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Miranda Ellis is a woman tormented. Plagued since birth by a strange and powerful gift, she has spent her entire life struggling to control her exceptional abilities. Yet one innocent but irreversible mistake has left her family’s fortune decimated and forced her to wed London’s most nefarious nobleman.
They will burn for eternity . . .
Lord Benjamin Archer is no ordinary man. Doomed to hide his disfigured face behind masks, Archer knows it’s selfish to take Miranda as his bride. Yet he can’t help being drawn to the flame-haired beauty whose touch sparks a passion he hasn’t felt in a lifetime. When Archer is accused of a series of gruesome murders, he gives in to the beastly nature he has fought so hard to hide from the world. But the curse that haunts him cannot be denied. Now, to save his soul, Miranda will enter a world of dark magic and darker intrigue. For only she can see the man hiding behind the mask.
Table of Contents
A Preview of Moonglow
Three years later. London, September 1881
No, no, farther down… yes, that's the one… there!" Satisfaction pulled at her lips. "Ah, how lovely."
The man at the counter flushed in pleasure. His gaze strayed to her smiling lips and held for a moment past propriety. "The loveliest I've seen, Miss."
His small boldness sent another wash of red over his fair skin. Miranda leaned farther into him. The glass countertop beneath her elbows gave a small groan, and the clerk swallowed hard, his gaze flittering between her mouth and the swells of her breasts that plumped over her bodice. His grip tightened on the ruby bracelet he held in his hands.
So easy, really, to seduce a man with the simple act of arching one's back. A woman ought to feel satisfaction in the sight. Miranda only felt as she always felt: dirty, wrong, empty.
"Set it down," she murmured before clearing her throat delicately. "Let me see it in the proper light."
Gently, he set the bracelet among the others, dozens of necklaces and bracelets strewn out over the small counter. Too many wares pulled out for display than was prudent or proper. So very accommodating. And a mistake only a befuddled clerk would make.
Miranda set her chin upon her hand, the act bringing her arm against the side of her breast, lifting it further into view. The clerk smothered a noise, his eyes riveted to the sudden increase in displayed flesh. Her skin crawled. She did not flinch, only looked up at him with a small secret smile. You and I understand this forbidden desire between us, it said to him. Her free hand settled with the lightness of a feather upon the pearl necklace lying near her ribs.
"Any one of these jewels would do you credit, miss."
Her finger hooked over the row of pearls. Slowly. Slowly. Countless times she had done this, yet every time felt like the first. Every time filled her with terror. Never let it show.
She mocked a wounded pout. "The jewels credit me, sir?"
His thin mouth worked as he flushed. "You misunderstand. They pale against your beauty. Were I a ruby, I would despair at being noticed while in your presence."
A genuine smile tugged at her lips. Plain and bashful, he might be, but the young man had a romantic heart and the beginnings of a poetic tongue. It was his whey-face and quick blushes that had made her select this shop that rested at the edge of respectability. The little shop specialized in fine jewels pawned by aristocrats whose wealth was dying. A place new wealth bought baubles for their town-kept mistresses. A place where a young, unescorted woman might go, pretend to shop for jewels far past her means so that she might flirt with the young clerk she had her eye on.
It was the role she played. Letting him see her walk by his window once a week. Making eye contact before turning away with a blush. And then working up her courage to finally enter. She dipped her head and blushed.
"You are too kind, sir," she murmured.
He fairly glowed with pleasure, and her heart ached. Too good a boy to ruin. For he would be ruined when his master found out what he had let happen here. But she could not return empty-handed. It had been too long. On the inside she screamed. This is my life, and I hate it. I hate it. She returned his smile.
The shop bell trilled, and the young man started as if caught with his hand in the biscuit bin. Two plump matrons entered, giving him a curt nod. Like Miranda's, their gowns were slightly out of date and well-mended, but unlike with Miranda, the clerk took notice and did not jump to assist them.
Miranda trailed a gloved finger down her neck.
"W-would you like to try one of them on?" he asked.
