(ISBN-10: 1420109936 / ISBN-13: 9781420109931)
Too Wicked To Kiss
October 13, 1813
Evangeline Pemberton’s head slammed against the carriage window, jarring her from another nightmare. For a moment, she thought she was still stuffed in a tiny, airless mail coach. No. She was almost free. She even had elbow room and a clean dress, thanks to the two scowling women seated across from her.
Lady Stanton, a narrow, angular woman with approximately the same shape and warmth as an icicle, stared down her nose at Evangeline with the same glacial expression she’d worn when Evangeline had appeared on her doorstep last evening. Then as now, Lady Stanton’s thin, bloodless lips pressed tightly together, stretching the single black mole hovering below her left nostril. A pale lavender gown the color of snow in shadow swathed her sharp, bony limbs. Blonde hair so limp and lifeless as to appear almost white coiled beneath her bonnet like the sloughed dry skin of a snake.
Evangeline clutched her too-small pelisse around her shoulders and averted her gaze to Lady Stanton’s daughter. A pair of spectacles and a mint green hair ribbon softened the harsh pale beauty Miss Stanton—or Susan, as Evangeline had been bade to call her—shared with her mother, but the easy smiles she’d bestowed upon Evangeline earlier today had long fled from her face.
Susan’s hands fell by her sides in loose fists to rest atop the crimson seat cushion. She wore mitts, long and tight as most gloves were, but without closed tips to cover the ends of her fingers. Perhaps she was immune to the harsh autumn chill.
Evangeline straightened the blanket across her lap and tried to ignore the carriage window’s mocking reflection. Her borrowed dress was now wrinkled beyond all hope. Her stubborn hair refused to stay clasped to her head, choosing instead to cling to her neck and cheeks in damp curls. Grooves from the window frame left uncomfortable lines down her face.
“Thank you again for the invitation,” she said, hoping to coax at least the pretense of a pleasant atmosphere into the chilly confines of the carriage. “This is my first time to London.”
Lady Stanton turned her upturned nose to the other carriage window, apparently preferring the lengthening shadows to idle conversation. Her thin fingers worked a delicately painted fan near her perfumed neck, filling the carriage with the cloying stench of unwatered roses left to wilt in a forgotten room.
Wait. Shadows. “How long was I asleep?”
Susan nudged her spectacles with the back of a gloved hand. “Hours.”
“Hours?” Evangeline repeated, staring out the window in confusion. It had taken hours and hours to flee from her home in the Chiltern Hills all the way to London, but how could it possibly take hours to go from Stanton House to a local soiree? “Where are we?”
Susan glanced at her mother, who was still pointedly focused on the setting sun disappearing behind the skeletal gray arms of leafless trees stretching their knobby limbs toward the heavy sky. Perhaps Lady Stanton worried the impending storm would delay their travel. But their travel where?
“Braintree,” Susan whispered at last, as though wary of speaking the word aloud. “We’re almost there.”
The view from the dusty window dimmed with the setting of the sun, tinting the thick forest surrounding them from pink to purple to gray, until the only light came from the exterior carriage lamps.
Evangeline’s flesh began to prickle. “I thought the house party was in Town.”
“I believe I said ‘outside London,’” Lady Stanton corrected without removing her gaze from the window.
From ten to twilight meant more than a little “outside” London but, having thrown herself on the Stantons’ mercy, Evangeline doubted she could complain and still expect shelter. A single day’s drive was far preferable to the living hell awaiting her at home. If her stepfather let her live. At this precise moment, he was either whipping his servants for allowing her to escape from the pantry or well on his way to finding her and bringing her back.
“Your fiancé lives in… Braintree?” she asked Susan, seeking to replace memories of small dark rooms with a more pleasant topic.
“Actually,” Susan echoed without making eye contact, “he’s never met me.”
An uneasy tremor rippled through Evangeline’s stomach. That was not precisely the same story they’d told her back at Stanton House when they’d loaded up the carriage and set off for a “local” party.
“I must have misunderstood,” Evangeline said slowly, although she was certain her ears were as sharp as ever. “I thought you said you were going to marry him.”
