The Demon Count Novels

The Demon Count Novels

Anne Stuart

September 2013 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-5-478

Two books in one!

The Demon Count and The Demon Count's Daughter

 
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The Demon Count

In a world of grandeur but also nightmarish evils, his dangerous passion drew her to him . . .

As soon as she arrives in Venice, golden-haired Charlotte Morrow is pursued by the city’s most dashing and celebrated men. Young and reckless, the orphaned English ward of a mysterious guardian expects a life of parties and adventure.

Instead she finds herself little better than a bird in a gilded cage at Edentide, her guardian's immense palazzo on the Grand Canal. A "Ghoul of Venice” is terrorizing the city, draining beautiful young women of their blood. To Charlotte’s horror, her handsome, brooding guardian, whom she secretly calls the Demon Count, is considered a prime suspect. Every night in his mansion is a spine-tingling battle between passion and fear, as he draws her to him with irresistible desires and dark cravings.

Is he protecting her from the Ghoul, or savoring the prospect of her seduction and murder?

The Demon Count’s Daughter:

A love for danger is bred in her blood.

Her willful passion sends her into the arms of a stranger.

It’s impossible for a young woman with Luciana’s passionate bloodlines to lead a boring, sheltered life in London. With her parents away on holiday, she and a small entourage escape to Venice, where the mystery, danger and romance of her mother and father’s early years have always beckoned.

Tall and raven-haired, the beauty is on a secret mission and is expecting to meet with compatriots. But the dangers surround her far more than she imagined, and her father’s aged palazzo is not the sanctuary she hoped for. Her only protection is an irresistible but mysterious stranger who captures her heart. His secrets tell him to keep his distance. But Luciana will get what she wants. She is, after all, the Demon Count’s daughter.

 


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Excerpt

 

Chapter One

I’VE NEVER BEEN one to give way to hysterics with great frequency, but I knew that if this wretchedly sprung carriage hit one more bump I would scream at the top of my lungs. It seemed like months since I’d first climbed into this vehicle of the devil, and my poor, tired body was a mass of bruises and aches since we started on this rocky and ill-kept road across the plains of Italy. As the miles passed, each turn of the wheel was torture. Once more I was flung against my unwilling fellow traveler, a stout and surly banker, and without further hesitation I shrieked.

The coach pulled to a halt far quicker than I could have imagined possi­ble, and the cheerful Swiss driver appeared at the window, creases of worry in his ruddy face. "What’s the matter?” he demanded anxiously in German.

The banker gave me a look of withering disdain. His opinion of woman­hood was obviously not very high, and his opinion of a young lady who traveled unaccompanied on a public coach through the strife-torn Italy of 1840 was even less. And when that same young lady chose to scream for no reason... All this he communicated to the driver in a few short German words, while the comfortable-looking grandmother across from me nodded in weary agreement. It had been a long day, and the May weather was unseasona­bly warm.

I had the grace to look abashed, while the spotty young clerk on the lady’s left tried to catch my eye with a speaking glance of sympathy. I ignored him.

"I’m terribly sorry,” I said in my clear English voice. "I don’t know what came over me. I’m perfectly all right now.”

The banker, after giving me one last look of helpless dislike, turned and translated my gentle speech into German, adding a few distinctly uncomplimen­tary remarks about the English in general and this one in particular. I smiled at them all apologetically, bland incomprehension written on my face, settled back against the rough seat, and sighed.

For not the first time I wondered whether I had been incredibly foolish in taking off like this. Without question my reputation was in shreds, my meager finances almost gone, and my spirits at low ebb. I couldn’t help but wonder how my new guardian would react when his detested and despised young charge arrived at his palazzo. The thought cheered me.

As the coach began to bounce once more along the potholed highway, I let my mind drift back to the England I had left, the home in an uproar, the rage and disapproval of my mother’s family, providing a momentary diversion from the tedium of travel.

"You cannot, you absolutely cannot travel alone to Italy at this time!” Great-aunt Matilda stormed.

"Those wretched foreigners are about to erupt into war again!” Cousin Horace announced. "Not that they aren’t always in that state. I don’t know what could have gotten into your father, to have left you in the care of some damned Spaniard!”

