| Unedited, Advanced Reading Excerpt.
Copyright @ 2008 by Kathryne Kennedy, All Rights Reserved.
No part of this work may be reproduced or reprinted without written permission from the author.
Long ago a great wizard was born with magic in his very blood. He lived for thousands of years and went by many names, but the one we know best is Merlin.
Merlin passed his magic down through his offspring, and the power made his children rulers. Some inherited more magic than others, and eventually titles reflected their gifts. In Britain, kings and queens held the strongest power. After the royals, dukes had the greatest magical abilities in that they could change matter. Marquesses could cast spells and illusions and transfer objects but not change them. Earls mastered illusions, while viscounts dabbled in charms and potions. Barons had a magical gift, which could be as simple as making flowers grow or as complicated as seeing into the future.
And then there were the baronets. Part man, part animal, the shape-shifters were Merlin's greatest enchantment...and eventually his greatest bane. For out of all mankind, they were immune to his magic.
Merlin created thirteen magical relics from the gems of the earth, a focus for some of his greatest spells. After Merlin's disappearance, his children tried to find the relics, since these items held the only magic stronger than their own. The relics proved to be elusive until his children discovered that the shape-shifters they so despised could sniff out the power of a relic.
Over the centuries the relics faded to legend. But the most powerful of Merlin's descendants did not forget, and shape-shifters became the secret spies of many rulers.
Relics of Merlin:
By Kathryne Kennedy
Where magic has never died...
Lady Jasmina Karlyle snuck into her mother's bedroom like a thief. To her dismay, she realized that she was getting quite skilled at breaking and entering. Jasmina ignored the illusion of slobbering, snarling wolves that her mother had set to protect the chamber from intruders, and began to search the contents of several bandboxes.
She carefully set aside a lovely bonnet decorated with iridescent feathers, a lacquered fan painted with swans, several lace-trimmed handkerchiefs and a beaded reticule. A glitter of red caught her eye, and she scrabbled for it, scowling with disappointment when she held it up and realized it was only a jeweled button.
She put everything back into the bandbox and opened the lid of another. It was astonishing, really, how clever her mother could be when she set her mind to it. Illusory boxes were interspersed with the real ones, so that her collection looked double. Fortunately, Jasmina had searched her mother's belongings often enough that she knew where the real items were stored.
The door rattled and Jasmina spun guiltily, waving her fingers with the absent-minded habit she'd developed whenever she cast a spell. She couldn't quite make herself invisible, but her spell would cause whoever entered the room to overlook her presence.
Despite being her mother's maid for forty years, dear Nanette took one glance at the snarling wolves and slammed the door shut again.
Jasmina smiled and continued her search. Nothing in the larger boxes! She moved her search to the smaller, decorative boxes that littered Mother's chiffonier. She shook her head with frustration. There was still the wardrobe to search, and the washing stand cupboard, then beneath the canopied bed--and she hadn't even checked Mother's dressing room yet.
And all for an ugly brooch that looked exactly like--
Jasmina blinked. Nestled among other jewelry in a pretty box decorated with tiny abalone shells lay the Duchess of Hagersham's brooch. Her instincts had been correct. Last evening at the Hagersham dinner, her mother had been admiring the duke's new gift to his wife with a little too much avarice.
Jasmina held the brooch up to the candlelight, and the large garnet in the center of the piece danced with reflected light. The jewel itself was quite stunning, but the silver figures carved around the sides of it leered grotesquely at her. Ugly little creatures with the most shocking anatomically correct details.
Whatever had possessed her mother to 'borrow' it?
Jasmina froze. She could hear the pounding of her heart and realized that the snarling of the wolves had stopped, which could only mean--
"Lucy." Aunt Ettie's voice carried through the closed door. "Are you getting ready for the ball so soon?"
Mother answered, but Jasmina didn't hear the reply. Jasmina shoved the brooch into the pocket sewn into the seam of her dress and sprinted across the room as quickly as her petticoats would allow. Her mother always noticed her, no matter how strongly she cast her spell. She slipped inside the connecting door to Mother's dressing room just as the bedroom door opened, and sighed with relief. Her mother hadn't caught her, thank heavens, which meant she wouldn't have to bear another scene with Mother weeping excuses.
Jasmina crept out the main door and into the hallway and around the stairwell to the safety of her own bedroom. She collapsed on her bed, fighting for breath against the confines of her corset, and dissolved her spell.
A soft tapping on her door, and Aunt Ettie entered. "Well, were we right?"
Jasmina nodded, staring into emerald green eyes that matched her own. But the resemblance stopped there, for Aunt's features were sharp and intelligent, whereas Jasmina's matched those of her mother: soft and innocent.
"Oh dear." Aunt settled her skirts over the arms of the dressing table chair. "My silly, foolish sister. I don't suppose we should tell your father this time?"
Jasmina rose and smoothed the wrinkles from the counterpane before she carefully rolled it to the foot of the bed. "We have been over this before." Even Aunt Ettie sometimes forgot that Jasmina's doll-like features hid a keen intelligence and a will of iron. "Father wouldn't have the slightest idea how to handle the situation, short of locking Mother away. And it's a woman's duty to keep a man's house a refuge against the rest of the world. Since Mother is unable to do so, that task falls to me."
"I just wish I could do more." Aunt tucked a stray lock of prematurely gray hair back into her severe coiffure.
"Dear Aunt Henrietta, you have already given up all of your prospects to keep our family secret safe. And my magic makes it so much easier to handle the situation."
"I suppose you're right. But it means you shall miss the queen's ball tonight."
