Demons Of The Past
Abraham Stirling, Lord Rothwell, was a fighter once, a soldier in the Colonies. But Bram returned to London with more nightmares than tales of glory. Now he drowns his senses in the arms of countless women, while his friends, the Hellraisers, ensure he needn't sin alone.
Until, that is, the Devil himself grants them each a wish, undoing their camaraderie as they explore their wicked powers. Bram finds himself magically bound to Valeria Livia Corva, the sensuous priestess who raised the Devil the first timeand died to send the demon back.
She may be a ghost, but Livia is no angel. The raw passion she witnesses in Bram's memories isn't much different from her behavior when she had a body to enjoy. But it doesn't make it any easier to convince Bram to become a warrior again, lest all London burn. And the fierce desires reawakening within her might just start the blaze. . .
"Zoë weaves a delightful spell." Elizabeth Vaughan
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About the Author
Zoë Archer is an award-winning and Rita-nominated romance author who thinks there’s nothing sexier than a man in tall boots and a waistcoat. As a child, she never dreamed about being the rescued princess, but wanted to kick butt right beside the hero. She now applies her master’s degrees in Literature and Fiction to creating heroes in tall boots and butt-kicking heroines. Zoë and her husband, fellow romance author Nico Rosso, live in Los Angeles.
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SINNER'S HEARTThe Hellraisers
By Zoë Archer
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Ami Silber
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLondon, 1763
There was no pleasure in sinning when one sinned alone.
Not so long ago, Abraham Stirling, Lord Rothwell hadn't been alone. When Bram would plunge into the night and its pleasures, there had been others beside him to share the wickedness. The five of them had done such acts as to make the whole of London their stage and audience, the city held rapt by scandal of the Hellraisers' making.
It was down to him, now. Whilst his friends had strayed, he held tight to the wild paths. Sin and immorality and indulgence at any cost. His one reliable means of forgetting.
Bram was alone tonight, but soon he wouldn't be.
Laughing, Lady Girard swayed down the corridor, away from the crowded ballroom. She did not look back, but his footfalls upon the polished floor deliberately announced his pursuit. Bram made no secret of his hunt. Breaking her studied insouciance, she cast him a deliberate glance over her shoulder as she slipped into one of the small, empty chambers, leaving the door open.
Behind him, sharp laughter rang out, the sounds of men and women determined to enjoy themselves no matter the price. Desperation edged their gaiety, as though by dancing, drinking, and flirting, they might beat back the specter of madness that haunted the city.
He wouldn't think of that. He would think of nothing but his own pleasure. Thus his aggressive pursuit this evening of Lady Girard, as her husband gambled away a fortune in the card room.
Whit never cared for the games of chance at assemblies. He had said they never played deep enough for his liking, the stakes far too low. More than a few nights with the Hellraisers had been spent in gaming hells, immersed in risk, winning and losing staggering sums of money. Whit had his strategies, even before he'd been able to manipulate the odds. He'd tried to instruct Bram, but Bram hadn't the patience for calculation and cunning. Not at cards and dice.
Loss carved a hollow within his chest. No, he wouldn't think of Whit, either. Nor Leo nor Edmund. Not even John.
This night is mine. Lady Girard will be mine.
He stepped into the small chamber and closed the door behind him. The sounds of forced gaiety muted. The only noise within this sitting room was the ticking of a gilt clock on a mantel, and Lady Girard's heeled slippers tapping on the floor as she walked backward, watching him with a sly gaze.
Light from a single candelabra turned her yellow, low-necked gown lustrous and painted the tops of her breasts gold. She was beautiful, her powdered hair as pale as ivory, her lips bearing traces of artful paint. A glittering trinket of a woman.
Just enough sparkle to distract him for a few blessed moments.
"That daring gown flatters you, Lady Girard."
She leaned back against a small table, her hands resting on its edge. The position thrust up her chest so that the neckline of the gown dipped even lower, almost fully exposing her breasts.
"You flatter me, Lord Rothwell."
"Flattery is a means of deception, and I do not deceive."
