Unleash the Curse
SHARROW HOUSE, YORKSHIRE, FEBRUARY 1816
Two entire weeks to herself. Two weeks to spend in blissful relaxation amid the luxury of a sprawling country estate. Far away from noisy crowds, clogged streets, choking fogs, and snippy backstage gossip. Two weeks to decide the rest of her life.
Sighing, Sarah pulled the gaudy bracelet from her reticule. The charms clicked against one another as she turned it this way and that, the gemstones catching and refracting the afternoon light across the carriage walls. Everything about the ornament screamed priceless antiquity, from the intricate links of heavy gold to the ornate silver clasp. It was a treasure fit for a Roman empress or a Byzantine courtesan. Perhaps it harkened further back to the earliest age when the true Fey still walked freely within the mortal realm and craftsmen learned their art from the gods themselves. Could it have graced the wrist of a faery queen? Or been given to a mortal bride by her handsome Fey lover? The possibilities staggered the imaginationâ€”and hers required much to knock off-kilter.
Dismissing the sudden churn of her stomach as last-minute excitement, she grimaced. Not exactly normal everyday wear for a Billingsgate fishmongerâ€™s daughter . . . though for an Italian princess, it would be perfection itself.
Princess Sarah Orsini.
It definitely had a regal ring to it.
Still, she shouldnâ€™t have accepted the gift. It spoke of a relationship bordering on sordid, and sheâ€™d spent the years since her debut on Covent Gardenâ€™s stage making very sure none could ever accuse her of even the hint of an impropriety. Sarah Haye was no barque of frailty to be passed from man to man like a prize. She might be an actressâ€”sheâ€™d never be a whore.
But Christophe had pressed the bracelet upon her when sheâ€™d told him about her trip to Yorkshire as a token of their soon-to-be-announced betrothal. A presumption on his part since she hadnâ€™t actually agreed, but after a month, she knew to smile blandly and accept. It was easier than fighting through the pouting and the pressure. But accepting it and flaunting it were far different. Until she made up her mind, sheâ€™d keep the bracelet tucked away out of sight. None would ever know. The proprieties would be met.
â€œHow the girls in Thames Street with their crates of cod and herring would laugh if they knew I was being courted by royalty,â€ she commented with a wry smile.
Her ladyâ€™s maid eyed the bauble with a disdainful sniff. â€œItâ€™s a queer ugly thing, if you donâ€™t mind my saying so.â€
Hesterâ€™s dour fustiness was almost as fine an acting job as any role Sarah performed. The prim, black-garbed gargoyle had been an accomplished actress once upon a time. Retired now, she offered her employer an air of Quakerish respectability as maid, companion, and, more often than not, interfering mother hen.
â€œGives me the collywobbles just looking at it,â€ she added with a shudder.
â€œIt is a bit . . . ostentatious.â€ The bracelet slithered off Sarahâ€™s wrist and into her lap with a heavy thunk. â€œAnd the clasp is loose. Iâ€™ll have to have it repaired when we return to the city.â€
â€œLeave it to a havey-cavey garlic eater to give broken bits of jewelry as a gift. Why not a pair of dirty socks or a used handkerchief and be done with it?â€
â€œDonâ€™t be ridiculous.â€ Sarah slipped the bracelet back into her bag as the carriage drew to a stop and the door opened.
â€œWatch yer step, maâ€™am,â€ a footman advised as he assisted her out. A good thing or she might have fallen flat on her face. This was her splendid country estate? This was her pampered cosseted two weeks of pleasure?
Mud holes and wheel ruts pocked the gravel sweep in front of a rambling house that loomed stark and gloomy over the overgrown laws. Vines grew up the pale bricks and twined around two of the pepperpot chimneys. In summer, the upper windows would be curtained in leafy green. But in the dead of February, there was naught to see but a tangled lattice of spindly brown sticks with a few dead leaves rattling in the wind sweeping down off the moors. And what on earth was going on with the round tower at the western corner of the building? Piles of broken lumber, bricks, and dirt crushed the shrubs while glassless windows gaped to the weather and crows perched on the edge of a hole in the roof.
â€œA horrid mess, isnâ€™t it?â€ Hester commented as she alighted beside her charge.