Susan adjusted her spectacles. “I am.”
“That’s where you come in.” Lady Stanton closed her fan with a snap. Small, hard eyes much paler than the blue of her veins glittered like a matching pair of hard, colorless diamonds. “To help her win his hand and his pocketbook, by fair means or foul. After all, recluses cannot spend their wealth alone. A simple compromise should do the trick. Merely get them alone, then ‘accidentally’ stumble upon them, screaming for all the world to hear. I’ll take care of the rest.”
“What?” Evangeline stared openmouthed at the Stanton women, momentarily abandoning her intention to appear calm and biddable. “I’m to entrap an innocent bachelor into marriage with a complete stranger?”
“He’s no innocent,” Susan said darkly, her gaze finally meeting Evangeline’s. “Quite the opposite.”
Meaning what? Evangeline focused on the two women before her. Something wasn’t right. Something worse than saying “outside London” when one truly meant “a desolate stretch of uninhabited country.” Something worse than saying “join us for a delightful party” when one truly meant “force a total stranger to the altar.”
She shook her head, unable to believe the people she’d trusted to provide her shelter had abducted her in a mad scheme to win an unwilling husband. “Why not seek marriage a more… traditional way?”
“Would that we were able.” Lady Stanton cast a quelling glance at her daughter. “Desperate measures must be taken now that the impertinent baggage is no longer welcome in London. Or by anyone who knows anyone who is welcome in London.”
“If I were, we wouldn’t be caught dead anywhere near Blackberry Manor.” Susan smiled, but the humor didn’t reach her eyes. “Of course, we might be caught dead anyway.”
“What do you mean?” Evangeline fought the frisson of cold slithering between her stays and her spine. “Has there been an accident?”
“Not at all.” Susan straightened her perfectly straight bonnet. “Lionkiller strikes on purpose.”
“Lioncroft.” Lady Stanton rapped Susan’s knee with the fan. “Don’t bait the beast with that horrid nickname, or I shan’t be surprised to see your body join the others.”
Evangeline froze, unable to tear her gaze from Lady Stanton’s hard, colorless eyes. “What others?”
One hand rubbing her knee, Susan glared at her mother. “Just his parents. Perhaps mine are next.”
Lady Stanton returned her attention to her window. “Your father won’t be attending the party.”
Susan’s eyes narrowed. “Pity.”
Evangeline’s gloved fingers dug into the squab. Such jests were never funny. “May I remind you,” she said quietly, “I’ve just lost my mother.”
“Five days ago.” With her thin nose held high, Lady Stanton flapped a gloved hand toward Evangeline’s face like a frantic bird unable to take flight. “If that’s long enough to leave your home, it’s long enough to ensure we return to ours with a betrothal contract.”
Five long, long days of unspeakable grief. Five equally long nights of sleepless terror. And one desperate attempt to escape with her life. Evangeline’s damp shift stuck to her skin as she rolled back her shoulders.
“No matter what you think, I am still in mourning. Nothing will change that.”
“Nobody’s asking otherwise.” Her lip curled at Evangeline’s still-shaking head. “You can mourn your mother and help Susan win Lioncroft at the same time. It’s not as if he’d prefer whiling his time with you.”
Susan adjusted her hair ribbon. “Do you dance?”
No. But how humiliating to admit such a lack. Evangeline hesitated before replying, “When I’m not in mourning.”
The eerie cries of unseen animals rose in harmony with distant thunder.
“She doesn’t look like she’s in morning,” Lady Stanton informed her daughter, sotto voce.
“That’s because she’s in my castoffs,” Susan murmured back. “And I’ve never mourned anything.”
“I’m grateful for your generosity.” Borrowed silk scratched against her skin as Evangeline shifted uncomfortably. “But I can’t condone tricking a man to the altar just to get his money, nor do I think locking ourselves up with a murderer for two weeks is in any of our best interests.”
“Increased coffers are always in one’s best interest,” Lady Stanton countered. “But if you feel otherwise, so be it.”
Evangeline’s eyes widened. “Truly?”