Jasmina shrugged and presented her back to her aunt, who began to unbutton the back of her gown.
"If only my sister weren't so..." Aunt left her thought unspoken and pushed the bodice of Jasmina's dress forward. "She insists that she's only 'borrowing' from people, and that she has every intention of returning the item right away. She just forgets to."
Jasmina tugged at her sleeves, hearing the frustration in Aunt's voice. She had tried talking to Mother about it as well.
"And then somehow," continued her aunt, "she turns it around and makes me feel guilty. As if it's all my fault, and that I'm being quite vulgar for even mentioning it."
"I just think it's something she can't control, and it frightens her," replied Jasmina. "That's why she needs me." Jasmina gasped with relief as the stays of her corset were loosened. "All that matters is keeping Mother and Father happy."
"But you, Jaz. I'm afraid that you'll sacrifice all of your happiness for their own."
"On the contrary. Can you imagine our social standing if Mother's...eccentricity was known?"
Aunt sniffed. "That wasn't quite what I meant."
The door flew open and the subject of their discussion sailed into the room. Mother looked stunning in a pale green ball gown that matched the color of her eyes. Her blonde hair, a shade darker than Jasmina's, was decorated with diamond-studded pins that matched the elegant necklace around her throat. A natural pink blush complemented her smooth complexion, and she'd used only a hint of illusion to smooth the wrinkles from around her eyes. "Jasmina, dear, what are you wearing to the..."
Jasmina stepped out of the puddle of her dress and petticoats and staggered over to her bed, the back of her hand pressed to her forehead.
Mother's full lips puckered in a charming frown. "Whatever is the matter dear?"
"My head...hurts dreadfully." Jasmina collapsed onto the bedding.
Aunt Henrietta raised a brow at her from behind Mother's back. Jasmina coughed to hide a smile. Mother backed up a step. "I hope it's not catching. You know how susceptible I am to the slightest thing."
"I'm sure it's nothing serious, Lucy," replied Aunt Ettie. "But it seems wise to keep Jasmina at home this evening."
Mother looked crestfallen. "Do you think so? This is quite the ball of the season. I would so hate for her to miss it. Now, whatever did I come in here for? No matter. Henrietta, you must hurry and get dressed."
Aunt Ettie frowned. "Perhaps I should stay home with Jaz."
"Certainly not. There's no reason for both of you to miss the ball. I will send up her maid with some bitters."
Mother swept out of the room and it felt empty with just the two of them left in it. Mother had that kind of presence. Jasmina leapt out of bed and knelt in front of her wardrobe, opening the bottom drawer and pulling out the black clothing she'd purchased from a chimneysweep.
"You've become quite the actress," Aunt Ettie said.
Jasmina shuddered dramatically. "Perish the thought." She pulled the rough material of the shirt over her chemise. She barely winced in shame when she pulled on the drawers before stepping into the trousers.
She smeared ashes from the fireplace over her face and surveyed her appearance in the cheval glass. The cap! She pulled it from the pocket of the trousers, stuffed her side curls up into it, and checked her appearance again.
She'd never pass as a boy. She had too much of her mother's features for that. But she wanted to make sure that if a stronger wizard saw through her illusion, he wouldn't recognize her. A chimneysweep walking the streets of London at night wouldn't hazard a second glance, but a woman alone...heavens!
And after all, she planned on sneaking into a duke's house, and her spell didn't make her invisible.
"You look dreadful," pronounced Aunt Ettie. "Why can't we just find some excuse to call on Duke Hagersham tomorrow?"
Jasmina transferred the brooch from her dress to her trouser pocket. "Because it's safer to return it before anyone knows it's missing. Besides, you were caught returning that ring to the baron." Even though the scandal had died down, the rumor that Miss Henrietta Forster was a thief had ruined her chances of marriage.
"But this is entirely unladylike. Not to mention dangerous."
"I've done it before," Jasmina said, "and will most likely do it again. But I don't enjoy it. Please don't make me feel any worse."
Aunt Henrietta sniffed elegantly. Jasmina found it endearing. It was difficult to sniff with elegance; she knew because she'd tried.
Jasmina splayed her fingers, then shook them. Her aunt leaned forward expectantly, her narrow chin jutting out, a look of fascinated attention on her face. Truly, Jasmina didn't need all the hand gesturing or poetry to cast a spell, but it disappointed Aunt if she forgot it.
Besides, it wasn't easy to create an illusion of oneself. She'd use all the props she could get.
"Twin of me,
I create thee,
For the night,
You shall be."
Jasmina made a face. What a horribly dreadful rhyme. But Aunt looked impressed...
The air wavered as a ghostly shape took form. Then Jasmina's hip suddenly burned, a crack of thunder shook the walls of her bedroom, and her body tingled all over.
Aunt Henrietta clapped her hands with delight. "Well done!"
Jasmina smiled weakly and glanced out the window. How odd. No sign of rain. No lightning followed that room-shuddering sound to explain the current that had run through her body. She had never crafted a spell with such...flair. But her illusion looked perfectly created, down to the ribbons on Jasmina's favorite nightgown.
Jasmina took a step forward and looked into her twin's eyes. They stared blankly back into her own. Hmm. Everything seemed fine. "Get into the bed," she instructed. "And go to sleep. If anyone should wake you just mumble and roll over. Can you manage that?"
The illusion didn't answer, of course. It couldn't really think; it just followed her orders.
Aunt Henrietta shuddered. "Truly, Jaz. If you both were in the same room I couldn't pick the real one."
