(ISBN: 1-4201-0994-4. ISBN-13: 9781420109948)
Too Sinful To Deny
February 4, 1814
March. The last of the plumed lords and ladies swooped into Town like crows feasting upon carrion. Susan had escaped both her splints and her bedchamber for the first time in six long, dark weeks—only to be bundled in the back of a black carriage and jettisoned into the vast void of nothingness beyond London borders.
To Bournemouth. Bournemouth. An infinitesimal “town” on a desolate stretch of coastline a million miles from home. Less than a hundred souls, the carriage driver had said. Spectacular. Thrice as many bodies had graced Susan’s London come-out party four years ago, not counting the servants. Being banished from Town was the worst possible punishment Mother could’ve devised. Nothing could deaden the soul quite like the prospect of—
Susan’s breath caught in her throat. Her mind emptied of its litany of complaints as her eyes struggled to equate the stark, colorless vista before her with “town of Bournemouth.”
Dead brown nothingness. Miles of it. A steep cliff jutted over black ocean. And there, backlit with a smattering of fuzzy stars, a bone-white architectural monstrosity teetering impossibly close to the edge.
Moonseed Manor did not look like a place to live. Moonseed Manor looked like a place to die.
Not even a single candle flickered in the windows. The carriage drew her ever closer, its wheels bouncing and slipping on sand and rocks. Susan’s skin erupted in gooseflesh. She hugged herself, struck by an invasive chill much colder than the ocean breeze should cause.
The carriage stopped. The driver handed her out, then disappeared back into his perch, leaving her to make her presence known by herself. Very well. He could stay and mind the luggage while she summoned the help. Miss Susan Stanton was no shrinking violet. Although she wished for the hundredth time that her lady’s maid (and frequent collaborator in the very schemes that got Susan in trouble in the first place) had been forbidden from accompanying her. She was well and truly exiled.
The back of her neck prickling with trepidation, Susan found herself curling trembling fingers around a thick brass knocker, the handle formed from the coil of a serpent about to strike. The resulting sound echoed in the eerie stillness, as if both the pale wood and the house itself were hollow and lifeless.
The door slid silently open.
A scarecrow stood before her, all spindly limbs and jaundiced skin with a shock of straw-colored hair protruding at all angles above dark, cavernous eyes. The sharpness of his bones stretched his yellowed skin. His attire hung oddly on his frame, as though these clothes were not his own, but rather the castoffs of the true (and presumably human) butler.
“I…I…” Susan managed, before choking on an explanation she did not have.
She what? She was the twenty-year-old sole offspring of a loveless London titled couple who banished their ostracized disappointment of a daughter to the remotest corner of England rather than bear the sight of her, thanks ever so much for your hospitality? She nudged her spectacles up the bridge of her nose with the back of a gloved hand and forced what she hoped was a smile.
“I’m Susan Stanton,” she tried again, deciding to leave the explanation at that. Mother had written in advance, and what more need she say after whatever had been said in Mother’s missive? “I’m afraid I was expected hours ago. Is Lady Beaune at home?”
“Always,” the scarecrow rasped, after a brief pause. His sudden jagged-tooth smile unsettled Susan as surely as it must frighten the crows. “Come.”
Susan slid a dozen hesitant steps into a long narrow hallway devoid of both portraiture and decoration before the oddity of his answer reverberated again in her ears. Always. What did he mean by that, and why the secret smile? Once one entered Moonseed Manor, was one to be stuck there, entombed forevermore in a beachside crypt?
“P-perhaps I should alert my driver that your mistress is at home.” She hastened forward to catch up to the scarecrow’s long-limbed strides. “I have a shocking number of valises, and—”
“Don’t worry,” came the scarecrow’s smoky rasp, once again accompanied by a grotesque slash of a smile. “He’s… being taken care of.”
Normally, Susan would’ve bristled with outrage at the unprecedented effrontery of being interrupted by a servant. In this case, however, she was more concerned with the rented driver’s continued wellbeing. She was not sure she wanted him “being taken care of.” Shouldn’t the butler have said her trunks would be taken care of? She glanced over her shoulder at the corridor now stretching endlessly behind them, and wondered if she were safer inside these skeletal walls or out.
Susan didn’t notice a narrow passageway intersecting the stark hall until the scarecrow disappeared within. She stood at the crossroads, hesitant to follow but even more nervous not to. After the briefest of pauses, she hurried to regain the scarecrow’s side before losing him forever in the labyrinthine walls.