She licked her lower lip, a tiny flicker of pink tongue that kept him riveted. "I don't think I should." It took no effort to make her lips tremble. In truth, she felt like crying.
The matron's exclamation made them both turn. The older woman pressed her hand upon her ample chest and grabbed hold of her companion.
"Oh, Jane, look who it is!"
Her friend paled and made an attempt to support her friend. "Who, Margaret?"
"The Dread Lord Archer! His coach is coming up the street!"
Both women craned their wrinkled necks to peek between the gold lettering upon the shop window. Miranda stopped short of rolling her eyes. What a pair, these two. Her fingers tensed to take her prize but she held firm. Slowly. Slowly. Marks always felt it if one rushed. It was instinctive.
"I've seen him," hissed Margaret. "Late one night on the way home from the theater. He walked along Piccadilly as if he had every right to do so. I swear I nearly swooned from fright!"
"You poor dear. What has the world come to when men such as he are permitted to roam the streets?"
Miranda had never heard such censorious drivel.
"My dear, he is aristocracy," said Margaret, "and as rich as Croesus. Who would dare question him? I heard he has sent at least four men to hospital for simply looking at him in the wrong light."
The conveyance came flush with the shop window. Miranda caught a glimpse of the black top hat and cloak of a coachman, a black coach with a white shield upon its door.
"Heavens, he looked at me…" Jane shuddered, and with a moan, her eyes rolled up in her head.
"Jane!" Her friend tried to grab her as the woman began to topple.
"Here! Here!" The clerk jumped up, running to catch the hare-brained woman.
There was something to say for flighty females. Miranda acted, slipping the necklace into her skirt pocket as she rushed to aid, accidentally brushing several necklaces off the counter in her haste. "Oh my," she exclaimed, frantically trying to gather the jewels and succeeding in making a muck of it. Ropes of gold and gems fell to the floor, a hopeless muddle.
The clerk wavered between assisting her and struggling to help the matron on the floor. Perfect.
"What a mess I have made!" Miranda pressed a shaking hand to her brow. "I am sorry. And you have your hands full!"
She reached the door, her heart pounding. It pounded every time. Every time.
"Wait, Miss!" The clerk buckled, his hand outstretched as if he would pull her back.
Hand twitching on the doorknob, she shot the clerk a regretful smile. "Good-bye. I am sorry."
His words were drowned out by the bell.
Outside, the coach in question was gone, swallowed up by street traffic and drifting fog. Only now did the gaping pedestrians begin moving on. Unsettled murmurs rippled along the streets before being drowned out by the usual clatter and clang of hacks, omnibuses, and coaches rattling along the cobbled road. Miranda decided she did not want to know what the unfortunate Lord Archer looked like. She had experienced enough horrors in her meager lifetime.
The slight weight in her pocket felt like a ton as she made her way home. Miranda's steps stuttered to a stop as she saw the sleek, black double-brougham stretched out like a coffin in the front portico of the house. Thick whorls of yellow-green evening fog rose from the cobbled drive, ghosting over the coach's large spoke wheels and coiling like snakes round the spindly legs of the matched black Friesians that stood placidly waiting.
Dread plucked at her insides. Long gone were the days when their drive filled with endless lines of landaus, barouches, and phaetons as nobility and gentry alike called upon father to purchase his wares.
With a jostle of rigging and the smart clip of hooves, the coach turned, and the crest upon the door flashed in the waning light. A white shield bisected by a heavy black cross bore the words Sola bona quae honesta upon it. Four sharp arrowheads slashed across the white planes of the shield. The hairs along her arm stood at attention, and she knew the source of her disquiet. The Dread Lord Archer.
The coach drew near, and the form of a figure, no more than a broad black outline of shoulders and the glimpse of an arm, appeared behind the window glass. As the coach pulled away, a finger of ice slid along Miranda's spine, for someone was staring back.
"I shall not!"
Her shout bounded off the bare stone walls of the dark, cramped kitchen. High and rather thready, nothing like Miranda's normal voice. She struggled to tone it down.
Her father moved around the battered wooden table that stood between them. His small brown eyes flashed. "You most certainly shall!" He slammed his fist to the table. "My word is law here!"
