Miranda Ellis is a woman tormented. Plagued since birth by a strange and powerful gift, she has spent her entire life struggling to control her exceptional abilities. Yet one innocent but irreversible mistake has left her family's fortune decimated and forced her to wed London's most nefarious nobleman.
They will burn for eternity . . .
Lord Benjamin Archer is no ordinary man. Doomed to hide his disfigured face behind masks, Archer knows it's selfish to take Miranda as his bride. Yet he can't help being drawn to the flame-haired beauty whose touch sparks a passion he hasn't felt in a lifetime. When Archer is accused of a series of gruesome murders, he gives in to the beastly nature he has fought so hard to hide from the world. But the curse that haunts him cannot be denied. Now, to save his soul, Miranda will enter a world of dark magic and darker intrigue. For only she can see the man hiding behind the mask.
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By Callihan, Kristen
ForeverCopyright © 2012 Callihan, Kristen
All right reserved.
It was the mask engaged your mind,
And after set your heart to beat.
London, November 1878
The knowledge that Archer would soon end the life of another cut at his soul with every step he took. The miscreant in question was a liar and a thief at best. That the whole of the man’s meager fortune now rested at the bottom of the Atlantic did little to rouse Archer’s sympathy. On the contrary, it only ignited his fury. A red haze clouded Archer’s vision when he thought about what had been lost. Salvation had almost been his. Now it was gone because Hector Ellis’s pirates had raided Archer’s ship, stealing that which might cure him and hiding it away in their bloody doomed clipper ship.
Mud-thick fog hung low on the ground, refusing to drift off despite the crisp night breeze. It never truly went away, ever present in London, like death, taxes, and monarchy. The ends of Archer’s cloak snapped about his legs, whipping up eddies of the foul yellow vapor as his mouth filled with the acrid taste of coal, filth, and decay that was the flavor of London.
Archer rounded a corner, moving away from the street lamps and into shadow. The sharp staccato of his footfall echoed over the deserted cobbled streets. Far off on the Thames, a mournful foghorn wailed its warning. But here all was quiet. The constant clatter of coaches and the occasional shout of the night watch calling the hours had faded away. Darkness swallowed his form, as it always did, both a comfort and a reminder of what he’d become.
The neighborhood around him was old but fine. Like all places that housed those whom fortune touched, the streets were empty and desolate, everyone having long ago tucked into their well-tufted beds.
Ellis’s house was near. Archer had walked the streets of London long enough to move without hesitation through its perverse network of twisted alleys and endless avenues. Anticipation, cold and metallic, slid over his tongue. To end a life, see the incandescent light of a soul slip from its house—he wanted that moment, craved it. The horror of such craving shook his core and his step faltered. Never do harm. It was every doctor’s creed, his creed. That was before he’d forfeited his own life. Archer took a cleansing breath and focused on the rage.
A garden lay ahead, large and walled in, its pleasures solely for the benefit of those who had the key. The seven-foot wall loomed up before him. It might as well be only four feet. He vaulted himself lightly up and over, landing on the soft grass below with nary a sound.
He rose, intent on his mission, when the sound of steel slicing against steel stopped him. Odd. Sword fighting had long fallen out of fashion. London fops now settled matters with law and courts. He rather missed the days of his youth when grievances had started with the slap of a glove and ended in first blood. He gazed over the dark garden and found the swordsmen as they moved under the weak haloed light of the gas lamps cornering the central court.
“Come on!” taunted the fair-haired one. “Is that your best effort?”
They were boys. Archer slipped into the deep shadows by the wall and watched, his unnatural eyes seeing as well as if he’d been ringside. The blond could not be more than eighteen. Not quite a man, his limbs held the lankiness of youth, but he was tall enough and the timbre of his voice had dropped. He was clearly the leader as he paced the other boy round the slate-lined court in the garden’s center.
“Keep your arm up,” he coached, coming at the younger boy again.
The younger boy was nearly as tall as his compatriot, but altogether delicate in form. His legs, peeking out from an ill-fitted frock coat, were mere sticks. A ridiculous bowery hat was crammed down upon his head, so low that Archer saw only a flash of white jaw as the pair sparred about ala mazza.
Archer leaned against the wall. He hadn’t seen such eloquent sparring in a lifetime. The elder boy was good. Very good. He had been trained by a master. But the little one, he would be better. He was at the disadvantage being lighter and shorter, but when the blond attempted a Botta-in-tempo while the youth was tied up in a bind, the little one sprang back with such quickness that Archer craned forward in anticipation, enjoying himself more than he had in decades. They broke measure and came back again.
“You’ll have to do better than that, Martin.” The youth laughed, his steel flashing like moonbeams in the purple night.
Martin’s eyes shown with both pride and determination. “Don’t get cocksure on me, Pan.”
Martin thrust once then cut. The youth, Pan, crossed to the right. To Archer’s delight, the boy leapt upon the thin wrought-iron railing that surrounded the court and, in a little display of daring, slid along the rail a distance before landing just behind Martin. He gave a swift poke to the elder boy’s backside before dancing away.
“I am the god Pan,” he sang out, his youthful voice high as a girl’s. “And if you don’t watch yourself, I’ll stick my flute right up your blooming arse, ah—”
The silly boy toppled backward over the boxwood hedge he’d overlooked in his gloating. Archer grinned wide.
Martin’s laugh bounded over the garden. The boy doubled up with it, dropping his small-sword to hold his middle. Young Pan struggled to rise, holding his absurd hat in place while grousing about English hedges under his breath.
Martin took pity and helped the boy to his feet. “Call it quits, then?” He offered his hand once more in peace.
The youth grumbled a bit then took the proffered hand. “I suppose I must. Take the sword, will you? Father almost found it the other day.”
“And we mustn’t have that, hum?” Martin tweaked the boy’s nose.
The two parted ways, each going toward opposite garden doors.
“ ’Night, Martin.”
“ ’Night, Pan!”
Smiling, the blond boy watched his little friend leave the garden and then left.
Archer moved through the shadows, heading toward the door where Pan had gone through. Prickles of unease danced over his skin. Fighter or no, the boy was too fragile to walk alone and unarmed in the dead of night. A rare bit of entertainment certainly earned the boy a safe passage home.
He stalked him easily, staying to the shadows, keeping well behind. The boy moved through the night without fear, a jaunty near swagger in his step as he turned from the sidewalk into an alleyway.
Thus his squeak of alarm was all the louder when two grimy older boys slipped out of the shadows and blocked his path.
“An’ who’s this?” The fellow was a big brute, short and wide. The type, Archer thought grimly, for he was in no mood to throttle children, who always wanted a fight.
“Hello,” said Pan, stepping back one pace. “Don’t mind me. Just out for a stroll.”
The taller one of the two laughed, showing a large gap between his teeth. “ ‘Out for a stroll,’ ” he parroted. “Who you think you are? Prince Bertie?”
Pan was quick to rally. “Eh? Can’ a man use the Queen’s English now an’ then?” he chided, slipping into street tongue as smooth as plum pudding. “Especially when it helps wit me fannin’?”
Young Pan eased around them, slyly moving toward the back of a large town house. There lied safety, Archer realized. It was the boy’s home. It was Ellis’s home, he realized with a little shock. Who was this boy?
“Them marks always appreciate a kind word,” the boy went on.
Archer had to appreciate the boy’s flair with the common tongue; he hardly understood a word. But the lad was putting it on too thickly. The young roughs knew it, too.
“You think we’re flat?” one of them snapped.
The youth backed up as the older boys closed round. “Here now, no need to kick up a shine…”
“Need a slate, do ya?” The taller of the two roughs cuffed the boy lightly on the head. The boy’s hat flew off, and Archer’s heart stopped short. A silken mass of fire tumbled free, falling like molten gold down to the boy’s waist. Archer fought for breath. Not a boy, a girl. And not thirteen, but closer to eighteen. A young woman.
He stared at the mass of red-gold hair. He’d never seen hair so fine and glorious before. Titian hair, some would call it. That ineffable color between gold and red that captivated artists and poets alike.
The high pip of a voice pulled Archer out of his reverie. His urchin moved into a defensive stance as her attackers loomed in with interest. Surprise had overcome the two roughs as well but they recovered quickly and now sought a new opportunity.
“Aw, come on, luv. No need for tantrums. We didn’t know you was a dollymop, now did we?”
They moved in, and the hairs lifted on the back of Archer’s neck. A growl grew in his throat. Archer took a step, then another. They wouldn’t hear him yet; he was too quiet, his form steeped in darkness.
“Show us your bubs, eh?” said the shorter one, and clearly the first who would feel the business end of Archer’s fist.
