Prince of Magic

Prince of Magic

Anne Stuart

July 2014 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-540-9

Their irresistible attraction, both mystical and bawdy, may be the only force more powerful than the cult’s dark purpose.

 
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Caught dancing barefoot in the moonlit woods, dressed only in her shift, Elizabeth Penshurst is considered by decent folk to be notorious and disgraced. Sent by her father, a reverend, to serve penance with a cousin in Hernewood, Lizzie sets her thoughts on becoming the perfectly demure and reserved young woman any suitor would want.

 

But evil haunts the woods of Hernewood Abbey. As the Druid festival of Beltane approaches,a sinister cult seeks a virgin sacrifice. Their intended victim: Lizzie. Her only defender—and the man likely to relieve her of her dangerous maidenhood—is the mysterious Gabriel, the Dark Man, a fellow outcast and scholar of Druidism. The forest calls to them both.

 

Their irresistible attraction, both mystical and bawdy, may be the only force more powerful than the cult’s dark purpose.

 


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Excerpt

 

Prologue

Wickham, Dorset, April 1765

IT WAS THE first night of spring. April had come to Dorset, and there was no way that Elizabeth Penshurst could spend one more moment cooped up inside the parsonage.

Everyone was sound asleep. Her five half-brothers, ranging in age from a sturdy seventeen to a precociously charming three and a half, were worn-out from their various exertions. Her father, the Very Reverend William Penshurst, slept the sleep of the righteous, his helpmate, Adelia, snoring softly by his side. No one would hear as Lizzie crept down the back stairs and out through the kitchen garden. The town of Wickham was a sober village of steady habits. No one would be up late, peering out the window to see the rector’s outspoken daughter go flitting down the midnight streets to the forest. Even her nemesis, Elliott Maynard, had left for London more than a week ago, and he wouldn’t be anywhere near to spy on her.

Odd that she would think of her most determined suitor as her nemesis. It wasn’t as if she had anything against marriage in particular. Her father and stepmother seemed very happy with each other, and most of the people of her acquaintance seemed content with their lot.

But then, most of the people of her acquaintance didn’t have a wicked habit of running off to the woods whenever they had a moment to spare. They didn’t dance in the moonlight, converse with the animals, sing to the trees, or lie stretched out on the soft earth, breathing in the spring air.

The only one who did so was Old Peg, and half the village con­sidered her some sort of witch. Old Peg had little use for the villagers, but she must have recognized a kindred spirit in the minister’s dreamy daughter. For the last few years she’d welcomed Lizzie into her forest, taught her the lore of herbs and trees, taught her to find her home in the woods.

Now Old Peg was gone, decently if reluctantly buried in the churchyard with all the proper Christian words said over her free spirit by the disapproving Mr. Penshurst. Old Peg would have hated it. Lizzie was the one who had found her body, of course. If she’d had enough strength, she would have buried Old Peg herself, but the old woman weighed a good thirteen stone, and Lizzie couldn’t manage. Instead she’d had to stand by Old Peg’s grave and weep, the only mourner.

It had been two weeks since Old Peg had been buried, two weeks since Lizzie had sat and listened to Elliott’s doleful pronouncements on mad old women and the dangers of the woods. Two weeks since she’d flatly refused his offer of marriage.

Her father had been deeply distressed. William Penshurst tended to see the best in people, and what better mate could be found for his daughter than his own curate? And surely his daughter was too fine a creature to be critical of Maynard’s thinning hair, expanding paunch, or slightly fishlike profile.

It wasn’t Elliott’s unprepossessing appearance that appalled Lizzie; it was his small, critical nature and the way his moist eyes watched her when her father wasn’t around. The way he always found some excuse to touch her with his soft, damp hands. Never indecently, just possessively, leaving Lizzie with the desperate need to scrub whatever portion of her anatomy he’d happened to grasp, be it her hand, her wrist, her elbow, or the small of her back.

But Elliott was gone, having taken his latest dismissal with a high dudgeon. Lizzie had little doubt he’d return to renew his courtship, and the thought of those upcoming battles was deeply unsettling. She loved her father and stepmother as well as her five little brothers, and she would have done almost anything to please them. Anything short of marrying Elliott Maynard.

As for the Penshursts, they viewed Lizzie as some sort of exotic creature, much beloved but never completely understood. She took after her own mother, a fey, impractical creature who’d had the bad taste to die in childbirth, leaving her husband with an infant daughter and no idea what to do with her.