While Sarah marveled, a man strode out from behind a scraggly yew hedge shielding the stables from the main house. He removed his hat to run a careless hand through his dark hair, his clothing dusty from travel.
Had Sarah been of a fainting nature, she might have swooned. Had she been of a timorous nature, she might have fled in humiliation. Instead, their eyes met, and she merely groaned inwardly and began counting down her two weeks of purgatory.
* * *
Sebastian Commin, the Earl of Deane, liked to think of himself as logical, even-tempered, and always in control. Qualities that had served himâ€”and the entire Commin family going back centuriesâ€”very well. But right this moment, he felt anything but calm, cool, and collected.
â€œWhat is she doing here?â€ he finally blurted.
James, Lord Duncallan, looked up from the sheaf of papers spread upon the table. The two of them had slipped away from the other guests to convene in the study. Now, a half bottle of brandy later, as the afternoon light faded, Sebastian could keep quiet no longer.
â€œLady Melissa?â€ Duncallan asked. â€œSheâ€™s my cousin. I had to invite her. Family duty and all that rot.â€
Sebastian gritted his teeth and tried not to murder his host as he paced, worrying at his signet ring in nervous agitation. â€œNot your bloody cousin. Miss Haye . . . the actress. Who invited her?â€
Amusement hovered around Duncallanâ€™s mouth. â€œMy wife. They met at a literary salon. Sheâ€™s far more interesting than the docile featherbrains Katherineâ€™s normally stuck with over after-dinner sherry and regurgitated gossip.â€
Sebastian would agree. Sarah Haye was witty, charming, beautiful, and elegant. She was surprisingly well read and at times bluntly plain spoken. And heâ€™d spent the past six months avoiding her like a case of the plague. â€œSheâ€™s an actress, James. She works on the stage.â€
Duncallanâ€™s amusement blossomed into a smug smile. â€œIâ€™m aware of the definition of actress, Seb. But sheâ€™s hardly a rope dancer at Vauxhall. Sheâ€™s been invited to half the houses in Mayfair. Yours among them as I recall.â€
And hadnâ€™t that invitation been the worst mistake of his life? Heâ€™d been intrigued by her performance on the stage. Dazzled by her when she swept into his drawing room afterward with the regal presence of a queen. And completely terrified when he woke naked beside her the next morning with a pounding head, a dry mouth, and a stolen heart.
â€œIf the extremely respectable Lord Deane accepts Sarah Haye within the opulent halls of Deane House, surely none will care whether an impoverished baron invites her to the wilds of Yorkshire for a few weeks,â€ Duncallan continued. â€œBesides, our kind need to stick together in these uncertain times, whether weâ€™re born to palace or hovel, donâ€™t you think?â€ he asked with a mischievous gleam in his eyes.
Sarah was Other? Sebastian should have sensed the mage energy moving within her, but heâ€™d been too busy experiencing a far baser urge; a mad insatiable passion that overwhelmed his good sense, and a longing that even all these months later still dragged him from his dreams sweating, breathless, and hard as a rock.
Heâ€™d accuse Sarah Haye of hunting for a wealthy protector, but sheâ€™d never once sought him out after that night. Never pressed her attentions further or looked to take advantage of the situation. In fact, sheâ€™d retreated into a glossy impervious distance. And, shocked by the almost visceral feelings sheâ€™d provoked in him within the span of a few short hours, heâ€™d been relieved. Duty to his family prohibited marriage. His own honor, ragged as it was, excluded anything less. Heâ€™d known it then and hadnâ€™t cared. He knew it now and it hurt like a bullet to the chest.
â€œIf sheâ€™s Other, where do her gifts lie?â€ Sebastian asked, then immediately regretted it when Duncallan chuckled.
â€œFor someone so averse to Miss Hayeâ€™s presence, youâ€™re certainly curious about her.â€
â€œDuncallan . . .â€ Seb warned through a clenched jaw.
The young baron put up a hand in appeasement, though his expression hinted at interrogations to come. â€œCalm down, Iâ€™ll say no moreâ€”for now. Actually, her powers are very similar to yours, though where you can mold perception and shape awareness in one person, she has the ability to reach an entire audience. Itâ€™s what makes her such a talented actress.â€
â€œIs she a danger to our work? Gray would never forgive us if we compromised the safety of the group.â€
â€œNo. If she knows anything about the Imnada, itâ€™s as bedtime stories. Weâ€™re safe enough.â€
If only the same could be said about Sebastian.