"Bosh." She slammed her wooden spoon down as well, sending a splatter of mutton stew across the pudding. "Your control over me ended the day you sold Daisy off to the highest bidder."
The wrinkled mask of his face went pale as Irish linen. "You dare!" His hand rose to strike but held, hovering in the air and shaking, when she did not flinch.
"Please try it," she said quietly. Her eyes held his as the air about her began to coalesce, heating and stirring with an almost expectant agitation. "I beg of you."
Father's hand quivered then slowly lowered. "I'm sure you do, daughter." Spittle slicked the corners of his shaking lips. "See me writhe and burn."
Miranda shifted, heat and pain mingling within her belly, a surge that wanted out.
"Always calling upon the fire to protect you." He took a step closer, his eyes burning into her. "Never mind the price."
Like a flame in a draft, the heat snuffed, and with it, her father's confidence seemed to swell.
"The worst of it is that I do this for you," he coaxed, leaning in. "You're not a lass anymore. Not for years. Did you think to live here forever with me?"
"No, I—" Her mouth snapped shut. She had not given the future much thought but simply lived from day to day. Surviving. No point exchanging the hell one knew for the hell one did not.
"I think you must believe so. You've scared off every lad that's come this way ever since that fool Martin…" He swallowed down his words aware, for once, that even he might have gone too far. But he rallied quickly, and his bushy brows formed a white V. "It cannot have escaped your notice that this is the finest meal we've had in months." His weathered hand swept over the meager meal of mutton stew and simple brown bread pudding that Miranda was preparing. "Who do you think provided the money for this meal?"
"I thought perhaps you'd sold the wool—"
His dry cackle cut the air. "With the price of wool being as low as it is, and the debts I owe, we'd be lucky to dine on fish-head stew. My creditors will take the house before the year is out," he said quietly. "And you will have no home to come to."
A home? She almost laughed. She hadn't a true home in years. Not since her sisters had left.
"Doesn't take much to imagine what trade a beauty like you will find," he went on. "But once that beauty fades? 'Tis hardly fittin' to say what's to come of you."
"Oh, stop!" Miranda snapped. "You paint a very grim picture, indeed. And one that's hung over my head for years."
"Bloody hell!" The pudding crashed to the floor in a mess of brown scum and broken crockery. "You owe me, Miranda!" Rage colored him red as he pointed at her. "If it weren't for that fire, I'd have half my fortune! By God, you destroyed my bloody warehouse!"
"Years I have paid penance for my mistake!" she shouted. "Still, it is not enough. Well, I am done with it." Her hand slashed the air as if the motion could somehow sever their conversation. "You cannot make me do this!"
Father's thin lip curled into a sneer. "Aye, I cannot," he agreed with sudden calmness. "The agreement states you must go willingly, or it is void." He took a step closer, pressing up against the wooden table, and pointed with a trembling finger. "But I'll tell you this: Should you refuse, you'll no longer live here."
Her throat closed, red-hot pain forming a large lump there. The lack of a home was one thing. The lack of proper shelter was another beast entirely. "You cannot seriously…" She swallowed.
The yellowed whites of his eyes flashed in the lamplight. "I'm done with you. I would not have kept you as long as I have if I weren't waiting for this moment. So you've had a disappointment with Martin. I'm glad for it! I was a fool to even consider it. Some promises are too dangerous…" He swallowed audibly. "Your bags are packed, either way," he snapped.
So it had come to this. Miranda's lower lip quivered before she bit down hard. There was little love lost between them. But he was her father, and he was prepared to toss her to the wolves. Pain radiated across her chest, seeping into her bones.
Father's eyes were flat. Dead. She knew that look. His decision was made. Even so, she could not but try.
"I cannot believe you would—"
"You will marry Lord Archer!" he shouted out, his temper breaking like glass. "Devil take it, the man is one of the richest nobles in the kingdom. I cannot believe your stupidity for even refusing. Of all the bleeding stubborn—"
"But why?" A wretched sob escaped before she could swallow it down. Hateful that she should be weak before him.