"He’s Italian, Cousin Horace,” I corrected gently, my soft voice a re­proval for his swearing. "And for that matter, he’s half British and a cousin by marriage. Father traveled widely... he knew many men and many places. I trust him to have chosen the best of them for me.”

"But to travel alone, Charlotte!” Aunt Isabel reproached. "So soon after your poor mother’s funeral.”

"I won’t be traveling alone. I’ll have my maid with me at all times, and luck­ily a friend of Mother’s is planning a trip to Venice. She has graciously offered to bear me company. So you can see I couldn’t possibly wait... Mrs. Hartmann is leaving in a week, and I’ll have to be ready. Count del Zaglia insists I come as soon as possible.”

"Damned impertinence, if you ask me!” Cousin Horace snorted, his jowls quivering with indignation. "Still, he’s your legal guardian for another year. There’s not much to be done about it. Now, if only your father had had the sense to talk to me about this, he would have seen that I was a much better person to take charge of your well-being.” Not to mention my comfortable fortune, I thought cynically. "We’ll have to meet this Mrs. Hartmann.” He snorted again, a distressing habit of his.

I had brightened at this sign of capitulation. "Of course, cousin.”

But they had never met, for the simple reason that Mrs. Hartmann, like my guardian’s summons to Italy, was a fabrication or, to put it more frankly, a lie. Two days after that fateful conversation in the cold and dreary library of my mother’s rented house in Brighton I was safely on board a small ship making its leisurely way along the coast of Europe to the Mediterranean Sea and the Italian port of Genoa

I received not one word on my mother’s death, not one note of condo­lence from my appointed guardian, merely a cold communication from his agent in England that I was on no account to even think of venturing to join him. I was to continue my schooling (schooling I had completed two years ago at the age of seventeen), and when the situation in Italy calmed a bit, Count del Zaglia would arrange something for me.

Arrange something for me! The very thought turned me livid with rage. I had at that moment decided I would instead arrange something for the dear count. A trip to the continent would be just the thing to help me over the shock of my mother’s unexpected passing. Within a day the tickets were pur­chased, two small bags were packed with my mother’s cast-off mourning clothes, and I was ready to depart.

As the carriage rumbled along at a painfully brisk pace, I thought back to my mother’s sulky, delicate face, and wondered what she would think of me now. She probably wouldn’t care that her only daughter was traveling alone and unchaperoned. She never had much maternal feeling for me.

I had often wondered what had possessed my father to marry her. Theresa Brunwood was pretty enough in her youth, indeed, even till her untimely death, but there were others with as much beauty. She had quite a frightening intellect, a curse she had passed on to me, which perhaps accounted for poor Charles Morrow’s initial enchantment, so accustomed was he to brainless society belles. As a rising young diplomat perhaps he thought the lovely crea­ture would be an impetus to his burgeoning career. If so, he had reckoned without Theresa’s intrinsic coldness and self-absorption. One year after their only child was born my father took up residence at the embassy in Rome. Theresa remained behind, victim of a conveniently failing constitution.

To say my mother enjoyed ill-health would be to put it mildly. Every day I would be brought before her chaise longue to kiss her artfully pale cheek and recite to her my lessons. Each day I would look for some sign of affection, some gesture of maternal love. I never found one, and by the age of twelve I had given up looking.

Theresa had taught me many things, however. She taught me to revere learning, to be self-sufficient, to smile prettily and play the fool when gentle­men were about.

"But my dear Charlotte,” she would say softly when I was older and more romantic and would dare to mention an attractive would-be beau, "he has the mind of a well-bred horse. Surely you couldn’t really be interested in one such as he?” And I would blush before her gentle mockery and agree miserably that no, of course I could not be interested.

All in all, I grew up totally unsuited for the one profession open to me, that of marriage and motherhood. I could speak seven languages, five fluently. I could cipher, discuss politics, literature, and history, outrun, outtalk, and outthink any man of my limited acquaintance. And if I did have a weakness every now and then for a pair of broad shoulders or clear blue eyes I would catch my mother’s faintly superior smile and turn away with great resolution and only the faintest trace of lingering regret.