"A royal could. And of course, a baronet--since they're immune to all magic. But my maid won't know the difference, will she?" Jasmina bent over the sleeping woman. Aunt was right, though; she'd done a grand job of duplicating herself. "You will stay in this bed until I come to wake you."
Her illusion smiled sleepily and rolled over.
"Well, I shall require several maids to dress me for the ball this evening," said Aunt Ettie, her mouth curled into a conspiratorial smile. "Shall I make a fuss now?"
Jasmina fumbled in the back of the wardrobe again, pulled out several items and stuffed them in her pockets. "Yes, if you don't mind."
Aunt Henrietta gave her a wink, then sailed out of the room in a good imitation of Mother. Jasmina waited until she heard the bellpull and the scurrying of servants running up the stairs before she crept down to the kitchen. She paused for a moment at the stairwell, listening for any sounds coming from the room.
But Aunt Ettie had done a superb job of rousting them; except for Cook humming in the scullery, the basement was utterly silent.
Jasmina's fingers waved and she threw on a don't-notice-me spell. Her hip tingled and she frowned, remembering the burning sensation she'd felt before. She quickly slipped into the pantry using her household keys, then made herself comfortable in the corner of the room. Surrounded by their best china and silver, she settled in to wait for the best time to sneak out. In a few hours, most of the gentry, including the Duke of Hagersham, would be at the queen's ball, and she could navigate the streets of London without being noticed.
For a moment Jasmina wished she were her illusion, safely snug in bed. She dreaded to think how drained she would be after tonight; it would take her months to build her magical reserves again.
If she dared make a light, she would take the opportunity to do an inventory of their tableware. Jasmina hadn't done so in while; running a household took more effort than one would think. She'd been doing it since the age of ten, when she realized that mother had no head for it and needed her help.
When it grew late enough to venture from her hiding place she created an illusion of a cat with a wiggle of her fingers, her hip tingling again. Heavens, what was causing that sensation? She dug in the pocket of her trousers and pulled out the contents: her handkerchief, a worn pair of gloves, her household keys and the duchess' brooch.
The closure of the pin on the back of the brooch had come open, and she realized it had probably been poking her for some time. She refastened the catch.
Jasmina opened the pantry door, made sure to lock it behind her, and glanced around the room. The fire glowed softly, banked for the night, but it provided enough light for her to see that the table and floors had been scrubbed clean, the range had been freshly blackened, and the clotheshorse had clean laundry drying on it.
She smiled with pride on her well-ordered household. She had been taught that the cleanliness of a home showed the moral character of its occupants, and certainly no one could dispute hers.
Jasmina padded over to the hallway that led to the male servants' rooms and made her illusionary cat let out a yowl. She cocked her head, waited another breath, and made it yowl again.
Finally, one of the footmen opened his door, and cracked an eyelid open towards the floor. "They fergit to let ya out again, heh?"
Jasmina kept to the shadows, making her illusion curl around his feet, a rumbling purr accompanying the cat's flirtation. When the footman made as if to pick up the animal, she shied it from his reach and toward the kitchen door.
He shuffled toward the back door, Jasmina and her illusion following. He palmed the medallion that released the warding spells that protected the house against magical intrusion and let both her and the cat out. She waited to make sure he put up the wards again and then made her way across the cobbled courtyard, past the mews, and into the alley. She dispelled the cat illusion but continued her don't-notice-me spell.
Jasmina squashed down the feeling of alarm at being alone in the streets at night. She rarely left the house without a chaperone. If it hadn't been for the necessity of learning her way around London to return her mother's borrowed goods, she doubted she'd know anything more than the direction to her favorite shops and park. Indeed, her best friend Ellen had once commented that a lady only needed to know her destination, since her escort or coachman would take her there.
Jasmina shuddered to think how shocked Ellen would be to see her now, skulking through alleyways in a chimneysweep's clothes. Of course, her friend would be even more shocked to learn that Jasmina's mother borrowed things... It was always a choice between two evils.
Jasmina squinted, checking the fingerpost of the street she'd just entered. Mandrake Street wasn't large enough to warrant gaslights and so she took it, keeping to the shadows, grateful for the fog that made her almost invisible. Grateful that the duke lived close to her home in Gargoyle Square.
Not too long ago, she'd had to take a horse out of the mews without waking the stable servants and cast spells over them both. She'd been so exhausted from working that much magic that she'd slept for two days afterward.
She kept to the back streets, eventually coming upon Hagersham House by the rear entrance. The gothic architecture of the mansion made her feel guilty, with all its church-like ornamentation and stained glass windows of dancing angels.
Jasmina recast the cat-illusion spell and her hip burned quite badly. She wondered if the clasp on the brooch had come open again. She gritted her teeth at the sheer impropriety of her current state.
And then sighed and got on with it.
Her cat yowled at the door for almost an hour. If she employed such inconsiderate servants, she'd have them dismissed. What if they didn't open the door? How would she ever get past the wards a duke kept around his home? Unlike earls and marquesses, a duke had the ability to change actual matter. So his wards wouldn't make you just imagine that a thousand bees were stinging you, they might actually be doing so.
Jasmina made her cat yowl louder. A curious dog came from the direction of the mews and began to bark at her illusion. He barked louder when the cat ignored him, and finally getting angry at the insult, charged with jaws open and fangs gleaming. She made the cat larger and it snaked out a paw with claws the size of butcher's knives, swiping at the dog's snout.
The dog believed her cat to be real, so he felt the rake of its claws and let out yip-yip-yips of such pain that he set off the rest of the dogs in the neighborhood. Still, Jasmina felt shocked to notice the blood that welled from the dog's nose. Her illusions weren't usually that strong.
