The Dream Hunterby Laura Kinsale
To love him is to face her deepest fear . . . In search of a legendary mare, Lord Winter enters the crucible of the red sands, forging unbreakable bonds of loyalty and trust with his young companion in the desert. But hidden beneath the ragged costume of a Bedouin boy is a remarkable young woman: Zenia Stanhope, daughter of the extraordinary Queen of the… See more details below
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To love him is to face her deepest fear . . . In search of a legendary mare, Lord Winter enters the crucible of the red sands, forging unbreakable bonds of loyalty and trust with his young companion in the desert. But hidden beneath the ragged costume of a Bedouin boy is a remarkable young woman: Zenia Stanhope, daughter of the extraordinary Queen of the Desert.
Zenia wants nothing of the danger that Lord Winter lives for. She wants only to reach England, far from the blood and sand of the desert. But in one night of terror, condemned to death, their lives are irrevocably bound. Zenia escapes to an English world of elegance and comfort, leaving behind the lonely, fearless man who has changed her life and conquered her heart . . . until he returns to invade her sanctuary.
Now she must choose between safety and love, but can she find the courage to be the person she was truly born to be?
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The Dream Hunter
By Laura Kinsale
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 Hedgehog Inc.
All rights reserved.
Syria, June 25, 1839
The Reverend Mr. Thomson was understandably shaken. Indeed, it was a few moments before he could compose himself in the face of a pile of human bones heaped up outside the crypt, the skull on top, the whole ghastly scene lit only by two tapers stuck through either eye socket of the grinning thing. Weird shadows flickered over the planked coffin and gloomy faces of the wild-looking throng of Mohammedan servants gathered around.
He had not meant to lose his way amid the labyrinthine garden within Dar Joon's fortress walls. But it was two hours past midnight, and after the servants, with their turbans and drooping mustachios, had hefted the coffin to carry Lady Hester Stanhope to her final resting place, Mr. Thomson had lingered behind just a few moments to familiarize himself with the funeral rites of the Church of England, so that he might say them without any disrespectful hesitation or scrambling for pages.
This had proved to be most ill-advised. Immediately after the funeral cortege with their torches and lanterns had left the courtyard, vanishing into Lady Hester's black jungle of a garden, a misfortunate draft of hot wind had left the American missionary in utter darkness. He had been forced to feel his way through a maze of winding pathways, the soft voices and occasional dim glow of a torch always just beyond another oriental screen or a turning that seemed to go nowhere. For some time he had wandered, stumbling upon roots and brushing hanging jasmine vines aside, until at last he came upon the arbor.
The macabre sight that met his eyes caused him a strong degree of agitation. But the English consul Mr. Moore moved to his side, gesturing vaguely at the bones, and murmured, "Never mind him. It's only a Frenchman."
Mr. Thomson rolled his eyes toward the consul like a nervous horse. "I see," he said.
"Name of Captain Loustenau," Mr. Moore whispered. "Took him out to make room for her. Poor sod came here on a visit, got a pain in his belly and died all of a sudden. Years ago. She doted on his bones." He gave a slight shrug. "Lazy, encroaching rascal, to hear it told. But rather in her style, if you understand me."
Mr. Thomson cleared his throat in faint question.
"Young and good-looking," Mr. Moore amplified.
"Ah," Mr. Thomson said dubiously.
"Old Barker was the consul in her glory days," Mr. Moore added in a suggestive murmur, "and he used to say Michael Bruce was the handsomest devil that ever walked on two legs."
"Indeed," the missionary said.
Mr. Moore gave him an amused look. "Her lover, you know."
Mr. Thomson pursed his lips.