"It won’t be much longer, signorina,” the spotty young clerk opposite me broke into my none-too-pleasant thoughts, and the banker frowned warningly at him. "Another hour or two and we’ll stop for the night.”

"And none too soon,” the banker harrumphed, casting a steely glance in my innocent direction, placing the blame for our delays squarely on my deli­cate shoulders.

I considered the two of them for a moment, then offered the younger one my sweetest smile. "Thank you,” I murmured gently, and then deliber­ately directed my attention to the gently sloping countryside below me, leav­ing the crestfallen clerk to stare moodily at my averted profile.

I couldn’t blame the fellow. Every time I looked in a mirror I experi­enced a start of surprise that the fairyland creature should be me, Charlotte Theresa Sabina Morrow. A perfect English rose, a smitten young man had once told me, and I could unconcernedly see the truth in that. I had guinea-gold hair that fell in delightful, soft curls around my face, a retroussé nose, rosebud mouth, and china-blue eyes as big as saucers. My complexion was touched with a healthy pink, my eyelashes were thick and curly, and my natural expression was one of charming innocence. My body lacked the per­fect, insipid beauty of my face, but it was well enough. A bit over average height and not quite as plump as was the current style. In all I was considered to be a beauty, and it interested me not one whit. In my soul I fancied myself a dark, tragic figure, with melting dark eyes, hair black as night, and an alabas­ter complexion that was both pale and interesting. The porcelain English beauty that stared at me was a bland and uninteresting stranger, and my recogni­tion of its attractive qualities had nothing to do with vanity. It simply existed.

Ihad learned swiftly in the last two years since I left school that I had only to smile and some nice young man would rush to do my bidding. Even motherly ladies would respond to my gentle requests, a fact that amused my own mother no end. "You should do splendidly, my dear,” she had chortled one evening with uncharacteristic glee. "Everything that should have been mine will be at your fingertips. You need only to perfect your use of your natural gifts, and the world will be yours.”

I had watched her amusement with somber doubt. I had no idea what great future my mother had in store for me, but somehow I doubted it was something that would appeal to me. In truth, I would have been far happier if I had been able to succumb to just one of those stalwart young men that flocked around our rented mansion in the seaside resort town. But I was far too much my mother’s daughter to do that.

In the end I had broken free... only by her sudden death, but free I was, and reveling in it. I had abandoned my maid in Southampton with a fatter purse than my limited pocket money could truly have afforded. Dressed in one of Mother’s cast-off black wool dresses, I knew I made a pathetic and appealing picture to my fellow travelers. I had exchanged my set of shipboard protectors for equally vigilant champions, and never once had I been forced to suffer importunate suggestions. Indeed, it was a source of disappointment to me that my trip had been so tame, even boring.

But I counted on the rage of my unknown guardian, the excitement of liv­ing in a new country, and the turbulent political situation to change all that. I had no doubt I could bring Count del Zaglia around my finger in short order... I had seldom failed when I wanted an elderly gentleman to succumb to my feminine wiles.

I remembered my mother’s exclamations of anger and disdain when my fa­ther’s will was read. "How dare he!” she had fumed, looking temporarily quite healthy in her rage. "Leaving you in the care of that... that foreigner! And a Catholic at that! The man never had any sense.” For an educated woman Theresa was surprisingly narrow-minded about what she stigmatized as "dirty foreigners.”

"But, Mama,” I had ventured with the usual timidity she alone had in­spired in me, "he was Father’s dearest friend!”

"He was no such thing,” she snapped. "Luc del Zaglia has to be years younger than your father—closer to my age than to his. And totally disreputa­ble if half of what I hear is true. It is highly fortunate that I am not quite as sickly as your father hoped. If I were in my grave I shudder to think what would become of you at the hands of such a one as he!”

All this was just the sort of thing to appeal to an over-imaginative young woman. My one act of rebellion against Theresa’s strict rule was my love of lurid novels. I was amazingly gullible, and I took to daydreaming all sorts of melodramatic fantasies about the demon count, as I had dubbed him. Deep down I knew well enough he must be harmless—my father had loved me too dearly to have risked placing me in any but the best of care. It had always grieved him deeply that my mother had kept such a tight hold on my com­pany.

