An Eternity of Roses (The Valthreans: Book 1)
Series: The Valthreans , Book 1.0
By: Natalie G. Owens | Other books by Natalie G. Owens
Published By: Rose of Atlantis Press
Published: Jan 05, 2013
ISBN # 9780988577206
By: Natalie G. Owens | Other books by Natalie G. Owens
Published By: Rose of Atlantis Press
Published: Jan 05, 2013
ISBN # 9780988577206
Word Count: 119,000
Available in: Epub, Mobipocket (.mobi), Palm DOC/iSolo, Adobe Acrobat
Description"A fast-paced ... lovable romp" -- Mallory Heart Reviews.
Two lovers separated by an evil curse.
A desperate quest through time.
A love that wants to beat all odds.
And all the while, deadly danger brews around a two-thousand-year-old secret society and the enemy that lives to decimate it.
"...'Til the end of my life, I shall belong to you as your husband."
That was the promise Adrian made to Emmaline. And then, he was gone forever...
It is 1807. Adrian Segrave, Viscount Bournemouthe, and Lady Emmaline Deramore are about to wed and British Society teems with excitement at this imminent love match. But Madeleine de Brandeville, a mysterious Frenchwoman, has her lustful and ambitious sights on the groom. When she sets her cruel plan in motion, she leaves devastation in her path.
Heartbroken, Emmaline embarks on an adventure she'd never imagined having. As the world changes and chaos brews, her fate becomes linked with the Valthreans, a group of immortals who must learn to face a deadly enemy that threatens their place in the human world. But all the while, there is one thing she wants more than any other--to get back her man.
When she finally finds her prize and the intense blue flame of desire burns once more, her worst nightmares are far from over and the toughest battle is yet to begin. Will love win the war in the end?
Disclaimer: Do not read this novel if you dislike drop dead sexy heroes, strong heroines, intriguing immortals, magic, spells, mystery, amazing adventures, exotic settings, secret cults, and sensual love scenes.
(Approx. 119,000 words. Although part of a series, this is a standalone book.)
Reader Rating: Not rated (0 Ratings)
Sensuality Rating: Not rated
From Mallory Heart Reviews5 stars Reading this book was truly a delight-and I use that word intentionally. A fast-paced, loving, lovable, romp through time and character and romance and horror, with characters who are so fully fleshed that I felt they were standing beside me, "An Eternity of Roses" is only the beginning-this is the first entry in a new series called "The Valthreans," about a race of immortals who commenced almost before recorded time. Lady Emmaline and Viscount Adrian are so very deeply in love, and are soon to marry. It's 1807, a time when Society is all, and marriages are almost always arranged for convenience, politics, or matters of wealth. But these fortunate two are in love; until the villainess interferes. Madeleine put me in mind of the infamous Countess Elisabeth Bathory (yes, one of my favourite historical characters) in her depths of evil, the ambition of her evil, and her arcane murderous practices. She rules by fear, and she desires Adrian: nothing will stop her, or can she be stopped? Natalie G. Owens writes prose as if she is writing poetry, truly. The imagery is superb, and almost every sentence contains a wonderful description that makes the reader want to pause to savour it. I can't wait to read the next in the series; in the meantime, "An Eternity of Roses" is a definite re-read. The author provided me with an e-book copy in return for my provision of a fair and impartial review.
“We have scotch’d the snake, not kill’d it…”
[William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 3, Scene 2]
The Valley of the Sun, Kashmir, India.
He was a dead man.
Guilt, and the bitterness of shame, consumed him. His actions were punishable by death, his fate sealed; but because of him, the lives of his loved ones hung by a thread. For this, he deserved to die a thousand cruel deaths.
He should have listened to his blood brother, Nila, who had warned him this would happen. He should have stopped his selfish quest and left the Chalice where he had found it. Life would have gone on as normal. But obstinately, he had placed his thirst for knowledge above all else. What a thoughtless fool he had been!
Plagued by these remorseful thoughts, Valther crouched on his knees some distance from the foot of the seven steps that led to the Naga King Aravala’s throne, his head bowed. He chanced a peek at the irate king through the light curtain of his silver blond hair. Aravala eyed him with disdain, before his gaze pithily scanned the congregation of people who had been summoned there to witness.
A dark cloud of terror hovered above Valther. Its evil shadow had him in a stranglehold. A few hundred pairs of eyes burned into his sides, back, and neck. He knew the hell that faced him, so he summoned the courage to shut out the emotion that crushed his heart.
And then, he prayed. He prayed the others would live, that his sacrifice would count for something.
As if he could read Valther's mind, the king’s face darkened with rage. The regent held his imposing frame with confidence—much like the massive Chinar trees Valther loved for the cool shade they offered from branches laden with thousands of five-lobed brown leaves.
Surrounded by seven snake hoods embossed on the throne in an arch above his head, Aravala regarded him like a fearless tiger scoping a doomed bison. Ruthless to the core, his air of stolid savagery competed with that of the deadpan stone statues that flanked the entrance to his summer palace in the Valley of the Sun. Yet, Valther knew the king was no statue but a living, breathing, dangerous threat to anyone who dared cross him.
Aravala curled his talon-like fingers around the bullion edges of the massive chair arms and tapped them impatiently on the intricate carving. Valther kept still as a tense hum flittered through the assembly of cheerless Naga folk. A muffled cry carried across the room on the heavy air.
