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My Lord ImmortalityIMMORTAL ROGUES
By Alexandra Ivy
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2003 Debbie Raleigh
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe old Gypsy was huddled upon the filthy street like a bundle of forgotten rags. Amelia had nearly passed her by when the woman had abruptly held out her hand in a desperate motion.
"Please, kind lady, will you help me?"
Amelia hesitated. The streets near St. Giles were littered with such pathetic outcasts. Thieves, whores, and the dredges of society waged a daily battle with survival. It was an impossible task to help them all.
The sensible choice was to be about her business so she could return to the comfort of her home. To linger would only invite danger. Especially to a young woman on her own.
Amelia's heart, however, was never sensible. Reaching into her basket, she pulled out the apples and cheese that she had so recently purchased and gently placed them beside the old woman.
"Here you are. Fresh from the market."
"Bless you," the Gypsy murmured. "Bless you."
"And here is a guinea. Sleep well tonight, my dear."
"Ah, so kind." The woman reached for the coin, and then, without warning, she pressed a heavy object into Amelia's hand. "Such generosity must be rewarded."
"Oh ..." Startled, Amelia regarded the golden amulet that sparkled in the palm of her hand. It was oddly designed with faint words scratched upon the metal. "No, you cannot part with such a lovely piece of jewelry. It must be worth a great deal."
The Gypsy slowly smiled. "It is beyond price. As is the blessing that has been placed upon it."
"Then certainly you must keep it. You have more need than I."
"No." A sadness touched the wrinkled countenance. "Darkness will soon stalk you, my dear. A terrible darkness. This amulet will protect you and bring a Guardian to your side. Wear it always and, above all, never give it to another."
Amelia gave a shake of her head. The poor woman was obviously daft. "I cannot keep such a gift."
A gnarled hand reached out to firmly fold Amelia's fingers over the amulet. At the same moment, a strange warmth flared between them.
"It is now bound to you. Protect it well. Only you can halt the danger that threatens all of London. A danger that is drawing ever closer."
Amelia frowned as a chill spread through her body. Daft or not, the old woman was beginning to frighten her.
"Danger? What danger?"
"Keep the amulet close. And trust in your heart. Love is always the light that will hold back the darkness."
"I do not understand." Amelia stepped closer, but even as she did, the old woman was fading into a shimmering mist. A sense of panic clutched at Amelia's heart. "Wait. You must tell me. What danger? Tell me...."
A sharp noise echoed through the silent house.
With a sudden wrench, Amelia sat upright in her bed and glanced about the dark chamber. What was it?
Something had awakened her, she realized, as her hand instinctively went to the Medallion on a chain about her neck. Something other than the dream. A dream that had plagued her since the peculiar encounter with the old Gypsy nearly a month ago.
For a moment she hesitated. It was late. Very late. Then, with a resigned sigh she slipped from the bed and pulled a wrap over her nightrail. There was little use in giving in to the desire to lie back and curl up beneath her covers. She would not be able to sleep until she had assured herself that all was well. It was her duty now that she was mistress of her own household.
A faint smile touched her delicate features as she left the bedchamber and moved down the narrow hall. It was not much of a household to boast of. The house was a modest establishment perched upon the shabby fringes of London's more elegant neighborhoods. The rooms were cramped with well-worn furnishings and the garden so small that the handful of roses she had planted threatened to overwhelm it.
Still, it was ample for her and her younger brother, William. Together with their housekeeper, Mrs. Benson, they rubbed along reasonably well.
Pausing at the end of the hall, Amelia fumbled to light a candle before continuing down the stairs and toward the back of the house. A heavy silence shrouded her as she peered into the shadows. In the flickering candlelight everything appeared to be in order, but she instinctively continued her search into the kitchen.
Something had awakened her. A noise that had warned her that someone was stirring despite the late hour.
Refusing to consider the notion that the noise might have been a rat or some other vile creature, she skirted the large table and moved toward the laundry room. It was then that a movement outside the window suddenly caught her attention. William, she realized as she watched the shadowed form crossing the garden. With a hurried movement she rushed toward the door and threw it open.
As swift as she was, however, she was too late to halt her brother as he dashed from the back of the garden in obvious pursuit of his recently acquired cat.
"Bloody hell," Amelia muttered beneath her breath.
What the devil was William thinking? She had specifically warned him not to leave the house without her or Mrs. Benson at his side. She had even made him pledge in words that not even he could fail to understand.
Certainly he knew better than to go out in the middle of the night.
Amelia pushed her hands impatiently through the heavy strands of her raven hair. Calm yourself, she commanded as she sucked in a deep breath. Becoming rattled would serve nothing. William was not attempting to defy her wishes; he simply did not understand.