Fortunately Adelia had appeared on the scene. She had loved Lizzie dearly, as much as she loved the five little pledges of affection she’d presented to her husband, but she was a woman entirely without imagination while Lizzie had far too much of it.

On a warm spring night, Lizzie’s family’s expectations were a distant worry, and Elliott’s determined courtship was miles away. For tonight she could go back to the woods, where she hadn’t been since Old Peg had been buried. She could go and say goodbye in her own way.

No one stirred as she crept down the narrow back stairs. The kitchen was huge and deserted, the two servant girls employed by the Penshursts lived in the village, and no one would be likely to notice that Lizzie wasn’t in bed as a proper minister’s daughter should be in the middle of the night.

It was the first truly warm night of the year, she thought as she slipped out into the kitchen garden. She hadn’t even bothered with a shawl—there was no need for it. She wore her soft leather dancing slippers, but the ground was damp, and someone would be sure to no­tice if she tracked mud into the house. She took them off, setting them carefully by the garden gate, and took off toward the woods, reveling in the feel of the new grass beneath her bare feet.

The woods around Wickham weren’t that large—really not much more than a thick copse bordering a nearby estate. Old Peg had paid little attention to whose land was whose—she simply lived in the forest as was her right.

The moon was almost half-full, a rich, creamy crescent in the blue-black sky. Even on a moonless night Lizzie could have found her way to the tiny grove where stones stood sentinel. It was a holy place, though she knew her father would pale at such a thought, a magic place where Old Peg’s soul would linger, even as her body turned to dust.

She reached the center of the circle, tilting her head back to drink in the moonlight, feeling her unbound hair ripple down her back. Without hesitation she stripped off her plain wool dress and tossed it beyond the circle. She was clad only in a light shift, no properly boned corset, no restricting drawers, nothing but a filmy layer of cotton over her body. She raised her arms to the moonlight and began to dance.

She danced for her trammeled soul and the respectable future she wasn’t going to be able to avoid for much longer. She danced for the moon and the stars and the soft breeze that tumbled her wicked red hair about her face. She danced for everything she could never have, and she danced for Old Peg.

This would be her last trip to the woods. Tomorrow she would become what her family wanted, a dutiful young lady of the parish, practical, pragmatic, a credit to her parents. Her mother’s fickle blood would vanish, and Lizzie would become Miss Elizabeth Penshurst, a good, solid creature like her stepmother.

She would marry the first man who asked her, as long as he didn’t sneak and lurk and disapprove like Elliott Maynard. As long as he didn’t look like Elliott Maynard. She would marry and have children and leave the forest to the woodland creatures who belonged there.

But for one last night she would dance. She sang beneath her breath, old songs that Peg had taught her, songs of love lost and love found, and she whirled and swayed, turned and dipped, lost in the feel of the night air and the strength of her young body.

Until she turned and came to a dead stop, coming face-to-face with Elliott Maynard’s smug expression. And her father’s look of absolute horror.

Hernewood, Yorkshire

IT WAS APRIL, warmer than usual for the demanding climate of North Yorkshire, and Gabriel Durham could stay inside no longer. He closed the ancient tome he’d been poring over and rose, stretching his long, lean body. He’d managed to weather his first winter in more than a dozen years in the place where he’d spent his childhood.

It wasn’t the place where he’d been born—he had no earthly idea where that was, though he presumed it was somewhere near London. It didn’t matter. This was where he belonged, and it had taken far too long for him to realize it.

But realize it he had, coming back to his dubious heritage just as the first snows had begun to fly, coming back to Hernewood Forest.

Now winter was over, and even though a chill still lingered in the air, the daffodils were blooming riotously, the sheep had begun to lamb, and the first of May was fast approaching.

He should have been looking forward to it. If it weren’t for the presence of a group of bored, self-indulgent parasites whom he could only presume followed him in his retreat from London, he could enjoy the feast of Beltane with all his heart and soul. He had every intention of doing so anyway.

Beltane was one of the oldest festivals in the pre-Christian world that had once been Britain. Even though it was now dressed up as May Day, everything went back to a time when the Druids ruled Britain with a scholarly hand.

Of course, people like the Chiltons and their friends preferred tales of bloodshed and human sacrifice. According to the Roman historians, the ancient priests of Britain used to regularly herd large groups of people into wicker cages and set them aflame for no discernible reason. Gabriel had always taken leave to doubt such horrific tales. After all, the Romans had just conquered Britain—it was in their best interest to paint the powerful locals in an unflattering light.