He stalked closer, feeling the hum of anticipation through his body, until he stood over her.
She chuckled. "I know all about you." She trailed a finger up the length of his chest, toying with the sparkling jet buttons of his waistcoat, and lingering in the spaces between the buttons. A hum of appreciation curled from her lips.
Lust, and only lust between them. So simple. The call of one body to another. Animal and basic, for all their sophisticated voices and urbane glances. The lush realm of the senses.
He stepped closer, the froth of her skirts about his legs.
"You claim to know all about me." He ran one finger over the curve of Lady Girard's collarbone, and her eyes drifted closed. "Yet here you are."
"I'm told that too much chocolate is detrimental to my health, and yet I crave its taste." She looked pleased by her wit, and he'd no doubt she would repeat the phrase again to another lover.
"We have circled one another for long enough."
"And here I was, despairing that I might ever draw your notice." She gazed up at him through the fan of her lashes, a coquette's practiced look. God knew that Bram had seen an abundance of that same calculated flirtation, and done his own share.
"You have it now."
She tossed her head. The sapphires at her ears danced. Another deliberate move. "What if I desire more than your notice?"
He was in no mood to indulge her need for flattery. Too much burned through him—loss, anger, despair. There was only one way he knew to gain solace. It might be temporary, but any relief was better than none.
"Do you want me to swive you, or not?"
Her eyes widened at his directness. "Well, yes, but—"
"Turn around and put your hands on the table."
For a moment, she just stared at him, as though shocked by his command. He stared back, and reached into himself, drawing upon the power within him. It was a pair of velvet shackles he might fasten wherever he desired. A single suggestion, and he felt her will bend, supine, to his.
Her eyes turned glassy and bright. He knew that look well.
"Of course," she murmured with a little smile. Her gown made a rustling sound as she turned and bent over the table. Over her shoulder, she sent him a sultry glance.
He gathered up her skirts, his hands filling with silk that felt like brittle, dead leaves. He did not look at her legs, though they were soft and satiny, but concentrated on the back of her neck, where a line of fallen hair powder had gathered and mixed with her sweat.
The need took hold of him, brutal and demanding. To fall into the torrent of lust, where only bodily pleasure existed, and he could forget the collapsing world.
He reached for the fastenings of his breeches.
Lady Girard stirred. "Are we to have an audience?"
Frowning, he said, "We're alone."
"Then who is that?" She nodded toward the farthest corner of the room, veiled in shadow. "And why is she in fancy dress?"
He stared. A woman stood in the corner, watching them with a mixture of bewilderment and fascination.
She wore the clothing of ancient Rome: draped tunic, diadem in her artfully curled hair, snake-shaped bracelet winding up her arm.
He cursed. He knew her. All too well. Valeria Livia Corva.
"Leave me the hell alone," he growled.
Livia started. She glanced down at Lady Girard, then back up at him. "You ... see me?"
"Of course I bloody see you." Though Lady Girard shifted beneath him, he would not relinquish his hold on her skirts.
"I do not ... how am I ...?" Livia drifted closer, out of the shadows.
"Oh, my God!" Lady Girard pushed away from the table and Bram with a scream.
For the light revealed that Livia was translucent. The details of the chamber could be seen through her softly glowing form, and she did not walk upon the floor but hovered. As she moved nearer, she passed through a chair as if she were made of vapor.
"A specter!" Lady Girard bolted toward the door. She did not look back as she tore it open, then ran out into the corridor, her slippers pattering like raindrops.
Bram wanted to call her back. Yet he had used his power upon her already. It worked only once for each person. And he doubted very much that even a man as skilled in seduction as he could woo her back. For most people, the sight of a genuine ghost was terrifying and strange.
He was overly familiar with the terrifying and strange. And it enraged him.
"Spare me from your invectives and lamentations, for I haven't the stomach for them tonight." His gaze raked her as he straightened his coat. Thwarted lust seethed beneath his skin. "At least you once had the good manners to appear to me in private."
