Excerpt: Duke of Desire

Excerpt: Duke of Desire

Book 12: Maiden Lane

Chapter One  

April 1742

Considering how extremely dull her life had been up until this point, Iris Daniels, Lady Jordan had discovered a quite colorful way to die.
 
Torches flamed on tall stakes driven into the ground. Their flickering light in the moonless night made shadows jump and waver over the masked men grouped in a circle around her.
 
The naked masked men.
 
Their masks weren’t staid black half masks, either. No. They wore bizarre animal or bird shapes. She saw a crow, a badger, a mouse, and a bear with a hairy belly and a crooked red manhood.
 
She knelt next to a great stone slab, a primitive fallen monolith brought here centuries ago by people long forgotten. Her trembling hands were bound in front of her, her hair was coming down about her face, her dress was in a shocking state, and she very much suspected that she might smell—a result of having been kidnapped over four days before.
 
In front of her stood three men, the masters of this horrific farce.
 
The first wore a fox mask. He was slim, pale, and, judging by his body hair, a redhead. His inner forearm was tattooed with a small dolphin.
 
The second wore a mask in the likeness of a young man’s face with grapes in its hair—the god Dionysus if she wasn’t mistaken—which, oddly, was far more terrifying than any of the animal masks. He bore a dolphin tattoo on his upper right arm.
 
The last wore a wolf mask and was taller by a head then the other two. His body hair was black, he stood with a calm air of power, and he, too, bore a dolphin tattoo—directly on the jut of his left hipbone. The placement rather drew the eye to the man’s…erm…masculine attributes.
 
The man in the wolf mask had nothing to be ashamed of.
 
Iris shuddered in disgust and glanced away, accidentally meeting the Wolf’s mocking gaze.
 
She lifted her chin in defiance. She knew what this group of men was. This was the Lords of Chaos, an odious secret society composed of aristocrats who enjoyed two things: power and the rape and destruction of women and children.
 
Iris swallowed hard and reminded herself that she was a lady—her family could trace its line nearly to the time of the Conqueror—and as such she had her name and honor to uphold.
 
These…creatures might kill her—and worse—but they would not take her dignity.
 
“My Lords!” the Dionysus called, raising his arms above his head in a theatrical gesture that showed very little taste—but then he was addressing an audience of nude, masked men. “My Lords, I welcome you to our spring revels. Tonight we make a special sacrifice—the new Duchess of Kyle!”
 
The crowd roared like slavering beasts.
 
Iris blinked. The Duchess of…
 
She glanced quickly around.
 
As far as she could see in the macabre flickering torchlight, she was the only sacrifice in evidence, and she was most certainly not the Duchess of Kyle.
 
The commotion began to die down.
 
Iris cleared her throat. “No, I’m not.”
 
“Silence,” the Fox hissed.
 
She narrowed her eyes at him. In the last four days she’d been kidnapped on her way home from the wedding of the true Duchess of Kyle, she’d been bound, hooded, and thrown on the floor of a carriage, where she’d remained as the carriage bumped over road after rutted road, and then, on arrival at this place, she’d been shoved into a tiny stone hut without any sort of fire. She had been starved and had only a few cups of water to drink. Last, but most definitely not least, she’d been forced to relieve herself in a bucket.
 
All of which had given her far too much time to contemplate her own death and what torture would precede it.
 
She might be terrified and alone, but she wasn’t about to surrender to the Lords’ plans without a fight. As far as she could see she had nothing to lose and quite possibly her life to gain.
 
So she raised her voice and said clearly and loudly, “You have made a mistake. I am not the Duchess of Kyle.”
 
The Wolf turned to the Dionysus and spoke for the first time. His voice was deep and smoky. “Your men kidnapped the wrong woman.”
 
“Don’t be a fool,” the Dionysus snapped at him. “We captured her three days after her wedding to Kyle.”
 
“Yes, returning home to London from the wedding,” Iris said. “The Duke of Kyle married a young woman named Alf, not me. Why would I leave the duke if I’d just married him?”
 
The Dionysus rounded on the Fox, making the other man cringe. “You told me that you saw her marry Kyle.”
 
The Wolf chuckled darkly.
 
“She lies!” cried the Fox, and he leaped toward her, his arm raised.
 
The Wolf lunged, seized the Fox’s right arm, twisted it up behind his back, and slammed the other man to his knees.
 