"Took him to her bed when he was twenty-three, she did," the consul remarked. "She was—oh, must have been thirty-four, thirty-five, if she was a day. Regular spinster by then. Traveled all about Turkey and Syria together, the two of them. Proud as a lord, she was; didn't care a button for what anybody thought. Dressed in trousers and rode astride like a Turkish pasha. Never would marry Bruce, though they say he begged her. Made him leave her here alone. Old Barker said she was boastful of it. Considered it a noble sacrifice, so that he could go home and become a Great Man." Mr. Moore shook his head. "Not that he ever managed that, more's the pity."
"I see," Mr. Thomson said. "How—singular."
The two men gazed at the coffin, each thinking of the withered white corpse they had found, after a fast day's ride from Beyrout, lying uncovered in the oppressive heat. Mr. Thomson felt that he should make some comment upon the wages of sin, but this pathetic end, dying abandoned among unchristian strangers and rubbish and the ruins of her desert fortress, seemed punishment enough for a transgression that must have taken place a quarter century ago. Mr. Moore merely thought it incredible that peculiar old Hester Stanhope, the mad Queen of the Desert, could ever have had the power to enslave such a lady-killer as Bruce was said to have been. Although Mr. Moore had never clapped eyes on her alive, he well knew Lady Hester by her reputation, not to mention her relentless feuding with any English consul, including himself, so unfortunate as to be posted within the orbit of her concern. But Mr. Moore's imagination failed him when he tried to envision Lady Hester as anything but an elderly recluse declaiming prophecies and interfering with consulate business, sending out scathing letters to everybody and complaining about her debts from the unbreachable sanctum of her mountain fastness.
"Devilish odd woman," he muttered. "Nasty sharp tongue in her head, too, let me tell you."
"May God have mercy on her soul," the missionary said softly.
"Amen," Mr. Moore said. "Best get on with it in this heat."
Mr. Thomson took firm possession of his wits, lifted the prayer book and began to read. As the stentorious words echoed about the arbor, another English gentleman moved quietly into the edge of the flickering light.
The consul glanced over at him, gave a courteous nod, and then piously lowered his eyes again. Reverend Thomson paused in his recitation, in case this should be a mourner with some real attachment to the deceased, who might wish to console himself with a nearer position to the coffin. But the latecomer did not join him in the front, instead remaining a little removed from either the servants or the officiators.
He was a tall man, well built, dressed in boots and an English shooting jacket, a powder flask clipped on the belt slung across his chest. His hair was as black as the mouth of the crypt. In the uneasy light, his eyes appeared quite dark as pitch, and his general aspect, to the Reverend Thomson's already frayed nerves, rather uncomfortably satanic.
"Lord Winter," Mr. Moore muttered under his breath.
As this name meant nothing to the American missionary—and since Lord Winter returned Mr. Thomson's nod of invitation with nothing but a silent stare—he resumed his service. The reverend was still feeling ruffled, but reflected that this bizarre funeral, along with some other incidents of his sojourn among the benighted of the East which he had recorded in his diary, should at least collect nicely into a volume of travel memoirs when the time was ripe.
For his part, Lord Winter manifested no hint of surprise or dismay at the novelty of the scene. The body was laid to rest in a dignified silence, only one of the black maids showing any sign of real sorrow in her quiet weeping. Beside her, a Bedouin boy stood straight and still, his wild elf-locks falling down on his shoulders, his dirty feet bare, a dagger at his waist and an ancient wheel-lock musket resting over his shoulder as if he had just come in like a young panther from the desert. Lord Winter's searching gaze paused on him a moment, took in the girlish kohl-lined lashes, full lips and delicate chin peculiar to nomad Arab youth, and passed on. Familiar with the Bedu, he did not doubt this superficial frailty was a complete illusion, and the boy capable of the most arduous exertion and cold-blooded banditry. But he was not the man Lord Winter was looking for.
It was apparent that this particular individual had not chosen to grace the company with his presence. Viscount Winter did not allow the man's absence to concern him, for it was unsurprising that the presence of Frankish strangers would make such a person wary of entering the walls of Dar Joon.