Duncallan shuffled through his papers. â€œAs I was saying, our contact in Dublin has alerted Gray to some alarming developments among the Other there. Heâ€™ll help as he can but itâ€™s too early for the Imnada to reveal themselves. A premature confrontation between Fey-born and shapechanger could throw everything weâ€™ve worked for into jeopardy. Gray has suggested he come forward only if thereâ€™s no other choice.â€
To the mortal world who remained blissfully unaware of the otherworldly beings living among them, Gray de Coursy, known among the ton as the Ghost Earl, was the disgraced soldier grandson of the aging Duke of Morieux. To those closest to him, he was far more; dispossessed heir to the five clans of Imnada shapechangers, a hunted rebel leader seeking to bring peace between Imnada and Fey-born Other . . . and the victim of a dark and horrible curse.
Sebastian had known him as all of the above. From their introduction at Eton as fellow frightened nine-year-olds away from home for the first time, to the shocking day last year when Gray broke every vow of his people to trust Seb with his secrets and his sins.
In an out-of-the-way coffeehouse in an out-of-the-way corner of London, Sebastian had sat across from Gray, awestruck and half disbelieving, as he revealed the existence of the Imnada, a race of shapechangers borne beyond the stars whoâ€™d hidden for thousands of years from a world whoâ€™d sought their destruction. Then Gray leaned closer and in a voice harsh with fury, heâ€™d confessed to his own terrible secret. Beginning with a savage massacre on the eve of Waterloo and the black spell cast in retaliation by a dying sorcerer. Ending with Grayâ€™s enslavement to the daily turn of the sunâ€”a painful, involuntary shift to his animal aspectâ€”and the resulting exile that had cost de Coursy his family, his home, his clan, and his future.
Sebastian had been amazed, then appalled, then heâ€™d agreed to assist Gray in any way he could. For the shy boy heâ€™d known. For the haunted man he pitied.
â€œIâ€™ve been meaning to talk to you about a possible new recruit to the cause,â€ Duncallan commented. â€œHeâ€™s a bit out of the ordinary, but I know if Gray gave him a chance, Lucan would prove his worth a thousand times over.â€
â€œWould he?â€ Only half listening, Sebastian crossed to the study window, flicking back a curtain. A pair of women dressed in heavy fur-lined cloaks strolled in company among the overgrown hedges, but he didnâ€™t recognize either of them. Sarah, on the other hand, heâ€™d know anywhere and dressed in anything . . . or nothing.
Damn it. He should let it go. Move on. Quit thinking about her. Quit speaking before he said something stupid. â€œYou never answered my question.â€ Shit. Too late.
â€œWhat question?â€ Duncallan asked.
â€œWhy is Miss Haye here?â€
â€œBy the gods, Seb,â€ his host answered, exasperation sharpening his tone. â€œIâ€™ve a houseful of guests. You never have to speak two words to the woman, I promise. What the hell does it matter to you why sheâ€™s here?â€
Sebastian scrambled for purchase against a slippery slope of his own making. He dropped the curtain back in place and collapsed into a nearby chair, suddenly tired as heâ€™d never been and with a head that felt as if a mule had kicked it in. â€œIt doesnâ€™t. Merely curious.â€
â€œDamned odd thing to be curious about.â€ Duncallan gazed on him with a speculative gleam in his eye and Sebastian could almost hear his wheels turning. â€œIf I didnâ€™t know better, Iâ€™d say you suffer a tendre for the woman.â€
â€œBut you do know better, donâ€™t you?â€ he said in a haughty tone designed to brook no further discussion.
Duncallan was not so easily thwarted. â€œCan you imagine your motherâ€™s reaction if she discovered you took up with an actress? Sheâ€™s been planning your wedding since you came out of leading strings. Whoâ€™s her latest pick for your wife? Lord Swathingâ€™s daughter? She comes with a handsome dowry, but sheâ€™s an awful flirt.â€
Sebastian pulled himself together. James was right. The house was crawling with guests. There was no reason he couldnâ€™t avoid Sarah. It had worked for six months. What was a few days?