Iris stared and felt a tremble shake her body. She’d never seen a man move so swiftly.
 
Nor so brutally.
 
The Wolf bent over his prey, both men panting, their naked bodies sweating. The snout of the Wolf mask pressed against the Fox’s vulnerable bent neck. “Don’t. Touch. What. Is. Mine.
 
“Let him go,” the Dionysus barked.
 
The Wolf didn’t move.
 
The Dionysus’s hands curled into fists. “Obey me.”
 
The Wolf finally turned his mask from the Fox’s neck to look at the Dionysus. “You have the wrong woman—a corrupt sacrifice, one not worthy of the revel. I want her.”
 
“Take care,” murmured the Dionysus. “You are new to our society.”
 
The Wolf tilted his head. “Not so new as all that.”
 
“Perhaps newly rejoined, then,” the Dionysus replied. “You still do not know our ways.”
 
“I know that as the host, I have the right to claim her,” growled the Wolf. “She is forfeit to me.”
 
The Dionysus tilted his head as if considering. “Only by my leave.”
 
The Wolf abruptly threw wide his arms, releasing the Fox and gracefully standing again. “Then by your leave,” he said, his words holding an edge of mockery.
 
The firelight gleamed off his muscled chest and strong arms. He stood with an easy air of command.
 
What would make a man with such natural power join this gruesome society?
 
The other members of the Lords of Chaos didn’t seem happy at the thought of having their principal entertainment for the evening snatched out from under their noses. The masked men around her muttered and shifted, a restless miasma of danger hovering in the night air.
 
Any spark could set them off, Iris suddenly realized.
 
“Well?” the Wolf asked the Dionysus.
 
“You can’t let her go,” the Fox said to his leader, getting to his feet. There were red marks beginning to bruise on his pale skin. “Why the bloody hell are you listening to him? She’s ours. Let us take our fill of her and—”
 
The Wolf struck him on the side of the head—a terrible blow that made the Fox fly backward.
 
Mine,” growled the Wolf. He looked at the Dionysus again. “Do you lead the Lords or not?”
 
“I think it more than evident that I lead the Lords,” the Dionysus drawled, even as the muttering of the crowd grew louder. “And I think I need not prove my mettle by giving you this woman.”
 
Iris swallowed. They were fighting over her like feral dogs over a scrap of meat. Was it better if the Wolf claimed her? She didn’t know.
 
The Wolf stood between Iris and the Dionysus, and she saw the muscles in his legs and buttocks tense. She wondered if the Dionysus noticed that the other man was readying for battle.
 
“However,” the Dionysus continued, “I can grant her to you as an act of…charity. Enjoy her in whatever way you see fit, but take care that her heart no longer beats when next the sun rises”
 
Iris sucked in a breath at the sudden death sentence. The Dionysus had ordered her murder as casually as he would step on a beetle.
 
“My word,” the Wolf bit out, and Iris’s fearful glance flew to him.
 
Dear God, these men were monsters.
 
The Dionysus tilted his head. “Your word—heard by all.”
 
A low growl came from behind the wolf mask. He bent and gripped Iris’s bound wrists and hauled her to her feet. She stumbled after him as he strode through the mass of angry masked men. The crowd jostled against her, shoving her from all sides with bare arms and elbows until the Wolf finally pulled her free.
 
She had been brought to this place hooded, and for the first time she saw that it was a ruined cathedral or abbey. Stones and broken arches loomed in the dark, and she tripped more than once over weed-covered rubble. The spring night was chilly away from the fires, but the man in the wolf mask, striding naked in the gloom, seemed unaffected by the elements. He continued his pace until they reached a dirt road and several waiting carriages.
 
He walked up to one and without preamble opened the door and shoved her inside. “Wait here. Don’t scream or try to escape. You won’t like my response.”
 
And with that ominous statement the door closed. Iris was left panting in terror in the dark, empty carriage.
 
Immediately she tried the carriage door, but he’d locked or jammed it somehow. It wouldn’t open.
 
She could hear men’s voices in the distance. Shouts and cries. Dear God. They sounded like a pack of rabid dogs. What would the Wolf do to her?
 
She needed a weapon. Something—anything—with which to defend herself.
 
Hurriedly she felt the door—a handle, but she couldn’t wrench it off—a small window, no curtains—the walls of the carriage—nothing. The seats were plush velvet. Expensive. Sometimes in better-made carriages the seats…
 
She yanked at one.
 