Surprisingly, the girl didn’t appear as afraid as she ought to be. She stood defiantly, keeping her fists raised and her eyes trained on the boys. The idea was laughable.
“Leave off,” she said with iron in her small voice.
The street roughs laughed, an ugly sneering sound. “Oh right, leave off, she says.”
The taller one snorted. “Listen ’ere, toffer, behave an’ we’ll leave you intact.”
Green eyes blazed beneath her auburn brows that arched like angel’s wings.
They were green, weren’t they? Archer squinted, his abnormal eyes using what little light there was to see. Yes, crystalline green ringed with emerald, like the cross section of a Chardonnay grape. Yet he swore he saw a glint of orange fire flash in them.
“Leave now,” she demanded, unmoved, “or I’ll turn you both to cheese on toast.”
Archer could not help it, mirth bubbled up within, and he found himself laughing. The sound echoed off the cold stone houses and brick-lined alley. The young men whirled round. The fear in their faces was clear. They weren’t up for an exchange with a grown man, most especially any man who’d be out on the streets at this hour. Archer knew their cut, cowards who preyed on the weak and fled at the first sign of true danger. He came close enough for them to see his shape and the toes of his Hessians, preferring to stay in shadow until necessary.
“Hook it! This ’ere’s our business,” said the tall one with forced confidence.
“Stay a moment longer in this alleyway,” Archer said, “and your time in this world will come to a swift end.” His voice was not his own. A pale rasp after his last battle, it had been torn by injuries that should have robbed him of his ability to speak. But he would heal. Soon.
They sensed the unnaturalness in him—the street wretches always did—and stood gaping at him like dead fish.
He cracked his knuckles. “Or perhaps not so swiftly. I do enjoy playing with my prey.”
The pair gathered their wits and ran, the rapid patter of their footfall clamoring on the cobblestones of the street beyond.
They’d gone but the girl had not. She stood, frozen it seemed, in her ridiculous stance of defense.
The bones beneath her alabaster skin were exquisite, with high curved cheeks, graceful jaw, and straight, delicate nose. Michelangelo might have sculpted her. And a blow from one man’s fist would smash that beauty in an instant.
“Go home,” he said to her.
She flinched slightly but stayed set, swaying a bit as though dazed.
He sighed. “Go, before I decide to teach you a lesson.”
That snapped her out of it. She eyed the wall behind her, where the safety of her home lay, and then the alleyway to her side. She didn’t want him to know she was home, but had no desire to run off down that alley. Was she a servant? No, she hadn’t the hands of one. Nor could Ellis afford a servant. But he had daughters. Three that Archer knew of, and only one that remained in the home. Miranda. His mind rolled over the name, savoring it like wine.
“Leave,” she squeaked. “And I’ll go home.”
He bit back a smile. Had defiance ever been so intriguing? Youth so beguiling? She was old enough to marry. He blinked, clearing his mind of that insane thought. She was an innocent. He would not think of her as seductive. But she would be—someday. Would that mouth grow lusher still? The slight baby softness at her cheeks melt into greater delicacy?
He watched her, momentarily entranced by the golden strands of hair that swirled about her angular face like flames.
“Who are you?” she snapped.
The sharp query brought him to attention. He made a courtly bow.
“A concerned subject of the Crown.”
She harrumphed but did not drop her fists. Shockingly, she came closer. He backed away into the dark and collided with the alley wall. The deep-hooded cloak hid the mask he wore. Even so, he didn’t want to scare her. A ridiculous notion, considering she tracked him like a falcon, drawing near, sensing his reticence and acting on that weakness. Admiration filled him.
“Lower your hood. Let me see your face.”
He should walk away. Leave her be. “No.”
Heated energy flared around her, almost palpable in the cold air. Anger made her lovely, powerful.
“I could make you.”
In the shadows, he grinned. He could not account for the utter confidence in her, yet it made him… exhilarated. “An intriguing idea. Perhaps you ought to try.”
Had he been a normal man, her movement would have been a blur. Even so, it shocked him how quickly she was upon him, a knife in her hand shoved firmly against his ribs. He ought to teach her a lesson in taking on strange, large men in the night, but the sweet, grassy scent of her distracted him, and he was curious as to what she would do.
“Turn around.” Her voice was forged iron. “Your hands to the wall.”
When he simply stood there amused, she flushed. “I don’t care who you are as long as you go. But I will check you for weapons before I send you on your way.”
Foolish girl. He really ought to set her straight. “Of course,” he said.
The damp on the bricks seeped through his gloves as she reached around to skim her hand over his chest. The moment she touched him his senses snapped to attention. A light shiver passed over him. He tapped it down, thought of the Queen, pickled eels, or… the fact that no woman had been this close to him in years. For a moment, he was dizzy.
“Quality clothing. Carrying the scent of the sea. The sea and…” She trailed off with a noise that made him wonder what she detected. Did the unnaturalness in him carry a scent?
“You’re here to harass my father.”
His head snapped up, and she made a sound of annoyance.
“You are not the first to ooze from this alleyway in the dark of night, nor will you be the last.” Her hand slid over his belly. His gut grew twitchy, aching. “I assume he owes you money. Well, it is gone. There is nothing left. You cannot get blood from a stone, and I won’t let you take his blood in payment.”
He winced at the hurt in her voice, at what she had to face for the deeds of her father. It changed nothing; save he wanted to keep her away from her father’s inevitable demise. Tenderness warred with the deep, tight-chested anger that was his constant companion.
“How am I to respond?” he asked. “Deny it, and you accuse me of lying. Admit it, and you cut my throat.”
The tip of the knife dug in a little farther as her soft voice rumbled at his ear. “I may do both yet.”
He could only chuckle. “I am honored. You had this pig sticker in your boot, and you saved it for me.”
“I hadn’t the opportunity to use it on those fools. Not with you blundering in my way. But make no mistake, I would have done so.”
Brusque pats flanked his side. The touch was impersonal, and driving him mad all the same. His flesh tensed before each hit, waiting for the contact with taut anticipation.
“They might have taken your point to heart had you pulled out the knife from the first.”
He could feel her head shake. “Not those two.” A smile hid beneath the professional tone of her voice. “They would have leapt at the opening. They wanted the fight.”
Archer had to agree.
“Besides,” she said crisply as she ran a hand down his outstretched arm, before kneeling to check his boot. “I do not particularly like violence.”
Ha! “I’d say you excel at it.”
Her breath puffed warm against his thigh, making his quadriceps twitch. “Sweet talk won’t save you.”
He affected a sigh. “My own folly for protecting a child.”
“Child,” she scoffed. “I am nineteen years old. Older than most Mayfair debutantes offered up for sale. Hardly a child.”
Ah, yes, and didn’t he know it.
Cautiously, she felt along his right leg, before moving on to his left. Oddly, she didn’t pick his pockets. She left his money purse alone.
“Pardon, madam.” He glanced down to watch the top of her head bobbing about like a copper globe by his upper thigh. Illicit thoughts flared hot at the sight. He struggled to keep his tone light. “Save when one has lived as long as I, nineteen years is little more than a flicker in time.”
Amusement danced in her voice. “You’re an old lecher, are you?”
He was thinking of becoming so. Should she, say, move her hand a few inches to the left… He cleared his throat. “Old enough.”
She made a noise under her breath. “Liar.” She was at his left hip now. “Your form doesn’t feel elderly in the least.” If she only knew. “You’re musculature is quite—”
He felt the precise moment when everything changed—the subtle increase in tension in her hand, a stutter in the efficient way she moved, the shift in her breathing from strong and determined to light and agitated. The answer in him was instant, painful arousal. For a moment, he couldn’t think. He hadn’t been noticed as a man in so long that his mind barely held the echo of such memories. But his flesh… his flesh remembered the pleasure of touch all too well.
Slowly, her slim hand smoothed over the swell of his buttock, lingering there. A shocked laugh choked his throat, the sound muddled by a stifled groan that her intrigued touch elicited. The saucy little sneak thief was copping a feel. He felt inclined to turn around and let her get a handful. Christ, this was madness.
Her breath came in hard rasps, audible and so like those of a woman being tupped that Archer’s head grew light, all available blood surging down to the throbbing pain in his cock. His forehead fell against the brick wall with a thud. Bits of mortar drifted like dust over his wrists as he clung to the wall like a buoy.
Inquisitive fingers combed his inner thigh, testing its hardness, and surely feeling the trembling there. His cock swelled, drawing so tight and hot it quivered. Sweet Christ. This time he could not bite back the low groan that filled him. It broke whatever spell she was under. Her breath caught sharply, and she snatched her hand away as if scorched.