Finally someone opened the kitchen door. The butler, by the look of him, his haughty expression twisted with aggravation. "What's going on out here?"
Jasmina had already shrunk her cat back to normal size, but widened its eyes to huge pools of misery.
"Dogs after you, eh? All right, so what are you waiting for, an invitation?"
He opened the door wider, wide enough for Jasmina to get her body through, and both she and the illusion entered the kitchen. The butler shut the door, palmed the warding medallion and sleepily went back to his room without a backward glance.
Jasmina waited for her eyes to adjust to the gloom, noting that the duke's kitchen wasn't nearly as tidy as her own, and headed up the servant's stairs. If by some chance Duke Hagersham or his wife hadn't gone to the ball tonight she'd be more likely to encounter them on the grand stairway, and so she used the less conspicuous paths of the servants.
She hesitated at the ground floor, wondering if she should leave the brooch in the dining room, where the duchess had last worn it. But the servants would already have done a thorough cleaning of the room, especially if the duchess had noticed it missing.
Jasmina crept up the stairs to the first floor, went into the drawing room, and pulled the brooch out of her pocket. The fireplace had been cleared. The only light shining into the room came from the gaslights outside. Even so, the gem glowed with a bloodred shimmer in its depths.
She shuddered and stuffed the brooch between the cushions of the settee, wondering again why her mother had chosen such an ugly piece of jewelry.
The sound of muffled laughter made her pause as she stepped out into the hallway, and the wavering light of a candle made her retreat back into the room. Jasmina ducked behind the settee just as a man and woman entered the room.
She recognized the voice of the duke, but the low laughter of the woman sounded nothing like the tittering of his duchess.
"I'm missing a queen's ball for you, my dear."
More soft laughter. "I'll make it worth yer while."
Jasmina heard wet, hungry sounds but resisted the urge to peek around the edge of the settee. Her heart froze at the thought that the duke might see past her spell and disguise.
Jasmina took a silent breath and reassured herself that he wouldn't notice her as long as she didn't draw his attention.
Duke Hagersham gasped, and Jasmina wondered what on earth the woman could be doing to make a man moan so oddly. She heard cloth slithering to the floor and chided herself for her foolishness.
Why else would a man stay home with another woman? She wondered which servant the duke was having an affair with. She wondered how long it would take them to do...well, whatever they were going to do.
Jasmina couldn't risk sneaking out of the room with the duke in it. She tried to plug her ears against the sounds they kept making, but curiosity kept warring with propriety until she finally gave up the battle and dropped her hands.
Her eyes caught the flicker of movement on the wall, and she realized the couple stood in front of the candle. She could clearly see their shadows. The duke stood with his back to the adjacent wall; she recognized the outline of his hawkish nose and his half-open mouth. The woman knelt in front of him, her hands fumbling with...something. And then it sprang free, and Jasmina could clearly see the outline of its shadow on the wall.
Well, she knew men had them. She'd just never seen one before--and she wasn't now, she reassured herself over the pounding of her heart. It was just a shadow. The woman tilted her head back, the duke trembled, and Jasmina watched as the woman opened her mouth.
Her head moved forward and back until the duke groaned and pulled her up by the arms. Their shadows merged for a moment. Then the woman turned her back to him and bent over. The duke pulled up her skirts, making a lump of shadow over the servant's back, and Jasmina could make out the round curves of the woman's bottom.
The duke's shadow lunged forward and the woman strangled a scream.
Jasmina's heart lurched into her throat, a rush of...something flooded her veins and in blind panic she leaped over the settee. She sprinted across the room. Her eyes met those of the duke's for a fleeting second, and then she was tumbling down the stairs, out the door and into the alley before she even registered the expression on his face.
She'd never seen such a look of utter rapture before.
Jasmina didn't pause in her flight until she reached the safety of her own courtyard. She panted and trembled, confused and outraged. No proper woman would behave in such a fashion. No wonder men constantly took up with servants.
She refused to think about the wetness between her thighs--or to acknowledge that she had run only because she'd throbbed and ached when the duke had plunged himself inside the woman.
Jasmina gathered the remains of her magical strength and created the cat. The same footman promptly let it into the house, and she decided to raise his wages.
It seemed like forever, but it had only been a few hours since her family had left for the ball. They wouldn't be home until dawn, and she certainly had no intention of waiting up for them. When she crept into her room, her maid sat snoring in a chair, and Jasmina was so exhausted that she didn't notice the bed was empty until she lay in it.
Her illusions had always lasted until she returned. Perhaps that crack of thunder had interfered with her concentration, and she hadn't created the spell as strongly as she usually did. Thank heavens her maid had fallen asleep and hadn't noticed Jasmina's absence. Or rather, that of her illusory double.
It was the first time her twin spell had failed her, and Jasmina felt a trickle of alarm, trying to think what might have happened. And then another thought struck her: Why hadn't she set off the duke's wards when she'd run out of the house? But erotic shadows kept dancing through her thoughts, and carried her into sleep.
Sir Sterling Thorn adjusted his cravat, frowning at the slight yellowish hue of the once white silk. His frock coat showed wear at the seams, his breeches were too light-colored for the current fashions, and despite repeated attempts to shine his boots, they still showed the dull wear of years at the heels and toes.
He tossed his head, throwing the thick black hair off his face. He kept his hair unfashionably long out of pure contrariness. He hadn't come to London to find an heiress to improve his position--not that any of the society matrons would let a baronet near their precious daughters anyway.
Sterling turned away from the cracked cheval glass, annoyed that he'd even bothered to check his appearance. The finest clothing couldn't compensate for being a shape-shifter.