“You have forfeited your place of honor as Guardian of the Temple. Now, what have you to say for yourself?” the king said.
Valther tried to speak but all that came out was a strangled sound.
“You have betrayed me. Why? Do you wish to rule these people?” Aravala motioned to those standing there behind Valther.
“No!” Valther cried with the tone of a helpless child vehemently denying his mischief to his parents but knowing that their harsh discipline was inevitable.
“The Nagas have shared their wisdom with the world. Now, our enemy Asoka is sending Majjhantika to destroy us, and you want to reap the rewards.”
Word had reached the Naga camp that King Asoka, Aravala’s sworn enemy and ruler of neighboring territories, conspired to destroy the rubric of Naga beliefs that had survived for centuries. Under his rule, the Cult of the Snake would be annihilated.
“That is not my intent, Sire. I studied the powers of the dragon lake and its surroundings only for our people.”
He would never confess to treason. Many moons ago, when his travels brought him here, far from his birth home, the inhabitants of the village had welcomed him with jubilant affection and instilled in him the desire to stay and plant new roots. Nila and his younger brother, Candaka, both hungry to learn and hailing from a hardworking family of agrarians and fishermen, had shown him unconditional kindness and friendship. They made him one of their own.
“I should have known you would use the alchemical knowledge of our ancestors to advance your interests. You are not one of us and I should never have made you Guardian of the Temple.”
Valther shook his head fiercely. “I could never betray the Nagas! They sheltered me, became my family and taught me about the valley. This is my home, my life,” he said with anguish deeper than the waters of the Jhelum River.
At first sight of this land, blessed as it was with surrounding water and cradled in the bosom of high mountains, his breath had caught in his lungs. He loved this country, with its smiling, copper-skinned people, snow-capped mountains, dense forests, and wide open spaces. To walk amidst the spruce trees or through the yellow corn-fields by the river bank gave him a sense of peace and belonging. In this lush paradise, while observing the majestic wings of the Great Egret that soared freely in these skies, he would reflect on how kind his life had been to him. He had thrived here. His interest in the arcane and natural adeptness in the science of healing had given him the reputation of learned scholar and garnered him the revered position of Guardian of the Temple of the Sun. He had the utmost respect for his title. It meant he was doing what he loved in a place he called home.
But recently, things had taken a curious turn when he made a discovery in an unexplored cave some distance along the river—a group of mystical objects that, according to legend, would allow him to cross the threshold of the known world into a state of immortality. How could such blessing fall on him? Rather than simply pass the information to the king to do with as he wished, he had plainly defied authority.
The king glanced at the said article that had been put at Valther’s feet—one of the legendary Cups of Life, the lost seven Chalices of the River Demon. Although sovereigns and peasants alike had sought for centuries to find this treasure, the secret to life eternal, it had until then proved elusive.
“Tell me about your pact with Jalodbhava,” the king growled.
Jalodbhava, the water demon that dwelled inside the river, allowed humans to inhabit the Kashmir in return for their worship and respect. In the process, Naga kings were entrusted with the strength and privilege to rule under the demon’s patronage. Aravala had thus received his powers and used them to reign with an iron fist. He could control the seasons and the weather, create hail storms and cause untold destruction among the crops. The land was his dominion and he decided who lived and who died.
Immortal himself, he had existed for thousands of years and would live for many more.
“I do not know what you speak of, Sire,” Valther answered.
“You lie! You will not confess to being a traitor, then?”
“That, Sire, I am not.”
“The legend speaks of seven cups, and you only have one. Where are the others?”
“I have carved this cup myself, that is all I know.”
“More lies! Who else shares your power of immortality?”
Valther bit on his lip as pain knifed through his right side. Three days of torture had taken their toll but he did not speak then, and he would not speak now.
“You mock me with your insolence, foreigner.”
Valther flinched. With that last dreaded word, Aravala had ruthlessly severed his connection to this community. Disowned him in front of everyone who listened.
“I only want to live in peace, Sire. My loyalty is with my people.”
The king stood, his lips curled down in scorn. “If you speak of your friends, they are as dead as you.”
Valther knew what that meant—mortal danger for those he held dear. He hoped Nila and Candaka had a good plan. His pact with them was that if the king captured him, they were to protect themselves and their relatives by leaving everything they’d ever known. With Aravala’s oppressive ways, they could never be free. For it would be their death, too, if they failed to escape.
Dread crept under his skin. He took a deep breath and let his mind soar above the despair that gnawed at him, in the same way Nila’s late father had once taught him to do when he was distressed or in pain. A form of meditation, with it he took himself to another plane of existence, a place where Aravala could do nothing to hurt him. The ability to control and redirect his mental energies had taken him through the last horrific days and given him the strength to face extreme physical pain.
He braced himself and gingerly got off his knees. Boldly forcing his broken body to stand up, he looked straight into the king’s eyes—a sign of disrespect. His arm hung swollen and ached, his shoulders burned, but if one had to die, one might as well die with dignity and principle. The Nagas deserved no less from him.
Showing his rage at Valther’s audacity, Aravala pointed his thick-nailed index finger at him. The large ruby ring that adorned it sparkled in its gold setting. “You have sealed your fate. You see, I know what can destroy you,” he spat.