He forced himself to turn, grateful for the protective cover of his cloak. She stood gaping at him as if she couldn’t quite understand what had happened. A lovely rose tinted her cheeks, her fiery hair swirling in the cold wind. Already she was fading away, stepping back into the moonlight. The heat in him cooled, leaving him with a familiar hollowness just under his breastbone. His throat closed in on him.
“No weapons,” she whispered.
“No.” He clenched his fist to keep from reaching out.
“Well, thank you, then.” She backed up another step. “For speaking out. Unnecessary, but kind.”
He stared blankly for a moment, not knowing what to do. When she looked as though she might move, he fumbled with his pockets. Give her something. Make her stay.
“Here.” The coin in his hand flashed in the weak light as he held it out. “Take it.”
She did not hesitate. One second it was between his fingers, the other it was gone. He watched as she inspected it, the red wings of her brows knitting together. “West Moon Club?”
“It isn’t proper currency,” he said as the frown grew. “Just a silly trinket made by men who have nothing better to do with their time. I’ve no use for it any longer.” No, because they had cast him out. The emptiness in him became pain. He hated the coin and everything associated with it. Of all the things he could have reached for in his haste, why had it been that?
One red brow rose as she glanced up at him, considering.
“It is pure gold.” He was babbling like a maiden. Irritation flushed within him. He bit it back. “Melt it down and sell it when you have need.” The idea gave him a certain joy.
Her fingers closed around the coin. “You think I’m too proud to take it?”
His lips twitched. “On the contrary. I think you pragmatic enough to make good use of it.” He didn’t offer her the wad of bank notes he had in his pocket. A gift was one thing. Charity was another.
Green eyes slanted up at him. “Silver-tongued devil. But you’re wrong. I don’t take gifts from strangers.”
He opened his mouth to protest when she flicked her wrist. The knife in her hand hissed through the air, embedding itself with a thud into the wall next to him.
“A trade, however.”
Oh, he liked this girl. Keeping his eyes on her, he pulled out the knife with ease. The slim, black-enameled hilt was warm from her touch. That she trusted him with the knife left him oddly expectant, as if for once the next sunrise might be a welcome sight. “A trade it is,” he rasped.
“Go on, then,” she said. “I’ll not leave until you’re well out of here.”
Deliciously peremptory. His gut tightened and went hot.
Come with me. He’d take her to a tavern, buy her ale and bread, tease her simply to hear her talk, to watch her all night and revel in the way she commanded those in orbit around her. Only then she’d see him. And run. The heaviness in his chest was a crushing thing.
“As my lady wishes.”
She gave a start. She hadn’t truly thought he’d obey, and it made him chuckle. God, he hadn’t smiled this much in years. The muscles along his chest ached from his recent laughter. When had he last laughed? He could not remember.
Desperate yearning returned, for in her unflinching stare, the way she did not hesitate to speak to him, he saw the reflection of his own salvation. A man no longer cast out to the shadows, but seen. If there was a greater gift in this world he knew not of it. Archer was not fool enough to turn away from a gift.
Hector Ellis’s daughter. So the man would have to live. Archer turned a new plan over in his mind. One Archer knew Ellis would agree to, for a man such as him would agree to anything to save his own skin. A little time was all that Archer required.
Taking a deep breath, he made himself say the words he must. “Good night to you, fair Pan.”
Three years later. London, September 1881
No, no, farther down… yes, that’s the one… there!” Satisfaction pulled at her lips. “Ah, how lovely.”
The man at the counter flushed in pleasure. His gaze strayed to her smiling lips and held for a moment past propriety. “The loveliest I’ve seen, Miss.”
His small boldness sent another wash of red over his fair skin. Miranda leaned farther into him. The glass countertop beneath her elbows gave a small groan, and the clerk swallowed hard, his gaze flittering between her mouth and the swells of her breasts that plumped over her bodice. His grip tightened on the ruby bracelet he held in his hands.
So easy, really, to seduce a man with the simple act of arching one’s back. A woman ought to feel satisfaction in the sight. Miranda only felt as she always felt: dirty, wrong, empty.
“Set it down,” she murmured before clearing her throat delicately. “Let me see it in the proper light.”
Gently, he set the bracelet among the others, dozens of necklaces and bracelets strewn out over the small counter. Too many wares pulled out for display than was prudent or proper. So very accommodating. And a mistake only a befuddled clerk would make.
Miranda set her chin upon her hand, the act bringing her arm against the side of her breast, lifting it further into view. The clerk smothered a noise, his eyes riveted to the sudden increase in displayed flesh. Her skin crawled. She did not flinch, only looked up at him with a small secret smile. You and I understand this forbidden desire between us, it said to him. Her free hand settled with the lightness of a feather upon the pearl necklace lying near her ribs.
“Any one of these jewels would do you credit, miss.”
Her finger hooked over the row of pearls. Slowly. Slowly. Countless times she had done this, yet every time felt like the first. Every time filled her with terror. Never let it show.
She mocked a wounded pout. “The jewels credit me, sir?”
His thin mouth worked as he flushed. “You misunderstand. They pale against your beauty. Were I a ruby, I would despair at being noticed while in your presence.”
A genuine smile tugged at her lips. Plain and bashful, he might be, but the young man had a romantic heart and the beginnings of a poetic tongue. It was his whey-face and quick blushes that had made her select this shop that rested at the edge of respectability. The little shop specialized in fine jewels pawned by aristocrats whose wealth was dying. A place new wealth bought baubles for their town-kept mistresses. A place where a young, unescorted woman might go, pretend to shop for jewels far past her means so that she might flirt with the young clerk she had her eye on.
It was the role she played. Letting him see her walk by his window once a week. Making eye contact before turning away with a blush. And then working up her courage to finally enter. She dipped her head and blushed.
“You are too kind, sir,” she murmured.
He fairly glowed with pleasure, and her heart ached. Too good a boy to ruin. For he would be ruined when his master found out what he had let happen here. But she could not return empty-handed. It had been too long. On the inside she screamed. This is my life, and I hate it. I hate it. She returned his smile.
The shop bell trilled, and the young man started as if caught with his hand in the biscuit bin. Two plump matrons entered, giving him a curt nod. Like Miranda’s, their gowns were slightly out of date and well-mended, but unlike with Miranda, the clerk took notice and did not jump to assist them.
Miranda trailed a gloved finger down her neck.
“W-would you like to try one of them on?” he asked.
She licked her lower lip, a tiny flicker of pink tongue that kept him riveted. “I don’t think I should.” It took no effort to make her lips tremble. In truth, she felt like crying.
The matron’s exclamation made them both turn. The older woman pressed her hand upon her ample chest and grabbed hold of her companion.
“Oh, Jane, look who it is!”
Her friend paled and made an attempt to support her friend. “Who, Margaret?”
“The Dread Lord Archer! His coach is coming up the street!”
Both women craned their wrinkled necks to peek between the gold lettering upon the shop window. Miranda stopped short of rolling her eyes. What a pair, these two. Her fingers tensed to take her prize but she held firm. Slowly. Slowly. Marks always felt it if one rushed. It was instinctive.
“I’ve seen him,” hissed Margaret. “Late one night on the way home from the theater. He walked along Piccadilly as if he had every right to do so. I swear I nearly swooned from fright!”
“You poor dear. What has the world come to when men such as he are permitted to roam the streets?”
Miranda had never heard such censorious drivel.
“My dear, he is aristocracy,” said Margaret, “and as rich as Croesus. Who would dare question him? I heard he has sent at least four men to hospital for simply looking at him in the wrong light.”
The conveyance came flush with the shop window. Miranda caught a glimpse of the black top hat and cloak of a coachman, a black coach with a white shield upon its door.
“Heavens, he looked at me…” Jane shuddered, and with a moan, her eyes rolled up in her head.
“Jane!” Her friend tried to grab her as the woman began to topple.
“Here! Here!” The clerk jumped up, running to catch the hare-brained woman.
There was something to say for flighty females. Miranda acted, slipping the necklace into her skirt pocket as she rushed to aid, accidentally brushing several necklaces off the counter in her haste. “Oh my,” she exclaimed, frantically trying to gather the jewels and succeeding in making a muck of it. Ropes of gold and gems fell to the floor, a hopeless muddle.
The clerk wavered between assisting her and struggling to help the matron on the floor. Perfect.
“What a mess I have made!” Miranda pressed a shaking hand to her brow. “I am sorry. And you have your hands full!”
She reached the door, her heart pounding. It pounded every time. Every time.
“Wait, Miss!” The clerk buckled, his hand outstretched as if he would pull her back.
Hand twitching on the doorknob, she shot the clerk a regretful smile. “Good-bye. I am sorry.”
His words were drowned out by the bell.