His expression grew distinctly sardonic as the consul unfolded a Union Jack and draped the flag of Britain over Lady Hester's coffin. Of all her enemies, she had hated the missionaries and English consuls most fiercely: to be laid in her grave beneath the Union Jack and sermoned over by a Christian minister would have made her sick with rage.
Although the viscount's attendance at Lady Hester's funeral was chance met, coincident with his private engagement at her hilltop fortress, he was conscious of a feeling of regret that he had not come to her once more before she died. But his mouth lifted in a saturnine smile at the sentiment. No; if he had known the end was near, he would have hired the wildest Bedouins he could find and mounted an attack on the place, so that she could have died fighting.
She had always wanted that. She had told him.
He should have done it.
The service over, the Frenchman's bones returned to lie beside Lady Hester's coffin and the crypt sealed, Mr. Moore turned promptly and offered his hand. "Good evening, my lord! Or good morning, I fear. Wretched business, this. Decent of you to come."
"I was in the district," Lord Winter said briefly.
Mr. Thomson asked in a hopeful tone, "You are a friend of the deceased?"
"Yes," Lord Winter said. He paused. "I had that honor."
"A very great lady, I am sure," Reverend Thomson said, on a funereal note.
"Indeed," the consul said hastily. "A most extraordinary life. Will you take a late supper with us down in the village, my lord? They tell me we have beds arranged there."
"As pleasing as that sounds," Winter said, "I prefer to stay here tonight, if you will permit me."
Mr. Moore looked astonished. "Here? But I'll have to seal the place. I can't allow the servants to remain."
"Perhaps—" the missionary suggested gently, "as a mourner, Lord Winter wishes to be alone to reflect on this melancholy occasion."
"Oh. Yes. Quite." Mr. Moore gave the proposed mourner a doubtful glance, not being accustomed to considering the Right Honorable Arden Mansfield, Viscount Winter, in the light of a very feeling man. "Well, if that's the case, I suppose it must be permissible."
"Thank you." Lord Winter bowed his head. "I am much obliged to you."
Mr. Moore looked as if he might toss some quick remark, but then held his tongue. He merely smiled wisely and made his bow in return.
The consul would have been very much surprised to learn just how deeply Lord Winter did feel this death. After all the servants were herded out, their torches ablaze—professedly to light the steep, rutted path downhill for the missionary and Mr. Moore but in base truth for the worthier purpose of holding off night-demons and hyenas—Lord Winter barred the gate and walked back through the dark garden to the grave. He broke a rose from a sprawling bush, gazing moodily at the trampled earth and muddy stones before the crypt. The filthy condition of the place bespoke the neglect of decades. And yet beneath the debris it was still Dar Joon, the fabulous palace of the Queen of the Desert.
The desert—and Lady Hester. They had been tinder to a boy's dreams, the spark and the flame of his manhood. English mist, the clipped gardens of Swanmere, none of it had ever seemed so real to Arden as the fierce air of the wilderness. And no woman had ever possessed his mind as Lady Hester Stanhope had done.
He could not remember a time in his life when he had not known of her. When he was five years old, she had defied Bedouin brigands and crossed the desert to become the first Englishwoman ever to enter Palmyra; while Arden was still in short coats, pestering his father's trout with a string and a stick, she had searched for treasure in the ruins of Ascalon; as he was learning to jump his first pony she had commanded a pasha's troops, laying waste the countryside in sanguinary retribution for a friend's murder; before he became a man she had defied an emir, dared the Eastern prince to send his son to make terms with her, so that she might kill him with her own hands. She had dressed as desert tribesmen and Turks dressed; she had given shelter to wounded Druses and rebellious Albanians, to orphans and defeated Mamelukes. When the all-conquering, all-powerful Ibrahim Pasha had demanded that she render up his enemies to him, she had said only, "Come and take them." And he had not cared to try.