But in the last few years, all things Druidic had become immensely popular, and most people preferred the bloody tales. Gabriel had no particular interest in being the voice of reason. He was fascinated by his studies for their own right, not because he had anything particular to prove.

He’d been a studious boy—it was no wonder his supposed father, Sir Richard Durham, an avid sportsman who avoided the written word as if it were plague-ridden, had had nothing but contempt for him. That contempt had only spurred Gabriel deeper into his studies, until he’d broken free in an act of desperate rebellion.

He’d tasted all the fruits of the flesh and found, after a while, that they were empty. London was a noisy, clamorous bore, and he’d had his fill of society to last him the rest of his life. The simple people of Hernewood were far more to his liking. The simple life, alone in his ramshackle tower with his books and his solitude, kept him perfectly content. If he needed companionship, there was always his old friend Peter or Gabriel’s sister Jane.

If he needed sex, he could find that as well, from any number of discreet, willing women in the area. But what he needed right now was peace.

The night air still held a taste of winter, but he didn’t bother to return to the tower for a cloak. He’d learned to endure hardships, both self-imposed and those put upon him by others, and he’d survived. He was seldom sick, and the deserted woods that surrounded Hernewood Abbey wouldn’t harm him.

He moved through the moonlight, silent as a ghost, circling past the skeletal remains of the refectory. Hernewood Abbey had once been one of the richest abbeys in the country, before King Henry decided to give free rein to his greed. It was still unsurpassingly lovely, even in its ruined state. And it was, blessedly, his.

There were no ghosts roaming in the moonlight, he thought with a wry smile. The ghostly monks would profoundly disapprove of the rites of Beltane: the Maypole and the fires and the merrymaking. They were probably conferring with sepulchral gloom over the wickedness of modern civilization.

Still, he had the sudden longing for even a ghostly encounter. He cherished his solitude, he needed it as most people needed air and water, but for a brief moment in the heart of the midnight woods, he felt achingly alone.

He closed his eyes and saw her. A faery creature from another place and another time, a long-legged sprite with flame red hair and only a wisp of garment, dancing in the moonlight. When he opened his eyes she was gone, a figment of his imagination, and he shook his head, managing a wry grin.

He had no need of scantily clad dryads, no matter how enticing. That blend of erotic innocence teased him, but he needed no more ghosts. He had no need of anyone at all.

Just the same, perhaps a visit to the talented widow in York might be called for. Before the fertility rites of Beltane made him dream of something far less practical.

And made him actually long for something to disturb his quiet days.


 

 

Chapter One

Hernewood, Yorkshire

ELIZABETH PENSHURST, twenty-year-old spinster of the parish of Upper Wickham, Dorset, climbed down from the traveling coach and looked around her. The day was crisp and cool with a strong breeze coming down from the north, whipping her skirts around her legs, rustling the leaves overhead in a whispered warning. Her box was set down beside her, and then the coachman climbed back onto his perch with a haste that seemed oddly suspect.

"You certain they know you’re coming, Miss?” he asked in a gruff voice. "I could take you further, leave you at the Boar’s Knees up ahead a ways. It’s not a fit place for a lady, but neither are these woods, I’m thinking.”

Elizabeth, sometimes known as Lizzie, looked at the towering trees surrounding the market cross. At one point there must have been a thriving village here in the center of nowhere, but now nothing remained but the old stone cross.

The forests were darker in Yorkshire, the trees taller, and in the distance she could see the towering ruins of an old building. She liked it, more than she would have expected.

"I’ll be perfectly fine,” she assured him, wishing she were quite so certain. "The Durhams know I’m coming today, and I’m sure they’ll be here before long.”

"That’s all right then,” the coachman said. "You watch yourself, then, lass. There’ve been strange goings-on around here, or so they tell me. The Dark Man’s been on the prowl, and young girls have turned up missing.”

"Missing?” Elizabeth echoed in a slight squeak. "Dark man?”

"Nothing for you to fret your pretty head about. It’s two hours till dark, and you’ll be safe and sound by then. And they say the ghosts are harmless old souls.”

Elizabeth’s panic began to fade. Dark men and missing girls could get her far too lively imagination in an uproar—ghosts were carrying things a bit too far.

"I’ll watch out for the ghosts,” she said solemnly, suppressing a smile.