Outside, the coach in question was gone, swallowed up by street traffic and drifting fog. Only now did the gaping pedestrians begin moving on. Unsettled murmurs rippled along the streets before being drowned out by the usual clatter and clang of hacks, omnibuses, and coaches rattling along the cobbled road. Miranda decided she did not want to know what the unfortunate Lord Archer looked like. She had experienced enough horrors in her meager lifetime.
The slight weight in her pocket felt like a ton as she made her way home. Miranda’s steps stuttered to a stop as she saw the sleek, black double-brougham stretched out like a coffin in the front portico of the house. Thick whorls of yellow-green evening fog rose from the cobbled drive, ghosting over the coach’s large spoke wheels and coiling like snakes round the spindly legs of the matched black Friesians that stood placidly waiting.
Dread plucked at her insides. Long gone were the days when their drive filled with endless lines of landaus, barouches, and phaetons as nobility and gentry alike called upon father to purchase his wares.
With a jostle of rigging and the smart clip of hooves, the coach turned, and the crest upon the door flashed in the waning light. A white shield bisected by a heavy black cross bore the words Sola bona quae honesta upon it. Four sharp arrowheads slashed across the white planes of the shield. The hairs along her arm stood at attention, and she knew the source of her disquiet. The Dread Lord Archer.
The coach drew near, and the form of a figure, no more than a broad black outline of shoulders and the glimpse of an arm, appeared behind the window glass. As the coach pulled away, a finger of ice slid along Miranda’s spine, for someone was staring back.
“I shall not!”
Her shout bounded off the bare stone walls of the dark, cramped kitchen. High and rather thready, nothing like Miranda’s normal voice. She struggled to tone it down.
Her father moved around the battered wooden table that stood between them. His small brown eyes flashed. “You most certainly shall!” He slammed his fist to the table. “My word is law here!”
“Bosh.” She slammed her wooden spoon down as well, sending a splatter of mutton stew across the pudding. “Your control over me ended the day you sold Daisy off to the highest bidder.”
The wrinkled mask of his face went pale as Irish linen. “You dare!” His hand rose to strike but held, hovering in the air and shaking, when she did not flinch.
“Please try it,” she said quietly. Her eyes held his as the air about her began to coalesce, heating and stirring with an almost expectant agitation. “I beg of you.”
Father’s hand quivered then slowly lowered. “I’m sure you do, daughter.” Spittle slicked the corners of his shaking lips. “See me writhe and burn.”
Miranda shifted, heat and pain mingling within her belly, a surge that wanted out.
“Always calling upon the fire to protect you.” He took a step closer, his eyes burning into her. “Never mind the price.”
Like a flame in a draft, the heat snuffed, and with it, her father’s confidence seemed to swell.
“The worst of it is that I do this for you,” he coaxed, leaning in. “You’re not a lass anymore. Not for years. Did you think to live here forever with me?”
“No, I—” Her mouth snapped shut. She had not given the future much thought but simply lived from day to day. Surviving. No point exchanging the hell one knew for the hell one did not.
“I think you must believe so. You’ve scared off every lad that’s come this way ever since that fool Martin…” He swallowed down his words aware, for once, that even he might have gone too far. But he rallied quickly, and his bushy brows formed a white V. “It cannot have escaped your notice that this is the finest meal we’ve had in months.” His weathered hand swept over the meager meal of mutton stew and simple brown bread pudding that Miranda was preparing. “Who do you think provided the money for this meal?”
“I thought perhaps you’d sold the wool—”
His dry cackle cut the air. “With the price of wool being as low as it is, and the debts I owe, we’d be lucky to dine on fish-head stew. My creditors will take the house before the year is out,” he said quietly. “And you will have no home to come to.”
A home? She almost laughed. She hadn’t a true home in years. Not since her sisters had left.
“Doesn’t take much to imagine what trade a beauty like you will find,” he went on. “But once that beauty fades? ’Tis hardly fittin’ to say what’s to come of you.”
“Oh, stop!” Miranda snapped. “You paint a very grim picture, indeed. And one that’s hung over my head for years.”
“Bloody hell!” The pudding crashed to the floor in a mess of brown scum and broken crockery. “You owe me, Miranda!” Rage colored him red as he pointed at her. “If it weren’t for that fire, I’d have half my fortune! By God, you destroyed my bloody warehouse!”
“Years I have paid penance for my mistake!” she shouted. “Still, it is not enough. Well, I am done with it.” Her hand slashed the air as if the motion could somehow sever their conversation. “You cannot make me do this!”
Father’s thin lip curled into a sneer. “Aye, I cannot,” he agreed with sudden calmness. “The agreement states you must go willingly, or it is void.” He took a step closer, pressing up against the wooden table, and pointed with a trembling finger. “But I’ll tell you this: Should you refuse, you’ll no longer live here.”
Her throat closed, red-hot pain forming a large lump there. The lack of a home was one thing. The lack of proper shelter was another beast entirely. “You cannot seriously…” She swallowed.
The yellowed whites of his eyes flashed in the lamplight. “I’m done with you. I would not have kept you as long as I have if I weren’t waiting for this moment. So you’ve had a disappointment with Martin. I’m glad for it! I was a fool to even consider it. Some promises are too dangerous…” He swallowed audibly. “Your bags are packed, either way,” he snapped.
So it had come to this. Miranda’s lower lip quivered before she bit down hard. There was little love lost between them. But he was her father, and he was prepared to toss her to the wolves. Pain radiated across her chest, seeping into her bones.
Father’s eyes were flat. Dead. She knew that look. His decision was made. Even so, she could not but try.
“I cannot believe you would—”
“You will marry Lord Archer!” he shouted out, his temper breaking like glass. “Devil take it, the man is one of the richest nobles in the kingdom. I cannot believe your stupidity for even refusing. Of all the bleeding stubborn—”
“But why?” A wretched sob escaped before she could swallow it down. Hateful that she should be weak before him.
He stopped short and blinked at her. “Why what?”
“Why does he want me?” She wiped a hand over her mouth. “I am nobody. I’ve never heard of the man before today. How can he know me?”
Father’s expression froze for a long moment before he broke into an incredulous laugh. “I may be a failed man, Miranda Rose. But I have one jewel left in my coffers.” He came round the table, his expression almost fond. She backed away from him, bumping up against the worktable. Father stopped but the satisfaction in his smile remained.
“Lord Archer has wealth, power, and land. A man such as that need not look to nobility for a bride. Overbreeding has left their rank chinless and small-eyed. You, my dear, are a diamond in a sea of cut glass.” A familiar gleam lit Father’s eyes, the glint of a transaction well played. “The finest feather for his cap.”
For a moment, she saw red. “I will go to Poppy or Daisy.”
A terrible silence fell between them, and her father’s confident expression withered. He went pale as cream. “They won’t want you. Never have.”
“They’ve offered before.” Her sisters had pleaded with her, in truth. And she had refused out of a misplaced sense of obligation toward Father. Penance, really, because she had been the one to start him on the road to ruin. How gratifying to know that she had finally reached her limit on guilt. But she didn’t want her sisters’ pity, nor to be their burden. The very idea made her insides pitch.
Father raised his hands in disgust. “He has paid handsomely for the right to you, Miranda. If you plan to forfeit the agreement, then I am leaving.” He straightened his tattered waistcoat and smoothed his disheveled hair. “I suggest you do the same. Believe me when I say that Lord Archer does not take kindly to being cheated.”
“Oh, I believe you.” Something told her his being cheated by Father had put her into this mess in the first place.
They stared at each other for a long minute, her finger tapping an idle rhythm against the counter while her father waited in stony silence. She ought to hate this Lord Archer for buying her like a commodity. Save he’d only done the same as nearly every gentleman in England did. Marriage was a business. Any sensible girl knew this. It was only when they had come down in the world that she’d started to hope she might marry for love.
The stew bubbled brown and thick in the pot next to her, making her stomach growl. She missed having steady meals, a life free of theft and guilt. A wash of shame hit her so suddenly that she sucked in a pained breath. Lord Archer had entered into an agreement in good faith. Only to become another man her father would cheat, and she’d be a part of it.
No more. She would not become like Father. She could live a life of honor and walk with her head held up from now on.
Faced with the choice of living on the streets or doing the honorable thing, her decision was rather easy. Unfortunately, that did not stop her stomach from turning over as she forced the words from her mouth.
“All right.” The vision of the silly shop matron in a swoon flashed in her mind, and a moment of pure terror wracked her body. She swallowed hard. “All right. I will do it.”
He gaped at her, unbelieving. When she simply stared back, a smile pulled at his mouth. “Very good.” Satisfied, Father grabbed a thick slice of bread off the counter. “On the morrow, then.”
