your days as the Ghost are over, I’m feared, now that your missus has arrived to live with you.”
“I suppose you’d be right”—he took off the silly turban and ran a hand over his tightly cropped hair—“if Lady Margaret were actually going to live with me permanently.”
Moulder looked doubtful. “She sure brought enough people and luggage to take up residence.”
“No matter. I don’t intend to give up being the Ghost of St. Giles. Which means”—Godric strode to the door—“my wife and all her accouterments will be gone by next week at the outside.”
And when she was gone, Godric promised himself, he could go back to his business of saving the poor of St. Giles and forget that Lady Margaret had ever disrupted his lonely life.
Now mind me well: the Hellequin is the Devil’s right-hand man. He roams the world, mounted on a great black horse, in search of the wicked dead and those who die unshriven. And when the Hellequin finds them, he drags their souls to hell. His companions are tiny imps, naked, scarlet, and ugly. Their names are Despair, Grief, and Loss. The Hellequin himself is as black as night and his heart—what is left of it—is nothing but a lump of hard coal….
—From The Legend of the Hellequin
Godric woke the next morning to the sounds of feminine voices in the room next to his. He lay in bed, blinking for a moment, thinking how foreign it was to hear activity from that direction.
He slept in the ancient master’s bedroom, of course, and the mistress of the house had the connecting room. But Clara had occupied the rooms for only the first year or two of their marriage. After that, the disease that had eventually eaten away at her body had begun to grow. The doctors had recommended complete quiet, so Clara had been moved to the old nursery a floor above. There she had suffered for nine long years before she’d died.
Godric shook his head and climbed from his bed, his bare feet hitting the cold floor. Such maudlin thoughts wouldn’t bring Clara back. If they could, she would’ve sprung alive, dancing and free from her terrible pain, thousands of times in the years since her death.
He dressed swiftly, in a simple brown suit and gray wig, and left his room while the female voices were still chattering indistinctly next door. The realization that Lady Margaret had slept so close to him sent a frisson along his nerves. It wasn’t that he ran from such signs of life, but it was only natural to be unused to the presence of others—female others—in his gloomy old house.
Godric descended the stairs to the lower level. Normally he broke his fast at a coffeehouse, both to hear the latest news and because the meals at his own home were somewhat erratic. Today, however, he squared his shoulders and ventured into the little-used dining room at the back of the house.
Only to find it occupied.
For a disconcerting second, he hadn’t recognized her, this self-possessed lady, dressed in a sedate dove-gray costume. How many years had it been since he’d last seen her?
She turned at her name, and her calm face lit with a smile of welcome. His chest warmed and it caught him off guard. They’d never been close—he was a full dozen years older than she—and he’d not even known that he’d missed her.
Apparently he had.
She rose, moving around the long, battered table where she’d been seated alone. She hugged him, swift and hard, her touch a shock to his frame. He’d been in solitude so very long.
She moved back before he could remember to respond and eyed him with disconcertingly perceptive brown eyes. “How are you?”
“Fine.” He shrugged and turned away. After nearly three years, he was used to the concerned looks, the gentle inquiries, especially from women. Sadly, though, he hadn’t become any more comfortable with them. “Have you already eaten?”
“As of yet, I haven’t seen anything to eat,” she observed drily. “Your man, Moulder, promised me breakfast and then disappeared. That was nearly half an hour ago.”
“Ah.” He wished he could feign surprise, but the fact was he wasn’t even sure there was anything edible in the house. “Er… perhaps we should decamp to an inn or—”
Moulder burst through the door, carrying a heavy tray. “Here we are, then.”
He thumped the tray down in the center of the table and stepped back in pride.
Godric examined the tray. A teapot stood in the center with one cup. Beside it were a half-dozen or so burned pieces of toast, a pot of butter, and five eggs on a plate. Hopefully they’d been boiled.
Godric arched an eyebrow at his manservant. “Cook is… er… indisposed, I perceive.”
Moulder snorted. “Cook is gone. And so is that nice wheel o’ cheese, the silver saltcellar, and half the plate. Didn’t seem too happy when he heard last night that we had so many guests.”
“Just as well, I’m afraid, considering the unfortunate way he handled a joint.”
“He was overfamiliar with your wine stock, too, if you don’t mind me saying so, sir,” Moulder said. “I’ll go see if we have any more teacups, shall I?”
“Thank you, Moulder.” Godric waited until the butler left the room before turning to his sister. “I apologize for the paucity of my table.”
He held out a chair for her.
“Please don’t worry,” Sarah said as she sat. “We did descend on you without any notice.”
She reached for the teapot.
“Mmm,” Godric murmured as he lowered himself to a chair across from her. “I wondered about that.”
“I was under the impression that Megs had written to you.” His sister lifted an eyebrow at him.
He merely shook his head as he took a piece of toast.
“I wonder why she didn’t tell you of our arrival?” she asked softly as she buttered her own toast. “We’d planned the trip for weeks. Do you think she was fearful that you’d turn her away?”