It lifted up.
 
Inside was a small space.
 
She reached in and felt a fur blanket. Nothing else.
 
Damn.
 
She could hear the Wolf’s growling voice just outside the carriage.
 
Desperately she flung herself at the opposite seat and tugged it up. Thrust her hand in.
 
A pistol.
 
She cocked it, desperately praying that it was loaded.
 
She turned and aimed it at the door to the carriage just as the door swung open.
 
The Wolf loomed in the doorway—still nude—a lantern in one hand. She saw the eyes behind the mask flick to the pistol she held between her bound hands. He turned his head and said something in an incomprehensible language to someone outside.
 
Iris felt her breath sawing in and out of her chest.
 
He climbed into the carriage and closed the door, completely ignoring her and the pistol pointed at him. The Wolf hung the lantern on a hook and sat on the seat across from her.
 
Finally he glanced at her. “Put that down.”
 
His voice was calm. Quiet.
 
With just a hint of menace.
 
She backed into the opposite corner, as far away from him as possible, holding the pistol up. Level with his chest. Her heart was pounding so hard it nearly deafened her. “No.”
 
The carriage jolted into motion, making her stumble before she caught herself.
 
“T-tell them to stop the carriage,” she said, stuttering with terror despite her resolve. “Let me go now.”
 
“So that they can rape you to death out there?” He tilted his head to indicate the Lords. “No.”
 
“At the next village, then.”
 
“I think not.”
 
He reached for her and she knew she had no choice.
 
She shot him.
 
The blast blew him into the seat and threw her hands up and back, the pistol narrowly missing her nose.
 
Iris scrambled to her feet. The bullet was gone, but she could still use the pistol as a bludgeon.
 
The Wolf was sprawled across the seat, blood streaming from a gaping hole in his right shoulder. His mask had been knocked askew on his face.
 
She reached forward and snatched it off.
 
And then gasped.
 
The face that was revealed had once been as beautiful as an angel’s but was now horribly mutilated. A livid red scar ran from just below his hairline on the right side of his face, bisecting the eyebrow, somehow missing the eye itself but gouging a furrow into the lean cheek and catching the edge of his upper lip, making it twist. The scar ended in a missing divot of flesh in the line of the man’s severe jaw. He had inky black hair and, though they were closed now, Iris knew he had emotionless crystal-gray eyes.
 
She knew because she recognized him.
 
He was Raphael de Chartres, the Duke of Dyemore, and when she’d danced with him—once—three months ago at a ball, she’d thought he’d looked like Hades.
 
God of the underworld.
 
God of the dead.
 
She had no reason to change her opinion now.
 
Then he gasped, those frozen crystal eyes opened, and he glared at her. “You idiot woman. I’m trying to save you.”
 

###
 

Raphael grimaced in pain, feeling the scar tissue on the right side of his face pull his upper lip. No doubt the movement turned his mouth into a grotesque sneer.
 
The woman who’d shot him had eyes the color of the sky above the moors just after a storm: blue-gray sky after black clouds. That particular shade of blue had been one of the few things his mother had found beautiful in England.
 
Raphael agreed.
 
Despite the fear that shone in them, Lady Jordan’s blue-gray eyes were beautiful.
 
“What do you mean you’re trying to save me?” She still held the pistol as if ready to club him over the head should he move, the bloodthirsty little thing.
 
“I mean that I don’t intend to ravish and kill you.” Years of anguish and dreams of revenge followed by months of planning to infiltrate the Lords of Chaos, only to have the whole thing collapse because of blue-gray eyes. He was a bloody fool. “I merely wished to spirit you away from the Lords of Chaos’s debauchery. Oddly enough, I believed you would be grateful.”
 
Her lovely brows drew together suspiciously over those eyes. “You promised the Dionysus that you’d kill me.”
 
“I lied,” he drawled. “If I’d meant you harm, I assure you, I’d have trussed you up like a Christmas goose. You’ll note I didn’t.”
 
“Oh, dear Lord.” She looked stricken as she flung down the pistol, staring at his gory shoulder. “This is a mess.”
 
“Quite,” he said through gritted teeth.
 
Raphael glanced down at his shoulder. The wound was a mass of mangled flesh, the blood pumping from within at a steady pace. This was not good. He’d meant to have her securely on the road back to London tonight, guarded by his men. If the Dionysus heard that she’d shot him, that he was weakened
 
He grunted and tried to sit up against the swaying of the carriage, eyeing her, this woman he’d only truly met once before.
 