Her head snapped back. “What!”
He half-turned, his mouth already full. “He insists upon marrying you tomorrow,” he said around the bread. “Everything has been arranged. Lord Archer has already acquired a special license so there is no impediment or need to wait.”
The fire beneath the burners flared high for an instant. Her life had been bought, sold, and arranged quite neatly. Bloody men.
Her father tore off another hunk with his teeth and turned to go.
“Stop!” Miranda reached deep into her pocket and pulled out her spoils. “Take it!” The pearl choker slammed to the table. “And treasure it well, for it is the last thing I shall ever steal for you. We are more than even now, Father. After this, we are finished.”
Getting married was a happy dream that had filled Miranda’s girlhood thoughts and promptly left as she grew older. She well knew the face that looked back from the mirror each morning. She was not foolish enough to pretend that she was without beauty. Vanity may be a sin but so was lying. She was fair of face and form, though she knew many a girl who looked better.
However, as a woman without fortune or title, she received few offers of marriage. The most consistent offers came in the form of teasing shouts from market vendors when she walked to Covent Garden each Saturday morning. How then, she thought as Daisy pinned white roses in her hair the following morning, had it come to this?
Perhaps it was a dream. The woman in the mirror didn’t look at all like her. She was too pale. Her pink gown, one of many provided by Lord Archer’s money, ruffled and frothed around her like a confectionary. Miranda turned away with disdain. It was the image of an innocent and a maiden. She was neither. And yet he had come for her. Why?
She did not believe Father’s nonsense about him wanting her for her beauty. There were plenty of pretty daughters of utterly bankrupt, thus desperate, nobles for a wealthy man to chose from. What, then, did he want? What has the world come to when men such as he are permitted to roam the streets… Perspiration bloomed along her upper lip. And yet Lord Archer did not know precisely what he was acquiring when he took Miranda as his bride, did he?
To create fire by mere thought. It was the stuff of myth. She had discovered the talent quite by accident. And had burned through her share of disasters. Father and Mother had forbidden anyone to ever speak of it and, more to the point, for Miranda to ever use her talent again. Poppy had simply disappeared in the library to search for an explanation; she never found one. Only Daisy had been impressed, though quite put out that she did not possess a similar unearthly talent. As for herself, the question always remained: Was she a monster? Both beauty and beast rolled into one unstable force? Despite her desire to know, there was the greater fear of putting the question to anyone and seeing them turn away as Martin had. So she kept it inside. She would not tell her husband to be, no. But she took comfort in the notion that she was not without defenses.
Poppy and Daisy’s mutual disregard for Father kept them at a distance as Father hovered by her elbow, guarding all possible attempts to escape. Their chatter was no more than a din, Father’s hand upon her arm a ghost, as they made their way to the small family chapel by the river.
Reverend Spradling met them at the door. The brackets around his fleshy mouth cut deep as his eyes slid from Miranda to Father. “Lord Archer is…” He tilted his head and pulled at the cassock hugging his bulging neck. “He is waiting in the vestry.”
“Grand,” said Father with an inane smile.
“He wants to talk to Miss Ellis in private,” the reverend interrupted as Father tried to walk through the doorway. “I told him it was inappropriate but he was most insistent.”
The two men turned to Miranda. So now her opinion mattered, did it? She might have laughed, only she feared it would come out as a sob.
“Very well.” She gathered her skirts. Her fingers had turned to ice long before, and the ruffles slid from her grasp. She took a firmer hold. “I won’t be but a moment.”
Slowly, she walked toward the vestry door looming before her. She would finally face the man who would be her husband, the man who sent brutes to hospital and caused women to swoon with terror.
He stood erect as a soldier at the far end of the little stone room. Women, she thought, letting her gaze sweep over him, could be utterly ridiculous.
She closed the door and waited for him to speak.
“You came.” He could not fully stamp out the surprise in his deep voice.
He was tall and very large, though there wasn’t a spare ounce of fat discernible over his entire form. The largeness of appearance came from the breadth of his shoulders, the muscles that his charcoal gray morning suit—no matter how finely tailored—could not completely hide and the long length of his strong legs encased in gray woolen trousers. It was not the elegant, thin frame of a refined man, but the brute and efficient form of a dockworker. In short, Lord Archer possessed the sort of virile body that would catch many a lady’s eye and hold it—were it not for one unavoidable fact.
She lifted her eyes to his face, or where it ought to be. Carved with a Mona Lisa smile upon its lips, a black hard mask like one might wear at Carnival stared back. Beneath the mask, his entire head was covered in tight black silk, offering not a bit of skin to view. The perversity of his costume unnerved, but she was hardly willing to swoon.
“I thought it best,” he said after letting her study him, “that you enter into this union with full understanding.” Black-gloved fingers ran over the silver handle of the walking stick he held. “As you are to be my wife, it would be foolish of me to try to keep my appearance from you.”
He spoke with such equanimity that she could only gaze in amazement. A memory flickered before her eyes like a flame caught in a draft, a vision of a different man, in a different place. A man who also hid in shadows, whose gloriously strong body had haunted her dreams for months afterward, made her want things she hadn’t the name for back then, things that made her skin heat on many a cold night. It had shamed her, the way she had coveted the dark stranger. But it could not have been Lord Archer. The stranger had a voice like shadows, rasping and weak, not like Lord Archer’s strong, deep rumble.
“Look sharp, Miss Ellis!” The walking stick slammed on the stone floor with a crack, and she jumped. “Do you still intend to proceed?” he asked with more calm.
She stepped forward, and the man went rigid. “Who are you? An actor of some sort?” Her temper swelled like fire to air. “Is this some joke Father has concocted to bedevil me, because let me tell you—”
“I am Lord Benjamin Archer,” he said with such acidity that she halted. His eyes flashed from behind the mask. “And it is no joke I play.” The hand on the walking stick tightened. “Though there are days I wish it to be just that.”
“Why do you wear that mask?”
“Asks the woman whose beauty might as well be a mask.”
The immobile black mask simply stared back, floating like a terrible effigy over broad shoulders.
“What is beauty or ugliness but a false front that prompts man to make assumptions rather than delving deeper. Look at you.” His hand gestured toward her face. “Not a flaw or distortion of line to mar that perfect beauty. I have seen your face before, miss. Michelangelo sculpted it from cold marble three hundred years ago, his divine hand creating what men would adore.” He took a step closer. “Tell me, Miss Ellis, do you not use that beauty as a shield, keeping the world at bay so that no one will know your true nature?”
“Bastard,” she spat when she could find her voice. She had been beaten once or twice, forced to steal and lie, but no one had left her so utterly raw.
“I am that as well. Better you know it now.”
She gathered up her train, but the heavy masses of slippery fabric evaded her grip. “I came of my own free will but will not abide by cruel remarks made at my expense,” she said, finally collecting herself. “Good-bye, Lord Archer.”
He moved, but stopped himself as though he feared coming too close. A small gurgle died in his throat. “What will it take?”
The tightly controlled urgency in his voice made her turn back.
“If you find my character and appearance so very distasteful,” she said through her teeth, “then why ask for my hand?”
His dark head jerked a fraction. “I am the last of my family line,” he said with less confidence. “Though I have love for Queen and Country, I do not desire to see my ancestral lands swallowed up by the crown. I need a wife.”
The idea that she would procreate with the man hadn’t entered her mind. It seemed unimaginable.
“Why not court one of your nobles?” she asked through dry lips.
He lifted his chin a fraction. “There are not many fathers who would give their marketable daughters up to a man such as me.”
It irked her that his words made her chest tighten in regret.
Lord Archer tilted his head and assessed her with all the warmth of a man eyeing horseflesh for purchase. “Your appearance may matter little to me but when the time comes for my heir to enter into society, your stunning looks will help a great deal to facilitate him.”
She could not fault the sensibility of his plan. Even so…
“Why do you wear that mask?” she asked again.
The mask stared back.
“Are you ill? Have you some sort of sensitivity to light upon your skin?” she prompted.
“Sensitivity to light,” he uttered and then gave a short laugh of derision. He lifted his head. “I am deformed.” That the confession hurt his pride did not escape her. “It was an accident. Long ago.”
She nodded stupidly.
“I realize my appearance is far from ideal to an attractive young lady in search of a husband. On the other hand, I can provide a lifestyle of wealth and comfort…” He trailed off as though pained by his own speech and then shifted his weight. “Well, Miss Ellis? What say you? This is between us now. Whatever your decision, your father may keep what little funds he hasn’t managed to squander without fear of retribution from me.”
“And if I say no? What will you do? Is there another girl you might ask?” She shouldn’t care really, but her basic curiosity could not be quelled.