He stopped short and blinked at her. "Why what?"
"Why does he want me?" She wiped a hand over her mouth. "I am nobody. I've never heard of the man before today. How can he know me?"
Father's expression froze for a long moment before he broke into an incredulous laugh. "I may be a failed man, Miranda Rose. But I have one jewel left in my coffers." He came round the table, his expression almost fond. She backed away from him, bumping up against the worktable. Father stopped but the satisfaction in his smile remained.
"Lord Archer has wealth, power, and land. A man such as that need not look to nobility for a bride. Overbreeding has left their rank chinless and small-eyed. You, my dear, are a diamond in a sea of cut glass." A familiar gleam lit Father's eyes, the glint of a transaction well played. "The finest feather for his cap."
For a moment, she saw red. "I will go to Poppy or Daisy."
A terrible silence fell between them, and her father's confident expression withered. He went pale as cream. "They won't want you. Never have."
"They've offered before." Her sisters had pleaded with her, in truth. And she had refused out of a misplaced sense of obligation toward Father. Penance, really, because she had been the one to start him on the road to ruin. How gratifying to know that she had finally reached her limit on guilt. But she didn't want her sisters' pity, nor to be their burden. The very idea made her insides pitch.
Father raised his hands in disgust. "He has paid handsomely for the right to you, Miranda. If you plan to forfeit the agreement, then I am leaving." He straightened his tattered waistcoat and smoothed his disheveled hair. "I suggest you do the same. Believe me when I say that Lord Archer does not take kindly to being cheated."
"Oh, I believe you." Something told her his being cheated by Father had put her into this mess in the first place.
They stared at each other for a long minute, her finger tapping an idle rhythm against the counter while her father waited in stony silence. She ought to hate this Lord Archer for buying her like a commodity. Save he'd only done the same as nearly every gentleman in England did. Marriage was a business. Any sensible girl knew this. It was only when they had come down in the world that she'd started to hope she might marry for love.
The stew bubbled brown and thick in the pot next to her, making her stomach growl. She missed having steady meals, a life free of theft and guilt. A wash of shame hit her so suddenly that she sucked in a pained breath. Lord Archer had entered into an agreement in good faith. Only to become another man her father would cheat, and she'd be a part of it.
No more. She would not become like Father. She could live a life of honor and walk with her head held up from now on.
Faced with the choice of living on the streets or doing the honorable thing, her decision was rather easy. Unfortunately, that did not stop her stomach from turning over as she forced the words from her mouth.
"All right." The vision of the silly shop matron in a swoon flashed in her mind, and a moment of pure terror wracked her body. She swallowed hard. "All right. I will do it."
He gaped at her, unbelieving. When she simply stared back, a smile pulled at his mouth. "Very good." Satisfied, Father grabbed a thick slice of bread off the counter. "On the morrow, then."
Her head snapped back. "What!"
He half-turned, his mouth already full. "He insists upon marrying you tomorrow," he said around the bread. "Everything has been arranged. Lord Archer has already acquired a special license so there is no impediment or need to wait."
The fire beneath the burners flared high for an instant. Her life had been bought, sold, and arranged quite neatly. Bloody men.
Her father tore off another hunk with his teeth and turned to go.
"Stop!" Miranda reached deep into her pocket and pulled out her spoils. "Take it!" The pearl choker slammed to the table. "And treasure it well, for it is the last thing I shall ever steal for you. We are more than even now, Father. After this, we are finished."
Getting married was a happy dream that had filled Miranda's girlhood thoughts and promptly left as she grew older. She well knew the face that looked back from the mirror each morning. She was not foolish enough to pretend that she was without beauty. Vanity may be a sin but so was lying. She was fair of face and form, though she knew many a girl who looked better.
However, as a woman without fortune or title, she received few offers of marriage. The most consistent offers came in the form of teasing shouts from market vendors when she walked to Covent Garden each Saturday morning. How then, she thought as Daisy pinned white roses in her hair the following morning, had it come to this?