"You don’t believe me,” the driver said mournfully. "Just as well. I’ve never seen them. Few do. With any luck you won’t even know they’re around.”

"And who’s the Dark Man?’

The driver shook his head. "Old fairy tales, Miss. Nothing for you to worry your head about. You’ve never been to Yorkshire before, have you? They’re a superstitious lot, and who can blame them? But don’t let it trouble you. Like as not you won’t see a thing out of the ordinary.”

"Like as not,” Lizzie echoed with dubious cheer.

"Well, all right then,” the driver said, as if life had been settled to his satisfaction. "Just stay here, don’t wander off into the woods, and you should be fine.” And before she could think of one more way to delay him he snapped the reins with a decisive gesture, and a moment later the coach had disappeared over the hill, leaving Lizzie Penshurst alone at the edge of the forest.

She shivered, suddenly nervous. Old Peg would be sorely disap­pointed in her. All her life Lizzie had wanted nothing more than to escape into the forest, away from proper behavior and stifling clothing and disapproving eyes. Now she was at the very edge of the wildest forest she’d ever seen, and she was silly enough to be nervous. This was an adventure, the kind she’d longed for, and she wasn’t going to waste her time with regrets. Fate and her own scandalous behavior had brought her here; it was up to her to make the best of it.

She squared her shoulders, smoothed her skirts, and sat down on her abandoned trunk, humming softly beneath her breath. Not a hymn, which would scandalize her father, but an old tune that Peg had taught her, about faithless lovers and found love. She could hear the wind riffling through the new growth of leaves overhead. Her father’s living was a good one, but she’d spent most of her twenty years in the county of Dorset, a much gentler, milder climate. It had been warm with the blush of spring when her father and stepmother had packed her onto the mail coach with stern warnings and strained affection. Their dutiful daughter had disgraced them, and the Penshursts were both hurt and mystified.

This afternoon the wind across the dales carried the memory of winter on it, and the towering trees were like nothing she had ever seen. It would get dark in another hour or so, she suspected. Her father had warned her of outlaws and highwaymen and heartless seducers, all of whom might prey on a young woman traveling alone. Not that she was the sort of female to attract heartless seducers. She was only passably pretty, obviously devoid of any generous fortune, with a deceptively calm, nonsensical manner guaranteed to frighten away most importunate gentlemen. And the unimportunate ones as well. She’d grown accustomed to it. She had no interest in gentlemen. She had no interest in anything at all but what she found in the woods surrounding her native village.

She’d spent her entire life in the market town of Wickham, and it was rare that she’d managed to escape her stepmother’s watchful eye and find her way into the forest. It was on one of those occasions that she’d first met Old Peg and changed her life forever.

But the gentle woods of Dorset were nothing compared to the wilds of Yorkshire. And as Elizabeth sat and waited for the carriage to come and carry her to Hernewood Manor, she couldn’t rid herself of the notion that the driver’s warning, while obviously well-meant, was just slightly unnerving.

She’d never met a Dark Man, though she could assume the driver hadn’t been speaking of a dark-skinned foreigner. She knew far more than any minister’s daughter should know of legends, stories of woodland creatures and sprites and piskies and even the Green Man himself, thanks to Old Peg. She’d never run across any magick creatures in the boring confines of Wickham, unless you counted Old Peg, who was reputed to be a witch.

But if one were to meet magic anywhere, this green and brooding place would be the spot to find it.

The light was fading now, and the wind had picked up, stirring the folds of her sensible merino cloak, tugging at her tightly coiled hair. She was very careful to keep it pinned close to her scalp, subduing its wild waves even if she couldn’t subdue its flame red color. She had brought only her plainest, dullest clothes. She was pinned and starched and tucked and covered, and no one would ever believe that one week earlier she had been caught dancing in a forest grove in the moonlight, barefoot, her hair rippling down to her hips, clad only in her shift.

She sighed. The scandal had shaken the entire town, and she knew whom she could blame for it. She’d always been very careful not to be seen when she ran off into the woods, but Elliott Maynard, who should have been in London, had watched her with a solicitude that made her ill. He had followed her, watched her as she shed the stifling layers of clothes and danced in the moonlight. And he had brought her father and a crowd of disapproving parishioners to bear further witness.

The scandal had been appalling. Mr. Penshurst had thundered, her stepmother had wept, her five half-brothers had alternated between outrage and amusement. And wicked Lizzie Penshurst had been sent away, banished to distant relatives of her poor, dead mother, as far away from Upper Wickham as could be managed.