He strode to the worn sideboard and poured himself a finger of brandy. Despite his disdain for society, tonight was the queen's ball and he wished he could make a better impression. Only because he would be introduced to the prince consort, and he was a man that Sterling could admire. And whom Sterling hoped would help him.
A knock sounded on the splintered door of his rented flat. Sterling crossed the room in two strides and threw open the door, loosening the worn hinges even further. He stared in amazement.
"Well, brother," said Cecil, "aren't you going to invite me in?"
Sterling's surprise turned into annoyance and he spun, leaving the door open behind him while taking a position near the fireplace. He laid his arm across the mantel and watched his brother and stepmother enter the flat, noting their looks of distaste at the shabbiness of his lodgings.
Lady Ada Thorn settled herself gingerly on an old horsehair chair, her nose wrinkling at the smell of it.
Cecil prowled the room with a proprietary air, and Sterling felt his face harden into a mask of stone. "What are you doing here?"
Lady Thorn uttered a small gasp at the harshness of his tone, but Cecil, as usual, appeared unaffected.
"I've come for the season to look for a wife. Mother seems to feel it's time. She also felt that we should come visit you--I say, quite a large place you have here, isn't it?"
Sterling didn't dignify that with an answer. The entire flat would fit in the smallest salon of Thorn Castle, with room left over.
"Still," Cecil continued, "you'd think with the monthly allowance I've been sending you that you could have secured lodgings in a better part of the city. Gads, Trickside is a haven for charlatans--"
"And shape-shifters," cut in Sterling. "Or haven't you noticed the prejudice against our kind?"
Cecil waved an arrogant hand. "Money overcomes many obstacles."
His stepmother had the grace to blush. They must have gone to the shops before coming to see him, for the lady wore a new gown. A matching bonnet framed her silver-touched black hair and brought out the green in her hazel eyes. She looked every bit the part of the prosperous widow.
And Cecil looked quite the dandy, sporting a cut-away coat trimmed in velvet. With his black hair cut just below the ears and his new white cravat adorned with a ruby-studded stickpin, his status of heir to their father's estate was garishly apparent. Although Sterling's shape-shifter abilities also gave him the title of baronet, like most of his kind, the lack of an estate made it an empty title.
"And speaking of money," continued his brother, "when will you give up this foolish quest and return home? The extra expense of putting you up in the city is a drain on our financial resources. Don't you have some grapes to harvest?"
Sterling clenched his fist. Cecil always mocked his vineyards as a foolish enterprise, and it never failed to irritate Sterling, because he had yet to turn a profit.
He should have known they'd come to complain about money. "I'm spending my sister's dowry to search for her whereabouts. Not on living expenses, as you can see."
Cecil shrugged, as if he didn't think the flat was too shabby for his brother to live in, although Sterling knew Cecil would disdain to live in such poor surroundings himself.
Lady Thorn cleared her throat. "Certainly it's your sister's money, but your father gave Cecil the right to distribute it as he sees fit. You don't wish to see Angel's dowry diminished, do you?"
Sterling glared at her. Cecil smirked, his onyx eyes glittering.
"I...I mean," tried Lady Thorn again. "Without a proper dowry she won't be able to make an advantageous match."
"Madam, what good will a dowry do her, if she's not here to make use of it?"
She lowered her eyes, and Sterling tried to soften his voice. She only had been trying to make peace again. "I do not believe Angel ran off with that sorcerer. She never would have done something so dishonorable. I fear she was abducted, and until I find her and know the truth, I will never stop looking. Don't you worry about her?"
Cecil grunted and flopped onto a velvet settee, splitting the worn fabric and sinking into a hole of stuffing. He appeared not to notice that his bottom had been engulfed by upholstery. "This is the crux of the problem, brother. I think she ran off with that marquess, giving up all rights to her dowry."
"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" Sterling had run out of patience. This discussion had been overly delayed, and if not for Angel's disappearance, would have taken place several months ago. "Then you could have her inheritance as well as mine--"
"I say!" Cecil erupted off the settee, his jackal-form revealed for a moment; mouth slanted back from curved teeth, nose elongated, ears briefly growing long and wide. He shook himself and resumed his fully human shape. "I never stole your inheritance. Father chose to name me the heir. Even though you are the elder son, he trusted me to oversee the estate." His voice became smug. "I am just following his wishes."
Sterling wondered if his stepbrother had deluded himself into believing his own lies. Cecil had taken advantage of Sterling's hostile relationship with their father and wormed his way into the inheritance. He had suspected that Cecil had purposely made the situation worse by speaking ill of him to Father.
"One day, Cecil, I will find out the truth. But right now, all I care about is Angel. You will make available to me the money that Father left her in his will."
"Actually, I think it's time I cut you off." Cecil half-shifted again and howled.
Sterling felt the hairs on his neck bristle in response. He knew it would come down to their animal natures--it always did. He shifted fully, his clothing dissolving into his coat, his stallion form dominating the small room. He tossed his mane and stomped his hooves, the thin walls shaking with the force of it. His nostrils flared, and his ears flattened back.
Cecil cringed and for a moment fear warred with hatred in his eyes. Sterling doubted he would truly stomp his half-brother to death. Then again...
His anger drained with the ridiculous thought, and he shifted back to human, resuming his negligent pose by the fireside.
"Perhaps we shouldn't have come," breathed his stepmother. "You are fighting with Cecil just like you fought with his father. Will there never be peace in this family?"