If he noticed her moment of indecision, he gave no sign. He made several quick turns, passing tall closed door after tall closed door, before finally making an abrupt stop at the dead end of an ill-lit corridor.
This door was open. Somewhat.
A candle flickered inside, but only succeeded in filling the room’s interior with teeming shadows.
“Sir,” the scarecrow rasped into the opening. “It’s Miss Stanton. Your guest.”
Sir? Susan echoed silently in her head. Had Papa’s fourth cousin thrice removed remarried in the dozen years since Mother had last spoken to this distant limb of the Stanton family tree? Did Mother comprehend where exactly she’d condemned her daughter? Or care?
“Guest?” came a warm, smartly-accented voice from somewhere within. The master of the house? No. “You were expecting guests at this hour, Ollie?”
“All guests arrive at this hour,” a deep voice countered. “It’s midnight.”
Before Susan had a chance to parse that inexplicable response, the door swung fully open and a fairytale giant filled the entirety of the frame.
Her shoulders reached his hips. His shoulders reached the sides of the doorframe and very nearly the top as well. His broad back hunched to allow his dark head to pass beneath the edge. Small black eyes glittered in an overlarge square face, his mouth hidden behind a beard the color of fresh tar. Arms that could crush tree trunks flexed at his sides. He did not offer his hand.
Although her name was more a statement than a question, Susan’s well-trained spine dipped in an automatic curtsey as her mouth managed to stammer a simple, “Yes.”
He did not bow in kind.
“Move out of the way, oaf,” came the cultured voice from before. “I must see this creature who travels alone and in dark of night to visit the likes of you.”
Rather than move aside, the giant stepped forward, crowding Susan backward. Her shoulders scraped the wall opposite. Her hands clenched at her sides.
A new figure filled the doorframe. Tall, but not impossibly so. Well-muscled, but not frighteningly so. As smartly tailored as any London dandy, but with an air of barely-contained danger more suitable to the meanest streets where even footpads feared to tread. Alarmingly attractive despite the too-long chestnut hair and day’s growth of dark stubble shadowing the line of his jaw.
“Mmm, I see.” An amused grin toying with his lips. “My pleasure.”
He performed as perfect a bow as any Susan had ever encountered in a Town ballroom. Before her trembling legs could force an answering curtsey, the giant moved back into place, blocking the… gentleman?… from her view.
The giant’s thick arms crossed over his barrel chest. “Carriage?”
“Gone,” rasped the scarecrow.
Susan jumped. She’d forgotten his silent presence.
The scarecrow’s terrifying smile returned. “Taken care of.”
Satisfaction glinted in the giant’s eyes. Susan was positive panic was the only thing glinting in hers. Would she be “taken care of” next?
“Take her to the bone chamber.”
Susan’s heart stuttered to a stop until she realized the giant had said Beaune chamber, not bone chamber. Beaune, like Lady Beaune, her father’s fourth cousin thrice removed, with whom her family very clearly should have kept a much more detailed correspondence. Yet even with this correction firmly in mind, Susan couldn’t help but doubt the Beaune chamber would remotely resemble the sumptuous Buckingham-quality guest quarters she’d hoped to find.
The scarecrow turned and headed down the hall without bothering to verify Susan followed. He was wise not to worry. She had no intention of standing around under the giant’s calculating gaze any longer than necessary.
Susan scrambled after the scarecrow without a single word of parting for her host—not that the giant seemed particularly concerned about adhering to social niceties—and rounded a corner just in time to see the scarecrow ascend a pale marble staircase she swore hadn’t existed when they’d traveled this exact sequence of corridors moments before.
He led her through another complicated series of interconnected passageways. A lit sconce protruded from the middle of an otherwise unadorned hall, as bleached and unremarkable as all the rest. Orange candlelight spilled from an open doorway, chasing their shadows behind them. Susan wished she could flee as easily.
“Your room,” came the scarecrow’s scratchy voice.
Susan nodded and stepped across the threshold. When she turned to ask him directions to the dining areas and drawing rooms (and when she might hope to see the lady of the house) he was already gone.
She faced the cavernous chamber once more, doing her best to ignore the uneasy sensation of walking into a crypt. Although the room was as cold as any catacomb would be, a large canopied bed, not a casket, stood in the center. And the shadowy figure next to the unlit fireplace had to be a maid provided to ensure Susan’s comfort. Thank God. At least there was some hint of London sensibilities.