Lizzie sighed. She had every intention of improving her wicked ways. She didn’t know what it was that called her to the woods, but she fully intended to ignore that call. She would be a quiet, helpful guest at the Durhams. She would be meek and subdued, and when it came time for her to return to Dorset, people would marvel at how docile she was.

However, she had no intention of being docile enough to marry Elliott Maynard, despite her father’s fondest hopes.

The wind was picking up a bit. Perhaps she was foolish to sit here in the middle of nowhere and wait. She couldn’t very well drag her luggage around the countryside, but she was young enough and quite strong and used to walking, even in the tight boots and layers of wool. She could follow the narrow road into the darkening afternoon—sooner or later she’d have to come to a village, or at least a farmhouse where they might send word to the Durhams.

But what had the coachman said, in the midst of his dire warnings about Dark Men? The nearest pub was no place for a young lady, and as the night grew darker she might very well lose her way. At least the market cross was a well-known landmark. Someone would have to pass by, sooner or later, and it was getting to the point where Elizabeth would have gladly welcomed an outlaw or a heartless seducer. And her father’s worst fears would be confirmed.

They had never thought that she would take after her mother, the wild and impractical Guinevere de Laurier. Elizabeth had always suspected it had been a relief when her beautiful mother had died of a wasting fever right after Elizabeth was born. William Penshurst had worshiped his well-bred, mysterious wife. He’d also been totally bewildered by her.

Adelia was a good, sturdy woman and loving stepmother, dutiful wife, wise counselor, and solid trencherwoman. She was perfect for Elizabeth’s sober father. For nineteen years Elizabeth had done her best to belong. It was neither of their faults that deep inside she had always felt like a faery changeling in their neat and practical house.

It would have been better for everyone if she’d never run into Old Peg during one of her solitary rambles. If she hadn’t stopped to talk, only to have Old Peg fix her sharp eyes on her and announce in mysterious tones, "You’re one of the old ones.”

Considering that Old Peg was ancient and Lizzie was only just past her fifteenth birthday at the time, it seemed like a strange thing to greet her with, but Old Peg would never explain. Instead she told Elizabeth the tales of the woods, the old legends of Herne the Hunter, stories going back to the time before Christ, and Lizzie had listened, her determinedly dutiful, fettered soul enraptured by a world long gone that somehow felt like a lost memory she had lived in ages past.

Elizabeth had learned by then not to mention such things to her father if she wanted to keep the peace. She had helped take care of her five little brothers, assisted Adelia in the household duties, attended church with pious regularity, and kept her long, unsuitably red hair tightly coiled and her troublesome eyes chastely downcast. Except when she escaped the house, the watching eyes, and her confining life, and ran free.

All would have been well, and she would have slipped into the satisfyingly peaceful life of a spinster, had it not been for the Reverend Penshurst’s weasely curate. Elliott Maynard was a pale, soft-handed, wet-lipped man eager to rise in the world. While the Penshursts had little money, the daughter came from good stock, with a respectable portion. Certain physical drawbacks could be overlooked. Elliott’s courtship commenced immediately.

Unfortunately Mr. Penshurst approved the match. His dreamy daughter had always been a worry to him, and placing her in the care of another Man of God seemed the best way to assure her moral well-being. Mr. Penshurst considered it his duty to see the best in all of his fellow creatures, and he was serenely unaware that Elliott Maynard was a lecher, a bully, and a narrow-minded creature concerned less with his flock and almost entirely with his own betterment in society. He was also inordinately stupid.

When Elizabeth’s polite demurrals had given way to stern refusals, Elliott had simply presented his suit to Elizabeth’s father. And been warmly welcomed into the family.

Old Peg had been her only support. "Don’t marry him, lass!” she’d said in a hushed voice. "He’s not the man for you. He’s waiting for you.”

"Who is?” Lizzie had demanded, but Old Peg had refused to answer, closing her eyes and looking deep into the strange places where she always seemed to find the answers.

"The Dark Man,” Old Peg had muttered finally. "You have to face the Dark Man. It’s Him you’ll be wanting.”

That had been six months before, and her parents had kept on at her, determined that Elliott Maynard was the answer to her future. She might have been worn down, eventually, if she hadn’t gone to the woods one morning to find Old Peg still and silent, lying amidst the leaves, her long life finished with her secrets taken with her. And the next time, when Lizzie went to dance in the woods, Elliott had followed her.