He flinched, a tiny movement, but on him it seemed as obvious as if he’d been struck by a blow.
“No. It has to be you.” He sucked in a sharp breath and straightened like a soldier. “To speak plainly, there is no other option left to me. As to what will I do should you say no, I will continue to live alone. In short, I need you. Your help, that is. Should you grant it, Miss Ellis, you shall want for nothing.”
The man in the black mask seemed to stand alone, apart from everything. Miranda knew loneliness when she saw it. Her mind drifted over another memory, one hard repressed. One of herself standing in the very same corner of the vestry, watching as Martin cut their engagement and walked away. And it had hurt. God, it had hurt. So much so that the idea of doing it to another made her queasy.
Lord Archer had shown his weakness, given her a chance to cut their agreement. He’d given her power over him. The man was clearly intelligent enough to have done so with purpose. A chance at equality was unexpected.
Still, none of that might have mattered. Foolish was the woman who gave away her freedom out of sympathy. No, it was not sympathy or the hope of power that prompted a decision; she felt something when in the presence of this strange man, a tingling thrill that played over her belly, the sense of rapid forward motion though her body stood still. It was a feeling long dormant, one gleaned from taking a sword in hand, swaggering through dark alleys when all proper girls were in their beds. It was adventure. Lord Archer, with his black countenance and rich voice, offered a sense of adventure, a dare. She could do nothing short of picking up that gauntlet, or regret it for the rest of her days. Perhaps, then, she could help them both. The idea of helping rather than destroying filled her with a certain lightness of heart.
Miranda collected the blasted train that threatened to trip her and straightened. “We have kept my father and sisters waiting long enough, Lord Archer.” She paused at the door to wait for him. “Shall we go?”
It had been a brief ceremony, without sentiment. A few words spoken, and Miranda Rose Ellis had disappeared. She glanced down at her wedding ring, a glowing round moonstone held aloft by a thin gold band. Now, as Lady Miranda Archer, she rode in an elegant town coach opposite her new husband. A cantankerous grumble of thunder sounded overhead and, with it, a flash of blue light. Lord Archer’s black mask gleamed for an instant, the high curves of its cheekbones and the rounded eye sockets highlighted in the dim. Miranda’s heart missed a beat.
Silver streaks of rain slid down the window, obscuring the view as they crossed a small gully. She leaned closer only to have the window fog over from the warmth of her breath. She wiped it away, heedless of marring her kid gloves, and was rewarded with the sight of her new home as they turned up the long drive.
Rising up four stories, it broke from the gentle crest of land like the crags of a mountaintop. Lightning flashed above the rain-slicked slate roof, bringing the sharp gables and multiple chimneys into fine relief against the rolling sky.
Her palm flattened against the icy window. The Gothic-styled house was almost as wide as it was high. It dominated the land, lording like a great hulking beast. Large bow windows gleamed like pale jewels in a crown, but showed nothing of light or life within. Only a small lonely little light over the front portico guided the way home.
The coach shuddered to a halt, and the steady drum of the rain upon the roof abated. Lord Archer stepped swiftly from the cab and promptly took hold of her elbow. She bit the inside of her cheek and stood straight as she climbed the cold marble steps. I shall not cry.
Wind howled across the portico, and the brass lantern hanging high above swayed. Behind them, the four blacks stood placidly, rain dripping from their shaggy manes, steam escaping in bursts from their nostrils as they waited for the outrider to take down Miranda’s traveling valise.
A not-so-gentle squeeze upon Miranda’s arm made her turn around. No, she could not run to the safety of the coach. Enormous black double doors loomed high before opening to reveal the figure of an elderly man outlined in pale lamplight. More gloom.
They walked through the doors and into… light. And warmth. A large hall opened up before them, the sight making her falter. Easily the width and breadth of her old home, the hallway was filled, not with cobwebs and dank wood as she had imagined, but light and beauty. White-and-black marble floors laid out in a checkerboard design shined beneath her heels. The woodwork was painted crisp white, and the walls covered in black lacquer. Such a color ought to have made it very dark but the walls gleamed like jet under the light of crystal sconces and an elegant chandelier of cut crystal and golden filigree. Russian, she thought, looking up at it; nothing that beautifully crafted could be anything but.
Lord Archer watched her appraisal. “You were expecting something different?”
“I… yes,” she admitted. “The house appeared so foreboding when we came up the drive.”
“We arrived during a storm.” A sudden moan of wind from the other side of the doors punctuated his statement. “Very few houses appear hospitable in such conditions, especially if they are unfamiliar.”
“That is true.”
“But you still expected something different,” he said, studying her as though she were a specimen under a microscope.
How he knew the truth, she could not comprehend. Long before the storm, her wild imaginings had pictured dark corridors, gloomy rooms, and dusty halls laced with cobwebs.
His penetrating stare did not abate. “My home is my haven. Should I not make it comfortable?”
“Of course.” Desperately, she looked to the elderly gentleman who stood as straight as a mainmast not two feet away. He’d taken Lord Archer’s coat and hat when they entered, and had done so with such quiet efficiency Miranda doubted Lord Archer had truly noticed him.
Lord Archer caught the direction of her gaze and stiffened. “Hullo, Gilroy. Didn’t see you there. You have everything prepared?”
“Good evening, my lord. Yes, my lord.”
Around a network of wrinkles, Gilroy’s kind eyes gleamed deep brown. Miranda nodded in greeting as Lord Archer took the mantle from her shoulders. “This is Lady Archer.” He handed Gilroy the mantle.
“Gilroy is our butler, majordomo, what have you,” he said to her as though the idea of titles irritated him a little.
“I am honored, my lady.” The man gave a short bow. “On behalf of the staff, we shall endeavor to serve you well.”
“I am confident you will,” she said, reaching for the same quiet dignity. The idea that she had a staff was almost enough to send her running to the carriage. Only Lord Archer would assuredly haul her back.
Lord Archer took her elbow once more and they walked down the length of the hall, past artworks of pastoral scenes and portraits of bewigged ladies and gentlemen.
“Do you have a valet?” Miranda asked, turning back toward Lord Archer as they moved past a small front parlor done up in lemon yellow and white with delicate Grecian style furnishings.
“No. I am a grown man, well capable of dressing and shaving myself. Gilroy takes care of incidentals.” He waved his hand in distraction.
Lord Archer’s eyes cut to her as though hearing the silent criticism. “It isn’t as though I have lacings and coiffures to worry over,” he said.
Childhood lectures from Mother ran in her head. One never speaks of personal grooming. A gentleman should never mention a lady’s toilette. Then again, Miranda had found Mother’s lectures rather stifling. “I admit surprise,” she said, catching a glimpse of a library filled with blue velvet sofas and deep leather wing chairs. “I’ve always thought nobles considered a valet a mark of distinction. Father said if you could, your lot would have someone wipe your…” She trailed off in a furious flush of heat.
Lord Archer looked at her sidelong. “Do go on, Lady Archer.”
She stepped away to peer into a large room of powder blue, rather hoping that the floor would open up and swallow her whole. What had prompted her to speak so basely? She had deliberately tried to bait Lord Archer.
“The ladies’ salon,” he murmured as she gazed up at the ceiling painted like a summer sky with rolling clouds and sunbeams. The décor of the home was old-fashioned. There simply wasn’t enough to appease the modern eye, no wall coverings of ornate patterning, no doilies, needlework, or bric-a-brac to fill the space. White lintels, Grecian pediments over the doors, their dentil moldings foiled with gold. Marble busts and convex mirrors adorned the simple mantels. Gothic architecture, Georgian interior, Regency décor… it was like sinking slowly back in a time long past.
“I shall give you a proper tour tomorrow.” He headed toward a massive staircase of white marble. “For now, you need rest.”
Miranda could wander through a house such as this all day. But she let herself be led, her feet sinking soundlessly into the carpet when they reached the second floor.
The walls were crimson. Golden candle-fed sconces and potted palms made the long hallway cheery, but the absence of servants was odd. “Where are the other servants?” she whispered. It would surely take an army of them to keep such a house.
“I keep a small staff. My privacy is more important. You shall meet most of them tomorrow.”
Feeling lost, she reached out and touched his arm. He pulled away with a low hiss, and her face flamed. “I’m sorry.” She chided herself for touching him, for feeling the need to.
Lord Archer took a long breath. “No. I am.” He cursed sharply. “The accident… my right side. I don’t like to be touched on my right side.” He stilled and then lifted his left arm, offering it to her. “I have offended you, the very thought of which shames me. Take my left arm. It is unaffected. Please,” he added when she hesitated.