His narrowed gaze reached out colder than winter on the crests of the mountains that shielded the dale. “I am the Supreme King of the Nagas, lest you have forgotten that,” the king derided. His laugh echoed throughout the hall with an ugly pitch. “And beware the snake. It shall be your downfall, immortal.”
He turned his scouring gaze to the crowd. “If any of the prisoner’s cohorts are present, know that the power of everlasting life is mine, and will be granted only to the loyal lieges of my choosing.”
When Aravala’s arm stretched out like the long branch of a tree, the ground started to quake. With horrifying speed, his hand metamorphosed into the expanding hood of a living, breathing cobra.
While the morphing limb glided toward him, Valther closed his eyes. A tear trailed down his cheek, a crack in his armor.
Be brave just a little longer, Valther. It will soon be over.
He tapped into his memories to beckon visions of the rambling fields in springtime when vibrant flowers burst forth in a carpet of color. He summoned the faces of those he loved to the forefront of his mind, and in the final moments, he even spared a thought for his faraway childhood home in the untamed glades and mountainous regions of Germania. His mind’s eye acknowledged everything he had seen, learned, and done for one last time.
It should have been painful, but he was so engrossed in his fantasy that he barely felt the sting of the cobra fangs as they speared through the skin of his throat to inject into the pulsing vein. The poison worked swift and lethal… and if he had the strength to speak as he slipped to the floor and the night engulfed him, he would have remarked, with no little surprise, just how easy death could be.
From the far end of the hall, Nila and Candaka watched helplessly as Aravala took their friend’s—no, their brother’s—life. They had risked their lives by showing up at the palace but they could not bring themselves to leave without seeing him one last time.
Nila turned to his younger brother as anger and grief threatened to choke him. “Aravala’s men will be looking for us. We must leave and join the others in the cave by nightfall, before Asoka’s men attack.” He wished he could take every person in the village away but he was not sure who could be trusted. Some of these people feared the king, but they still admired him. He hoped his decision would not come to haunt him.
“What shall we tell everyone? What will happen now?” Candaka asked. His voice cracked at the second question.
Nila could tell by the stricken look in his eyes that his heart was breaking in tiny little pieces. “We shall tell them to be strong and prepare for the worst. It is our duty to help our families cross the gorges to the Arabian Sea and settle in a new land.” He placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “We have the remaining Cups of Life, and we know what to do. It is our fate, and we must fight for it. Our people have braved harsh challenges; they will brave this one, too. Are you with me?”
They would find new roots, create new lives, and most of all, they would honor the gift given to them by Valther. There could be no other way.
The usually light-hearted Candaka gave a somber nod. “Forever,” he whispered.
Nila tightened his grip. “Forever,” he echoed. “From this day forward, we will use this gift to protect our own from those who will do us harm.”
He threw one last look at their despicable monarch and said, “The cobra is now our worst enemy,” before he steered them both outside.
“Will we ever return home?”
“Mayhap one day is all I can say. But never forget, brother, home is in here,” Nila replied, pointing to his brow, “and in here,” he finished, placing a closed fist on his pounding heart.
"Stars, hid your fires!
Let not light see my black and deep desires."
[Macbeth, Act I, Scene IV]
December 15, 1807.
A darkened private parlor in the heart of a cold, country mansion…
“Everything is arranged according to your instructions, my lady.”
Lady Madeleine de Brandeville kept the door to her parlor barely ajar to discourage her butler’s prying. “I trust you are right, Roth, or there’ll be hell to pay for you. The least for intruding upon my privacy.”
Everybody knew they weren’t supposed to disturb her when she was in this room. Her mouth curled in vitriolic contempt as she pulled the door back and slammed it fast against the man’s panicked expression and startled gasp. Before the wood clicked into place, the air woke the fiery red curls that had broken free from the loose knot at her nape, and made her skin tingle there.
A muted laugh escaped her lips. She liked to keep her staff on their toes, for fear was a most loyal servant. Whenever she addressed Roth—she only had to touch him with her immuring green gaze—his sallow cheeks paled to ghostly white and his withered, gangly frame shook like Norfolk reed in a windstorm. Yet, he chose to remain in her employ rather than be cast into the streets without a scrap of food, coin, or reference to his name. After all, who would want a former thief in their household?
She walked to the table and surveyed the objects laid on it. The crystal felt cool against her hand as she lifted the glass from the table to her mouth. Although one and the same, the rich liquor inside it seemed less dense than the fluid substance at the bottom of the large bowl she looked upon with reverence. It slid down her throat like liquid fire, quenched her thirst with its fiery strength—and the powers that lurked within.
At this late hour, she couldn’t hear a sound. No echo of lowered voices. Not even the faintest creak of a door or distant footfall. With most of the servants gone, she wanted to relish the quiet before the storm, and finish her work without interruptions.
After she was done, she’d wait for the perfect chance to make her move. But first, she had to see, and to open the gate to her mind’s eye she needed one more ingredient. The most crucial one.
After draining the glass to the last drop, she set it down and walked toward the squirming, moaning shape in a corner. A faint strip of light struggled through the sliver of space between the drawn curtains over the windows across the room and reached to the feminine form huddled on a chair. Enough for Madeline to see the raw terror in the pleading, innocent eyes that looked up at her—eyes so young they’d likely never seen the bounty of a man’s body or the beautiful strain of his pleasure. The greater the innocence, the more intense the energy that would carry Madeleine’s visions.