Susan stepped forward just as the cloaked figure swiveled without seeming to move her feet. Long white braids flanked a narrow face hollowed with hunger and despair. Age spots mottled her clawed hands and pale neck. An ornate crucifix hung from a long gold chain. Trembling fingers clutched the intricate charm to her thin chest. She did not appear to be starting a fire in the grate. She did not appear to be a maid at all.
“M-may I help you?” Susan asked.
The old woman did not answer.
Were there more sundry guests in this pharaoh’s tomb of a manor? Was this one lost, confused, afraid? So was Susan, on all counts, but the least she could do was help this poor woman find her correct bedchamber.
Before Susan could so much as offer her hand, however, a sharp breeze rippled through the chamber. She shivered before she realized she could no longer feel the phantom breeze—although it continued to flutter the old woman’s dark red cloak and unravel the braids from her hair.
In fact… the breeze began to unravel the old woman herself, ripping thread by red thread from her cloak like drops of blood disappearing in a pool of water. The wind tore long curling strands of white hair from her bowed head, then strips of flesh from her bones, until the only thing standing before Susan was the empty fire pit. The fallen crucifix glittered on the hardwood floor and winked out of sight.
The chamber door slammed shut behind her with foundation-shaking force. Susan didn’t even have to try the handle to know she was trapped inside.
She wondered what else was locked inside with her.
Evan Bothwick swirled his untouched brandy, then tossed the liquid into the fire. He didn’t jump backward as steam and sparks shot from the flames, giving the smoke a slightly sweeter air. For a moment, something akin to rancid fruit overpowered the more pungent peat. Neither odor, however, was what soured his stomach.
Empty glass dangling from his fingers, he faced his companion.
“I must know the truth.”
Ollie’s bent frame hulked before the bar. “I don’t know a damn thing. She’s some London deb, here to repent the wickedness of her ways.”
“Not about your houseguest, brute.” Evan hurled his empty tumbler into the fire. The glass shattered on impact, but the smell of the smoke did not change. “I’m not interested in the blasted woman slamming doors abovestairs.”
“Humph. You’re always interested in women.” Ollie poured a fresh glass of brandy and proffered it in one overlarge paw.
Evan made a shooing motion to decline the offer, then watched in silent horror as his host downed the entirety in one swallow, like a shot of cheap whiskey. “I’m interested in wenches, not women, Ollie. Wenches are… well, perfect. Much easier to deal with.”
Ollie swiped the back of his hand across his beard. “How could what’s-her-name be any easier? She’s upstairs. And no lock ever kept you out of somewhere you wanted to be.”
“Exactly. She’s upstairs. Whereas if you pick the right wench, you never have to clap eyes on her again.” Evan hooked his thumbs in his fall. “Like I said… perfect.”
Ollie’s too-loud laughter filled the smoky room. “From what they’re saying in town, you clapped more than your eyes on that scrumptious little Miss—”
“Let’s just talk about Timothy, shall we? He and Red were supposed to be back in port this time last week.”
“Red ain’t here, either.”
“That’s my point.” Evan leaned back, his shoulder thudding against the mantel. “Timothy was the lead on that mission, and he’s responsible enough to—”
Ollie shrugged. “Pirates aren’t responsible.”
Evan’s fingers twitched at his side. “Ollie, could you please be serious for a moment? If I had my pistol, I’d shoot you just for annoying me.”
“There you go. Now you’re acting yourself again. Except for the ‘please.’” Ollie turned back to the sideboard. “Sure you don’t want another brandy?”
Evan glared at him. “Red’s a useless featherbrain and always has been, but Timothy would’ve sent word if something went wrong.”
“Then nothing went wrong. Just because you’re a few years older doesn’t mean you’ve got to mother the poor bastard. Perhaps the two of you are cut from the same cloth. Could be he’s shacked up with a few bits o’ fluff and is far too busy being naked to bother sending his brother love notes. He’ll be home when he’s had his fill.”
“Time’s running out. Boat has to be seaworthy again by Friday.”
“They’ll be back.” Ollie downed another shot of brandy. “Like you said—Timothy’s a responsible sort.”
Evan’s eyes narrowed. For a fellow water rat, Ollie was far too cavalier about the disappearance of their ship and cargo. “If you know something, tell me. Now.”
Ollie slammed his empty tumbler onto the sideboard. “I know you’re becoming well annoying, that’s what I know.”
Their eyes locked for a long moment before Evan growled and turned back toward the fire. He wished he’d taken that second brandy after all, just to have something to destroy. “We should’ve all gone together.”
