I am getting married today.
The realization bubbled to the surface of Lord Draven Winthrop's liquor-weighted mind.
At the gong of the town clock, he shot up in bed and peered at his surroundings. The décor of the small space was unfamiliar, but the stench of stale ale and the sound of muffled laughter told him he was in a room over the tavern.
How had he ended up here-naked?
As he forced his cloudy vision to focus on the bedside clock, he gave another start. Ten A.M. Bloody hell!
In precisely thirty minutes, he was scheduled to exchange wedding vows with Miss Isabella Farrington. That didn't leave him much time to return to his estate, dress, and reach St. John's Abbey on the opposite end of town.
He stroked a hand over his face and stopped when he felt the rough fabric of a bandage.
An image broke through the fog in his head. The wolf coming out of nowhere, toppling him from his horse, and lunging for him before he could get away. He'd gone for his revolver just as the wolf sunk its teeth into his hand.
Draven reached for the bandage and peeled it back. The wounds were gone. Am I seeing things?
"Is the roguish Earl of Dunwich having second thoughts about getting married today?"
The raven-haired beauty lying beside him propped herself up on one elbow.
He stared at her, trying to remember how he'd ended up in her bed. He had been on his way to the tavern for a drink. She was the barmaid who'd attended to his wounds; he remembered that much.
He also remembered that, despite her beauty, the pleasure in his balls had evaporated and he'd failed to perform for the first time in his life. While the girl's cat-like blue eyes had shone with mischief and her creamy breasts had filled his hands like two, perfect mounds of silk, her lips couldn't match his fiancée's plump glossy mouth. Nor did her nose twitch enchantingly as did Isabella's when he attempted a joke.
Good God. Was he developing feelings for the woman he was marrying? It was impossible. Love was something Draven didn't believe in.
"Are you having second thoughts?" she repeated.
His mouth went dry. Ignoring her question, he climbed out of bed to search for his clothes.
"If you're to marry, m'lord, I hope you won't lose your lust for fun." The barmaid giggled like a school-girl. "Perhaps you can come back to my room later to finish what we started last night."
He pointed an unsteady finger at her and smiled. "You're a tarty one. But I do not intend to disgrace my new bride."
"You mean to say the Earl of Madness is going to be a respectable man now?" she asked.
The mention of his public nickname made Draven cringe. It wasn't a secret he had spent time in an asylum when he was sixteen years old. Who wouldn't have come to the edge of madness after that horrible night in the woods-a night he could barely bring himself to think of? being released had been a godsend, but it was a wonder he still had his wits about him-under the threat of the Gypsy's curse, that is.
Why couldn't he bury the reason for his incarceration along with the rest of his dark past?
He stared at his hand again. Could there be any truth to the blasted hex?
Despite his drunken state and the overzealous barmaid, maybe the wolf attack happened.
If it had-and if his curse came to life beneath this evening's full moon-what would he have gotten his new bride into so bloody soon?
Draven yanked on his clothes and left the tavern room in a hurry. Once he reached his estate, he managed to prepare himself for the wedding-though the preparation was done between rounds of whiskey shots. His late arrival at the abbey garnered him a barrage of contentious stares, but he couldn't care less. He faced the sour expressions of the guests with his shoulders pinned back. After all, he was Lord Draven Winthrop, infamous rake and nonbeliever in love. His reputation entitled him to carry on the worst wedding in the world and that was damn near what was about to take place.
His gaze wavered to the back of the church. There stood his bride. Draped in an understated wedding gown of tiny pearls and lace, Isabella beamed as brightly as the flowers encircling her head. Draven gulped, and as sunlight fell upon his bride's sheer veil, he saw hope crest in her eyes.
With her shining auburn hair and fine features, she was a beautiful woman-even breathtaking. Why then did she represent a dark cupid about to pierce him with a fatal arrow? Draven was minutes away from losing his freedom, but that wasn't what was bothering him most. Under the threat of his curse, he couldn't afford to get too attached to his new wife. It was true that she'd begun to tug at his heartstrings, but he was marrying her for a specific purpose-and he intended to keep things to that.
The first strains of organ music bellowed and Draven's vision blurred. Isabella slid a foot forward and while she made her way down the aisle, he remembered the wolf bite he'd suffered last night. Suddenly he felt nauseous.
What if I transform into a werewolf for the first time tonight?