He’d first seen her in a ballroom where he’d gone to meet members of the Lords of Chaos. In that den of corruption, swarming with his enemies, she’d stood out, pure and innocent. He’d warned her to leave that dangerous place. Then, when she’d walked alone back to her carriage, he’d shadowed her to make sure she made it safely there.
 
And that would’ve been that—had he not discovered that she was all but engaged to the Duke of Kyle—a man tasked, on orders of the King, with the risky job of bringing down the Lords of Chaos. Raphael knew that as long as Kyle pursued the Lords, Lady Jordan would be in danger. Because of this, Raphael had spent no little time worried about her. Had even gone so far as to trail her into the country to Kyle’s estate.
 
There he’d seen her marry Kyle—or so he’d thought.
 
At that point Raphael had been forced to consider the matter at an end. Lady Jordan’s protection was no longer his concern, but her husband’s. Raphael might be loath to admit it, but Kyle was more than equal to the task of protecting his wife. If Raphael had felt some small twinge of longing…well, he’d made sure to bury it deep inside, where it would die a natural death from lack of light.
 
Yet now…
 
It was as if his previously stopped heart jolted and started beating again. “Are you truly not the Duchess of Kyle?”
 
“No.” She reached for him, and he was astonished at how gentle her hands were. She had no cause to be gentle with him—not after what she’d been through tonight. Yet she placed both small palms about his left arm—the unharmed side—and helped him stand. He lurched across the moving carriage and half fell into the opposite seat.
 
“I, too, saw you married to Kyle,” Raphael said evenly.
 
She glared. “How? Alf and Hugh were married inside their country manor. The King was there, and I assure you there were guards everywhere.”
 
“I saw Kyle kiss you in the garden at the celebration afterwards,” he said. “There might have been guards, but I assure you they neglected to search the woods overlooking the garden.”
 
“It rather serves you right that you confused the matter since you were spying,” she said tartly. “I don’t remember Hugh kissing me, but if he did it was in a brotherly manner. We’re friends. It doesn’t matter anyway. Whatever you imagined you saw, I’m not married to Hugh.”
 
He closed his eyes for a moment, wondering why she’d bothered moving him, when he felt the bulk of a fur rug bunched over his nude body. He hadn’t even realized that he was shivering.
 
Ah, of course. The rug that had been stored in the bench he’d been sitting on. “Yet it was well known in London that you were to marry the Duke of Kyle.”
 
“We let the gossips think I was the bride at the wedding because his real wife is without family or name.” She shook her head. “’Twill be a scandal when the news comes out. Is that why you saved me? Because you thought I was the duchess?”
 
“No.” Raphael opened his eyes and watched as she unwrapped the fichu from about her neck, exposing a deep décolletage. Her breasts were sweetly vulnerable. He glanced aside. Such things were not for one as tainted as he. “I would have rescued you in any case—duchess or not.”
 
“But why?” She flipped the fur away from his shoulder and pressed the flimsy fichu hard against the wound.
 
He inhaled, not bothering to answer her nonsensical question. Did she think him a demon?
 
But then she had just seen him attending what was at base a demonic rite.
 
“You have to stop the carriage,” she was saying. “I can’t halt the bleeding. You need a doctor. I should—”
 
“We’re near my home,” he said, cutting her off. “We’ll be there soon enough. Just keep pressing. You’re doing fine, Lady Jordan.”
 
Her blue-gray gaze flicked up to his, wide with surprise. “I wasn’t sure if you recognized me.”
 
This was intimate, her face so close to his. He naked and she with the upper slopes of her breasts uncovered. He felt hazy with desperate temptation. He could smell her, above the scent of his own blood—a faint flower scent.
 
Not cedarwood, thank God.
 
“You’re hard to forget,” he murmured.
 
She frowned as if uncertain whether he complimented or insulted her. “Is that why you rescued me? Because you recognized me from that one dance?”
 
“No.” Not at all. He hadn’t known whom the Dionysus meant to sacrifice tonight. Hadn’t known there was to be a sacrifice—though of course that was a possibility. Would he have rescued any woman?
 
Perhaps.
 
But the moment he’d seen her, he’d known he had to act. “You seem oddly competent at handling a gunshot wound.”
 