“Of course.” Lady Stanton’s crystal eyes turned calculating. “Have a delightful walk back home.”
A sudden burst of lightning lit up both the carriage and the countryside seconds before heavy drops of rain pelted the rattling windows.
Evangeline shivered as an icy breeze snaked through the cracks. “There’s nowhere to walk to. Not even an inn.”
“And you have no money,” Susan put in, casting a pointed gaze at Evangeline’s borrowed gown. “Which means you’re dead either way, so you might as well help.”
“Just so,” Lady Stanton fanned her pale neck. “Miss Pemberton must do as she’s told. As do you.”
“Only because it’s the lesser evil, I might remind you.” Susan turned to Evangeline, her tone apologetic. “It was this or stay confined to the townhouse until summer. I’d rather wait until the end of the party to trap him, but Mother wishes to get the compromise over with first thing. Either way, we do need your assistance.”
“To win the hand of a murderer?” Evangeline rubbed the gooseflesh prickling her arms. “Why wasn’t he sent to the gallows?”
“Nothing was ever proven,” Lady Stanton said with a snap of her fan. “Lioncroft’s quite clever.”
“And both reclusive and exclusive.” Susan leaned forward, eyes shining. “We wouldn’t even be invited if Mother wasn’t a close personal acquaintance of his sister, Lady Hetherington. Just think—Lioncroft’s first social engagement since he killed their parents. Scandalsheets would pay dearly for first-hand accounts of this party!”
“I do apologize,” Evangeline said, although she felt like she should be listening to an apology rather than making one of her own. “But this is a bit too much intrigue for me. I would’ve preferred to work in your scullery than come along on this trip, had I known what you planned.”
“Of course you would’ve.” Lady Stanton arched pale eyebrows at Evangeline. “That’s why we didn’t tell you.”
“I must insist I be left out of any schemes to—”
“Too late,” Susan interrupted, tapping the window. “We’re here.”
Evangeline craned her neck for a better view and nearly broke her nose on the glass when the carriage jolted across yet another deep rut.
A castle rose in silhouette against the stark light of the moon. The house, if one could call it that, was a massive, sprawling mansion with three books and a circular tower, all made of wide gray stones. Two wings jutted forward from either side, forming three sides of a square, with a large gate in the center. Darkness enshrouded the whole, for few candles burned at the windows. Heavy clouds gathered over jagged eaves. Two hulking guardsmen heaved open thick wrought-iron gates. Thunder growled across the sky.
“Blackberry Manor,” Susan breathed, and straightened her spectacles. “Black, like Lionkiller’s soul, and berry because he’s going to bury us back in the garden with the rest of the bodies.”
“Not until after your wedding,” Lady Stanton snapped. “Coffers first, coffins second.” She pointed her fan toward Evangeline. “And you’ll do exactly as I say, Miss Pemberton, or you won’t have a bed to sleep in.”
“Then I’ll just wait in the carriage,” Evangeline muttered, her breath steaming against the window. She cleared the glass with one sleeve. Fat droplets splattered against the rain-streaked pane as she stared at the looming mansion. Stone beasts glared at her from their crouched positions upon the roof.
As they neared, more and more orange light flickered in the windows. A flock of ravens settled atop each tower. She could never live in such a dark, lonely place.
She wasn’t even certain she could survive a fortnight.
As the heavy iron doors closed behind her with ominous finality, Evangeline came to a dead stop inside the entryway to Blackberry Manor.
Despite the tall, arched ceiling with its bowed wooden beams curving at the creases like so many rib bones, the air was thick, heavy, oppressive, as if she had not stepped into the foyer of an aristocrat’s mansion, but a long forgotten sepulcher untouched by anything but death.
At Lady Stanton’s unveiled glare, Evangeline forced her feet further into the echoing anteroom. The cold marble floor spreading from her battered boots to the edges of every wall might have been ivory or alabaster or cream in color, had there been more light than the occasional flickering sconce. Instead, the murky pattern was a foggy, swirling gray, as though a thundercloud had hardened beneath her feet.
Were there no windows? Evangeline craned her neck to peer upward, just beneath the rafters. Ah, yes. Several. But not the kind to let in light.