Sterling shrugged. "The cost to my soul would be too high, madam. Now, if you'll both excuse me, I have a ball to attend." Sterling bowed low to his stepmother. "It was a pleasure to see you, madam. Please let yourself out."
It took all of his willpower not to slam the door behind him.
Sterling strode through the crowded ballroom, the sea of people before him parting like the mares of a herd. But whereas the animals did it to show respect, the gentry made way so they wouldn't soil their persons by the touch of him.
A full moon covered the entire ceiling of the massive ballroom. It hung so low he felt he could reach up and touch it, even though he could see it was just an illusion. Moonbeams radiated from it in transparent shafts of muted light, striking the dancers below in spotlights of iridescent color. Occasionally the moonbeams would swirl around a pair of dancers, curl beneath their feet and lift them a few inches off the floor.
The queen and her prince consort danced together in the middle of the ballroom surrounded by several moonbeams, their love for each other obvious by their gazes. Sterling had been looking for an opportunity to speak with His Royal Highness for over an hour with little success. He had tried not to appear too obvious, but perhaps it was time for a bolder move.
He pushed himself away from the wall; the black void of illusion made him feel as if he had to pry himself out of it. A ridiculous thought, since he was immune to magic, and could see through any spell as if it were transparent. He shook his head, marveling anew at the magic of London. The aristocracy threw around spells as freely as they did their money.
The prince and queen had retired to the refreshment tables, and Sterling strode toward them with determination. He managed to join the crowd surrounding the royal couple, and the prince even turned toward him, lifting an inquiring brow in Sterling's direction.
Sterling opened his mouth to perform the social blunder of speaking to the prince without a proper introduction when he caught a whiff of scent. He turned toward the smell, and another of the prince's admirers immediately captured Prince Albert's attention, but Sterling barely noticed.
It stank, that smell. A hint of it had surrounded the Marquess of Ogreton, the sorcerer who had abducted his sister.
He frantically searched the crowded ballroom, looking for the handsome sorcerer. Sterling's heart thundered in his chest. He'd spent months in the bowels of London's lower districts, suspecting that the man had not been a marquess at all, but some baseborn sorcerer who had acquired his magical abilities from an aristocratic love affair. Although rare, it was known to happen. Could it be possible that the man truly might be titled?
Sterling stepped onto the dance floor, ignoring the looks of disdain from the dancing couples. Frustration seized him. Faces spun in and out of his vision. None of them bore the slightest resemblance to the marquess, and the scent had begun to fade. The only lead he'd managed to get on his sister--
"I beg your pardon," snapped a young man when Sterling bumped into his shoulder and disrupted the pattern of the dance. Why hadn't the fool just gotten out of his way like all the others?
Sterling blinked at the man--truly just a boy, his smooth face as soft as a girl's--and muttered an apology. Then he glanced at the girl the boy held in his arms and froze.
Her eyes glowed an emerald green; her hair shimmered in a halo of white gold around her head. She looked like a proper young lady, with a modest decolletage on her gown of green satin and matching elbow-length gloves. Delicate earbobs and a matching necklace of emeralds screamed sophisticated wealth. Her petite stature, the smooth white skin and softly curved lips, made her appear almost doll-like with innocence.
But not her eyes. For that brief moment when she'd met his stare, he'd seen a glimmer of wickedness quite at odds with her appearance. How utterly fascinating.
The faint odor that he'd been following ended with her person, making her even more fascinating.
"I say, would you get out of the way? You're quite disrupting the set."
Sterling looked down his nose at the boy and realized why the fool hadn't avoided him. He could see the were-animal in the boy's mottled hair and smell the earthy scent of predator on him. Sterling half-shifted for a breath of a moment, long enough for the were-hyena to make out his form.
The boy's eyes widened.
Sterling tossed the hair off his forehead and snorted. The boy dropped his arms away from his partner.
Excellent. "May I have this next dance," he said to the girl, making it a command, and swept her up in his own arms, joining the swirl of dancers.
Maybe he shouldn't have done that. The slip of a girl felt every bit the woman in his arms, and his body reacted to the feel of her without a conscious thought of his own. His skin shivered, his muscles tightened, and his shaft began to harden. He twirled her faster, trying to hide his reaction, trying to make sense of it.
Admittedly, it had been some time since he'd been with a woman. His cottage lay in a secluded valley, miles from a nearby village, and he had only one old couple as retainers. After giving up his commission, he'd worked in his vineyards and spent the rest of his time in were-form, ranging the flat, grassy land of Witchsire.
Surely that accounted for his reaction to the soft breast pushed up against his chest, the faint scent of jasmine, the warmth of her small body. He'd never danced with a woman of quality before either. Perhaps the challenge of the unattainable fed his desire.
She looked up at him, her green eyes glowing with a heat that told him she might not be so unattainable. Her parents had best see to it that they married the chit off soon, or they'd have trouble on their hands. But not before he had the chance to find out why she had carried the same smell of magic that the marquess had. "You dance beautifully," she said, her voice a mixture of velvet and...starch.
"Forgive me for not introducing myself." Sterling relaxed his hold on the girl. "Sir Sterling Thorn, of Witchshire Cottage."
She blushed becomingly. "It's very nice to meet you."
Nice. Not quite the reaction he had to meeting her. When she didn't offer the same introduction he forced the acquaintance. He had little time, after all. For when she figured out what he was--or worse yet, when her parents spied her dancing with him--he knew he'd never be able to get near her again. "May I have the honor of your name?"
Her brow wrinkled prettily, and she frowned, as if she had to search for the answer. "Oh, yes. Jaz."
"Jaz? That's an unusual name."