In that moment, Draven experienced a new emotion: fear. As Isabella inched closer, he knew this was all wrong-that he was putting her in danger-yet he accepted her hand when she presented it to him. Turning toward the priest with a knot in his gut, he heard something about Isabella honoring and obeying him, followed by something about him taking her for his lawfully wedded wife. Uttering words that he couldn't be sure were correct, he swiveled to face his bride and groped for her hands. He lost himself in the warmth of her stare before she tilted her pert nose upward in anticipation of his kiss. Responding, he lifted her veil and cupped her small, cameo-shaped face. Then he brought his mouth to her lips. A tremendous spark ignited within him-and he was scared for the second time that day.
Disliking the feeling intensely, Draven forced his heart to freeze into the iceberg it had always been. And as he drew away from the kiss, he was left with nothing but cold insensitivity.
Isabella Farrington-now Lady Draven Winthrop, Countess of Dunwich-had only been
married for seven hours but she was certain that she'd just made the worst mistake of her life. Jostling inside the polished coach that bore the Winthrop crest, she lunged forward in an ungraceful heap when it came to a stop.
Her groom shot her a callous look. "We have arrived."
Catching a glimpse of her new home through the window, Isabella pressed her fingers in her lap to keep them from shaking. Draven's scowl prompted her out of the carriage and dread raced along her spine as she looked at the imposing structure before her.
Set on a sloping bluff, the house known as Thorncliff Towers loomed over her like an enormous, vine-clad fortress. With its sky-high turrets, repressive stone façade, and arcane courtyard, it appeared as unwelcoming as Draven had been inside the carriage.
Her husband exited the coach behind her, a mess of a newly married man. Tugging on the points of his vest beneath his great-coat of gold brocade, he indicated to the footman to open the front doors. Then, ignoring Isabella completely, he careened across the pebbled driveway in a cloud of port and cigar fumes.
Isabella watched him reach the portico before she gathered her skirts. As she scurried through the open doorway, she nodded to the aged female servant who greeted her. Then, turning her gaze to the manor's interior, she gave a shudder. Its décor was the epitome of melancholia and neglect. Worn carpets covered yards of scuffed parquet flooring while furniture upholstered in shades of gray filled a vast parlor. An enormous staircase, flanked by gryphon-topped newel posts, anchored the main hall and faced an unlit hearth positioned on another wall.
Draven stood beside Isabella in the foyer. Twilight's haze slanted through a window and illuminated his profile. From his straight, patrician nose to his darkly curled lashes that brushed the rise of his cheekbones, he looked like he could be her Prince Charming. But today her boorish groom had destroyed her dream of living a fairy tale.
Draven had appeared at the altar thirty minutes late, unrecognizable and completely foxed. After mucking their vows-who on earth was Laura?-he had either forgotten or disregarded her one request: a bridal bouquet of red roses. Following an embarrassing reception during which he went on to serve cold finger sandwiches and cheap wine, he actually fell asleep in the carriage on the way to Thorncliff Towers. Mouth agape, he'd snored like a pig.
Now he gave Isabella an impatient frown as he gestured her up the stairs. She climbed the grand staircase in excruciating silence, highly aware of his hand pressed to the small of her back. Amid walls that seemed hushed by dark secrets, the contact-and thoughts of the intimacy soon to come-made her legs quake.
Maybe, she considered, Draven was still too drunk to mind her lack of experience.
Perhaps he'll fall asleep in the middle of our lovemaking.
But when Isabella turned around, his sharpened stare plunged those hopes into a dark abyss.
He took the lead once they reached the fourth story of the house. She continued to follow him until they arrived at a set of double doors.
"My bedchamber," Draven said without flourish.
She crossed her arms while he looked as though he preferred to be miles away from here.
"Isn't it traditional for a groom to come to his bride's bedchamber on his wedding night?" She couldn't hide her disappointment at his lack of gallantry.
"I sleep best in my own bed," he growled. "The sooner you come to know my preferences, the better off we will be."
Isabella didn't dare tell him he was more fun when he drank, especially after he had suggested she try the wine at the reception for the same reason.
With barely a look in her direction, he reached for the door handle.
"You have done nothing but humiliate me today," she said, biting back a full verbal assault. After all, Draven was her only hope for what she desperately needed: financial help for her down-trodden father. "The least you can do is carry me across the threshold."
Her husband eyed her for a moment, his dark eyes boring into her very soul. "Very well, but it is the last time I shall carry you anywhere."