And why should he? Since she had taken the small house, she had allowed her brother to come and go as he pleased. For the first time in his eighteen years he was not hidden in his chamber nor treated as a source of embarrassment to be tucked away. She had encouraged him to seek out friends among the neighbors and to spend his days among those unfortunate children in the stews who had swiftly learned to love his simple kindness and, perhaps more important, the numerous treats he would bring with him.
It was little wonder he found it difficult to return to his life of being treated as a prisoner. He could not comprehend the danger that suddenly stalked the streets of St. Giles. To him the sudden deaths of the prostitutes were a source of deep sadness, but not a direct threat. His heart was far too tender and without guile to ever consider the notion of someone desiring to harm him.
Once again in command of her nerves, Amelia reached for a cloak that hung by the door and wrapped it tightly about her. There was simply nothing to do but go after William. She certainly could not allow him to wander the streets when there was a madman on the loose.
Ignoring the stones that dug into her bare feet, she stepped into the garden and hurried toward the back gate. The heaviness in the air warned that soon a thick fog would be rolling in, and she grimaced. There were few things more unpleasant than London streets at night.
Wrapping the cloak tighter, she heaved a small sigh. It was not that she regretted leaving her parents' grand town house in the center of Mayfair. Nor giving up the lavish lifestyle that had been her birthright. Oh, granted she enjoyed frivolous entertainments and the flirtations of handsome dandies as much as the next young maiden, but it was a shallow pleasure when placed next to the happiness of her brother. And after learning of her mother's determination to have poor William secretly placed in Bedlam, she had known she had to take matters into her own hands.
No one would be allowed to put William in that horrid place. Perhaps he was dull-witted, and at times rather odd. And there could be no doubt he was inclined to wander off without regard to himself or those who fretted over him. But he was not daft. Nor was he a danger to others.
Still, she had to admit that there were times when she felt the burden of caring for William more heavily than others. Times such as this.
She held the candle high as she entered the small lane that lay beyond her garden, careful to avoid the inevitable rubbish that was carelessly tossed about. Ahead she could hear the shuffle of footsteps and she hurried her pace. The sooner she caught up to William, the sooner she could return to her bed.
Unfortunately, no matter how swiftly she attempted to make her way through the shadows, she could not catch her brother's far longer strides. Muttering a curse, she passed by the darkened houses, her poor feet protesting her maltreatment. On and on she went. Past one street and then another. It was not until she was near the derelict stables that had been left abandoned years ago that she heard a sound of scuffling and came to an abrupt halt.
Peering through an overgrown hedge, Amelia was able to faintly make out a shadowed shape. It had to be William. Who else would be skulking in the alley at this time of night? But then the shadow shifted and her relief was swiftly smothered. There was a fluid stealth to the shadow that was nothing at all like William's clumsy movements.
She leaned forward, attempting to determine the exact nature of the shadow, only to feel her heart come to a halt.
There was something wrong. Something terribly wrong.
Even from a distance she could sense a dark, smoldering malice. It was in the unnatural chill in the air. In the thick silence that was nearly choking.
And there was a smell ... a smell of cold steel shared with something far more foul.
Prickles of alarm raced down her spine as she heedlessly dropped the candle. She should flee, a voice warned from the back of her mind. Whatever was in the shadows was evil. And dangerous. She had to leave before it could turn the malignant attention in her direction.
A wise decision, no doubt. Unfortunately, it had barely formed in her mind when the shadow stilled and then slowly shifted toward her frozen form.
"Who is there?" a voice hissed.
Amelia bit her bottom lip to keep herself from squeaking in startled alarm. Through the hedge it appeared that the shadow was ... formless. As though it flowed and shifted like mercury upon water. It had to be a trick of the moonlight, she tried to reassure herself. Shapeless shadows did not exist except in children's nightmares. Not even on the narrow, mean streets of London.
Then the shadow once again shifted and, unbelievably, Amelia's horror only deepened. There was something on the ground. A body, she slowly realized. A body that was not moving and that was covered in a dark, ghastly dampness that she very much feared was blood.
Dear heavens, she had to get away.
"I feel you," the shadow rasped in a hollow voice. "I smell your lovely, warm blood. Come to me. Come and offer yourself to me."
A faint tingle raced through Amelia at the command. Almost as if the words held a strange power. But even as her mind seemed to cloud, there was a sharp stab of warmth that seared against her skin. Her trembling fingers lifted to touch the amulet about her neck. It was hot to the touch, and strangely comforting.
The shadow, however, appeared to shrink as she grimly held on to the Medallion, a steely hiss echoing through the air.
"You." Slowly, steadily the shadow grew larger, leeching its way toward the hedge. "Come to me."
"No," Amelia whispered, forcing her shaky legs to take a step backward.
"Do not fear. I will not harm you. Come."
Amelia froze. What was this thing? Nothing human, surely? A thing of nightmares. Of horror stories.