“My late husband James was an officer in His Majesty’s army,” she said. “I followed him on campaign on the Continent. There were times when tending a wound became very helpful.”
 
He swallowed, watching her from beneath half-lowered lids, trying to think. He couldn’t afford to show weakness in these parts—it was why he’d brought his own servants from Corsica. The Lords of Chaos were powerful in this area. If the Dionysus discovered that he was wounded, he—and she—would be in peril. The Dionysus already wanted her dead and expected Raphael to kill her.
 
A wicked idea crept into his mind.
 
She was a temptation—a temptation aimed at his one weakness. He’d walked alone for so long. For his entire life, really. He’d never thought to seek another. To permit any light into his darkness.
 
But she was right here, within his grasp. To let her go again was beyond his control right now. He was weakened, dizzy, lost. Dear God, he wanted to keep her for himself.
 
And the means to convince her to stay with him had just dropped into his lap.
 
“The blood has soaked my fichu.” She sounded upset, but not hysterical. She was a strong woman—stronger than he’d first realized when he’d pulled her from the revelry.
 
He made his decision. “You need to marry me.”
 
Her beautiful eyes widened in what looked like alarm. “What? No! I’m not going to—”
 
He reached up and grasped her wrist with his left hand. Both her hands were pressed firmly on his wound. Her skin was warm and soft. “The Dionysus ordered me to kill you. If—”
 
She tried to recoil. “You’re not going to—”
 
He squeezed her fragile wrist, feeling the beating of her heart. Feeling this moment in time.
 
Seizing it.
 
Listen. I meant to have you safely on the road to London tonight. That isn’t possible now that I’m wounded. The only way I can protect you is to marry you. If you’re my duchess, you’ll have my name and my money to shield you when they come, and believe me, Lady Jordan, the Dionysus’s men will come for you. They need to silence you, for you know far too much about the Lords of Chaos now.”
 
She snorted. “They thought I was the Duchess of Kyle before. That certainly didn’t protect me.”
 
I am an entirely different duke than Kyle,” he replied with flat certainty. He brought his other hand up and untied the rope around her wrists. “And I also have my servants.”
 
She frowned down at her freed wrists and then at him. “How will they keep me from being murdered?”
 
“They are Corsicans—brave and loyal to a fault—and I have over two dozen.” He’d spent his life filled with rage, grief, and a drive for revenge. He’d never even thought of marriage. This was a flight of fancy. An aberration. A diversion from the strict path he’d set for his life. Yet he could not find it within himself to resist. “My men answer only to me. If you’re my wife—my family and my duchess—they will protect you with their lives. If I die due to your gunshot wound and you do not marry me, they may look upon you far less favorably.”
 
Her plump mouth dropped open in outrage. “You’d blackmail me into marriage? Are you deranged?”
 
Oh, indeed. Probably on both counts. “I’m wounded.” He arched an eyebrow. “And attempting to save your life. You might try thanking me.”
 
Thank you? I—”
 
Fortunately the carriage halted before she could articulate what she thought of that idea.
 
Raphael kept a firm hold of the lady’s wrist as the door was opened, revealing Ubertino, one of his most trusted men. Ubertino was nearly forty, a short man with a barrel chest and graying hair clubbed back in a tight braid. The Corsican’s bright-blue eyes widened in his tanned face at the sight of his master’s blood.
 
“I’ve been shot,” Raphael told him. “Get Valente and Bardo and tell Nicoletta to come.”
 
Ubertino turned to shout the orders in Corsican to the other men behind him and then stepped into the carriage.
 
Lady Jordan backed away warily.
 
“Tell Ivo to take the lady into the abbey,” Raphael ordered. He wouldn’t put it past her to run once she was out of the carriage.
 
“Did she do this, Your Excellency?” Ubertino muttered in Corsican as he put his shoulder against Raphael’s bad side.
 
Raphael grunted and stood, clenching his jaw. He would not pass out. “A misunderstanding merely. You will forget this.”
 
“I think it will be hard to forget,” Ubertino said.
 
Carefully they negotiated the two steps down from the carriage.
 
He was cold. So cold.
 
“Nevertheless, I order it so.” Raphael stopped and stared at the servant. In another life he might’ve counted this man his oldest friend. “You will protect her no matter what happens.”
 
The Corsican inclined his head. “As you wish, Your Excellency.”
 
Valente and Bardo came running into the driveway.
 
