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The Viscount's Wicked Ways
By Anne Mallory
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2006 Anne Mallory
All right reserved.
Patience Harrington shivered with excitement and anticipation as she stared at the massive doors adorned with pointed crowns, sinister ravens, and trailing ivy. The work of the carvings was intricately and painstakingly detailed, as if hewn in offering to an ancient god of the underworld.
Lightning split the sky, illuminating the courtyard, turrets, and stone carvings of the night-shrouded castle. A thunderous boom shook the ground beneath her feet, causing her to wonder if Hades was just then reaching up to seize his gift.
The bestial sculptures lining the courtyard called out to her. Protectors fending off evil spirits. Heroes slaying dragons. Warriors surging into the fray armed and ready to best the enemy.
A low groan shifted her attention back to the castle's magnificent doors as one slowly swung open. A distinguished figure stood backlit in the doorway -- an archangel welcoming them to heaven -- or a demon summoning them to hell.
The figure motioned them inside.
Patience took an enthusiastic breath, pushed up her spectacles, and walked into the large, marble vestibule. A towering ceiling and stark frescoes were her first impressions of the main hall. The ceiling captured the fierce battle between the ancient Greek godsand the Titans. The battle with Cronus was at center, the hundred-handed, fifty-headed Hecatonchires, the Gigantes, and Cyclopes forming a ring of arms, heads, bodies, and eyes around the edges. The shadowed gods cast their eyes upon the travelers as if to judge their worth.
Patience reveled in the feel of the art and of the myth. Of the pure atmosphere of the lightning-kissed illusions and the rumblings as the sky stroked the earth. This was the real joy of her work. The feel of it. The imaginings. The true sensory experience. Later she would delve closer to poke and prod, to examine, dissect, and discuss, but for the moment she would simply feel and enjoy.
She was jostled from behind as one of her fellow travelers pushed forward to escape the storm and enter behind her. She realized the great doors had only been opened partway, to keep out the sheeting rain, and that she was blocking the entrance. She immediately shifted to the side, giving the jostler an apologetic smile and lift of her shoulders. It was just her luck that it was Mrs. Tecking, the person least amused by Patience's somewhat frequent flights of fancy.
Chastened by the glare she received from the impatient blonde, Patience stepped aside before continuing her perusal of Blackfield Castle's entrance hall.
A cantilevered staircase dominated the space, its mahogany railing rising majestically upward. Newel warriors guarded each landing, warning invaders of dire consequences if they continued their ascent.
Colorful rugs, fierce statues, decorative entrance tables, and priceless paintings framed in gold leaf adorned the floor and walls around, under, and over the grand staircase. Strange-looking sconces cast a golden light that alternated between somber and soothing depending on where she looked. Patience was impressed by the way the hall could feel both intimidating and inviting at the same time.
"Welcome to Blackfield Castle, I am Kenfield, Lord Blackfield's butler," the distinguished man who had opened the door announced, as Patience finally had the presence of mind to shake out her sodden skirts.
"Foul weather we are having," her cousin John remarked cheerfully, as he reached out a lanky hand to pass his walking stick, greatcoat, and hat to a footman. His sandy brown hair was damp around the edges and had already started to curl. Chocolate brown eyes absorbed the room much in the same way that Patience's had. "It's wonderful to be here."
"Indeed," Mr. Frederick Tecking said in his dry and somewhat absentminded fashion, his hazel eyes focused single-mindedly on a marble statue of Minerva in one of the hall's nooks. It was the first comment he had made in nearly an hour, and it was not surprising that it had taken a Roman antiquity to do it. "Odd chandelier though," he muttered, never taking his eyes off the statue.
Patience blinked and looked up. An enormous cut-glass chandelier hung from the ceiling. And Mr. Tecking was right. There was something unusual about it.
Before she could discover what it was, the butler gestured to a room on the left. "Please make yourself comfortable. Dry yourselves by the fire. I will inform Lady Caroline of your arrival, and your servants will be shown to their quarters."
Patience smiled as she watched her maid Tilly, who looked as excited as a woman a third her age, scoot down the hall. She, too, had looked upon this trip as an adventure.
The servants climbed the stairs as Patience, John, and the Teckings walked into the ornate room. A fire blazed in a large fireplace. A plaster frieze depicting nymphs and woodland creatures rose above the chimneypiece and surrounded the hearth. A large variety of furniture was positioned in front of the fire, and Patience's three traveling companions eased into the comfortable settees, relaxing after the last miserable hour of their journey.
Patience, on the other hand, began to examine the frieze. Tiny leaves and intricate vines were exquisitely crafted along with the nearly animate sculptured forest creatures. She ran her fingers along the edges, marveling at the artisan's skill.
"Please do sit down, Miss Harrington. You're making me extremely nervous." Patience restrained a sigh. "Do excuse my excitement, Mrs. Tecking. This is so wonderfully done." She continued to study the lovely carvings beneath her fingertips.
"I daresay, Miss Harrington, you will have the next three weeks to study the woodwork, the plaster, and artifacts to your heart's content, but only this first chance to make a good impression on Lady Caroline and her nephew Lord Blackfield. Wouldn't you say, Freddie?"
Mr. Tecking absently patted his wife's hand. "There, there, dear, it's been a long trip. You're a bit overwrought."
Excerpted from The Viscount's Wicked Ways by Anne Mallory Copyright © 2006 by Anne Mallory. Excerpted by permission.
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