Perhaps it was a dream. The woman in the mirror didn't look at all like her. She was too pale. Her pink gown, one of many provided by Lord Archer's money, ruffled and frothed around her like a confectionary. Miranda turned away with disdain. It was the image of an innocent and a maiden. She was neither. And yet he had come for her. Why?
She did not believe Father's nonsense about him wanting her for her beauty. There were plenty of pretty daughters of utterly bankrupt, thus desperate, nobles for a wealthy man to chose from. What, then, did he want? What has the world come to when men such as he are permitted to roam the streets… Perspiration bloomed along her upper lip. And yet Lord Archer did not know precisely what he was acquiring when he took Miranda as his bride, did he?
To create fire by mere thought. It was the stuff of myth. She had discovered the talent quite by accident. And had burned through her share of disasters. Father and Mother had forbidden anyone to ever speak of it and, more to the point, for Miranda to ever use her talent again. Poppy had simply disappeared in the library to search for an explanation; she never found one. Only Daisy had been impressed, though quite put out that she did not possess a similar unearthly talent. As for herself, the question always remained: Was she a monster? Both beauty and beast rolled into one unstable force? Despite her desire to know, there was the greater fear of putting the question to anyone and seeing them turn away as Martin had. So she kept it inside. She would not tell her husband to be, no. But she took comfort in the notion that she was not without defenses.
Poppy and Daisy's mutual disregard for Father kept them at a distance as Father hovered by her elbow, guarding all possible attempts to escape. Their chatter was no more than a din, Father's hand upon her arm a ghost, as they made their way to the small family chapel by the river.
Reverend Spradling met them at the door. The brackets around his fleshy mouth cut deep as his eyes slid from Miranda to Father. "Lord Archer is…" He tilted his head and pulled at the cassock hugging his bulging neck. "He is waiting in the vestry."
"Grand," said Father with an inane smile.
"He wants to talk to Miss Ellis in private," the reverend interrupted as Father tried to walk through the doorway. "I told him it was inappropriate but he was most insistent."
The two men turned to Miranda. So now her opinion mattered, did it? She might have laughed, only she feared it would come out as a sob.
"Very well." She gathered her skirts. Her fingers had turned to ice long before, and the ruffles slid from her grasp. She took a firmer hold. "I won't be but a moment."
Slowly, she walked toward the vestry door looming before her. She would finally face the man who would be her husband, the man who sent brutes to hospital and caused women to swoon with terror.
He stood erect as a soldier at the far end of the little stone room. Women, she thought, letting her gaze sweep over him, could be utterly ridiculous.
She closed the door and waited for him to speak.
"You came." He could not fully stamp out the surprise in his deep voice.
He was tall and very large, though there wasn't a spare ounce of fat discernible over his entire form. The largeness of appearance came from the breadth of his shoulders, the muscles that his charcoal gray morning suit—no matter how finely tailored—could not completely hide and the long length of his strong legs encased in gray woolen trousers. It was not the elegant, thin frame of a refined man, but the brute and efficient form of a dockworker. In short, Lord Archer possessed the sort of virile body that would catch many a lady's eye and hold it—were it not for one unavoidable fact.
She lifted her eyes to his face, or where it ought to be. Carved with a Mona Lisa smile upon its lips, a black hard mask like one might wear at Carnival stared back. Beneath the mask, his entire head was covered in tight black silk, offering not a bit of skin to view. The perversity of his costume unnerved, but she was hardly willing to swoon.
"I thought it best," he said after letting her study him, "that you enter into this union with full understanding." Black-gloved fingers ran over the silver handle of the walking stick he held. "As you are to be my wife, it would be foolish of me to try to keep my appearance from you."
He spoke with such equanimity that she could only gaze in amazement. A memory flickered before her eyes like a flame caught in a draft, a vision of a different man, in a different place. A man who also hid in shadows, whose gloriously strong body had haunted her dreams for months afterward, made her want things she hadn't the name for back then, things that made her skin heat on many a cold night. It had shamed her, the way she had coveted the dark stranger. But it could not have been Lord Archer. The stranger had a voice like shadows, rasping and weak, not like Lord Archer's strong, deep rumble.