I had always wondered what had prompted Theresa to deny my companion­ship to my lonely father, and decided long ago that it could only be spite. Theresa certainly had never cared for me, nor for anyone but herself. And I couldn’t help wondering if my father, knowing full well the specious nature of my mother’s illnesses, hadn’t placed my care in the hands of the most dissolute person he could find, simply to irritate her.

"Well, there’s no helping it,” Theresa had lamented bitterly. "There is no way I can fight this infamous will—in English law women are less than noth­ing. I will simply have to live until you are twenty-one.”

I had never doubted that she would. But two years later, fourteen months to the day before I would be free of Luc del Zaglia’s onerous control, my mother had dropped dead at the age of forty of a sudden heart attack, leaving me at the mercy of my father’s appointed guardian.

I had been entirely ready to resist any suggestion that I might change my way of life when that terse, authoritarian message had arrived from the count’s lawyer. My mourning for my cold-hearted mother had been surpris­ingly painful, but now I found myself filled with a new, life-giving rage. Even as I was bounced and jounced across Italy, I could remember the message and my own reaction to it. Well, the count was about to be repaid in full for his bland assumption that his little charge would mindlessly obey his instructions. He was about to find out he had gotten far more than he bargained for.

The coach pulled to a sudden halt quite a full hour before our usual even­ing stop. The banker stuck his head out the window and then drew back in with a snort. "A detachment of soldiers,” he muttered. "As if we were not late enough.”

"Papers ready!” A voice called from the driver’s seat, and I continued to smile blankly until the banker repeated the words in English, pointing to my reticule and swearing savagely under his breath.

"Your papers, miss,” he grumbled. "These Austrian soldiers haven’t the best tempers in the world, and when they want to see your papers you’d better have them ready!” He was busy rustling for his own identification. "They’d as soon clap you in irons as look at you, the way things are now.”

"Oooh,” I let out a little squeal of dismay, the brainless young English girl to perfection. "They wouldn’t do that to me, would they?’

"No, of course not,” the spotty young man reassured me, glaring at the banker. "They would never harm such a beautiful young lady as yourself. Signorina...”

A ham-like hand appeared at the door. "Passengers dismount!” a voice de­manded in German, then repeated in French, Italian, and English with acute boredom. We all stared at each other with sudden nervousness, and the grandmotherly figure across from me crossed herself with abrupt piety. "Now!” The guttural voice grew testier, and, tiring of my cowardly compan­ions, I climbed out over the portly form of the banker and scrambled down from the coach, eager to be on solid ground once more.


 

 

Chapter Two

THE FEEL OF the rocky turf beneath my sturdy traveling boots after so long in the bouncing carriage was unexpected, and my knees gave way beneath me in a most undignified manner, plummeting me into a pair of manly arms. I allowed myself the unfamiliar luxury of a pretended swoon for a moment, so welcome were those strong, protective arms, and then pulled myself together.

I righted myself abruptly, shaking my head to clear the mists. I smiled up at my noble protector and almost swooned all over again. Looking down at me were the bluest eyes I had ever seen, set in a sternly handsome face that could scarcely have come closer to my romantic musings had it been planned. He was very elegant in his white and gold uniform, his blond curls peeping out from beneath his cap, his shoulders quite the broadest I had ever seen. And I did have such a weakness for broad shoulders.

"I beg your pardon, Captain,” I murmured helplessly, batting my thick eye­lashes at the man beguilingly. "A momentary dizziness... I’m quite all right now.”

He stared down at me with a stunned expression on his face, swallowed once, and quickly doffed his cap. "My pleasure, fräulein,” he stammered, suddenly a smitten little boy. "Perhaps you might like to sit... ?”

He gestured to the coach, and I gently shook my head.

"No, thank you, Captain. I believe you wanted my papers?” I questioned, rummaging in my reticule like a helpless female before offering them.

He stared at them stupidly for a moment, and the grumble of the other pas­sengers came to my ears. Our conversation had been in English, and I had no idea how fluent my fellow travelers were. Flirtation, however, is the same in any language, and no one was particularly anxious to be held up longer than necessary on that windy border. As I have said, it had been a long day...