A sob was wrenched from her throat, but even as the shadow neared, there was a sudden flurry of movement from behind the shadow. In less than the beat of a heart, a large, utterly solid form had blocked the path between her and the advancing danger.
A form that thankfully appeared to be human.
"Halt." The new form held up an arm and Amelia could see the glint of a sharp blade in the silver moonlight. "I will not allow this."
A dark, grating laugh echoed through the silence. "You? You will not allow?"
Amelia's rescuer never wavered. "No."
"Do not be more of a fool than you need to be. Return to your books and pathetic studies. You do not possess the courage nor the will to confront me."
"Shall we see? Shall we test the strength of my dagger? I do not fear you."
Lost in a thick fog of terror, Amelia nevertheless managed to notice that the gentleman now standing between her and the shadow was surprisingly large. Not only tall, but broad through the shoulders and possessing the type of chiseled muscles not often seen in society.
She also realized that his rich, smoky tones held a trace of an accent that was impossible to trace.
Not that she particularly cared if he were a foreigner or not, she acknowledged with a near-hysterical urge to laugh. At the moment she would have welcomed the devil himself if he were here to protect her.
The shadow seemed to swirl, then, with a sudden hiss, it slowly began to retreat toward the nearby stables.
"We will settle this later, fool. I must think how best to punish you for your insolence," the shadow warned before it disappeared entirely.
For a breathless moment there was nothing but the thick silence; then, with a flowing swiftness that was oddly similar to that of the deadly shadow, the gentleman turned and threaded his way through the thick hedge. Amelia regarded him with a sense of lingering shock, not even flinching when he reached out to gently touch her hair.
"Are you harmed?" he demanded in soft tones.
Amelia struggled to breathe as she pressed a hand to her painfully racing heart. "No. I ... what was that thing?"
He seemed to hesitate. "A creature. A creature of the dark."
"Creature?" Amelia gave a sudden shudder. Did he mean an animal? No. She had seen what she had seen. That had been something other than human or animal. "What sort of creature?"
Without warning, he reached out to grasp her arm in a firm grip. "Come, we must not linger here."
Before she even knew what was happening, Amelia discovered herself being tugged away from the hedge and turned back down the alley toward her home. Just for a moment, she allowed herself to follow his lead, wanting nothing more than to be back in the comforting familiarity of her tiny home. Then she abruptly dug her bare heels into the dirt.
"Wait. I must find my brother. I was following him when that shadow appeared."
His grip tightened, almost as if he considered physically dragging her away from danger. Then he drew in a deep breath.
"Very well, but we must be swift," he said. Without waiting for her approval, the man turned and began searching the high hedges for a sign of her missing brother. He had taken only half a dozen steps when he softly called out, "He is here."
Attempting to still the shaking that still clutched at her body, Amelia moved to stand beside her unknown savior, her gaze searching the hedge until she discovered William happily seated on the filthy ground.
Her brief flare of relief was swiftly replaced by a bout of annoyance. As always, her brother was utterly indifferent to the world, and dangers, about him.
"William, what in heaven's name are you doing?" she demanded in sharp tones.
Glancing upward, her brother offered her that sweet, heart-melting smile that never failed to touch her.
"Cats," he said, pointing at his lap.
Amelia prayed for patience as she noted the numerous kittens that had crawled into a tight ball upon his legs, along with his own stray. Well, she at least now knew where that demon-spawned cat of William's had been disappearing to at night. And precisely what he had been doing during his midnight excursions.
"Cats," William repeated with a wide smile.
"Yes, I see."
"Cats and cats."
"Yes, there are many cats, William, but it is very late. You should be in your bed. A bed you should never have left, as you well know."
William simply smiled, but at her side the shadowed gentleman stirred with growing impatience.
"We must be away from here," he said in low tones. "There is still danger."
She was not about to argue. Not when she fully agreed with his impeccable logic. She did not yet know enough of this shadow creature to be certain that it might not suddenly decide to reappear.
"Come along, William. It is time we return home."
William heaved a sad sigh, but thankfully began to replace the kittens in the hedge before clutching his renegade black cat in his arms and rising to his feet.
"Yes, yes. We shall visit them later."
Taking her brother's hand, Amelia joined the impatient gentleman as he turned back down the alley. In silence the three moved down the cramped lane, their footsteps echoing eerily. For a time, Amelia was simply relieved to be moving away from the nightmare that had haunted the abandoned stables. But as they continued onward, she discovered her gaze covertly studying the large male form at her side.
"Will you tell me of that creature?" she demanded in tones soft enough not to attract her brother's wandering attention.
"Perhaps. But not tonight. For now we must concentrate on returning you safely home."
She grimaced. She had expected no less. He appeared decidedly reluctant to reveal what he knew of the evil shadow.
Excerpted from My Lord Immortality by Alexandra Ivy Copyright © 2003 by Debbie Raleigh. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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