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Finally free of her suffocating marriage, widow Daisy Ellis Craigmore is ready to embrace the pleasures of life that have long been denied her. Yet her new-found freedom is short lived. A string of unexplained murders has brought danger to Daisy’s door, forcing her to turn to the most unlikely of saviors . . .
Their growing passion knows no bounds . . .
Ian Ranulf, the Marquis of Northrup, has spent lifetimes hiding his primal nature from London society. But now a vicious killer threatens to expose his secrets. Ian must step out of the shadows and protect the beautiful, fearless Daisy, who awakens in him desires he thought long dead. As their quest to unmask the villain draws them closer together, Daisy has no choice but to reveal her own startling secret, and Ian must face the undeniable truth: Losing his heart to Daisy may be the only way to save his soul.
Table of Contents
A Preview of Firelight
A Preview of Winterblaze
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London, April 18, 1883
Three hundred sixty-six days, ten hours, fifteen minutes, and… Daisy glanced down at the heart-shaped gold watch pinned to the dip in her bodice, a strategic placement designed to draw the eye. Strategic placement, perhaps, but it made it a bugger to read the time. The tiny face flicked in and out of shadow as the carriage lantern swayed gently overhead.
Seconds needn't be counted anymore regardless. She was free. Daisy looked out into the boiling gray fog that shrouded the streets of London. Moreover, three hundred sixty-six days, ten hours, fifteen minutes, and however many seconds was quite sufficient a time to stay in mourning over a man one hated. Even if that man had been one's husband. Especially if, she corrected, smoothing out a wrinkle in her azure silk skirt. Azure. Lovely word. It rolled over the tongue, promising adventure and foreign climes. She loved azure. Loved color. Though, for a time, she had loved black too. Black had been her banner of freedom. A marker announcing the shift from the bondage of marriage to the emancipation of widowhood.
Daisy was finished with black now. One ought to curse the queen for her dogged devotion to mourning, thus causing countless widows to guiltily follow suit. Only it was quite romantic, and Daisy could not fault a romantic heart. As for herself, she'd done her year of mourning, enough to satisfy wagging tongues. Now it was her time.
Barnaby, her driver, called out to the horses. The carriage made a sharp turn down a narrow lane that would take her to her future. Amusement, laughter, life. A place where women did not wear black, unless one wished to be thought of as mysterious. No one had ever thought of her as mysterious. Infamous, perhaps.
Suddenly, her insides clenched with such force that she trembled. Loneliness and fear urged her to shout at Barnaby to turn round. Her bed was safe and warm. What if she was all talk? What if the infamously fun-loving Daisy Margaret Ellis—she refused to call herself Craigmore—was nothing more than a coward?
"Why don't we get a bit of fresh air?" The man nuzzling Daisy's neck let out a small laugh at his jest. "Fresh" air being a myth in London. Daisy refrained from rolling her eyes. After all, his lips felt wonderful as they made a soft, slow circuit over her skin. It had been over six years since she'd been touched in passion. He nipped the tender juncture at the base of her neck, and she shivered, her nipples tightening in anticipation. Wine coursed through her veins, heating her blood and painting her world in soft, nebulous colors.
Around them, couples had paired off, finding their own dark corners in the overcrowded town home to do what they might. Men with the single-minded purpose to win congregated around gaming tables, barely noticing the women who adorned their shoulders. A few danced to the endless tunes played by the orchestra Alexis had hired for the night. As for Alex, Daisy hadn't yet spotted her.
Being newly widowed herself, Alex had chosen to live among the demimonde. The ton, Alex declared, was too tiresome. Daisy agreed. The ton had all but turned their backs on Daisy when Craigmore died and left her nothing by way of monetary support. Surely the bloody man had assumed she'd end up in the streets as a destitute wretch. Little had he known about her own resources.
Daisy eyed the man before her, a well-formed youth with a slightly coltish way about him. "Fresh air would be lovely."
A languid heaviness stole over her as she leaned into him. He smelled of cheroots, fine wool, and young male. His hard body against hers was a wonder. What did it matter that she'd forgotten his name?
His arm locked around her shoulders as he led her through a maze of corridors. Gaslight flickered low. Blue smoke and hot flesh turned the air hazy.