His eyes were gray, a true dove gray surrounded by thick black lashes that rivaled any lady’s. It seemed an odd thing to fixate upon but she could not look away. Her heart tapped like a metronome, the palpable thing that was the force of his will and the strength of his body nearly overwhelmed her. Carefully, she placed a hand upon his arm, noting the hardness of it and the way his muscles jumped at her touch.
Her husband nodded in satisfaction, then pulled her along. He stopped before a set of doors where an elderly woman waited.
“This is Eula, our housekeeper,” he said by way of introduction. “You shall want to discuss the household running with her, I should think.”
By the way the elder woman was glaring at her, Miranda had grave doubts as to their working together.
Lord Archer stood stiffly between the women. “Well then, I shall see you at dinner.” He gave an awkward bow to Miranda and left her alone with the scowling woman.
Coming only to Miranda’s shoulder, the thin woman held herself stiffly erect and set her eagle eyes upon her. Miranda stared back squarely as the hairs on the nape of her neck bristled. The woman’s bedraggled bun was the color of old ivory. The lines of her face were cragged and deep but the bones beneath the skin were strong. Something she saw in Miranda must have met her approval. One corner of her colorless lips lifted slightly.
“Well, you’re no mouse. Thank God for that. A mouse has no business coming into a lion’s den.” Her gray brow lifted when Miranda merely held her stare. “Come along then. His Worship has bid me leave you a luncheon. I suppose a skinny bird such as yourself will be wanting some food.”
Over Eula’s shoulder, Miranda spied a tureen of soup and a mound of golden rolls spilling from a ceramic basket. Her stomach almost growled in anticipation.
Eula turned to shuffle into Miranda’s room, leaving in her wake the smell of camphor and old sheets. “He’ll collect you himself come dinner,” she said over her shoulder. “And don’t think of leaving these rooms by yourself.”
“And why not?” Really, Miranda had no intention of wandering this night but Eula’s high-handedness riled her.
“The dark hides all manner of sins here. No telling what horrors you’ll encounter in some shadowed corner.”
Eula’s discordant cackle taunted Miranda as the woman disappeared down the hall. Heart thumping in her chest, Miranda sat heavily on a plush settee. This was not a mistake. The evil woman only sought to scare her. Miranda bit her lip as she stared at the empty doorway, for one thought bothered her above all others: She wished Lord Archer would come back.
Archer nearly ran down the hall like a frightened schoolboy. Had he some blasted malady that prompted him to act the ass at the very worst instant? Surely he must, for he’d nearly lost her before even having her. He cursed and shoved open the servant’s door. A maid coming up the stairs squeaked in alarm, nearly dropping her pile of linens. Sally, was it? New maid. She’d learn.
He took the narrow stairs upward. The footman on the next landing stepped aside, well prepared for the sudden sight of the master on the backstairs. Archer took the stairs two at a time, tugging at his cravat as he got toward the top.
He burst through the door at the top of the stair and slammed it behind him, setting the panes of glass above his head shuddering. Solitude. Already he felt his disquiet ebb.
His green house. A little glass jewel hidden away on the roof of the house. The rain rattled hard upon the glass, streaking and pebbling, hiding the world from view. It was kinder here, warm and humid. Filled with potted fruit trees and velvet roses, their fresh scent as thick as the air.
The mask first. He tore it from his head, then the inner one, and allowed himself the first fresh breath he’d had in hours. The humid air collided with his sweat-soaked skin, and his nerves twitched. He raked his fingers hard through his flattened hair, scraping his scalp just to feel the blood flow beneath the surface. The rest of his clothes followed in rapid succession. Then he moved to the water tap set high in the wall and opened it.
God it was cold. Good. He needed as much. Being trapped in the dammed coach with her had been torture enough. Archer closed his eyes and let the water pour over his head, down his heated torso. And he was rewarded with the image of that blasted reverend looking at him in the church, waiting for him to kiss Miranda—of all things. Had the man any idea of just how badly Archer had wanted to?
And her voice. It no longer held that high, girlish pip, but was warm and soft—like honey in the sun. Archer shivered. That voice, haunting him for three years. He took a shuddering breath, closed the tap, and reached for a towel.
The rain petered out to a light mist as he walked to the long cot by one of the glass walls. He reclined on it with a sigh and blinked up at a cluster of peach roses in full, audacious bloom. This wasn’t how he’d imagined facing her, still trapped in a mask, snapping at her like an arrogant bastard solely because, for the first time in years, he’d felt true embarrassment over his appearance. What must she think of him?
His forearm fell over his eyes. Ah God, and that utter rot about wanting her for an heir. Right-ho, when he couldn’t even show her who he was. What he was. His mind had gone blank when she’d asked him for an explanation. The truth was ridiculous, and the height of selfishness. Because he wanted her, despite all logic, all caution. Though he could never fully be with her, he needed her near. And now? Being near her wasn’t nearly enough.
How could he hide what he was from her indefinitely? His desolate laugh sounded like a stranger’s. Impossible. What he wanted was impossible.
Not impossible. Only hopeful.
Archer smiled tightly as he heard the voice in his head. “Ah, Elizabeth. If only it were you.”
It was a game he played with himself, talking to her as though she were here. Sometimes he wondered if talking with a memory was the final push into madness. Or the only thing that kept him sane.
You deserve happiness, Benjamin.
It was what he wanted to hear. But was it true?
A teardrop of dew rolled along the velvet edge of a rose. It hung for a suspended moment, glimmering diamond bright, before falling on his temple to skim over his brow like the stroke of a fingertip. He couldn’t remember the last time human hands had willingly touched him.
Not true. Miranda had. She had touched him as if he were just a man. He had lived on those moments ever since, pulled them to the fore when loneliness threatened to suck him down and drown him. He hadn’t meant to be away from her for so long. What ought to have been a year had drifted into three.
He took a deep breath. The air around was still, wet, and thick. Past the sweetness of roses came the heady scents of exotic orchids, strange plants acquired on his trips down the Amazon. All in search of a cure. His gaze drifted to the cluster of fire-pink flowers resembling a feather duster. That one had turned his piss red for a week. The purple seeds from some dark pit in Brazil that would have killed a normal man had him hunched over begging for mercy for twenty-four hellish hours. So many experiments. Trips to forgotten places. Strange concoctions made by tribal medicine men. Failures all. But he had been close.
Daoud, his valet, his trusted ally, had found it. The man’s clear script burned bright in Archer’s memory.
My lord, our suspicions prove correct. Alexandria held the key. I have found the answer. To be conveyed in the agreed-upon venue.
And so Archer’s hope and salvation was tucked into a lacquered box and sent out on his fastest vessel, The Karina, only to be set upon by Hector Ellis’s pirates and lost to the sea. Two days later, Daoud’s body was found, his throat slit, silenced forever. Archer’s return trip to Egypt to discover what Daoud might have found yielded nothing.
Frustration made him want to crawl out of his skin. “Damn it all,” he hissed.
Elizabeth’s voice filled his mind. You have her now. All will be well.
“Now who sounds hopeful?” he said, blinking up at the glass roof. But there was hope. His sources told him his box might not have sunk to the bottom of the sea, but made it to England. Thus he had returned, and had been unable to keep from claiming his bride.
Sunlight broke through the gray clouds. Shafts of light hit the glass house and filled it up. And when the first rays touched him, a familiar tingling shivered over his skin. He inhaled sharply, at once feeling the surge, the heat—and the bitter failure—for he had not been able to stay away from the light. His body hummed, the light pouring through him. God help him, he was weak. He thought of Miranda, and his fist curled tight. He needed to be stronger. For her.
Then get back down there and be with her, coward.
For a moment he thought he heard gentle laughter. Then it was silent.
Sir Percival Andrew, Second Baronet of Doddington, old as he was, had certain rituals preceding his afternoon nap. First, a kiss from his wife, Beatrice, who then drew the heavy brocade drapes closed and helped him don a dressing gown before retiring for a nap of her own. Marks, his valet, might have attended him but, as Bea often teased, his kiss was not half as sweet.
The second, a glass of port to be imbibed while sitting in his favorite chair before the fire. Today was no different. He settled down with a satisfied sigh, his old bones aching yet comforted by the warm hearth, and picked up the morning edition of the Times. The fire popped, and the paper rattled in the quiet. A peaceful moment shattered as a shout of pure incredulity broke from his lips upon reading the wedding announcement of Lord Benjamin Aldo Fitzwilliam Wallace Archer, Fifth Baron Archer of Umberslade, to Miss Miranda Rose Ellis.