She drifted closer, hand outstretched in demand. "You must—"
"None of this. I cannot abide hearing more of your dictates."
"Enough," he snarled. "My pleasure here is ruined, so I must seek it elsewhere."
She scowled. "There's far more at stake than your pleasure."
As though he needed reminding. Edmund was dead. Whit and Leo were lost. And John ... Bram didn't know who John was anymore. The five Hellraisers now scattered to the winds like ashes as the world burned. And they were the ones who lit the tinder.
He stared at the specter. "I don't bloody care."
Before she could speak again, he strode from the chamber. Returning to the ballroom, he saw Lady Girard being comforted by three swains. She turned her stunned gaze to him, but he didn't linger. Like everything in his life, tonight had been thrown to hell. He shouldered his way roughly through the sweaty, perfumed crowd, ignoring those that called to him or pulled at his sleeves.
Finally out of the ballroom, he sped from the house—Lord Dunfrey's place? Did it matter? His long stride took him away from the assembly, the voices, his hindered seduction, that damned ghost, and into the night. Into the darkness.
Night lay heavy over the city. The few lamps lining the avenues burned fitfully, trails of smoke curling toward the sky. Linkboys' torches barely penetrated the darkness. Even here in elegant St. James, shadows felt endless, choking.
He didn't know where his legs took him this night, only that he must move, and keep moving, as if the hounds of hell snapped at his heels.
Turning a corner, he heard the shouts before he saw the men. Guttering lamplight revealed two figures locked in a fight. Knives gleamed in their hands and made metallic arcs in the air as they swung at each other. The men weren't beggars or drunkards. Their coats were clean and of fair quality. Both had lost their wigs in the scuffle, so the weak light turned their shaved heads to bare skulls.
He knew these men. Lesser nobility, and brothers. Their thrown punches and jabs with their knives revealed that they meant to hurt each other.
"Goddamn son of a whore," one snarled.
"You're a liar and a rogue," the other spat. "I'll spill your guts upon the ground."
In an instant, Bram stood between them, his sword drawn. His was no gentleman's decorative blade. The weapon had seen use.
"The both of you, stand down."
The two men stumbled backward, their gazes moving from his sword to his face and back again. He stood lightly, ready to fight.
"This isn't your business, my lord," one of the men panted.
"I don't like seeing corpses in the road." Only a week ago, Edmund had lay in the street, his blood pooling between the cobblestones. The sword that had pierced Edmund's chest had belonged to John. They had been as brothers not long before. Bram had seen it all unfold, stood in horror and watched as one of his good friends killed the other. Afterward, he envisioned the scene over and over, and every time, he was unable to prevent the outcome. Edmund dead at John's hand.
This, at least, he could stop.
"There's two of us," the other man said. "One of you. It could be your corpse in the street."
Bram stared at them, unblinking. He raised his sword. "One blade is all I need to spill your blood." If he couldn't stop these brothers from fighting, then by God he would make them sorry for challenging him.
The men's gazes moved to the scar that snaked down his throat. His daily reminder that he'd faced death, and survived. Bram was not easy prey.
Whatever the brothers saw in his face and stance, they didn't care for it. Eyes wide, cheeks ashen, they both dropped their knives, then turned and scuttled away like roaches.
He waited a moment. Sheathed his sword, and walked on. Yet the seething fury within him continued to burn, stoking him, his whole body alight.
Where Bram went, he didn't know. Only that all around him, the city seemed in chaos. Here, in genteel Mayfair, more fights churned on street corners. Glass from shattered shop windows glittered on the sidewalk and crunched beneath his heels. A night watchman ran from a mob.
This city is a runaway horse, careening toward disaster. As though something had been unleashed, something dark and wild, gnawing away at humanity, turning everything rancid and ugly.
You know the cause.
He stared at his jagged reflection in a broken window.
Pieces of his face stared back. His eyes—when had they become so cold? His mouth—had it always been this cruel? Or had these changes come over him these past few months, ever since that night at the Roman ruin near his country estate?
It doesn't matter. Nothing matters.