Daisy stumbled, and his grip tightened. "Careful. Don't want you on your back. Yet."
A true wit, this one. She cleared the thought away. She didn't need to think, only to feel.
With a laugh, they burst through the back door. Daisy caught a breath of dank, coal-tinged air and saw the flash of wet pavers glistening in the moonlight, and then her companion shoved her against the wall. Thick ivy rustled against her ear as he leaned in and took, his mouth brutal. Daisy opened to it, ignoring the pain, looking for the pleasure. So elusive, pleasure. So easy to remember one's self and lose the feeling. His tongue thrust past her lips, cool and thick. Ought a tongue feel cold?
Clouds scuttled overhead, and the bright disk of the moon shone down, setting the dismal little alleyway to glow like blue daylight. Daisy blinked up at the moon as her lover's hands drifted lower, catching up her skirts, his breath hot and damp above her breast. Daisy strained against his questing hand as it groped her. This is what she'd been waiting for. Six years of living in hell, she'd waited to be wanted, to be looked upon as a desirable woman and not a thing of disgust.
Temptress of man, harbinger of lust. You are a worthless vessel whose only use is to receive man's sin.
Anger coiled with her revulsion. Forget Craigmore, he is dead. His words cannot touch you. Follow the pleasure. But it skittered away as the wind shifted, brushing ice cold against her bare arms. Ah, but this alley smelled. Queer, like sticky sweet rot, and copper mixed with dirt. The stench sent a finger of ice over her spine. She murmured a protest. They were too exposed here, and she no longer wanted this.
"Easy, pet." Hard fingers raked her thighs.
"I want to go inside."
"Relax," he said.
She pushed at him. "Inside."
"I'm trying," he said with a laugh.
She turned her head to get away from him and caught the sight just to the left of his shoulder. A spill of gray satin skirts, the ruffled edges kicking up in the wind, a pale length of arm extended outward as if begging for help, the sparkle of diamonds on a white throat, large, glassy eyes staring. And blood, so much blood. Black and shining in the moonlight. Daisy's mind pulled the shapes, rearranging them to form a story. Alex. Alex's torso torn open. And something bent over Alex, its face buried in the gore, nosing about as if sniffing the body. A scream locked in Daisy's throat, so hard and cold that she could not get it out. Terror uncoiled, giving her the strength to push her lover away.
"What the devil?" he said.
A whimper broke from her lips as she tripped over her skirts and her companion turned. As if called, the thing lifted its head. A drop of crimson blood dripped from its jaw, and Daisy screamed. It snarled, rising on hind legs that were long as any man's. Her would-be lover scrambled back, bellowing in fear as the monster charged.
Daisy's head smashed against brick. Something hot and wet splashed over her cheek and neck. A body fell upon her, jerking and thrashing, grinding her into the hard ground, and then the screams, screams upon screams, pure unadulterated terror. It washed over her, taking her wits, sucking her down into the cool embrace of darkness.
Not far away…
Six whores and six failures were enough to make even the most optimistic of men throw in the sponge, as the Americans would say. There was fortitude, and there was humiliation. Ian knew he crossed that line around whore number three. So then, no more tupping. Fornicating as his father would have called it.
"Bloody, buggering, fucking, hell!" Ian's curse was lost to the night, dissipating like heated steam in the cool, clean air of Hampstead Heath.
Sweating and swearing, he ran faster, his feet pounding into the soft earth. Defeat never sat well with him. Worse, there was nothing left to him other than this. Running, pushing his body to the limits of endurance. Biting back another foul oath, he ran harder, his blood pumping through his veins like molten glass, as his legs screamed for mercy. Only here did he feel alive.
The great black dome of the night sky soared overhead. Beyond lay London, a jagged landscape of church spires and haphazard buildings bathed in the silver light of the moon. A shiver of feeling danced over him. The moon. That glorious seductress. Her power pulsed through him like so much wine. She fueled him, and in return, the beast stirred.
For decades, Ian had ignored this part of himself. He'd kept his beast so tightly leashed it had become nothing more than a faint echo in his mind. And he had suffered for it. Grown weak and apathetic. Now its howl rattled about in his skull, growing louder and stronger.