The narrow slashes high above her head were the sort suited for medieval castles, for skilled archers to aim their deadly arrows at those who would trespass below, not for illuminating entryways for members of Polite Society. This evening, no archers crouched at the ready, just as no sun hung in the sky. Only the slipperiest, blackest of shadows filtered through the thin cracks to fall upon her upturned face like the cool caress of ghostly hands. The wisps of damp hair on Evangeline’s neck fluttered nervously, touched by a breeze she could not feel.
Lady Stanton, for her part, was momentarily nonplused. Gone was the calculating gleam to her eyes, replaced by… not fear, precisely. Wariness. As if she would cleave to her stratagem as planned, but was no longer convinced of its wisdom.
Susan stood in the very center of the room, perhaps determined not to edge too near to the shadows seeping from the corners. Her wide, quick eyes took in the ceiling, the staircase, the narrow slits of lightless windows, and then her trembling hands were at her pale face. She snatched off her spectacles and shoved them in a pocket. Evangeline had the terrible suspicion Susan did so because she had no wish to see just what they’d gotten themselves into.
A gaunt, wizened butler stood silently against one wall, the sputtering candle above his head doing little to illuminate his expression. His gnarled face remained impassive when whispers came from an adjacent hallway, then footfalls, followed by a beautiful blonde lady, four spindly-limbed footmen, and three cowering maids.
The lady did not look at home in the mansion, despite her fancy dress. She looked frightened. After a jerking peek over her shoulder at the vacant marble staircase curving up from the anteroom’s furthest shadows, she hurried into the foyer to greet them.
Lady Stanton moved forward, her steps hesitant. “Lady Hetherington.”
“Good evening.” Lady Hetherington exchanged an indecipherable glance with the butler before facing her guests. “Lady Stanton, Miss Stanton, Miss…?”
“Pemberton.” Evangeline joined the trio and gave her a tentative smile.
The regal lady did not smile back.
“That’s Lionkiller’s estranged sister,” Susan whispered to Evangeline. “The countess.”
“The footmen will see to your trunks,” the lady continued, her voice low and hushed. “You must be exhausted after your journey. Hot water is on its way to your rooms.” She gestured to the three girls still hovering by the doorway. “Molly, Betsy and Liza will be happy to—”
“We have our own maids,” Lady Stanton interrupted stiffly. She appeared wounded the countess would even offer to supply such a common staple as lady’s maids, but the crack in her voice suggested she was floundering for any sense of control.
The countess did not appear affronted. If anything, she seemed to have forgotten she’d been speaking. Rather than continue her welcome, the countess glanced at the staircase again and bit at her lower lip.
“I have no maid,” Evangeline said into the silence. Hollow echoes of her voice whispered from the recesses of the high-ceilinged chamber.
Lady Stanton shot her an acid glare, but Lady Hetherington’s mouth relaxed into a brief, but grateful, smile. Susan murmured a question and both ladies stepped closer to assuage some concern. Evangeline did not. She could not. A sudden chill descended upon the room and her every sense tingled with danger.
Impossibly, she felt him before she saw him.
Although she seemed to be the only one affected thus, she didn’t doubt the prickling sensitivity along her bare neck for a single moment. While the three ladies conversed quietly, gesturing now and again at a maid or a footman, Evangeline lifted her gaze upward once more.
And there he was.
He stood at the landing above the spiral stair, cloaked in shadow. Tall. Unnaturally so. Was it the angle, the skewed perspective of being so far beneath him? Or was his towering stature undeniable, evident in the width of his shoulders, the muscular length of his legs, the long pale fingers curved around the banister?
The shadows made discerning features difficult. Evangeline could not tell if he were truly as savage as he appeared, or if a trick of the light—or lack thereof—caused the slatted darkness to undulate across his form. Almost without realizing it, she began to back away.
He continued down the spiral stairway, silent, sure, the leather of his boots making no noise on the cold marble. Although shadow obscured his face, his eyes glittered like those of a wolf loping alongside a lonely carriage. Thin fingers still curled lightly around the gleaming banister, he took another step forward. When there were as many steps behind him as there were before him, a brief flicker from a nearby sconce lit his face.