“It was a two person job.”
“Then I should’ve gone instead of that shit-for-brains Red.”
“I believe Timothy asked you to do just that, but you were still occupied with the bit o’ muslin you met on the last job.”
“At least I can walk away.” Evan snatched his greatcoat from the arm of a wingback chair and wondered if the little blonde upstairs regretted whatever impulse had brought her so far from home. “That new guest of yours is something else. Hope she locks her door tonight.”
“My house.” Ollie lifted his empty brandy glass. “Nothing locked to me.”
Evan stalked out of the study. Ollie could be so infuriating. Just because he’d been a member of the crew for several years—as opposed to Evan and Timothy’s mere six months—Ollie took great delight in treating the two of them like imbeciles.
Sure, the overgrown brute did have a point. Evan undoubtedly would’ve been late coming home if he’d been the one on the ship.
But it wasn’t Evan on that ship. It was Timothy. Timothy, with the rule-following soul of a ledger-keeper. Timothy, who’d wanted to create charts and schedules for swabbing the deck and cleaning the privies, for Christ’s sake. If the captain said to dock by Monday, Timothy would’ve docked by Sunday morning.
But he hadn’t.
Evan let himself out of Moonseed Manor. Few stars lit the cloudy sky. He picked his way around the perimeter of the house and through the rock garden to the steep path plummeting down the sandy cliff to the beach below. Timothy would’ve—
Wait. What was that? There, smudged between the shore and the horizon. A ship, the hull rocking with black waves, the sails fluttering with the ocean’s salty breath.
Evan scrambled down the narrow trail, his sure feet keeping him from tumbling to his death even as the sharp rocks and brambles scratched at his boots and clothes.
He leapt the last few feet and sprinted toward the ship. Running in boots on thick sand was only marginally easier than doing so weighted down with large wooden crates. The craft shimmered in the distance, a mirage of sails and shadow. Why weren’t the damn things helm-lashed? And why cast anchor so close to home? If Timothy didn’t have the ship housed in the usual spot before daybreak, half the town would see the flag from their breakfast windows.
Lungs burning from exertion, Evan slowed to a jog when he got close enough to realize there was no way to board the ship without swimming a fair bit out to it. Timothy hadn’t even bothered to drop anchor within shouting distance. Marvelous.
Evan sighed and shucked his boots and greatcoat. Lucky that fashionable garments from illegal French silk were free for the taking, or Evan might be a bit displeased about being forced to dive into frigid saltwater in his evening clothes.
Only one of his stockings remained by the time he reached the bower’s cable. Soaking wet and covered in gooseflesh, he hauled himself up to the deck as quickly as possible. A ruined wardrobe he could forgive, but if he caught cold from dealing with his little brother’s antics and became too ill to go on the next mission, Evan would have to seriously consider fratricide.
“Timothy!” he shouted as he leapt to the deck. His single stockinged foot shot forward every time the silk slid across puddles of water. Evan half-hopped, half-danced his way to a reasonably dry patch and jerked the offending garment free. “Timothy? Red? Where the devil are you two?”
And the rest of the crew, for that matter. A so-called “two-person job” still required the usual collection of riffraff in order to set sail—or return home. Of course, there was no cargo in sight, either. The captain’s secret local associate must have made short work of divesting the ship of its booty. The spoils were no doubt long gone, and the captain’s share of the profits already in his pocket.
Damp footprints marked Evan’s trajectory as he made his way through the empty ship, calling out crewmember names and pushing open doors. Timothy was no doubt at home before a fire. That strait-laced rotter would laugh himself silly if he knew his brother was dripping wet and clomping around deck barefoot.
Evan gave the wardroom door a half-hearted shove, convinced by now that he was the only one stupid enough to still be on board. He stepped inside the cramped quarters and jolted to a stop. Damn it.
A pair of glassy eyes stared right through Evan. His brother’s eyes. A trickle of dried blood seeped from the small black hole in Timothy’s pale forehead, the thin red line separating his face into two ghostly halves. No point checking for a pulse. Timothy had been dead for days. Goddamn it. Evan turned away, no longer able to stare into the eyes that had once looked up to him as if he were a hero. He was no hero. He’d failed Timothy as a shipmate and as a brother. But no more.
Evan would find whoever stole his brother’s life. He’d catch the rotten excuse for a pirate, no matter who he was or where he slunk off to.
And then he’d kill him.
(ISBN: 1-4201-0994-4. ISBN-13: 9781420109948)