Part of him reveled in the beast. Why not? He'd lost all other sources of pleasure. Why not let the beast at last have its fun? Why not let it out to play? Even as the thought rolled over him, an innate sense of self-preservation protested. He had not struggled through one hundred and thirty years of life to let a little thing like temptation suck him into total annihilation.
Swearing again, Ian turned toward London, away from the wild things that called to the beast, the small scurrying rabbits and the fearful does that, even now, Ian could scent. A bitter laugh escaped as his feet ate up the ground, leading him into London with uncanny speed. Perhaps one day he'd be back to take down a deer with freed claws. Would he soon find himself muzzle deep in hot, wet blood, eating warm flesh with mindless pleasure?
Earth gave way to stone, clean air turning thick and fetid as he pushed into the city. Around him, the buildings were a blur, the odd pedestrian little more than a streak of color and the stir of air as Ian ran past. He was that fast. Faster than he would be all month now that the full and glorious moon fed him.
A dray loomed before him, plodding along with its load of coal. He leaped, arcing over it, to land on quick feet and run onward. It was more populated here, throngs of idle humans mixing with street traffic. He wove around them without care, his feet splashing through some unholy muck and kicking up the scent of rot.
His shoulder brushed past a coffee monger pushing his cart along. What would he see? A man in leather moccasins brought back from the American West? The loose gray trousers and cotton shirt of a laborer? Items Ian Ranulf, newly titled Marquis of Northrup, would not be caught dead wearing. Surely not that trussed-up dandy. Lord Northrup would never be confused with this wild man running amok.
All at once, the strength left him, and he slowed. His breath puffed even and steady. The beat of his heart was as strong as ever in his chest. Unstoppable. Unending. The thought nearly brought him to his knees. Around him, the chatter of men and women enjoying the clear night scraped against his nerves.
Slowing to a stroll, Ian wandered down a twisted street where the press of bodies thinned out to lighter foot traffic. To his left, yellow light poured in wide blocks from the windows of an older town home, still beautiful but shabby in this unfashionable neighborhood. The strains of a reel and feminine laughter rose above the din of London nightlife.
Ian moved away from it, into the shadowy mouth of an alley, when through the thick mash of human sweat, rotting water, and sewage came the distinctive tang of blood. Human blood. Just below that, a finer note, that of wolf.
It was that scent, the wild, rangy stamp of wolf that had his hackles rising and a growl rumbling deep within his throat. Seventy years of doggedly keeping away from his kind was almost lost as he instinctively turned toward the scent, ready to tear into whoever dared to encroach upon his territory. He came to an abrupt halt. It wasn't his territory. Not anymore.
Fight or flight, it warred within him until his chest felt ready to rip in two. A trickle of sweat rolled down his neck. He nearly moved away when a sharp feminine scream rent the air, followed by a snarl of rage. A man bellowed in pure terror. The snarls grew and then came the distinctive sound of tearing flesh, a man gurgling as though drowning. Blood, the perfume of it washed over Ian, making his knees buckle.
"Bugger!" He ran toward the scent without another thought.
Men were already spilling into the alley as Ian charged headlong into the fray. Someone shouted in shock. A woman fainted. A ripple of terror went through the throng of onlookers, heightening the sharp smell of fear. Men both retreated in horror and shoved forward in fascination. Women were quickly ushered away.
Ian shouldered a rotund man aside. The scent of wolf overpowered his senses. Wolf and blood. Jesus.
When yet another gentleman stepped in his way, Ian found his voice and said words he hadn't uttered in years. "Move aside! I'm a doctor." Though from the overwhelming amount of blood he smelled, he rather thought his rusty services would not be needed.
The crowd parted, and Ian took in the scene. Bile surged up his throat. Blood was everywhere, coating the walls of the town house, pooling upon the ground, and running along the cracks between the cobbles. A man—what was left of him—lay in a tangled heap against the wall, his face an unrecognizable hash of claw marks, his torso eviscerated. Just beyond, a woman suffered the same fate, though her face was unmarred. She'd died first. He'd bet his best walking stick on it. Already the stench of decay crept over her, and the body was stiff and white in the moon's glow.