“Son of a bitch!” He slammed the paper down in a rare display of temper. That bastard. Returning to England when he had promised to stay away. After all the work Percival had done to hush things up, the countless times he had covered Archer’s tracks, for the sake of all their reputations. Now in jeopardy because Archer had a twitch in his cock. Impertinent lot, the Archers. One and all. By God, it was not to be borne. The impudent whelp would have to be spoken to, firmly.
A cold wind touched his back, an icy caress from an open window. The oddity of it barely touched his mind before an arm slammed around his chest, pinning him to the chair. Heart in his mouth, he caught the sight of a black mask at the corner of his eye.
“Archer?” he rasped. Blood thundered through his ears. His bladder had let loose, the thick briny smell cutting through the cold air as the warmth seeped over his skin.
“Forgive me,” said a familiar voice that caused Percival to convulse against the chair. “But I need you to send a message.”
Steel flashed white in the soft light. A sharp burn shot across Percival’s throat. He gagged, hot blood splashing his shaking hands, splattering across the white marble mantle and the faded daguerreotype of Bea on her fortieth birthday. He took a rattling breath, tasted salt and blood upon his tongue. Bea.
“Are you well settled?” Lord Archer led Miranda to a table long enough to seat twenty, with silver candelabrums running down its long center. The mirror-paneled table was laden with food enough for a party. The sight of numerous silver-domed serving dishes perplexed her as the table was set for one. A single, lonely place setting next to the head of the table.
He held out the chair in front of the setting and bid her to sit.
“Yes, thank you.” She eyed the food with amazement as he proceeded to lift the lids himself. Wafts of steam rose from the dishes and, with it, the scent of rich warm food, too much to distinguish any one component but rather a miasma of such delectability that her mouth watered. “You are not eating?”
“Alas, I cannot dine with you,” he said with a touch of asperity, for the reason was obvious. “I dined earlier.”
She glanced away from the mask, wondering with chagrin if they were ever to dine together. “Then all of this bounty is for my benefit?”
“As I understand, you have forgone the pleasure of eating such foods for some time.” He reached for her soup bowl. “Oyster stew or chicken soup?”
“Oyster, please.” A happy smile pulled her lips. She hadn’t had oyster stew in years.
Lord Archer ladled the fragrant white broth into the bowl and set it down. “Whereas I have been blessed with endless bounty, yet no one with whom to share it,” he finished, handing her a small silver bowl filled with oyster crackers.
“But I could not eat all of this.”
“Well, I certainly hope you shall try a little. Careful consideration has gone into the planning of this meal,” he said lightly. “I shall be thoroughly put out should you waste away from lack of effort.”
“Wish to fatten me up, do you?”
“Mmm.” Gray eyes skimmed over her form. “How does the fairy tale go?” He rested an elbow on his chair arm. “Ah yes, I have lured you into my luscious house of candy and gingerbread to tempt you with sugared delights. And when you are nice and plump, I shall gobble you up.”
A flush of tangible heat washed like the tide over her skin. There was only light laughter in his tone yet the force of his gaze made her turn away. Stomach fluttering, she tried to look stern. “I suppose you have forgotten that Gretel outwitted the old witch in the end and roasted her alive.”
He chuckled, a deep rumbling of thunder before a storm. “How very gruesome.”
“Yes, quite,” Miranda agreed with a smile. Ah, but he was charming. Unexpected, but decidedly so. “Very well, I shall do my part. Only what of the rest?”
“The servants shall have it.” He looked at her with some amusement. “Does that appease you?”
The creamy soup, ripe with plump oysters and golden puddles of butter, tasted like heaven on a spoon. She nearly groaned with pleasure and forced herself to eat slowly, aware that Lord Archer watched with rapt interest.
“Wine?” He poured with the deft ease of a seasoned servant.
“Is this how we shall normally dine?” The service was like nothing she’d seen before. While resembling a familiar meal served a la française, there were no removes. Everything was simply on the table, including a large platter of fruit, overflowing with velvety figs, glossy pears, and crisp apples, cut open and saturated with rich color.
“No.” A touch of humor lifted his voice as his eyes continued their watch. “Call this…”—his hand waved toward the table—“a bit of fancy on my part. I wanted you to have a wedding feast of sorts.”
She lowered her wineglass, her gaze catching his, and a strange sensation of longing rushed through her. Perhaps he felt it too, for he looked away and toyed with a silver salt cellar with his long, be-gloved fingers. A footman entered as if by magic, whisked away her bowl, and left while Lord Archer lifted more lids.
“We needn’t stand on ceremony,” he said. “I’ve never understood why one must have soup, then fish, then fowl or meat.”
She had to laugh. “Or food that isn’t too highly spiced. At least not for ladies.”
He laughed as well. “Indeed. And all very properly served. Why not eat what we want when we want?” He took her plate. “Although, now that I’ve had a look, might I suggest the sole? My cook is quite gifted, I have to say.”
“Food is the one thing I did not miss when I was away from England.” He handed her the plate and sat. “I should think I’d find myself much aggrieved should I have to partake in a proper English dinner any time soon.”
“Is our cuisine really so awful?”
“When you’ve sampled what the rest of the world has to offer, yes. Although we do breakfast spectacularly well.”
Miranda glanced at her husband. A person’s skin, she realized just then, was an indispensable clue as to one’s true age. As Lord Archer’s attire revealed none of his, she could only guess at his age. His voice was of no help; rich and rumbling, it could belong to a man aged twenty-five to sixty. Her eyes trailed over the lean, muscular body of a man in his prime. With such a physique, he could not be older than forty-five. But the quick, light way in which he moved gave the impression of youth. In his thirties, perhaps? It must be so, as he was too much in command of himself to be a man in his early twenties.
“Have you been abroad all this time, Lord Archer?”
He sat back, resting one arm on his chair. “I haven’t lived in England for many years. I returned briefly three years ago and then set back out to travel the world over.”
“It sounds exhausting.”
“At times. Though I did settle in America for a decade before I began to roam again.”
A light came into his eyes that Miranda recognized. “You liked it there, didn’t you?”
“I like it here better,” he said softly, and Miranda’s skin went tight and warm. They stared at each other for a slow moment before he cleared his throat and spoke in a lighter tone. “I like Americans. They do not think as we do. A man is what he makes of himself, and should he make a name for himself, the journey that brought him to his fortune is very admirable to Americans. They praise achievement, not the past. I took the idea to heart.”
She eyed him speculatively. “You became a man of industry.”
“Of oil and steel,” he said.
Food forgotten, she leaned forward, almost afraid to ask, but compelled. “How fortunate were you?”
His eyes flicked to hers. “On last accounting, I am worth fifty-two million dollars.” He gave a little laugh. “Ten years in America and I irrevocably think of money in terms of dollars. Hmm… I did not factor in my English revenue. So perhaps it is more to the effect of seventy million…” He looked at her in alarm when she made a strangled gasp. “Are you quite well?”
“God in heaven,” she managed at last. The room spun for a moment. She pressed a palm to her heated cheek. “Yes… I’m all right.” She looked up at him. “Seventy million? I cannot begin to fathom.”
“It is rather daunting.” He poured her some white wine before drawing away. “Though I can assure you, our wealth comes nowhere near that of some of my associates. Mr. Rockefeller and Mr. Carnegie, for example, are much more voracious in their quest for capital.”
That he tried to downplay his achievement made her smile.
“At any rate, I have decided to retire from my American activities.” He hesitated. “Er, that will increase our holdings a bit when I sell things off,” he said wryly.
Her laughter felt unhinged. “A bit, eh? You might as well be Croesus.” She looked at him sharply. “Our holdings?”
“Of course ours. You are my wife.” He gave a little bow of his head. “What is mine is yours.” His casual stance on the chair shifted to stiffness. “You are making a face,” he remarked.
She touched her cheek again. “Was I?”
“The idea of us being so linked does not appeal to you?”
Miranda shook her head to clear it. “To tell you the truth, I find the whole idea rather mercenary on my part. It hardly seems fair that I should gain access to your fortune simply for speaking a few vows in a church.” She took a sip of tart wine. “I think you got the short end of the stick in this venture.”
He threw his head back and laughed. “I believe you are the first woman in history to think so.” He laughed again. “And you are quite wrong.”
Their eyes met, and that spark of something hot and sharp ripped through her again. Awareness. It took a moment to realize, but that was it. She was utterly aware of him. Of the breadth of his shoulders, the deep even way he breathed, the force of his gaze. Bloody hell, but she was beset by the craving to touch him, test the strength in those shoulders.
“Should you continue to be merely half as entertaining as you are tonight,” he said with a voice like heated cream, “then I shall have received the greater bargain in this venture, Miranda.”
Excerpted from Firelight by Callihan, Kristen Copyright © 2012 by Callihan, Kristen. Excerpted by permission.
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