Elliott Maynard hadn’t given up, despite Elizabeth’s shocking fall from grace. He considered her visit to her second cousin Jane in North Yorkshire to be a minor setback, and he was prepared to wait. After all, there were few men willing to marry an ordinary young woman with such strange and pagan habits. It didn’t matter that she had too clever a tongue and nothing more than a respectable portion. He could be patient.

He could be patient till hell froze over, Elizabeth thought with uncharacteristic violence, shivering in her thin cloak. She’d prefer the mysterious Dark Man to Elliott’s soft-handed bullying.

And here she was, at a crossroads, and nearby a Dark Man lurked in these ancient woods. A spawn of Satan or something else. Old Peg, for all her adherence to the Old Ways and the Old Religion, wouldn’t have sent her to the devil, would she?

She hadn’t heard a sound, only the ripple of the wind through the thick bower of leaves, the faint scurry of a small woodland creature. But she looked up, torn from her brooding thoughts, and saw him standing there, watching her.

He was no Dark Man, of that one thing she was absolutely certain. It had to be a mere trick of nature that sent one solitary shaft of late-afternoon sunlight down to gild his tall, silent form.

For a moment she thought he might be the coachman from Herne­wood Manor, but there was no comfortable conveyance, no horse nearby. He was dressed in rough clothes—a coarse shirt, open at the neck, and dark breeches that might have been leather or wool. His hair was far too long, as if he hadn’t bothered to have it cut in years, but his face was clean-shaven. He tilted it to get a better look at her, and her breath caught in her throat.

His hair was a sun-streaked brown, his face tanned from the outdoors even this early in the year. His eyes were curiously light in his face, though she was too far away to see what color they were. His face was narrow, a watchful, clever face, and she wondered who he was. And if he knew about the Dark Man.

Her father had told her to beware strange men, and this still, silent creature who stood watching her was very strange indeed. But the darkness was closing in around them, and she couldn’t very well pretend not to see him.

"Hullo,” she said, and to her annoyance her voice wavered a bit.

He didn’t say a word. He simply moved closer. She stared at him in astonishment. He didn’t move like a peasant. He was the most graceful creature she’d ever seen and the most silent. He crossed the rough ground until he came very close to her, and she saw his eyes were a clear, golden brown in his cool, still face.

His voice was the biggest surprise of all. She’d been expecting the flat, broad Yorkshire tones she’d already learned to interpret. His voice was low, warm, beguiling. And she knew, instinctively, the voice of a gentleman.

"Who are you?” There was nothing rude in the question—he simply seemed curious to find a young woman perched on her luggage in the middle of nowhere.

"I’m waiting for someone from Hernewood Manor to fetch me. I don’t suppose you’ve seen anyone nearby?”

"Hernewood Manor,” he murmured. "That explains it. And would you be visiting Jane?”

He didn’t say Miss Jane, and Elizabeth wasn’t fool enough to correct him. Whoever this strange creature was, he didn’t fit in any of the normal, rigid social levels she was used to.

"Miss Durham is a cousin.”

"Indeed?” He sounded doubtful.

"Yes, indeed.”

"And why have we never seen you in these parts before?”

The conversation was beginning to make her as uncomfortable as the mysterious man. "And who’s to say I haven’t been here before?” she countered in a practical voice. "You might have just missed my presence.”

He shook his head. "I would have known,” he said simply. He glanced around. "It looks as if they’ve forgotten all about you. That’s not like them—the Durhams pride themselves on details and minding their manners.”

"I’m sure they’ll show up any moment now.”

"I could see what’s keeping them.”

She was frozen to the bone, and all her father’s warnings vanished with a shiver. "Would you?”

"There’s only one problem,” he said. "I don’t know your name. Shall I just tell them a mysterious young woman is waiting at the market cross?”

"Miss Penshurst,” she said. "Miss Elizabeth Penshurst.”

He tilted his head to one side, a strange expression in his golden eyes. "Miss Elizabeth Penshurst,” he repeated it, as if he were tasting the words. "Welcome to Hernewood, Miss Penshurst. Do you believe in magic?”

Stranger and stranger. "Not for an instant,” she said flatly. She wasn’t going to believe in magic any longer, she’d promised her father, promised herself.