Ian crouched low and inhaled. Scents assaulted him. He let them come and sorted through the mix. Beneath the rot, terror, and blood was the rangy scent of wolf imbued with something off, bittersweet yet sulfuric. Sickness. What sort, he couldn't tell, but it was well-developed. An odd fact indeed, given that werewolves weren't susceptible to disease.
"He's past help," said the man beside him. Ian held up a staying hand and inhaled deeper.
Beyond the filth came a fainter scent—rose, jasmine, vanilla, and sunshine. Those notes held him for one tense moment, pulling the muscles in his solar plexus tight and filling them with warmth. It was a fresh, ephemeral scent that made the beast inside him sit up and take notice.
A small groan broke the spell. Someone shouted in alarm. The dead man moved, rolling a bit, and the crowd jumped back as if one. Ian's pulse kicked before he noticed the soft drape of blue silk beneath the man's twisted legs.
"Bloody hell." He wrenched the body aside. It pitched over with a thud to reveal the crumpled form of a woman covered in blood and, oddly, vines, thick and deep green as they flowed down from the town house wall to envelop her.
"Step back," he said sharply as one wayward man tromped forward.
"Lud! Is she alive?"
Ian made quick work of the vines, extending only the very tips of his claws to rake through them, but his hands were gentle as he touched the woman's wrist to check her pulse. Slow, steady, and strong. It was from her that the scent of flowers and vanilla arose. Her features were lost under a macabre mask of crimson blood. Ian cursed beneath his breath and ran his hands over her form in search of injuries. Despite the blood, she appeared untouched. It was the man's blood, not hers. She'd seen the attack, however. Of that, he was certain. She'd been the one to scream. Then the man.
He glanced about the alley and imagined the events unfolding. This couple had seen the first victim. They shouted, and then they were attacked. Ian brought his attention back to the woman.
She was a handful, lush curves, neat waist. He gathered her up in his arms, ignoring the protests of those around. Her head lolled against his shoulder, releasing another faint puff of sweet scent. A curling lock of hair, red with blood, fell over his chest as he hefted her higher and stood.
"She needs medical attention." He moved to go when a gentleman stepped in his way.
"Here now." The gentleman's waxed mustache twitched. "You don't look like any doctor I've ever seen."
The crowd of men stirred, apparently taking in Ian's odd attire for the first time.
Ian tightened his grip on the female, and she gave a little moan of distress. The sound went straight to his core. Women were to be protected and cherished. Always. He stared down the gathering crowd. "Nor a marquis, I gather. However, I am both." He took a step, shouldering aside the man with ease. "I am Northrup. And it would do you well to get out of my way."
Another murmur rippled among the men, but they eased away; not many wanted to risk tangling with Lord Ian Ranulf, Marquis of Northrup. Those who weren't as convinced, he pushed past. He'd fight them all if he had to. This woman wasn't getting out of his sight. Not until he'd questioned her. And he certainly wasn't letting her tell the whole of London that she'd just survived an attack by a werewolf.
There now, that's a good lass. Wake up, dear."
Daisy was warm. Warm and heavy of limb. It felt wonderful. The thought formed, and then confusion chased it away. Beyond her dark cocoon came the comforting sound of tinkling water, like that of a bath being drawn. Where was she? Who was that crooning? And what had happened… Her eyes flew open on a gasp. The flickering light of gas lamps wavered above her. She caught a glimpse of mahogany paneling before a woman's face came into view, wrinkled and kind, a gray halo of hair about her head.
"Easy, lass." The woman clasped Daisy's shoulder.
Daisy blinked down at her shoulder and realized that she was naked. Swaddled in eider down, but naked. "Where…" She swallowed. "What…" Her throat closed.
The elder woman gave her a little pat and then turned to adjust the taps on the enormous copper tub sitting in the center of the room. A man's bathing room, with velvet brocades and a silver shaving kit gleaming on a nearby table. A masculine fragrance of wool, linen, and vetiver lingered in the warm air.
"You've had a terrible fright, I suspect." The woman closed the taps and dipped a hand in the water to test it. Neither plump nor thin, the woman's frame was sturdy. "Just right."