He stalked on. His steps slowed when he discovered himself standing outside the Marquess of Colfax's mansion.
A smile curved his mouth. Several months ago Bram had challenged the other Hellraisers to a shooting contest, and they'd shot off the finials on the marble balustrade. Leo had been the winner, and they'd gone to celebrate his victory with a cadre of opera dancers and smuggled French brandy.
Bram now walked close and placed his hand on the chipped stone. The marble finials still had not been replaced. Neither had the memory.
The front door to Colfax's home opened. Bram stared as Colfax himself came charging down the steps. Uncharacteristic rage twisted the marquess's face. He'd always been the most genial of men—Bram had once accidentally spilled wine on Colfax's velvet waistcoat, and the marquess had actually apologized for being in Bram's way—yet now the older man barreled toward him with fury in his eyes.
"You think I didn't know? You think I didn't see?" Colfax jabbed his finger into Bram's chest. "The lot of you, despoiling my property and laughing. Laughing! I watched the whole thing, and I didn't do a damned thing to stop you. But I won't tolerate it, d'ye see? Not any longer. The five of you will pay!"
The shock that had held Bram immobile snapped. Anger surged. Here was another sign that the world had gone mad. The five Hellraisers were no more, their friendship razed, and lunacy gripped the city. He still woke, sweat-drenched, from dreams of past madness, the shouts of dying soldiers and Indian war-cries ringing in his ears. And here they were again, his old demons—death, chaos, brutality. No matter how fast he ran, he couldn't outpace them.
His hand shot out and wrapped around Colfax's throat. He didn't care that, as a baron, he was outranked by Colfax. All that mattered was the wrath that blistered within him.
The tirade abruptly stopped as Bram lifted the marquess up so that the older man's feet left the ground.
"We should've gone on as we had," Bram snarled. "But everything changed and fell to ruin. It didn't have to."
Colfax's eyes bulged as he clawed at Bram's hand. His gaze fixed on Bram's wrist, and clouded with confusion.
Following Colfax's gaze, Bram saw what appeared to be a drawing of flames tracing up his wrist and curling up his thumb. Yet it wasn't a drawing. It was the mark of the Devil.
What had begun as a small image of fire just above his heart now encompassed the whole of his left pectoral and down his arm. The flames even traced down toward his abdomen. They grew nightly, and some day, he suspected, they would cover him entirely.
Here then, the reason why everything changed. The Hellraisers had gained their name through their misdeeds, but one night, several months ago, they became Hellraisers in truth.
My fault, all of this.
Shouts sounded from the house as servants came running to aid their master.
With a snarl, Bram released Colfax, then stalked away. He heard the marquess coughing, and the worried murmurings of the servants, wondering if they should call the constable. But Bram put Colfax behind him, and sank back into the night.
He did not know if he chased something, or if he was the one being hunted. His body churned with restless energy, setting his every nerve aflame with no means of smothering the blaze.
His muttered curse startled a sweep scurrying home. The boy stopped, nearly dropping his brushes. Face blackened with soot, the sweep's round eyes appeared startlingly pure, the only part of him not coated with grime.
"You look like an imp," Bram said.
The boy frowned. "What's an imp?"
"A little demon that stokes the fires of hell."
Painfully thin, clad in rags and barefoot, the sweep believed enough in divine intervention to cross himself. "Preacher says we aren't to speak things like that. Tempts the Devil, he says."
"Did you know the Devil is real?"
"A gent with horns and a tail, what lives under the ground?" The boy scratched his head. "Sounds crooked to me. But I don't know nothing, so my master says."
Bram took a step toward the sweep. "What if I told you that the Devil had no horns, no tail? That he looked and dressed like a gentleman, a gentleman with crystal-white eyes, and he called himself Mr. Holliday."
"Funny name," the boy said.
"He's a whimsical creature, the Devil. Can grant you the means to have your deepest desire, but never tells you the cost. Not until it's too late."
Excerpted from SINNER'S HEART by Zoë Archer Copyright © 2013 by Ami Silber. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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