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It was the kind of night when anything could happen.
Magic. Moonlight. The sea roaring like a dragon, breathing a soft mist that was slowly enveloping the land. The stalwart figure who drifted along the rocky shoreline materialized like an apparition in his glinting chain mail and dark tunic. A ghostly knight from King Arthur's court who had wandered into the nineteenth century by mistake and couldn't quite find his way back to Camelot.
But Lance St. Leger was merely a man attired in the costume he had worn to the Midsummer's Eve fest and had not yet troubled to remove. He had far weightier matters on his mind.
He scanned the dark and silent beach ahead of him, his face anxious and tense. He was possessed of strong handsome features: a square jaw, a hawklike nose, and a deeply tanned complexion framed beneath a sweep of raven-black hair. But a certain cynicism already marred the velvet darkness of his eyes, despite the fact that he was a relatively young man, only twenty-seven. The disillusionment that tugged at the full curve of his lips made him seem older, giving his mouth a hard cast except when he smiled.
He wasn't smiling now as he studied the overturned hull of an abandoned fishing boat, the sea raking cold fingers of foam across the sand, obliterating all traces of any footsteps. But Lance was certain this was the place where he had been attacked only an hour before, surprised by some hooded brigand and rendered unconscious.
When Lance had awoken, he had found his watch and signet ring missing. But that had not been the worst of it. The thief had also taken his sword, the one that had been in his family for generations, a weapon as steeped in mystery and magic as the St. Leger name itself.
When the sword had first been handed down to Lance on his eighteenth birthday, he had sensed the power in it. Merely touching the hilt had somehow made him feel stronger, better, more noble.
He had earnestly recited the pledge that all St. Leger heirs were required to give:
I vow that I will only employ this blade in just cause. That I will never use it to shed the blood of another St. Leger. And on the day that I marry, I will offer this sword up to my bride as a symbol of my undying love along with my heart and soul forever.
But that had been a long time ago. Back when Lance still believed in such things as just causes, magic, and true love. Back when he still believed in himself . . .
Lance desperately circled the area around the boat, but he didn't know why he had bothered to come back here, what he was hoping to find.
That the thief had experienced a change of heart? That he would suddenly reappear to return the stolen treasure to Lance, scraping and bowing while he babbled, "Oh, here you are, Master Lance, here's your ancestral sword. Please forgive the impertinence."
Lance's lip curled in contempt at his own folly. He swore beneath his breath, cursing both the unknown brigand and himself. He had certainly made mistakes in the past, brought enough disgrace to his family's name, but allowing that sword to be stolen was by far the worst thing he'd ever done.
Not true, a sad voice whispered in his ear. The worst thing was what you did to your brother, Val.
But Lance refused to think about Val. He was already racked with enough guilt over the disappearance of that infernal sword.
Despairing of finding any clue to his attacker on the beach, Lance turned and headed up the path toward the village instead. Despite the fact that he had recently cashiered out of the service, Lance still moved with the military bearing of a man who spent nearly nine years as an officer in Wellington's army.
Slipping quietly alongside the forge next to the blacksmith's shop, he peered toward the line of whitewashed cottages. Earlier Torrecombe had been a riot of noise and laughter, alive with all the excitement of the Midsummer's Eve festival. But the village slumbered now, not a soul stirring across the green in the center of town.
Lance thought briefly of conducting a house-to-house search, only to discard the notion. He doubted that anyone from the village would have dared to attack him. The local folk were too much in awe of the St. Legers and their legends. Legends of a family descended from a notorious sorcerer. The mighty Lord Prospero might have come to a disastrous end, burned at the stake, but he had passed on a legacy of strange talents and powers to his descendants, of which Lance had inherited his share.
No. Lance was convinced. No one from the village would have trifled with a St. Leger. The thief had to have been an outsider, a stranger, and there had been plenty of those wandering through Torrecombe tonight because of the fair. Many of them were stopping over at the inn, and that seemed the most likely place for Lance to begin his search.
He stole across the village square until the Dragon's Fire Inn loomed over him. A quaint building, it still bore traces of its original Tudor construction, with mullioned windows and overhanging eaves.
An ostler bustled about the stable yard, attending to the horse of some late arrival. Lance watched, keeping to the shadows. Long ago, he had promised his father that he would never reveal the secret of his own peculiar and frightening power to anyone outside of the family. And one did not lightly break promises given to Anatole St. Leger, the dread lord of the Castle Leger.
Lance was deeply grateful that at this moment his father was far from Cornwall, traveling abroad on an extensive holiday with Lance's mother and three younger sisters. He'd already proved enough of a disappointment to Anatole St. Leger, Lance reflected grimly. With any luck at all he would be able to recover the sword before word of this latest escapade reached his father's ears. He had to.
Huddling behind a tree, Lance wished that he was merely a clairvoyant like his second cousin Maeve. It would certainly make his search for the sword easier . . . and safer. The ostler was taking a damned long time about disappearing into the stables. The blasted fool was doing more stroking and talking to that horse than he was attending to it.
Lance cast an uneasy glance toward the sky, trying to calculate how much time he had left until dawn. It would not do for him to be caught abroad exercising his strange gift when the sun came up. That could prove dangerous. In fact, deadly.
He was filled with relief when the ostler moved on at last, leading the horse into the stables. Stealing from his hiding place, Lance drifted toward the inn. After a moment more of hesitation, he braced himself.
And shimmered straight through the wall.