Lifting her off the ground as if she were the lightest of feathers, he transported her through the doorway only to plop her on her feet at once. Then he marched to the window and gazed at the night sky awash with clouds. "You can change in there," he said, pointing to his dressing room without tearing his stare from the window.
Isabella hurried to the box-sized room. The faint odor of tobacco mixed with sandalwood clung to the air. Since she had refused the help of an abigail, she took her time removing her
wedding gown and securing it on a hanger in the wardrobe.
Had Draven noticed that the dress was second-hand and frayed?
She set aside her shame and pulled on a cream-colored negligee he had supplied and stole a look in the mirror. She was a rather plain sight for a bride. With her auburn curls swept off her face in a simple chignon and her face free of rouge and lip-stain, she had put forth little effort this morning. And why not? Her mother, dead a year and two months now, hadn't been there to help-or hug-her as she prepared to marry a man she hardly knew.
Isabella had been introduced to Draven a t a cousin's birthday fête six weeks ago and his unexpected appearance at the Farringtons' home in London the next day left her to wonder what a man like him could want with her. When he began to court her, he claimed that his title demanded he marry someone . Isabella, in return, had seen Draven as her last resort.
Isabella's eyes shifted to the very object responsible for her social eviction: The cursed amulet of Tousret . The trouble began when word of her dark prophecy spread through London. In no time at all, suitors who'd previously shown her interest vanished into thin air. Further ruination occurred when she was released from her governess position.
Brushing her fingertips over the stone that hung around her neck, she told herself to think of her father. She was doing all of this for him.
A noteworthy archaeologist, Sir Harris Farrington had spent the family's last half-penny on a trip to Egypt to find the amulet. He managed to unearth it, but the necklace wasn't nearly as valuable as it would have been if he'd found its counterpart, the bracelet of Amenhotep. To add to the disaster, Isabella's father had pushed the limits of the dig by sending three workers into a deep ravine to search for the bracelet. When the workers died, the gross mismanagement of the venture sank Harris Farrington's reputation.
After that, finding sponsors for future digs proved impossible.
Isabella ran a finger along the stone's thin, silver chain. When her father had given her the necklace for safe-keeping, he had begged her never to don it. But she was a skeptic at heart and didn't believe in curses. She felt the best way to protect it was to wear it, and now with the pin money Draven gave her as a wedding gift her father would be able to return to Egypt and search for Amenhotep's bracelet. It was an enchanted piece of jewelry thought to have the power to undo the stone's prophecy-as well as restore her father's professional viability.
"What's taking so long?" Draven's gruff voice penetrated the wall.
"I'll be out in a moment!" The mirror bounced back the quiver of Isabella's voice and the paleness of her face.
Just breathe. To calm her nerves, she unraveled her hair from its tight chignon and smoothed her freed curls.
"I may fall asleep if you don't come to bed!" Draven's snarl caused her to jump.
Sucking in a breath, she entered her husband's suite. As Draven reclined in bed, the hunger in his obsidian eyes made her heart skitter. His smooth chest rose and fell beneath an opened, white shirt while the lights and shadows bouncing from the hearth enhanced his hollowed cheekbones. Stepping closer, Isabella couldn't help but notice how enticingly his black, shoulder-length hair glimmered in the firelight.
At the very least, she was grateful that Draven was handsome. She had even softened like a wet leaf during their brief wedding kiss. If only his dark nature and intimidating scowl didn't alarm her so.
He threw back the bed-sheet. A defined torso rising out of a pair of low-slung breeches made her avert her eyes.
"Join me," he commanded.
She turned away from him, braced her legs against the side of the mattress, and slid into bed. After drawing the counterpane beneath her chin, she stared up at the ceiling. She could hardly believe she was here.
"I must admit that I'm nervous," she said. "This will be my first time, well."
The words hung in the air as heavily as if someone had used foul language in church.
Draven frowned. "If you weren't a virgin, I wouldn't have married you."
He rolled closer to her but when she locked eyes with him, his ravenous stare made her draw back. In a slow, sultry motion, Draven tugged the counterpane down and traced her amulet with his fingertips. His touch on her chest was incredibly hot, as if his entire body were engulfed in flames. She, in contrast, shuddered icy jolts in her nervous state.
"Is this the stone that put gossipmongers in a dither?" he asked.
She nodded and looked down at the curio. It felt strange to have someone else touch it.
He cocked an eyebrow. "Do you ever take it off?"
"You're not afraid of the stone's prophecy?" Draven looked puzzled.
She shook her head.
He retracted his hand. "What, exactly, does the legend foretell?"