She shrugged, a delicate movement of her shoulders that made Sterling's gaze stray to her bosom. Just a slight rise of soft flesh, hinting at a fuller figure beneath the yards of green satin...
He must get control of himself. "Is it a nickname of some kind?"
When he met her eyes they glowed with green fire. She'd noticed him staring at the swell of her breasts and she'd reacted with an answering passion. Who was this creature? She looked the innocent, yet had the eyes of a courtesan. Surely, she was too young for that to be true. Could she be masquerading as quality?
She smiled. "You may just call me Jaz."
The orchestra had finished the waltz and they stood for a moment, his arms still around her, staring at each other. Sterling tried again. "Who are your parents?"
"You are very curious." She ran her index finger across his lips, and he was too mesmerized and startled to move. "So am I."
Her words made him shiver like an eager young boy. His mouth tingled where she'd touched him. He'd lost control of the situation, if he'd ever had it. When the music swelled again, he swept her into another dance, lost in the mysterious depths of her eyes, unable to fight whatever spell she'd cast over him.
He was immune to magic. But this was a different kind of spell altogether.
Her hair shimmered, and he realized that moonbeams had surrounded them. It added to the enchantment of her seduction...and gave them a cocoon of privacy.
Jaz leaned forward, her breath caressing his ear. "Do you believe in love at first sight?"
She gave a throaty laugh, and he buried his mouth in the softness of her neck. She smelled like jasmine and moonlight, her skin soft, hot. He licked her, tasting salt and cream and he wanted more. How could he make this stop?
"There's so much I need to learn," she breathed. "Would you be willing to teach me?"
He blinked at the audacity of her question. Yes, he wanted to teach her. He wanted to be the only man who ever touched her. But despite what the rest of the nobility thought, he was a gentleman. The lady couldn't possibly know the implications of her request. Her eyes shone with innocence.
The moonbeams released them as the dance ended. Before Sterling had a chance to speak an older man grasped Jaz by the arm and swung her around. "You promised the next dance to me," he growled.
She tried to twist out of his grasp. "I've changed my mind."
Sterling felt a surge of fury when Jaz whimpered as the man tightened his hold. "You heard the lady. Let her go."
The man eyes widened as Sterling felt the anger of his were-self try to take control of his form. He felt his shoulders widen and his hair whip his face as he blinked against the sudden burn of fury in his eyes.
The other man quickly dropped her arm and melted into the staring crowd.
"Are you all right?" he asked Jaz while the musicians struck up another tune.
"I think so," she replied, rubbing her arm.
As the dancers began to twirl around them, Sterling noticed another man heading in their direction, the fellow's eyes riveted on Jaz with an intensity that promised more trouble.
Then the force of a woman's gaze across the room caught him, and he looked into emerald eyes that matched those of the bewitching creature in his arms. But the other woman who stood next to her looked more like Jaz, with darker blonde hair and paler eyes, but with the same fine-boned features and petite stature. The taller woman stared at him while she pointed toward the refreshment table, mouthing something to the smaller woman and the man who held her arm.
The couple moved toward the table and the woman's brow lowered with determination as she marched in their direction.
Jaz followed the direction of his gaze and uttered a small gasp.
"Who is she?"
"I...I'm not sure. Yet. But I think...Sterling, you must get me out of here."
He should have been astonished that she'd used such familiar address. But somehow, in the short span of a single dance, they'd passed the barriers of strangers into an intimacy that he'd never felt with anyone else before.
Her plea for his help reminded him of Angel, the way his sister would always look to him for rescue from the callousness of their father. A desire to protect the naive beauty overwhelmed him, and he didn't question it.
Sterling clasped her gloved hand and led her through the press of the crowd. They parted for him as usual. He glanced back and frowned. The lecher and the woman still followed them, the woman's emerald eyes glaring at him with determination.
"We'll never manage to hail my hack in time," he muttered.
Jaz squeezed his hand. "I have faith in you."
His heart shouldn't have soared at the off-handed compliment, but it did. He didn't want her to reject him. The thought made something twist in his chest. But perhaps it was better she knew now...
"How do you feel about baronets?"
Confusion wrinkled her brow again. "What do you mean?"
Two gossiping women stood in their path, too involved in conversation to notice him. Sterling gently swept them out of his way. They barely noticed.
"All baronets are shape-shifters," he replied. "Were-animals. Men and women who can turn into beasts as easily as you change your gloves."
He risked a glance at her. She smiled naughtily--if such a thing were possible--and eyed him with renewed interest. "Ah. So what manner of beast are you?"
They'd reached the double doors and stepped out into the London night. The early morning fog swirled along the graveled path, partly obscuring the lines of waiting coaches with their drivers nodding off from atop their seats.
Sterling swept her a low bow, ignoring the stares of the red-uniformed guards who stood sentinel beside the open doorway. "Allow me to show you, my lady."
He shifted, watching her grow smaller to his new perspective. He looked for fear and loathing to cross her face. After all, his stallion form was larger than any real horse and his hooves could easily trample a pack of predators to death.
He was a fearsome animal but Jaz didn't cower. No, her smile widened. Sterling puffed up his chest, tossed his mane, blew hard through his nostrils. He pranced in place and arched his tail.
Jaz clapped her hands, her eyes alight with admiration and...mischief.
The emerald-eyed woman appeared behind Jaz in the doorway. Straggles of gray hair had escaped her severe coiffure, she'd managed to tear the hem of her gown, and her face had shriveled into one giant frown. Sterling turned his side to the girl, lowered his front legs, and nickered at her. He stood at least nineteen hands high, but Jaz took one look over her shoulder at the woman and vaulted onto his back. Despite her skirts she managed to drape her body over him and with a shrug he had her positioned so she could grasp his mane.