He nearly choked on his toast. “I wouldn’t do that. Whatever gave you the notion?”
She shrugged elegant shoulders. “You’ve been separated since your marriage. You hardly write her or me. Or, for that matter, Mama, Charlotte, or Jane.”
Godric’s lips firmed. He was on cordial terms with his stepmother and younger half sisters, but they’d never been especially close. “Ours wasn’t a love match.”
“Obviously.” Sarah took a cautious nibble of her toast. “Mama worries for you, you know. As do I.”
He poured her tea without answering. What could he say? Oh, I’m all right. Lost the love of my life, don’t you know, but the pain’s quite bearable, considering. To pretend that he was whole, that rising every day wasn’t a chore, became exhausting. Why did they ask, anyway? Couldn’t they see that he was so broken nothing would fix him?
“Godric?” Her voice was gentle.
He made the corners of his mouth twitch upward as he pushed the cup of tea across the table to her. “How are my stepmother and sisters?”
She pursed her lips as if she wanted to prod him more, but in the end she took a sip of tea instead. “Mama is well. She’s in the midst of preparations for Jane’s coming-out. They plan to stay with Mama’s bosom-bow, Lady Hartford, for the season in the fall.”
“Ah.” Godric felt a twinge of relief that his stepmother didn’t want to stay at Saint House. Guilt followed immediately thereafter: he should’ve been aware that his youngest half sister was old enough to make her debut into society. Gads! He remembered Jane as a freckle-faced schoolgirl running about with a hoop and stick. “And how is Charlotte?”
Sarah cast her eyes heavenward. “Fascinating all the young men of Upper Hornsfield.”
“Are there many eligible young men in Upper Hornsfield?”
“Not as many as in Lower Hornsfield, of course, but between the new curate and the local squire’s sons, she has a fair coterie of young men. I’m not sure she even knows that wherever she goes, she’s followed by longing male eyes.”
The thought of little Charlotte—whom he’d last seen arguing with Jane rather heatedly over a piece of fig tart—becoming a rural femme fatale made Godric smile.
The door to the dining room opened at that moment and he looked up.
Straight into the eyes of his wife, poised in the doorway like Boudicca about to storm some poor, unsuspecting Roman general’s camp.
MEGS HALTED ON the threshold to the dining room, taking a deep breath. Godric looked different somehow than the man she remembered from just last night. Perhaps it was simply the daylight. Or it might be the fact that he was properly dressed in a well-cut but somewhat worn acorn-brown suit.
Or maybe it was the tiny smile still lingering on his face. It smoothed the lines of care and grief on his forehead and about his gray eyes, and drew attention to a mouth that was wide and full, bracketed by two deep indents. For a moment her gaze lingered on that mouth, wondering what it might feel like on her own….
“Good morning.” He rose politely.
She blinked, hastily looking up. She’d decided last night—quite logically!—to wait until the morning to begin her planned seduction. Who would expect to jump straight into bed with one’s stranger-husband after a two-year absence, after all? But now it was morning, so…
Right. Seducing the husband.
Her silence had caused his smile to fade entirely, and his eyes were narrowed as he waited for her response. He looked altogether formidable.
Megs squared her shoulders. “Good morning!”
Her smile might’ve been a trifle too wide as she strove to cover her lapse.
Sarah, who’d turned at her entrance, arched an eyebrow.
Godric rounded the table and pulled out a chair for her next to Sarah. “I hope you slept well?”
The room had been damp, dusty, and smelled of mildew. “Yes, very well.”
He glanced at her dubiously.
She walked toward him—and then around the table to the chair next to his vacant one.
“I’d like to sit here, if you don’t mind,” she said throatily, lowering her eyelashes in what she hoped was a seductive manner. “Close to you.”
He cocked his head to the side, his expression inscrutable. “Do you have a cold?”
Sarah choked on her tea.
Drat! It’d been so long since she’d done anything like flirting. Megs shot an irritated glance at her sister-in-law, repressing the urge to stick out her tongue.
“As you wish.” Godric was suddenly beside her, and she nearly started at his rasping voice in her ear. Good Lord, the man could move quietly.
“Thank you.” She sank into the chair, aware of his presence behind her, looming large and intimidating, and then he returned to his own seat.
Megs bit her lip, glancing at him from the corner of her eye. Should she rub against his leg under the table? But his profile was so very… grave. It seemed a bit like goosing the Archbishop of Canterbury.
And then she caught sight of breakfast and her dismal seduction attempt abruptly fled her mind.
Megs squinted at the plate in the middle of the table. It held a few burned fragments of toast and some hard-boiled eggs. She scanned the room but saw no other signs of nourishment.
“Would you care for some toast?” Sarah murmured across from her.
“Oh, thank you.” Megs widened her eyes in question at her.
“It appears the cook did a runner, as Oliver would say.” Sarah shrugged infinitesimally as she pushed the plate over. “I believe that Moulder is searching for another teacup for the tea right now, but in the meantime, do feel free to have a sip of mine.”