Her gaze glossed over the captive. The girl's breasts were already full and round, adding value to a fair face and hale skin. It wouldn’t be long before she caught some stablehand’s eye. This was the right time.
Bound and gagged, her captive let out a muffled scream as Madeleine stopped in front of her. She continued to struggle, attempting in vain to break free from the twisted rope that bit into the milky white flesh of her wrists. Then, when Madeleine drew the dagger from her skirt pocket and let it glint against the drift of light, the begging started.
They always begged, which made her long to silence them forever.
She remembered how once the guilt would make her hesitate. How their fear and agony tugged at her heart.
That was a long, long time ago … when she still had a heart.
Madeleine ignored the whimpers. She pressed the sharp tip against the frantic pulse of the girl’s neck, drawing a thin trickle of blood and a trail of desperate tears that slid to the blade.
“So, where were we?”
December 21, 1807
Belvoir Hall, Annual Christmas Ball
Lady Emmaline Deramore swallowed hard and tried to calm her racing heart. She stood frozen in the crowded ballroom at Belvoir Hall—three days before her wedding to the dashing Adrian Segrave, Viscount Bournemouthe—feeling like a trapped fox. A powerful pang of unease stung the hairs on her nape and sliced through her lungs.
Something was dreadfully wrong. She darted her eyes around until they settled on the figure of a tall, breathtakingly beautiful woman with crimson hair and an emerald gown that matched her eyes and showcased ample cleavage. Her blood froze.
That woman again.
Lady Madeleine de Brandeville’s gaze pierced her, as soulless and frightening as the crater of a dormant volcano. The woman’s brazen infatuation with Adrian, the way Emmaline sometimes caught her looking at him with avid hunger, may have been a reason for that focused hatred. But there was something more … something infinitely more sinister about her.
Suddenly, fear the likes of which Emmaline had never felt before scuttled like a parasite up her spine.
Everyone around her was in high spirits. Her cousin and his wife sat close by, in deep conversation with the vicar. A few distinguished gentlemen had imbibed too much of Cook’s fiery punch and gathered, ruddy-cheeked, in various spots, away from their wives’ accusing gazes. Intricate coiffures, dazzling jewels, and fine coutures molded and buffed the bodies that packed the large space in her soon-to-be home, while fresh young couples danced a lively quadrille under their matrons’ eagle eyes. But to Emmaline, nothing existed but the cloud of ill-boding that formed a tight knot around her, cut welts into her, squeezed, crushed.
God above, the woman smirked at her. That twisted smile felt like a warning. No, more than that; like an omen. A wicked chill wracked her as if she were standing outside in the frosty December air, clothed in only her shift.
Run and hide!
Emmaline forced herself to turn around and walk away. As she let the guests swarm around her in a thickening buffer, she followed a narrow, veined path toward the exit. An alcove in the adjoining salon secured a bit of solace, away from the crowd. Her only companion now remained a potted fern—profuse, concealing and blessedly mute.
She pressed her back against the cool wall and reached into the side pocket of her gown for her monogrammed handkerchief. Her fingers met with nothing. Must have left it behind in the retiring room. She breathed fitfully, hand on her heart, and willed the wild beating to subside.
Then, she summoned Adrian’s face in her mind. His smile, his body, his touch. Adrian lazily swirling his thumb on her palm. Adrian trailing his fingertips over her cheeks and jaw, around to that sensitive spot down her nape to the top of her spine. Adrian kissing her, plundering her mouth. Adrian brushing his lips on that delicate juncture between her neck and shoulders, tasting her skin, giving her shivers. Adrian telling her how much he wanted her.
She thought about it until she really felt it, like a warm, tingling breeze on her bare skin. She pondered it until the hunger for the real thing took over. Until fine tendrils of desire chipped at that cold fear and started to slake its debris from her heart.
The hum of voices, the clatter of glasses, the sound of laughter, the music, and the footsteps started to fade from her hearing.
Adrian’s words of desire that were burned in her very soul killed all those sounds.
She stood there in her silent cocoon, and waited for the love of her life to come save her.
The potted plant stirred when Adrian walked by it. A hand reached out to grab his coat sleeve and unceremoniously dragged him behind the greenery.
“Hush! It is I.”
His jaw slacked in surprise. “Emma, what are you doing here? I was looking for you—” he stopped abruptly when he realized her face had drained of color. He gathered her hands in his to still their visible trembling. “My love, what is the matter? Are you unwell?”
Emma worried her bottom lip. “I just saw Lady de Brandeville in the ballroom. She was staring at me very . . . well . . . there is something about that woman. We don’t know much about her, do we?” Adrian’s protective instincts roared. He drew her closer to him, rubbed her back in a soothing up-down motion, and pressed brief kisses on her hair until he felt the tension ease.
“Lady de Brandeville is an insignificant nuisance. Why do you fear her?”
“I hate being such a ninny,” she groaned. “Tring, Wing, and Ivinghoe. Three churches all in a row,” he quoted as he pressed his cheek in the softness of her hair and inhaled the scent of the fresh red rose—his daily bequest to her for the past two years—nestled atop her head. “Do not be ashamed to turn to me when you feel this way.”