He took off at a gallop, skidded to a stop when he felt her sliding, then took off again when she resumed her seat. Sterling pounded through the empty London streets, occasionally dodging a late-night carriage, his keen eyes noting shapes in the fog before he encountered them.
Ah, it had been too long since he'd run like the wind! He snorted at the stink of the Thames, reveled in the smell of the salty breeze from the sea. He barely felt the weight of the girl on his back, but his animal-self was acutely aware of the feel of her body, the warmth of her skin.
Sterling shifted when he reached his flat, reaching behind him as he gained two legs, easing the woman down his back. She felt like liquid silk. He led her up the stairs to his room and threw open the door. He didn't think about the shabbiness of his flat. Neither did she, for her eyes never left his, a burning intensity in their emerald depths.
"I should take you home," he said. "But I don't know where you live."
Jaz closed the door behind them. "I suppose that would be the proper thing to do." She turned and closed the distance between them, ran her hands along his arms, settling them on his shoulders. "But I would prefer to kiss my rescuer." She rose to her toes and placed her mouth atop his.
Fire whipped through his body.
She pulled away, that lovely mouth curved into a frown. "I'm not doing it right, am I?"
He couldn't answer. Couldn't stop his arms from curling around her waist and pulling her closer.
"Teach me the proper way to do it," she said, then covered his mouth with hers again.
Bloody hell, the mere touch of her lips made him hot. What would happen if he showed her how to kiss? Because it was obvious she didn't know a thing about it, her mouth motionless over his while she waited for some instruction.
Sterling told himself that a little kiss wouldn't hurt. He tilted his head, opening his lips slightly, allowing their mouths to get closer. She sighed and curled her fingers into his hair. He parted her lips with his tongue, every nerve in his body exploding with reaction. His were-self tried to take over, battling against his human good sense.
Sterling pulled away and groaned. He'd kissed many women before but he'd never responded like this. "I think that's enough for a proper lady to know."
Her green eyes lit with an inner fire. "Ah, but you see, I'm not a proper lady. I want you and that's all that matters."
She pulled his hair, lowering his face to hers, and proceeded to practice what he'd just taught her, slanting her head and opening her mouth. Forcing his lips open with her tongue.
Sterling groaned and tightened his hold, arching her back while he ravaged her mouth, teaching her how to mate with their tongues. The woman was an apt pupil. His desire heightened to a raging inferno and when she tore at his clothing his traitorous hands started to help her.
He hesitated at the buttons of his breeches.
"I have to see all of you," she murmured. "Please."
Sterling's resolve crumbled. He guided her to the bed and hastily removed the rest of his clothes.
Jaz lay there and watched him with ferocious intensity. She licked her lips when he stood naked before her, not a hint of shyness in her face.
Sanity returned to him for a moment. What did he think he was doing? A gentleman didn't tumble with an aristocrat's daughter without paying the consequences...
"Take off my clothes," she demanded, her voice so husky it made him moan. "The same way you took off yours."
Damn him if he would disobey that order. He rolled her on her stomach and she laughed while he popped off most of her buttons. Sterling frowned at the corset, grabbed a knife from the table and cut the laces, tossing the blade and her ruined corset on the floor when he finished. When the creamy skin of her back was exposed to his view, he couldn't resist running his hands along the curve of her waist, up her smoothly sculpted spine and across her shoulders. He narrowed his eyes at the pins in her hair, searching in the mass of it until he'd removed them all and the wealth of her white blonde curls spilled down her back.
He would have buried himself in her hair, drowning in the scent of jasmine, but she made an impatient noise, one that he had no difficulty understanding. He pulled the dress down her body, crushing the fragile green silk.
She kicked off her shoes and rolled over, and for a moment he couldn't move. She was simply the most magnificent creature he'd ever seen. A sultry smile played on her lips while she slowly removed her gloves. He thought he'd never seen a more erotic display than the baring of her delicate arms. Then she spread her legs.
Sterling felt his shaft jump as he stared at her lovely pink folds. With a groan he leaned forward and slid his hands up her stockings, until he reached the warm flesh of her inner thighs. His touch continued upward, fingers dancing across her ribs to the soft swell of her breasts.
Jaz sighed and arched her back when he stroked her nipples. His blood pounded through him. He had neither the patience nor the control to wait any longer.
He parted her wet, silken folds and eased inside her. After a moment he froze, afraid that he'd hurt her, damning himself to eternity if he had.
"Don't stop," she panted. "Surely, there must be more. Oh, let there be more!"
She wrapped her legs around his bottom with a strength that surprised him, and he gave her what she wanted. She met each of his thrusts with one of her own, groaning his name and thrashing wildly beneath him. Her nails scored his back and enflamed him further, until he could no longer hold back his climax.
Violent pleasure racked his body, on and on until he didn't think he could stand any more. She cried out as well, her hands clutching the bedding, pulling at it with her fists.
He'd never felt anything like this. He wanted to feel it again. And again. His breath sounded loud in the sudden stillness, and he pulled away from her, sitting on the edge of the bed, trying to regain some control.
Sterling glanced down, chagrined to find himself hard again, still wanting more of this strange girl. And he noticed the blood. "You're a virgin," he said.
She giggled. "Not anymore."
He was a gentleman. She was an aristocrat. He could do no less. He turned and met her eyes. They no longer burned with fire, but with a contented smolder that darkened the emerald color to almost black.
Sterling reached for her hand. "Will you marry me?"
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