The tight pang in his chest eased, and Sebastian relaxed enough to cross a booted foot over his knee, lean back in his chair, and smile as if heâ€™d not a care in the world. He was the Earl of Deane. The end of a long line of respectable, responsible men from a well-connected, influential family. He owed it to all of them to marry well and, Fey-born gifts notwithstanding, there was no place in his life for a Covent Garden actress. Sooner or later, his dreams would fade, his ardor would cool, and she would be no more than a pleasant memory.
â€œFinding me a bride gives my mother something to do besides browbeat the servants and redecorate Coldham . . . again.â€
â€œBut is she finding you a woman you can marry or a woman you can love?â€ Duncallan said quietly.
The crushing, twisting wrench in Sebastianâ€™s chest returned while his headache doubled in strength. How many times had that very question run through his brain in the past six months? How many times had he shoved it as far down as he could without retching? He gave a thin cool smile and consigned his so-called friend to the devil.
â€œShe is finding me a countess.â€
* * *
Sarah stepped off the bottom stair into Sharrow Houseâ€™s stone-flagged entry hall. Carpets covered the floor in a riot of color; a table lay piled with books, a discarded pair of gloves, and a bowl of last fallâ€™s dried blossoms; while the air smelled faintly of beeswax and lemon. The house might be down-at-the-heels, but it was comfortable with the cozy touches that made it a home rather than a theater set.
She paused in front of a gilded mirror above the book-laden table, tucking a stray curl into the sleek dark coil of hair atop her head, adjusting the lace fichu at her throat. Her jewel-green gown was simply cut and modestly ornamented, but plain didnâ€™t have to equal dowdy. As she turned, her shawl caught on the gloves, knocking them to the floor. Kneeling to retrieve them, she froze when a deep aristocratic drawl sounded from above her. â€œMay I be of assistance?â€
She closed her eyes and grimaced. Blast and bother! Of all the guests to come upon her, why did it have to be him? And why did just hearing his voice make her knees wobble and her innards flutter? Oh well, sheâ€™d not cower in her chambers for two weeks. Best to soldier through the initial toe-curling humiliation and move on.
With a fortifying breath, she scooped up the gloves, rising to come almost nose to chest with the last person sheâ€™d expected or wanted to see during this respite from her whirlwind existence in London . . . Lord Deane.
His gold-brown eyes widened for a shocked moment, color flooding high across his sharp cheekbones before good breeding reasserted itself, and he offered her a small nod of courtesy. â€œMiss Haye, I didnâ€™t realize it was you down there.â€
She offered him a smile as polished as glass. â€œMy lord, how nice to see you. Itâ€™s been . . . two months? three? . . . since we last spoke.â€ A euphemism not lost on His Lordship, whose jaw tightened while his earlier flush deepened from pink to scarlet. â€œI thought perhaps youâ€™d left town.â€
What a bouncer. Sheâ€™d known exactly where heâ€™d been all through the autumn. Had even caught a glimpse of him twice; once coming from Carlton House and once on the flagway outside a tobacconist on Bond Street. Both times heâ€™d been in company. And both times his gaze had passed over her as if sheâ€™d not existed. Another woman might have been outraged at his cool rebuff. Sheâ€™d been relieved. The last thing she wanted was a humiliating reminder of that ruinous night.
But now, faced with his familiar lean muscled strength and his well-remembered scent; a mix of leather, brandy, and tobacco smoke, a wanton and wicked craving scorched a path straight to her center and she felt her color rise. No matter how she strove to hold to her indifference, her body still hungered for his touch.
â€œItâ€™s been six months actually.â€ His proud stare raked her from scalp to slippers, causing heat to burn her cheeks, though she refused to lower her eyes. â€œI wouldnâ€™t have recognized you.â€ Dressed so demurely, hanging unspoken between them in the cool air of the hall.
She felt a flash of irritation. Did he think because she acted for a living, sheâ€™d be attired in beads and ostrich feathers? Perversity made her simper and bat her lashes. â€œA sop to the country, darling,â€ she preened in a plummy accent redolent of hunt balls and vast estates. Mimicry had always come easy to her, though after years moving among the upper classes, it barely took any of her talent to conjure the rich intonations of her social betters. Not that it mattered. Speech was a surface fix. To be truly accepted among the bon ton, one needed a pedigree that smelled of old money not fresh cod. â€œI canâ€™t putter among the milkmaids and shepherds in my best velvets and satins, can I?â€
â€œYou neednâ€™t have worried. I donâ€™t believe Duncallan invited any to dinner,â€ Deane answered, a flicker of amusement dancing in his amber eyes.