His faint smile was ever so faintly unnerving. "You will, Miss Penshurst. Hernewood will make you believe.” There was nothing she could reply to such an extraordinary statement. He moved back. "I’ll find someone and send them for you.”

He walked away—she knew he did—like any other normal human being. But it still seemed to her overtired, overactive brain that he melted back into the dappled sunshine, vanishing from view as the darkness grew deeper and thicker around her. She wondered if she was a com­plete fool to trust him. She wondered if she’d imagined the entire encounter.

Less than ten minutes later the jingling of a horse bridle set her mind at ease. The small pony cart came racing down the roadway, pulling to a stop in front of her with a great flurry of dust and stamping horse.

The young driver was almost as surprising as her previous encounter. Tall and lanky, dressed in an enveloping coachman’s coat, he jumped down and pulled off his cap, exposing a head of cropped black curls that was most definitely feminine.

"Dreadfully sorry!” she said in a breathless voice. "We thought you were coming next week!” She stuck out a large, well-made hand. "It’s Elizabeth, isn't it? I’m your cousin Jane, you know.”

Elizabeth had risen, and she looked up into her cousin Jane’s plain, pleasant face. Her eyes were a warm brown, her black hair hacked off midway to her shoulders with a singular lack of style. But those eyes were the kindest eyes Elizabeth had ever seen in her life, and her smile was equally welcoming.

"Call me Lizzie," she said. "You can’t imagine how very glad I am to meet you.”

"Yes, I can,” Jane said cheerfully. "This place is a wee bit strange for those who aren’t used to it, and here we were, forgetting all about you. My father will have my head for this.”

"Was it your fault?”

"No,” Jane said. "But that won’t matter to my father—he’s a stickler for polite behavior, not to mention punctuality, and he can’t very well blame the brats.”

"The brats?”

"My younger brother and sister. Two absolute hellions who nonetheless fail to make my father appreciate my subdued manner.” She laughed, a rich, hearty chuckle that was wonderfully infectious. She reached for Elizabeth’s box, the box that had strong coachmen stag­gering under its weight, and heaved it into the back of the cart with deceptive ease.

"I gather you’re in some sort of disgrace,” Jane continued, climbing up into the pony trap and holding out her hand for Lizzie. "Was it with a man?”

"No!” said Lizzie, affronted. "I was simply walking in the forest, entirely by myself.”

"What’s so shocking about that?”

"I wasn’t wearing much,” she admitted.

Jane laughed, a full-throated chuckle. "Well, I’m always in disgrace as well. It sounds as if your crimes aren’t much worse than mine, which usually include spending too much time in the stable and ripping my clothes. I expect we’ll get along famously.”

"Two unrepentant hoydens,” Lizzie said. "I’m supposed to be mending my wicked ways.”

"So am I. I think it’s a lost cause in my case. My parents gave up on me years ago. I’m doomed to be an old maid, and just as happy.” There was a trace of defiance in her rich voice.

Lizzie looked at her in surprise. "You don’t want to get married?”

"Not if I can’t have true love. Of course Gabriel says that true love doesn’t exist, but he’s being tiresomely cynical. I believe in it, I just don’t believe I’m going to end up with that particular blessing.” She shrugged. "I’m not going to worry about it though.” She’d turned the pony cart onto a narrow track. "This isn’t the main way to the house—Father would never stand for anything so shoddy—but it’s the fastest way to get you there and warm you up. Just don’t tell him I brought you in the pony trap, will you?”

"Why not?”

"He expected me to have the carriage set up, but that would have been another half hour, we’d have had to take the main road, and I wouldn’t have gotten here until it was pitch-black. Thank God Gabriel found me.”

"Gabriel? Was that the strange man?”

Jane laughed. "Strange, you think? I suppose I can’t argue—there’s no one on earth quite like Gabriel. Don’t mention anything to my parents about him. They’ll have the vapors.”

"They don’t approve of him?”

"That’s putting it mildly.”

"But who is he? I thought he was a servant at first, but once he spoke I realized he couldn’t be.”

For the first time the outspoken Jane looked uncomfortable. "Gabriel is simply... Gabriel. You won’t be likely to run into him again—he keeps his distance from most people. Forget you ever saw him.”

For some reason the memory of his haunting golden eyes danced back into her brain. "Certainly,” she said briskly, in no means certain that she’d be capable of doing any such thing. "If you’ll tell me one thing.”

"Of course,” Jane said blithely.

"Who is the Dark Man?”


 

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