The woman looked Daisy over. "You're in the Marquis of Northrup's home. His Lordship found ye and brought ye here." She moved to Daisy's side and gave her a kindly smile. "I was of a mind to wake ye before I got you in the bath. Bit of a nasty shock to be awakened by a bath, eh?" The woman's eyes went soft. "Ye need cleaning up, lass."
Daisy followed the direction of the woman's gaze and saw her hair cascading around her naked shoulders in a red tangle of dried blood. So red it reminded her of her sister Poppy's hair, and then she remembered. "Oh, God…" Her breath came in dry pants, the urge to gag, to scream making her shake. "That thing… my… friend…"
Her pants became rasps, and the woman wrapped a strong arm about her. "Hush, child, hush. You're safe." Work-worn palms soothed her arms. "Ease yerself before you become ill."
Like a child, Daisy let herself be led to the bath. The water was blessedly hot, smelling of lavender and chamomile, and Daisy let out a sigh. The woman smiled in satisfaction before reaching for a pitcher and a bar of soap. "Let's get ye clean, then." Her movements were brisk, and Daisy relaxed under the efficiency until the woman hit a spot at the back of her neck. She hissed at the sting and reached up to feel a row of punctures in her skin. A violent shudder wracked her body.
"It bit me," she whispered. She did not want to remember what it was. Her insides lurched and swayed, and she swallowed convulsively.
"Let me have a look." Gentle fingers probed the wounds. " 'Tis not very deep," the woman said soothingly as she washed it clean. " 'Twill heal in a tic, to be sure." Even so, the woman got up and came back with a jar of ointment. Her fingers were strong and sure as she smeared the pungent stuff on Daisy's neck.
The sting receded, and Daisy relaxed a bit more. "What is that?" she asked.
"An old recipe. Helps speed the healing." She sat back down behind Daisy and took up washing her hair. "I'm Mrs. Tuttle," the woman said. "You may call me Tuttle if ye like." She let out a short laugh. "I havena been called anything else in an age."
Daisy stared at the small coal fire glowing at the other end of the room. "I'm Daisy."
The sound of her own name felt wrong. She felt wrong. Numb.
"Would you send word to my sister?" The sudden need to see one of her sisters was almost painful. Poppy, however, would ask too many questions and make her feel like a goose for recklessly attending a party with the fast crowd. No, she needed Miranda, who would offer comfort without judgment. Her voice cracked when she spoke again. "She is Lady Archer."
"Of course, dear. I'll send a messenger out directly."
Strong fingers massaged Daisy's scalp, and creamy cascades of foam slid over her breasts and arms, the foam pink with old blood. In the dim of the elegant dressing room, she could almost believe the blood to be a trick of light. Only it wasn't. Bile rose in her throat. She drew her knees up and closed her eyes to the sight.
"Tuttle? The…" She licked her dry lips. "The man?"
Tuttle's movement stilled for only a moment. "Passed on." She crossed herself and then picked up the pitcher.
Warm water eased over Daisy's head as she squeezed her eyes shut. "I don't even remember his name." Her mouth trembled. She'd only been looking for a bit of amusement, harmless pleasure. She felt sick to her soul.
Tuttle made a soft sound. " 'Tis a terrible business, ma'am. Bless the Lord that yer unharmed."
Daisy curled into herself as another round of water flowed over her, taking the gore away. "And Alex." She swallowed down bile. "Alex was my friend."
Tuttle washed her with neat economy and then gently helped her to her feet to wrap a thick towel about her. The quiet movements were oddly comforting, and when Daisy was settled again on the green-velvet settee, she felt a bit more clearheaded. Unfortunately, it also led her to realize that she'd let Tuttle see her unclothed. Unease tightened the muscles on her back. She glanced at Tuttle. The light was dim here, and Tuttle hadn't remarked on anything. So perhaps she hadn't seen.
Daisy adjusted the towel higher up her back as Tuttle handed her a glass of brandy. "The master sent this for you. It ought to be whiskey, but he thought that might be too strong for ye."