Suddenly the captain seemed to pull himself together, standing upright so that he was even taller, well over six feet, with a stern look in his ice-blue eyes and a grim expression around his full lips. "That will be enough!” he said sharply to the querulous travelers. "Your papers will be checked, and then you may proceed. Where is your destination?”

No one spoke for a moment, obviously expecting me to do the honors. I, however, remained silent. Finally the driver spoke up in broken English.

"Eventually to Venice, Captain,” he ventured. "We are already a day be­hind schedule...”

"The problems with your timetable are none of my concern, driver,” he said abruptly, barely glancing at the papers handed him. "You will have an­other passenger.”

"There’s just enough room as it is,” the banker protested, speaking up for the first time. "We can’t fit another person.”

The captain stared at him with mild disdain. "There are four of you, no? And the carriage usually holds six. I expect no more objections.”

"Who will be accompanying us, Captain?” The grandmother spoke up then, not one to be cowed by an Austrian upstart.

He allowed himself a stiff little smile that in no way diminished his rather heavy attractiveness. I could feel my heart melt a little, and his blue eyes met mine. "I will, Madame.”

I MUST ADMIT that the rest of the trip passed far too quickly for me. Captain Holger von Wolfram, once he recovered from his initial stupefaction, was both sophisticated and charming, with a hint of steel beneath his perfect manners. He was civil enough to the other passengers once he had made it perfectly clear who was in charge, but it was obvious he had chosen to take our carriage for the sake of flirting with a silly young English girl. I couldn’t help but be flattered—Holger was the image of the man I thought I would someday marry. Handsome, strong, ruthless, and perhaps not terribly bright. I flirted oh-so-gently with him as we traveled into Italy, and he responded with satisfying ardor.

"But where are you going, Fräulein Morrow?” A question I had been care­fully avoiding finally could be avoided no longer. The lagoon surrounding the ancient city of Venice was only hours away, and there was no distracting the good captain. Why I wanted to distract him I had no idea. For some instinc­tive reason I had carefully parried all his surprisingly personal questions during the remainder of the trip.

"To stay with my guardian,” I replied after a long moment. "Oh, look at those lovely cypresses!”

The captain ignored the cypresses. "But you must tell me his name, lieb­chen. I wish to call on you when we reach Venice. This will be the first time I have been stationed there, but the Venetians are notoriously unfriendly to the Imperial Army. There is little enough decent company around, I hear. I would be desolate to lose you so soon after we have met.”

I eyed him speculatively. I could imagine he would have little decent com­pany. Occupying armies were never popular, and the uneasy state of Europe certainly didn’t help matters. I doubted the Italian families approved of consorting with the Austrian powers-that-be, and the French, in their zeal to regain possession of northern Italy, would hardly be likely to cuddle up with their enemy. No, Holger would undoubtedly lead a lonely life in the ancient republic, and if it were up to me I would ease that loneliness a trifle. However, I had no idea how the illustrious Count del Zaglia would react to that.

I met Holger’s gaze limpidly, not liking the petulant insistence in his pale blue eyes. "I doubt you’d have heard of him.”

My swain didn’t like being thwarted. "His name!” he demanded.

I sighed, my warmer feelings for him abating rapidly. "Count del Zaglia,” I replied shortly. "I believe his palazzo is on...”

"On the Grand Canal,” Holger supplied, a curious expression nearly akin to satisfaction sitting on his heavy features. "Count del Zaglia is not unknown to me. By reputation, that is. He has been most helpful to the Austrian govern­ment, and to the French government, I am sure. I had no idea he was your guardian.”

"Would it have made a difference?”

"Yes,” he replied bluntly, if ungallantly. But for some reason I couldn’t quite believe him. "One does not trifle with Count del Zaglia’s possessions lightly. He is a man greatly to be feared in Venice and, indeed, in all of north­ern Italy. How came he to be your guardian?”

I didn’t like this conversation, not one bit. However, I was anxious to find out anything I could concerning the man who would attempt to have control over me, so I controlled the flutter of annoyance and answered Holger with far more courtesy than he deserved. "I believe he was a friend of my late father’s, and a distant cousin besides. If my father trusted him I’m sure I can do the same.”

"You’ve never met the man?”