He held her quietly for a few moments, wanting nothing more than to take away what ailed her. To touch her. “Have you forgotten that just last week you and your mount almost won a breakneck race on the plain? Few would hope to measure up to such daring,” he remarked with the hope that his light tone would diffuse her anxiety.
She cuffed him lightly on the chest and lifted dancing eyes to his. “Almost won the race? I clearly arrived first, you scoundrel, and you know it.”
He slid his fingers to Emma’s nape and massaged her scalp. She bit her lip, as if holding back a moan, then her full, sensuous mouth widened in a thankful smile.
“You know what you need?” he murmured, arousal fanning through him. He guiltily tamped it down.
She pressed her cheek in his black evening coat. “Hmmm?”
“A refreshing swig of St. Albans’ Kinder brew. It solves all problems.”
Emma chuckled. “If the local brew had all the medicinal properties you claim it does, we’d have no need at all for doctors, only more inns and taverns.” She released a contented sigh as his fingers continued to knead into her skin.
What had Lady de Brandeville done to drive Emma to tears? In all his life, he had never met a woman as resilient and devoid of nonsense as his Emma—a woman who loved the outdoors as much as he, and preferred to walk or ride for hours than have tea with other society misses.
The blasted Frenchwoman did take every opportunity to corner him into meaningless conversation at every society event. Although he did not welcome her attentions, he mostly dismissed them as the actions of a lonely widow. He’d always made it clear in his reserved demeanor that he had no interest in a liaison.
A prickling of self-doubt insinuated itself in his mind. Could the older woman harbor genuine hate toward Emma? The thought was absurd when she had the reputation of never wanting for male company. Emma was only a little overexcited about the wedding.
He hooked a wayward lock of hair behind her ear and brushed his mouth across her brow. An awkward laugh escaped her lips. When she drew her head back, her eyes gleamed with moisture.
If humor couldn’t banish her doldrums, this was bad.
Powerlessness ploughed into him, but he quickly yanked away the invisible ropes that threatened to pull him down with her. He hooked a finger under her chin. “No one can hurt you. I shall always be with you. Always,” he reassured with a searching gaze.
What she needed now was a champion to pull her back up and surround her with strength, not commiseration.
“Don’t ever leave me again,” she said, blinking back tears.
Like I left you once before. “Never, I swear on my father’s grave.” Could he ever erase his foolish past actions that could have destroyed both their lives? “I want to see you carefree and happy.” The way you fill me with joy and excitement each day.
He was here, in her arms, as close as a man’s and woman’s souls could be, joined, linked. One.
“Oh, but I am! Can you not see? I never thought you to be blind,” she made light.
He ran a finger over her dimple. “I assure you I am not blind,” he rasped. His hungry eyes traveled over her face to her neck and exposed shoulders. “I’m not blind at all.” “Show me, then,” she invited, and brought her seductive lips to his. “Show me how much you can see.”
He caught her head between his hands and kissed her, demanded that she part her lips and allow him to explore the moist inside. Reward came when she threw her head back in abandon, and lured him with soft whimpers of pleasure. He pressed forward until Emma’s back was plastered to the wall.
If only he could keep her that way always. But no. He loved her free spirit too much.
Yet, he also loved her this way. His prisoner. Trapped between a wall and him. All of her possessed by him.
Her palms dug into the snug fabric that covered his shoulders and trailed a burning path down his back. The tips of her fingers dug into the superfine fabric as she frantically pushed her body against his. She clutched on to him with her mouth, her tongue, her kiss, her whole being.
With one hand, he traced the goose bumps on her upper arms, the delicate curve of her waist, and the full contours of her hips and bottom. After a thorough exploration, he retraced his steps and slid his hand up to her breasts, wishing all the time he could make her corset and stays disappear with just the power of his thoughts.
He imagined a scene like this when Emma would forgo such fripperies so he could touch her the way he wanted...
His hand closed over a breast and kneaded. Driven by impulse, his lips left hers and found the exposed skin above her plunging neckline and tasted its sweetness.
Her sigh ended in a whimper, a wanton sound that turned him rock hard.
“Yes, touch me like that, oh please, touch me.”
Her words drove him insane, and for one wild moment he considered laying her down, ripping off her dress and taking her there, on the marble floor.
He groaned and kissed her again, deeply. Primal need pulled at its weakened chains. He wanted to swallow her whole, to become one flesh with her. His body screamed for it. But not here.
With a heart full of regret, he forced himself to stop kissing her … but he couldn’t stop touching her. He pressed his lips briefly to the side of her swollen mouth and let his lips trail downward.
“Mine,” he murmured into her neck. Her warm breath brushed his temple when he pulled back a little so he could dive in the deep pools of her doe eyes. They were glossed over.
“I love you, Emma,” he rasped.
She rested her head on his chest. “And I adore you. I cannot imagine my life without you.”
If he closed his ears to the clamor from the ballroom, he fancied he could hear the steady rhythm of her heart. He caught a stray tendril of her hair and twisted it around his finger.
She finally lifted her flushed face to his and gently pulled on his coat. “We must go back,” she said without enthusiasm. “Hmmm,” Adrian replied, not budging an inch. She rose on tip-toes and planted a quick peck on the bridge of his nose. “I would rather stay here, alone with you, but we need to go back before we are missed.”