Daisy took a sip of brandy as Tuttle bustled about. Liquid fire melted the ice in her belly, and her thoughts turned to her kind host. She couldn't recall meeting Lord Northrup. Then again, it had been a year since she'd been out in society, and she hadn't run in such lofty circles. Names, titles, and faces filtered through her mind, and she finally remember that the Marquis of Northrup was an old title belonging to some lord in Scotland for at least sixty years now. The man must be ancient.
Tuttle came near, holding up a rather flashy dressing gown of celadon green satin. The color would suit her sisters but most likely make Daisy look peaked. However, as it was that or go around swathed in a towel, Daisy slipped it on. Unfortunately, the garment, which smelled of cheap violet water perfume, puddled on the floor, the arms of it flopping far past Daisy's hands. Made for a woman of Miranda's stature too, Daisy thought grimly as Tuttle helped her hook up the front. The hooks strained over her breasts, and Daisy grimaced at the ill fit. Lord Northrup, the randy old goat, apparently favored tall redheads who wore harlot's perfume.
Ian fiddled about with the decanters on his drinks table. He'd already poured himself a measure of scotch and had no real purpose for pulling out the random crystal stopper only to put it back in. With a sound of disgust, he pushed away from the sideboard.
The woman was above, getting bathed by Tuttle. If he closed his eyes, he could hear the gentle tinkle of water and smell the fragrance of his bath soap enveloping her.
He blew out a breath and plopped down in his chair by the fire. Grabbing his glass from the side table, he took a hearty swallow before scowling down into the amber liquid.
The woman. He had exactly one glimpse of her pale throat before Tuttle had shooed him away.
"I'm a physician," he'd protested, when an implacable Tuttle had batted him back from undressing his patient.
"Oh, are ye?" Tuttle's expression had been dubious. "I thought ye'd given that all up."
Fine, he hadn't practiced since 1865 but the knowledge was still there. "Cheeky woman, do not split hairs now. I've seen countless nude females in that capacity, and it doesn't affect me in the least."
"Aye," Tuttle had snapped back. "An' when ye can look at her with the detached politeness of a healer and not leer like some randy lad, I'll let you examine her. Until then, out you go."
This is what he got for treating his staff like pack instead of servants, and while he craved the close familiarity of others, now wasn't one of those times. "Blast it, woman, I need to ascertain whether she is injured."
"Ascertain, eh?" She shoved him toward the door. "Is that what you're callin' it now?"
With only a harried assurance from Tuttle that she'd check the lass for damage, he'd been banished from his own room as though he were some deviant incapable of basic professionalism.
A grumble sounded in his breast. Very well, he could admit that part of him had been looking at the woman with the interest of a man, and damned if he knew why. The poor thing had been covered in blood, and in all likelihood, was traumatized. That his breath had begun to quicken as his hands undid her top buttons suddenly made him feel small and wrong, a right cad.
"Bloody hell," he muttered and took another long drink. The liquor sent a pleasant path of warmth down his throat and into his twitching gut. But it did not calm him. The silence in the library irritated the hell out of him. It struck him that silence was fast becoming his constant companion. Certainly he heard many things, talked to people on a daily basis, but on the inside he was alone.
Ian sank farther into his chair, and the twitchy, itchy weight of his situation intensified. As he looked at the door, his ears pricked up at the sound of the woman's tread coming down the main stair, and his heart kicked within his chest. A pleasant jump along with a tightening of his gut. Although he hadn't felt the sensation in months, years really, Ian realized the feeling for what it was: anticipation.
A sense of the surreal settled over Daisy as Tuttle led her through Northrup's elegant town house. She ought not be walking. She ought to be dead. That she lived, breathed, felt the slip and slide of silk over her legs with every step was at once so normal yet so abnormal that she almost laughed. Her friend was dead. And her own would-be lover? She was prepared to shag him, for really she couldn't call it making love, and now the man—whose name she still could not remember—was gone, slaughtered.
Temptress of man. Harbinger of a man's lust and destruction.
God help her, her late husband's words rang too close to the truth. Were it not for her going into the alleyway with that poor man, he might still be alive.
Her heartbeat sped up as Tuttle opened the door to a cozy library and ushered Daisy forward. What had her rescuer seen? Her steps faltered because suddenly she resolutely did not want to know.
- On Sale
- Jul 31, 2012
- Page Count
- 432 pages