Staring into his fiery eyes, she could hardly think. "Well"-she scrambled to gather her thoughts-"nearly three thousand years ago, the amulet belonged to a headstrong, Egyptian princess named Tousret. This princess made Amenhotep, a high priest in her court, one of her secret lovers. As punishment for her selfishness-and for this priest breaking his holy vows-the Underworld God saw to it that Princess Tousret was drawn to Amenhotep in the worst possible way: a fatal attraction as it were. The God's dark forces willed Tousret to stab Amenhotep before turning the knife on herself. Now any female who wears the stone even once is doomed to take the life of her true love before committing suicide."
Draven's eyes widened. "You are braver than I thought."
She blushed. It was the first compliment he'd given her. "The amulet is a part of my father. He risked his life to find it."
Draven fell into silence before he met her gaze again. "Lucky for you, I don't believe in curses."
The small tremor beneath his eye told Isabella he was lying.
"Still," he said, "the amulet symbolizes too much dark history for my taste. Next time, I want you to remove it."
Next time? She was barely managing this round of intimacy.
Desire darkened Draven's eyes and Isabella gulped. He leaned closer, his mouth hovering hers. She pinched her eyes shut and folded her hands over her stomach to prepare for his kiss.
He stopped. "There is no reason to be prim and proper with me. You're no longer a governess."
Isabella's eyes flew open at his condescending tone. It took all the restraint she could muster to hold her tongue.
Draven shoved the counterpane to the foot of the bed and studied the outline of her body.
He drew her to him. Her breasts pressed against his chest, igniting a crackle of energy between them. Isabella's throat caught and in a surreal moment, he clamped his mouth over hers. When his tongue forced its way past her lips, her blood moved in wild rushes-and control over her emotions slipped from her grasp. She closed her eyes in silent ecstasy, surrendering to the deepness of the kiss and to the excitement it stirred in her.
The jab of Draven's knee between her thighs snapped her back to reality. Chiding herself for reacting to him with such passion, she composed herself.
His hand swept over her breasts and when it descended to the flat plane of her abdomen,
Isabella stiffened. She found it difficult to breathe under the pressure of his mouth and she had no idea to which side to tilt her head. As his arousal grew solid against her leg, her pulse leapt at the foreign feel of it. Rolling on top of her, Draven's shirt-tails draped over her negligee and, as he traced her lips with the ease of an expert, Isabella remembered his previous kisses. She'd known him to be tender, at least in those moments, so she began to relax a bit. Then he began pawing her. Reaching down, he pried her knees apart and slipped his hand into the open space. When he rubbed her core in rough motions, her limbs froze. Her groom was a devastatingly handsome man but she was only willing to acquiesce to him at her own speed.
"Forgive me," she said. "I've heard that creating a child can be a magical experience. It's just that-"
She blinked against a bright light. Shifting her gaze to the window, she saw that a full moon had emerged through a pair of parted clouds. As the ivory cast spilled across Draven's face, he pulled away from her with eyes that flashed a profound fear. "I must inform you that I have no intention of fathering any offspring," he said.
The admission couldn't have knocked Isabella more off balance. "I.I don't understand."
Draven bolted out of bed. His entire body began to shake. "I have personal reasons for not wanting a child. But what you need to know is that we will use a modern form of prevention."
She pulled herself to a sitting position. "You choose this moment, our wedding night, to inform me of this? Didn't you think I should have a say in the matter?"
As the veins on his temples bulged and pounded, she recoiled against the headboard.
"Something is happening to me," he said, spinning away from her. All at once, his shirt split up the middle of his back and fell to the floor. Then, with his face hidden from view, he picked up a chair and hurled it through the window.
Isabella whipped back the bed-sheet, her hand pressed to her mouth in horror.
What is happening?
Fearing for her safety, she rushed inside the dressing room and locked the door. Through her sobs, she heard a loud cry then more breaking glass. A minute later, all was quiet.
She grabbed Draven's wool coat and draped it over her negligee. Turning the doorknob with a quaking hand, she forced herself to peer into the bedchamber. Wind whistled into the room through the shattered window and the fire in the hearth had all but died out. But Draven was nowhere to be found.
Seizing the chance to flee the room, Isabella escaped into the corridor and raced downstairs. She'd known this loveless marriage was a bad idea, but now she was truly frightened. Refusing to stay at Thorncliff Towers a moment longer, she ran for the stables. And with every step she took, she vowed never to return.
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