A movement on her head caught his eye. “I think we need to see to your hair first. It seems to have a mind of its own.” She muttered an expletive, and drew a soft laugh from him as she swerved around so her back faced his chest. “You must fix it then.”
He raised a brow and surveyed the damage. “At your service, my lady, if I can understand how this works, and if you promise not to curse in public,” he said with a wink.
She grinned at him over her shoulders as he lifted uncertain hands to her soft ebony locks. Then she leaned back, and kissed him soundly on the lips. “I promise to be ladylike this evening. So do your best, my love. I have absolute faith in your abilities.”
The sparkle had returned to her eyes. When she smiled at him like that, everything fell into place. Emma was his fate, his destiny. There was nothing that anyone, including Lady de Brandeville, could do about it.
When they returned to the ballroom, Emmaline was still gathering her wits. She glanced sideways at Adrian’s sun-kissed profile that held a strongly chiseled jaw and chin, full lower lip, and straight nose, and she pressed her fingers into his arm. Her gaze lingered on the scar that made his right jawline just a tad imperfect, the keepsake of a reckless act of childhood when he jumped from the branch of a tree and tripped over the jagged face of a rock.
I love you, you make me whole.
The orchestra started to expel the hypnotic strains of a smooth melody.
“I believe this is my waltz,” he said, as the lights from the sconces flickered in his blue, blue eyes.
They circled around the animated expanse of the ballroom, oblivious to the other waltzing couples, oblivious to the hushed whispers and the fickle curiosity marked on a few faces.
He tightened his grip on her hand, and discreetly caressed the inside of her thumb with the tip of his. The touch sent a gaggle of wild geese through her belly and caused her to barely miss his foot in a faux pas.
“I should have paid more attention when Mr. Berthing gravely imparted the intricacies of the sacred waltz,” she said with an apologetic look.
“I believe you were too busy quoting Shakespeare in your head while he showed you the steps.”
Emmaline cocked an eyebrow. “I’ll have you know that Shakespeare is infinitely more interesting than any dance in the world, um, except this one, of course.”
“Frailty, thy name is not Emma,” he teased with words dipped in clover. He considered her with unmitigated fondness. “Three days and alas, you shall be my lifelong captive.”
The image of her father, the late Baron Kentmore, entered her mind. She remembered him telling her how she looked so much like her mother, who had died giving birth to her, their only daughter. He would sternly reprimand her on her stubbornness and free-spirited nature; then he’d insist that she better think of making a good match than spend hours on end with her nose buried in books.
Now he was gone, forever. Both their fathers were gone. Hers had died during her sixteenth year when he suffered an apoplexy at White’s. Adrian’s father and older brother had fallen victims to a tragic carriage accident in October of last year.
They had survived their fathers’ objections to their blossoming love because of the bad blood the two men had obdurately tried to trigger between their families. What had started the enmity may have been an incident from their later days at Eton. Grandmamma had once hinted that her father, a rather impulsive young chap, had intended to offer for Adrian’s mother before the then dashing Viscount knowingly beat him to it. Perhaps there was some truth to that. Love had a way of making one do unexplainable things.
One thing was certain—when their fathers passed on, all the weary antagonism died with them. Even the new Baron Kentmore, a distant cousin who inherited the Trenwith estate following the absence of male heirs, was indifferent to past rivalries, engrossed as he was in his botanical research. With Adrian’s mother’s blessing, none of it mattered, but it would not matter, anyway. For Emmaline’s heart wanted Adrian, and only Adrian.
True, she hadn’t always been besotted with him. In the very beginning, she’d seen Adrian through her father’s eyes, and let herself be influenced by his empty words plaited with the ties of old jealousy and contention. But that perception eroded the more she spent time with Adrian.
She instinctively held tighter to her betrothed. With a heated gaze, he pulled her closer so his thighs flirted scandalously with the undulating claret folds of her gown and his chest brushed with the delicate lace of her neckline. So close she was instantly reminded of that moment they’d just shared by the potted plant. Warmth rose up her chest to spread in hot tingles across her face when he brought his mouth to her hair and she felt his breath hitch.
Her cheek rasped against his chin. He smelled of musk and fresh air. Once more, she missed a step, but he held her tight and led their moves with fluid ease. Giddy from the energetic dance and his closeness, she wanted to scream her joy from the steeple tower of the chapel nearby. The chapel where she and Adrian would be wed in a quiet country ceremony.
When the music stopped, he gave her one final twirl and led her into the crowd, his hand possessively on her back before he searched for her arm and curled her fingers around his coat sleeve. While they inched their way toward the refreshments stand, they passed a group of gentlemen who seemed to be absorbed in a serious discussion.
“It appears everyone’s busy discussing America and this business with Boney,” he told her.
This very day, under Jefferson’s sway, the House in America was supposed to have passed the Embargo Act with the intent—or so it appeared—to compel peace between England and France. It was felt that the threat posed by Napoleon and his allies in attacking Britain’s economy was too great and the dangers far-reaching. People speculated about the issue and debated it to no end.
“Quite. What do you make of the debacle?”
He shrugged. “It is anyone’s guess who will benefit from this heavy-handed diplomacy. I do not believe there is an easy answer to such a question.”