Evangeline swallowed a gasp.
Not because of the obsidian eyes framed by equally black lashes. Nor because of the angry slash of cheekbones, the flash of bared teeth, or the scar just above the edge of his jaw. Those things, though separately terrible, together formed a face of cold, cruel beauty. A face for statues, for frescoes, for—
Another flutter of orange light as he reached the final stair, and Evangeline could no longer breathe.
He was angry. Horribly angry. Livid. Enraged. Furious. His eyes glittered like a wolf’s because he was a wolf, a beautiful, powerful, violent wolf, prowling toward his unsuspecting prey. His dark hair slid across his face, snapping Evangeline from her trance just as his long, gloveless hand fell atop the countess’s shoulder.
The countess started, froze, paled. Her fingers touched her bare neck, grasping at her bare throat. Her shoulders curved inward, her spine slumped, as though his mere touch had the power to melt her very bones, deflating her from countess to servant in the space of a breath.
“Gavin,” she said, the name almost a whisper. “You’ve come to meet our guests.”
“Have I?” He jerked his hand from her shoulder. His lip curled, as though a rancid stench filled the chamber.
She winced, but continued on, louder now, her voice infused with false gaiety, as if she were an ordinary hostess greeting ordinary guests, and not a shell of a countess with her unprotected back toward her parents’ killer.
“This is Lady Stanton,” she said. A brittle smile stretched her mouth until the words came out unnatural and strange. “This is her lovely daughter, Miss Susan Stanton.”
Trembling, Evangeline waited to hear her name. It was not forthcoming.
In light of their host’s murderous expression, she was more pleased than offended by the omission. But then Susan—still without her spectacles—gave a weak wave, indicating the edge of the room where Evangeline had stood to watch the wolf’s descent.
“Miss Pemberton,” Susan squeaked. “Miss Pemberton is also with us.”
The wolf’s gaze snapped to Evangeline’s, his face turning so quick she’d barely caught the motion. Trapped, she could neither breathe nor blink.
His shoulders rolled back, his lips hardened, his muscles flexed. No—not a wolf, but a lion. Twice as dangerous.
His eyes were black, recessed, hollowed as though he hadn’t slept well. For decades. His gaze, however, was dark and quick, as if nothing so trivial as a sleepless night would stop him from tracking her down, should she be foolish enough to flee.
She couldn’t flee. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t speak. Evangeline could only stare, wide-eyed and helpless.
He returned the scrutiny, made her the object of his sole and endless focus. The sheen fell from his eyes until they were flat and hard. Even candlelight no longer reflected on their surface. The corners of his lips quirked in a smile that was more ferocious than friendly.
“Guests.” The single word, a belated echo of the countess’s earlier statement, seemed to scatter the charged air, prickling them all with a hint of unleashed fury. “So I see.”
This time, the countess did turn to face him, although her gaze did not meet his. “May we discuss our private matter privately?” The unsteadiness of her voice belied the reproach in her words.
He turned toward the countess. Released from his stare, Evangeline desperately sucked in air. He stiffened, as if he could hear her uneven breaths above the pounding of her heart, but his gaze stayed on the countess. “Be assured, madam. We will.”
Ignoring both mute Stantons, Lioncroft’s eyes fixed on Evangeline once again. In one fluid movement, he gave a sweeping, mocking bow. The murderer, it seemed, had both elegance and grace.
Mechanically, Evangeline dipped in an answering curtsy—or, at least, tried to. Her blistered heel gave way beneath her. Her boot slipped across the slick marble, pitching her forward.
At first, she thought her dark-haired tormenter had moved closer, as though to catch her before she toppled to the ground. But then she was being righted by a footman and Lioncroft seemed to be laughing at her with his black, glittering eyes and beautiful, unsmiling mouth.
He looked, Evangeline realized, like someone accustomed to having commoners like her faint dead away just at the sight of him. And why not? He was an aristocrat, a murderer, an animal.
(ISBN-10: 1420109936 / ISBN-13: 9781420109931)