"Look sharp, Miss Ellis!" The walking stick slammed on the stone floor with a crack, and she jumped. "Do you still intend to proceed?" he asked with more calm.
She stepped forward, and the man went rigid. "Who are you? An actor of some sort?" Her temper swelled like fire to air. "Is this some joke Father has concocted to bedevil me, because let me tell you—"
"I am Lord Benjamin Archer," he said with such acidity that she halted. His eyes flashed from behind the mask. "And it is no joke I play." The hand on the walking stick tightened. "Though there are days I wish it to be just that."
"Why do you wear that mask?"
"Asks the woman whose beauty might as well be a mask."
The immobile black mask simply stared back, floating like a terrible effigy over broad shoulders.
"What is beauty or ugliness but a false front that prompts man to make assumptions rather than delving deeper. Look at you." His hand gestured toward her face. "Not a flaw or distortion of line to mar that perfect beauty. I have seen your face before, miss. Michelangelo sculpted it from cold marble three hundred years ago, his divine hand creating what men would adore." He took a step closer. "Tell me, Miss Ellis, do you not use that beauty as a shield, keeping the world at bay so that no one will know your true nature?"
"Bastard," she spat when she could find her voice. She had been beaten once or twice, forced to steal and lie, but no one had left her so utterly raw.
"I am that as well. Better you know it now."
She gathered up her train, but the heavy masses of slippery fabric evaded her grip. "I came of my own free will but will not abide by cruel remarks made at my expense," she said, finally collecting herself. "Good-bye, Lord Archer."
He moved, but stopped himself as though he feared coming too close. A small gurgle died in his throat. "What will it take?"
The tightly controlled urgency in his voice made her turn back.
"If you find my character and appearance so very distasteful," she said through her teeth, "then why ask for my hand?"
His dark head jerked a fraction. "I am the last of my family line," he said with less confidence. "Though I have love for Queen and Country, I do not desire to see my ancestral lands swallowed up by the crown. I need a wife."
The idea that she would procreate with the man hadn't entered her mind. It seemed unimaginable.
"Why not court one of your nobles?" she asked through dry lips.
He lifted his chin a fraction. "There are not many fathers who would give their marketable daughters up to a man such as me."
It irked her that his words made her chest tighten in regret.
Lord Archer tilted his head and assessed her with all the warmth of a man eyeing horseflesh for purchase. "Your appearance may matter little to me but when the time comes for my heir to enter into society, your stunning looks will help a great deal to facilitate him."
She could not fault the sensibility of his plan. Even so…
"Why do you wear that mask?" she asked again.
The mask stared back.
"Are you ill? Have you some sort of sensitivity to light upon your skin?" she prompted.
"Sensitivity to light," he uttered and then gave a short laugh of derision. He lifted his head. "I am deformed." That the confession hurt his pride did not escape her. "It was an accident. Long ago."
She nodded stupidly.
"I realize my appearance is far from ideal to an attractive young lady in search of a husband. On the other hand, I can provide a lifestyle of wealth and comfort…" He trailed off as though pained by his own speech and then shifted his weight. "Well, Miss Ellis? What say you? This is between us now. Whatever your decision, your father may keep what little funds he hasn't managed to squander without fear of retribution from me."
"And if I say no? What will you do? Is there another girl you might ask?" She shouldn't care really, but her basic curiosity could not be quelled.
He flinched, a tiny movement, but on him it seemed as obvious as if he'd been struck by a blow.
"No. It has to be you." He sucked in a sharp breath and straightened like a soldier. "To speak plainly, there is no other option left to me. As to what will I do should you say no, I will continue to live alone. In short, I need you. Your help, that is. Should you grant it, Miss Ellis, you shall want for nothing."
The man in the black mask seemed to stand alone, apart from everything. Miranda knew loneliness when she saw it. Her mind drifted over another memory, one hard repressed. One of herself standing in the very same corner of the vestry, watching as Martin cut their engagement and walked away. And it had hurt. God, it had hurt. So much so that the idea of doing it to another made her queasy.
- On Sale
- Feb 1, 2012
- Page Count
- 400 pages