“You think these tactics will work? Or, perhaps, this war will never end.” She could not keep the melancholy from her tone.
Adrian’s large palm covered her hand as he turned to her. “Please know that my life is here, with you. I will not let you forget that.” His tone was grave, firm.
“Thank you,” she said shakily. “Occasionally, I need to hear you say those words.”
His eyes crinkled at the corners. “Do you remember the day we met?” he asked as they continued to negotiate the crowded ballroom side by side. “How could I forget? You were completely disheveled.” She shook her head. “And I had to investigate, of course. I had to see my enemy for myself, especially after my father warned me to stay away from you and your property.”
Barely fifteen, she’d been on one of her daily exploits into the countryside, complaining to herself about why women couldn’t dress like the more sensible male species, when she saw a young man standing in the water. His dripping wet shirt clung to a lanky chest while he engaged in a rather undignified struggle with a goat. The silly animal stood stranded in the middle of the river that ran just beyond the border to her father’s adjoining land. While the nineteen-year-old Adrian pulled and prodded with all his might, it stubbornly refused to budge.
He’d shot her a withering glance. Obviously, he’d got himself in a pickle, but had a hard time admitting to it.
“Are you coming in?” he’d finally growled. The words, I need help, seemed to be stuck on the roof of his mouth, never to see the light of day.
“Of course not,” she’d said with a raised eyebrow and crossed arms. “I’d get my gown wet. And I shouldn’t be here, anyway. My father doesn’t want me to talk to you.”
“You say? You don’t even know who I am!”
“Oh, I know who you are.”
He’d grunted, and gotten back to his task, ignoring her from then on, while she continued to watch him and scold herself for not turning around and walking away.
Silly, silly girl. Sillier than that silly goat.
She hadn’t even been able to stop herself from staring, and the more she’d seen him struggling, the more she’d felt shame for not helping.
Muttering to herself that she was in for a good tongue-lashing from her father, she’d waded in the river, gown and all, and helped him push the hapless beast toward the river bank.
“You made me squirm.” Adrian grinned, drawing her from her reverie. “You were as determined as that goat to be the bane of my existence,” he teased, and drew an indignant huff from her. “But,” he added, his gaze burning, “you were quite magnificent. From that moment, I knew you would one day belong to me.”
Emmaline had barely started to respond when a groom came upon them, carrying a silver salver.
“My lord, a gentleman is waiting in your study. He insists upon meeting with you.”
“Who is it?” “Mr. George Canning.” A crisp, white card with neat lettering lay in the center of the tray.
Emmaline’s head shot up. “The Foreign Secretary?” she asked in surprise.
Adrian picked up the card. He read the name printed on it and scowled. “What the devil,” he muttered. “The man himself.”
He had often communicated his mixed feelings for the gruff but hard-working politician responsible for gathering intelligence to protect British interests. He said the man would stop at nothing, even condone the sacrifice of civilian lives, to attain his goals. “I’ll see him now, then.” He dismissed the servant and turned to Emmaline. “Canning has a way of requesting people’s attention at the most inopportune times. I shan’t be long. Wherever you are, I’ll find you.” He clasped her hand and planted a solid kiss over her knuckles before he turned on his heel and left the ballroom.
What did Canning want with Adrian? Adrian had told her that before he traveled to France, Canning would send trusted agents or missives to Belvoir and never personally attended to such matters. The man rarely left London. After his work on the field, Adrian had continued to assist Lord Hawkesbury and the Foreign Secretary, albeit in a strictly consultory capacity.
But the last time they had asked for help, Adrian left her after agreeing to take an assignment on impulse, prompted by his sense of duty and a desperate request from a friend who worked for the British government. It had been madness, but he later told her that they desperately needed someone who looked like a young peer on a tour of the Continent. He’d returned near death, his body slave to a raging fever, yanked back by his father and brother’s tragic loss. Besides, his mission had failed because the man he was sent to bring back to England had been shot dead. A fate that could have easily been Adrian’s.
She’d fallen headfirst into a crater of burning despair before his recovery sent her scratching her way to the surface. In that time, she’d rarely left his side. Her reputation had meant nothing when faced with the alternative of losing him.
She stared down to realize her hands were clasped too tightly, and unlocked them; underneath the gloves, her skin felt clammy and cold.
An empty chair beckoned. She walked over and sank down on it. First Lady de Brandeville, now Canning. Was fate playing tricks on her? She reached inside her and sought the spirit to banish these absurd thoughts. She was a strong, sensible woman, and would not stop being so now. From the corner of her eye, she saw Lady Philippa Segrave, Adrian’s mother, make a beeline toward her. Emma pasted a smile on her lips. She grabbed a thread of resolve, and forced the tight, heavy shackles around her lungs to ease.
Madeleine kept her rage in check while she watched the viscount dance with the Deramore chit, who now sat in the company of Lady Segrave. She thought back to that moment when she had briefly locked eyes with the younger woman. She’d sensed the panic that had gripped Lady Deramore and made her escape somewhere before she returned some time later, once more a chirpy little sparrow, clutched to the viscount’s arm. Her cheeks had been flushed and her eyes had sparkled.
Madeleine knew that look. The afterglow of passion.