“Er…” Megs was saved from having to reply by the dining room door being flung open.
“My dears!” Great-Aunt Elvina swept into the room. “You’ll not credit the ghastly room I slept in last night. Her Grace was quite overcome by the dust and spent the night wheezing horribly.”
Godric had risen at Great-Aunt Elvina’s entrance and now he cleared his throat. “Her Grace?”
A small but very rotund fawn pug waddled into the room, glanced perfunctorily at Great-Aunt Elvina, and plopped down onto the rug, rolling immediately to her side. She lay there, panting pathetically, her distended belly rising and falling.
Her Grace’s flair for the dramatic was almost as well honed as her mistress’s.
“This is Her Grace,” Megs hurried to explain to her husband, adding perhaps unnecessarily, “She’s in an interesting way.”
“Indeed,” Godric murmured. “Is the… er… Her Grace quite well? She looks rather worried.”
“Pugs always look worried,” Great-Aunt Elvina pronounced loudly. Her ability to hear came and went with disconcerting irregularity. “She could do with a dish of warm milk with perhaps a spoonful of sherry in it.”
Godric blinked. “Ah… I do apologize, but I don’t believe we have any milk on the premises. As for the sherry…”
“None o’ that neither,” Moulder said with dour satisfaction as he entered the room behind Great-Aunt Elvina. In his arms he carried an array of mismatched teacups.
“Quite,” Godric murmured. “Perhaps if I’d been informed in advance of your arrival…”
“Oh, no need to apologize,” Megs said quickly.
He turned and narrowed his eyes at her. This close she could see the small lines fanning from the corners of his eyes in an altogether alluring way, which made no sense because why would crow’s-feet be alluring?
Megs shook herself mentally and continued. “After all, your house hasn’t had a feminine hand managing it in quite some time. I expect once we employ a new cook and some scullery maids—”
“And a housekeeper and upstairs maids,” Sarah put in.
“Not to mention some footmen,” Great-Aunt Elvina muttered. “Big, strong ones.”
“Well, we did bring Oliver and Johnny and your two footmen,” Megs pointed out.
“They can’t be expected to do all the heavy lifting required to clean this place,” Great-Aunt Elvina said with a frown. “Have you seen the upper floors?”
“Er…” Megs hadn’t in fact explored the upper floors, but if the condition of the rooms they’d slept in last night were any indication… “Best we hire at least half a dozen strapping lads.”
“I doubt I’ll need a veritable army to run Saint House,” her husband said in a dry tone, “especially after you all leave, which will, I’m sure, be soon.”
“What?” barked Great-Aunt Elvina, cupping her hand behind her ear.
Megs held up a finger to interrupt because a thought had occurred to her. She addressed Moulder. “Surely you have some help running the house?”
“There was a couple o’ strong lads and some maids, but they left awhile back, one by one, like, and we just never hired others.” Moulder cast his eyes up as if to address the spiders lurking in the cobwebs dangling from the ceiling. “Did have a girl name o’ Tilly, m’lady, but she got in the family way ’bout a month back—not my fault.”
All eyes swung toward Godric.
He raised his brows in what looked like mild exasperation. “Nor mine.”
Thank goodness. Megs returned her gaze to Moulder, very aware of her husband glowering at her shoulder.
The butler shrugged. “Tilly up and left not long after. Think she was chasin’ the butcher’s apprentice. Maybe he was the father. Or it might’ve been the tinker what used to come ’round the kitchen door.”
For a moment there was silence as they all contemplated the mystery of Tilly’s baby’s paternity.
Then Godric cleared his throat. “How long, exactly, were you planning on staying in London, Margaret?”
Megs smiled brilliantly, even though she’d never really liked her full name—especially when it was drawled in a gravelly voice that seemed somehow ominous—for she really didn’t want to answer the question. “Oh, I don’t like to make plans. It’s so much more fun to simply let matters take their own course, don’t you think?”
“Actually I don’t—”
Good Lord, the man was persistent! She turned hastily to Moulder. “Then you’ve been managing the house all by yourself?”
Moulder’s great shaggy brows knit, causing a myriad of wrinkles to form in his forehead and around his hangdog eyes. He was the very picture of martyrdom. “I have, m’lady. You have no idea the work—the terrible job ’tis!—to keep up a house such as this. Why, me health is much the worse for it.”
Godric muttered something, the only words of which Megs caught were “laying it on thick.”
She ignored her husband. “I really must thank you, Moulder, for taking care of Mr. St. John so loyally, despite the toil involved.”
Moulder blushed. “Aw, it weren’t nothin’, m’lady.”
Godric snorted loudly.
Megs hastily said, “Yes, well, I’m sure now that I’m in residence, we’ll have the house in order in no time.”
“And exactly how long will it take to—” Godric began. Continues...
Excerpted from Lord of Darkness by Elizabeth Hoyt Copyright © 2013 by Elizabeth Hoyt. Excerpted by permission.
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