"No,” I confessed uneasily. "But it makes no difference. It is my duty to obey my father’s wishes.” This was a blatant lie... I rarely did anything I didn’t want to do, but Holger nodded pompously.

"Have you no family back in England? No one you could turn to?”

"None,” I lied.

He sighed gustily. "Then may God have mercy on your soul, fräulein. You have a dark and dangerous road ahead of you.” He shut his mouth firmly, obviously determined to say no more, and I wouldn’t lower myself to plead. I turned away and met the frightened eyes of the old grandmother. She and the other passengers had obviously been listening to our conversation with the same rapt absorption they had given all of our previous conversations, and at my sudden attention the old crone quickly crossed herself and made an odd gesture in my direction.

"Don’t cast those evil eyes on me, witch,” she hissed in Italian. "Keep it for your master, the Devil! Strega!”

A chill ran through me, despite the warm and welcoming May afternoon. "What does she mean?” I whispered. "Why does she call me a witch?”

That much Italian even a cloddish English girl could be expected to under­stand. The banker stared at me solemnly for a moment. "Pay no atten­tion to the old one,” he said finally. "Count del Zaglia has a... a certain reputation in Venice. Not a very pleasant one, to be sure. It is said that he sold his soul to the Devil many years ago. Absurd, of course, but then, he has done nothing to dispel the notion. One would think he enjoys being thought of as a prince of darkness.”

"But what of the contessa? Surely his wife would help to stop such ab­surdity!”

"The Contessa del Zaglia has been dead for many years, Fräulein Morrow. It was perhaps her tragic and untimely death that started the foul rumors that have grown and spread over the last few years.”

I was suddenly very frightened. "How did she die?” I whispered, not sure I really wanted to know.

"I do not know the details, fräulein,” the banker said, and his cold gray eyes told me he was lying. "All I know is the official report, which was that the young woman died a suicide. But there was little doubt at the time that the poor lady was murdered. And no question at all who was responsible.” He leaned back against the slightly threadbare seats and blew his bulbous nose in a fine linen handkerchief. "How long until you are free of his protection?”

"Fourteen months,” I replied, shaken.

"Fourteen months,” he echoed soberly. "Not such a long time, then. I suggest, fräulein, that you say your prayers every night, attend Mass, and keep out of Count del Zaglia’s way as much as possible. And leave Venice as soon as you are legally able.”

I turned back to Holger, my eyes pleading with him to refute the absurd statements of the heretofore seemingly rational banker. But his blue eyes looked down on me with infinite sadness, and he patted my gloved hand in a paternal gesture.

"It will be all right, liebchen, he intoned. "If you do as Herr Seitz says. And I will be there to watch over you.”

For some reason I failed to find this as comforting as it was meant to be. "Will you, Captain?” I carefully kept my skepticism out of my voice. I didn’t know what use a straightforward Holger von Wolfram would be against the powers of darkness, but I had just as soon not fight them alone. I could have kicked myself for being fool enough to abandon everything in England for this mad dash across a war-torn continent, straight into the lair of one of Satan’s henchmen. If my small fortune of pocket money was not almost de­pleted I would have turned around and headed straight back to Calais, but the tiny amount of French money in my reticule would get me several yards past the border, not more. I had effectively burnt my bridges, and the sudden smell of sulphur was not reassuring.

"I’m sure it cannot be so bad,” I said bravely, not sure at all. "There is no such thing as the Devil.” I dearly wished I believed my brave words.

The old woman crossed herself once more and began a mumbled Ave Maria in her distant corner of the carriage, all the while keeping her aged, basilisk eyes on me as if daring me to make a move in her direction. Gone was the comfortable, motherly attitude. In her mind I had obviously become linked with the evil master himself, and my most innocent smile did nothing to dispel her fear of me.

Even Holger had a wary look in his eyes, tinged with a faint expression I could only identify as speculation. I leaned back against the squabs, trying to look blissfully unconcerned by the superstitious terror my guardian’s name had inspired. At least my destination was only a few long hours away. If I had to live with this suspicion and nerve-wracking uncertainty for much longer my courage would fail me altogether. I managed a convincing yawn and pre­tended to fall asleep.


 

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