We shall see who laughs last, you worthless trollop! Forcing an amiable expression, Madeleine wandered into the mêlée of distinguished guests, and stayed out of Lady Deramore’s line of vision. All the forced smiles and society prattle had given her a headache. Time to make an exit. She had everything she needed to proceed and there was no reason to linger.
The sight of the lovebirds engaged in intimate gestures had strengthened her determination to see her plan to completion. Soon, Adrian would be sampling Madeleine’s exclusive sensual favors. And when the time was right, she would have his title, wealth, and powerful connections to take advantage of as she wished.
Above all, she would have him. All of him.
She licked her lips as wicked images of their glistening bodies engaged in passion filled her head. Images that had fueled her obsession since she first laid eyes on Adrian at the Havershams’ summer picnic August last. That day, she’d wheedled her way to an introduction. Attraction had flashed through her like a poisoned arrow, and her desire festered to a point where she had to sate it.
He was a peer and to his advantage, a virile man—all lean muscle and golden skin, his face angular, yet with a soft edge to it. The short puckered scar that licked the base of his right cheek gave him an air of subtle menace that she found difficult to resist. He was every woman’s dream, a man handsomer than sin. And a very rich one. The death of his father and older brother had landed him a pot of gold on a platter. By reputation resourceful and competent, his already considerable wealth was said to be increasing by the day. He had a large townhouse in Mayfair and entrée to events in Prinny’s social calendar, as well as close friendships among the most influential people in London. Precisely what she needed to gain a higher foothold in the ton. A long time ago, the Duc d’Orleans had informed her of the Prince of Wales’ penchant for Parisian life in his earlier years. Even with the strained situation between England and France and Prinny’s change of attitude toward the French, she would revive that dormant appetite once she entered his intimate circle of friendships. His love of the fairer sex would work in her favor.
She would also find the best candidates for membership in the brotherhood among the cream of society. The Cult of the Snake needed more blue blood in their ranks and coin in their coffers to counter the scourge of the Valthreans. When the latter were completely destroyed, her people would have absolute power over the aristocracy, and control the wheels of commerce and society.
Arrangements for the move were finalized and all her trunks were packed. She had discharged her servants and hired a skeleton staff, a few fresh faces from remote villages, to take with her on the impending journey north.
And most importantly, she’d taken care of the young orphan maid who’d fueled her power of sight the previous night. She’d been one of the best subjects Madeleine had ever used, with virgin blood so pure, dense, and strong that the visions could last for over a month.
Madeleine caught a glimpse of her upper body in the large gilded mirror that hung on the south-facing wall of the ballroom. For a woman in her thirty-sixth year when she was turned into her powers, she had striking looks. Adrian would have no complaint with her insatiable appetites that would without question make the notorious Messalina blush.
In London society, she was touted as a deliciously foreign eccentric. In the demi-monde circles, talk abounded about her infamous soirées. She took full advantage of a certain degree of freedom attributed by her assumed state of widowhood, carved out the life she desired for herself. What she wanted, she took. She had tasted the fruits of a dissolute life. And now she wanted respectability and wealth, to do with as she pleased. Adrian would give her all of this. Eventually, she would reward him by sharing her secrets and powers with him, but only when he was ready. One day, he would thank her for taking him away from the prospect of a miserable, lackluster marriage. Before that time came, she knew she would have to rally all her skills as a seductress to make him fully hers. Adrian was not like the others. He did not grovel. He did not look at her. He completely ignored her and drove her mad with jealousy. He reminded her of … Massimiliano.
But that was a closed book, a distant memory. Now, Adrian filled her thoughts. He would come to want her as she wanted him. He was still a man, after all.
She wound her way past cloying perfumes and insipid conversation and peeled herself from the stifling ballroom. After she retrieved her cloak, she called for her carriage but did not have the patience to wait inside. She slithered out, braced for the cold, and let the huge oak door shut behind her. Her senses sharp like a perfectly tuned violin, she could distinguish Adrian and Emmaline’s mingled smell as she carefully descended the slippery front steps. Their lingering scent hung on the brittle night air.
The delicate satin of her gloves did nothing to prevent her fingers from turning numb, and the jeweled pins in her hair jabbed at her freezing scalp. She ground her teeth against the cold, while treading where the round and resplendent Frost Moon, along with the light from the windows, showered her path with subdued illumination. The frigid white stone groaned under her delicate evening slippers, like stepping on crumbed gingerbread biscuits topped with sugar, the sound fresh and crisp. She mumbled a foul curse, pulled the cloak tighter around her, and bit on her lower lip until the taste of copper seeped into her mouth. Her vehicle approached at a snail’s pace until finally, the coachman reined in the horses. A groom jumped down and opened the door to the carriage, offering her a hand in assistance.
She grabbed his wrist and exerted as much pressure as she could through the gloves. “What took you so bloody long? Get on with it. I have no time to waste.”
The youth’s lips thinned and his jaw clenched, as if he’d just swallowed a curse. His lips were blue from the cold and probably poor circulation.
When she stepped inside, she released him and let herself sink in the plush, warm cushions of the seat. Despite the fact that the chill had entered her pores to settle deep inside her wintry heart, the beginnings of a smile formed on her cracking lips. A harsh laugh gurgled in her throat.
Relish these final moments, Lady Deramore, for soon, your prince will be forever mine.
The carriage wheels moaned and rolled as they left behind the sound of laughter and merriment at Belvoir.