â€œNo?â€ Flustered, she dropped into the rounded tones and dropped hâ€™s of her old neighborhood as easily as slipping on a pair of comfortable shoes. â€œWell, what would a girl from the mean alleys of Smartâ€™s Lane and St. Maryâ€™s â€™ill know of gentrified country ways? I ainâ€™t been farther away from London than the village of Slough in me â€™ole life.â€
His brows rose slightly at her thick London accent, but his gaze never wavered, the spark of laughter lingering. â€œReally? I seem to recall you mentioning a Venetian breakfast in Brighton last summer. Lady Melchiorâ€™s terrier fell in the fish pond and it took three footman to rescue the mongrel.â€
Her heart seemed to skip a beat or two, her hands twisting the gloves, and for the space between heartbeats, she was surprised into dropping all pretense, removing all masks. â€œSo I did. Funny you should remember.â€
He must have realized where they were and what theyâ€™d been doing when sheâ€™d told him that story. His face tightened, the color draining away. And yet, his gaze intensified as if he searched for something within her eyes. â€œThere is little from that night I donâ€™t recall. You wore a gown of peony red trimmed in lace and had flowers in your hair.â€
Sarah eased from his immediate orbit, though it was now painfully clear that while they remained beneath the same roof, sheâ€™d be aware of his presence like a crackle along her skin or a tingle in the pit of her stomach. â€œThatâ€™s right. A sweet ensemble, but sadly lacking in either spangles or ostrich feathers.â€
â€œI wouldnâ€™t worry,â€ he said softly. â€œThis style suits you far better.â€
She turned back to the mirror, pretending to fix the string of pearls at her throat while she composed herself against the rush of conflicting emotions churning through herâ€”shame, regret, and anger chief among them, though desire lingered like a bad cold despite her efforts to quash it. â€œWhat brings you to Sharrow House? I wouldnâ€™t think this was your type of gathering. A bit too unorthodox for someone of your prestige.â€
With a final moistening of her lips and dry swallow, she turned to face him. â€œI was invited.â€
For a moment, she could have sworn guilt shadowed his gaze. â€œHad I known beforehand, I wouldnâ€™t have come.â€
â€œOuch. Thatâ€™s clear enough, isnâ€™t it?â€ She gave away no hint of her feelings beyond a slight pursing of her lips.
â€œNo, I believe I have a perfect grasp of the situation, but we neednâ€™t let past mistakes spoil the next few days. Itâ€™s a large house. We can easily avoid each other, and once we return to London, we need never speak again.â€
â€œWhat if . . .â€ His eyes seemed to blaze hot while a rapid pulse beat in the hollow beneath his jaw. â€œWhat if I was wrong? What if I no longer want to avoid you?â€
And there it was. The slip on the shoulder, the invitation to vice that sooner or later all men offered her. She wasnâ€™t surprised, but she was disappointed. Sheâ€™d thought Sebastian . . . well, it didnâ€™t matter what she thought, the reality stared at her as if he waited for her to swoon at his feet. She offered a thin smile. â€œI suppose youâ€™re doomed to disappointment.â€
â€œSarah, Iâ€”â€ He reached for her arm.
The door opened in a bluster of cold wind and snow. Two men entered the hall, bundled in greatcoats and scarves and hats. Behind them a groom and a footman staggered under a crushing weight of luggage. The tallest of the newcomers removed his hat to run a hand through a mop of inky black curls. â€œThis English weather is bad for my hot Italian blood. I canâ€™t feel my feet. Renee, summon our host and see to our rooms. Make sure the fires are built high. You told me . . .â€ He paused, spying Sebastian and Sarah, and his eyes lit up, his arms outspread in excitement. â€œSarah, mi amore! I have arrived! Did you miss me?â€
She swallowed, blinked, swallowed again. Abandoning Sebastian, she stepped forward in a shush of skirts. â€œChristophe, what a lovely surprise.â€