She had never disappointed Arden, though age had withered her into impossible metaphysics and flights of astrology and magic. In her twilight she was more majestic than any female he had ever encountered. They said she had claimed to be the bride of the new Messiah, but Arden had never heard her claim it—only that she would ride beside Him into Jerusalem. She had possessed a towering conceit and a biting wit, a mind distracted by absurd prophecies, but it was the heart of a lioness that had defended this one mountaintop, alone amid the vicious tyrannies of the East, and kept it free of any law but her own.
Arden tossed the white rose down before the crypt. He had been born too late. Hester Stanhope was dead. He would never in his own lifetime find a woman to match her, and tonight, the indefinable restless loneliness that drove him— always drove him to the empty, brutal places of the earth, as if he could find there whatever piece of his soul he had been born missing—seemed sharper than it had seemed in a long while.
With a muttered curse, he doused his lamp and turned away from the crypt. By starlight, he walked desultorily among the silent courts, picking his way through the serpentine pathways toward the strangers' quarters where he intended to make his bed, losing himself twice in the maze of screens and passages. Finally, more suddenly than he expected, he stepped round a corner into a grassy yard.
He stopped. In the quiet, the sound of weeping came to him—no simple crying, but the terrible, rending sobs of a soul in the depths of despair.
With eyes adjusted to the dark, he saw the dim glow of light from an open door across the yard. Intrigued by this unexpected sign of occupation in a room supposed to have been sealed along with all the others, Lord Winter walked over the grass, allowing his boots to scuff an audible warning. He looked in at the chamber from which sprang this desperate lament and observed a figure in a dingy striped abah, hunched down in an attitude of profound misery among open chests and boxes full of papers.
Lord Winter made no attempt to conceal himself, but stood openly in the doorway. Even so, when he spoke the boy leapt back, knocking over a stool and sending papers flying in his start. The clattering sound was like a gunshot echoing off the stone walls.
"Peace be with you." Lord Winter gave a greeting in Arabic, recognizing the Bedouin lad of the flowing elf-locks and primeval musket. The youth said nothing, only stared at him with dread, breathing in heavy, uneven hiccoughs.
The young Bedui had reason enough to look dismayed. The consul had meant to lock all the servants out. No one with the least acquaintance with the Bedouin would trust that this son of desert robbers had remained behind for anything but larcenous intent, weeping or not. The boy held himself poised, as if he might be sprung upon at an instant.
Lord Winter returned the frightened stare with a shrug. "Ma'aleyk, there shall be no evil upon you, wolf cub. Come and drink my coffee."
If he expected this offer of hospitality to engender any gratifying degree of friendliness or appreciation in his audience, he was mistaken. The youth did not appear to be of a confiding nature. He remained standing silently amid the shadowy chaos of papers.
"Yallah!" Arden turned away. "Proceed with the sacking, then. God is great!"
"Lord Winter," the boy exclaimed in a husky, perfectly well-bred English accent. "I'm not a thief!"
The effect of hearing his own name and English tongue fluently on the lips of this disreputable desert urchin was more startling than Arden liked to disclose. He looked back, one brow cocked.
"My lord," the boy asked despairingly, "will you give me to the consul?"
"It's no matter to me if you steal all this rubbish you can carry," he answered, reverting to English himself. "But it appears that her loyal retainers have made off with everything down to the last spoon already."
"I'm not stealing!" the lad insisted.
Lord Winter leaned against the doorjamb and gave him a skeptical nod. "As you say."
"My dear child," Winter said, "if you suppose I babble everything I know to the likes of Mr. Moore, you are vastly mistaken in my character. I daresay even he would be astonished at the thought. Did Lady Hester teach you English?"
The boy hesitated, and then said in Arabic, "Yes, ma'alem. May it please Allah."
"She seems to have achieved uncommonly good success. How long have you been in her service?"
But the lad retreated into shyness at such pressing questions. "For many summers, ma'alem," he mumbled, turning his face downward.
Excerpted from The Dream Hunter by Laura Kinsale. Copyright © 2013 Hedgehog Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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