Valente, the younger of the two, began asking questions in Corsican, but Ubertino cut him off. “Listen to lu duca.”
 
Raphael’s hands were in fists. He would not fall down here before his men. “Go to the vicar in town. You know his house, by the English church?”
 
Both men nodded.
 
“Wake him up and bring him here.” He could feel the blood trickling down his side, oddly hot against the chill of his body. “Do not let anything he says or does keep you from your task. Hurry.”
 
Valente and Bardo ran to the stables.
 
They knew only a few words of English. The vicar might very well think he was being robbed or worse. Raphael ought to write a letter explaining the matter.
 
But there was no time.
 
Behind them Lady Jordan exclaimed, “Take your hands from me, sir!”
 
Raphael raised his voice. “Ivo is merely helping you into my home, my lady.”
 
“I don’t wish to be helped!”
 
He turned to see her glaring at him, her blond hair a halo about her head in the carriage’s lantern light, and felt his lips quirk. She really was rather extraordinary.
 
A pity he could not make her his wife in reality.
 
Her gaze swept past him and to the facade of the building behind him, then widened in what looked very much like horror. “This is your home?”
 
He turned to look as well. The abbey was ancient. The original structure had been a fortified keep, which had been added to and modified over centuries by generations of his ancestors. This was where he’d spent most of his childhood. Where his mother had breathed her last breath. The place he’d hoped never to see again.
 
His mouth twisted. “Home might be a bit of an exaggeration.”
 

Chapter Two  

April 1742

The edifice that rose before Iris loomed like a decaying giant in the flickering lantern light, somehow both gloomy and forbidding.
 
“What is this place?” she whispered.
 
“Dyemore Abbey,” the duke replied.
 
Even now his voice was a sensuous rasp against her nerve endings. His skin was pale and sweaty, his horrid scar standing out like a red snake writhing down the right side of his face.
 
“Come,” he said and turned toward the entry.
 
She didn’t want to enter this ghastly mansion with him. She didn’t entirely trust him, wounded or not. He might’ve saved her from immediate rape and murder, but he’d been participating at that revelry tonight. He was obviously a member of the Lords of Chaos.
 
And the Dionysus had ordered him to make sure she kept their secrets. To kill her.
 
The scowling manservant to her right—Ivo—gave her no choice, however. His firm grip on her elbow compelled her forward and across a graveled drive.
 
Only one window held a light—a dim glow from within, as if it struggled not to be extinguished beneath the tons of dark-brown stones that made up Dyemore Abbey. The mansion must be four or five stories high, with rectangular windows set deep in the facade. Behind the monolithic central tower loomed craggy shapes, as if a mountain range of other wings or ruins was beyond.
 
The duke mounted the front steps with the help of his manservant. The door was arched, but over it was the overlarge face of a demon or gargoyle, holding up the lintel of the window above. The gargoyle glared down at them, its mouth stretched wide in a grimace.
 
Iris shuddered.
 
Obviously the dukes of Dyemore weren’t concerned with welcoming guests to their ducal seat.
 
The door opened, and a plump woman immediately began chattering in Corsican.
 
This must be Nicoletta. She was older—perhaps in her fifth decade—and her black hair was scraped back from her scowling face and hidden under a plain white cap. The woman held a candle in one hand and seemed to be scolding the manservant who was helping the duke. The servant who had helped the duke from the carriage said something, and the Corsicans all looked at Iris.
 
He’d told them who had shot their master—she just knew it. Nicoletta’s black eyes narrowed.
 
Her gaze was not benign.
 
Iris shivered, remembering the duke’s words. His servants would rightfully blame her for his wound. Was there any way she could explain herself? But most of them weren’t speaking English, and she didn’t know Corsican.
 
Besides, Dyemore’s wound was her fault. Whatever the duke might be, he had saved her from the Lords of Chaos, and she’d repaid him by shooting him.
 
Lord. She blinked back sudden tears. Her nerves were stretched taut from days of uncertainty and fear, and now to know she’d done this to another, even in defense of her own person…
 
Iris swallowed and straightened her back. She mustn’t break now. Mustn’t show weakness when she didn’t know who these people were or if they meant to do her harm.
 
Dyemore snapped something in Corsican at that moment, and the servants looked away from her, moving again.
 
They led her into the house. Iris tried to swallow her apprehension as the Corsicans talked in their own language and Ivo’s grip on her arm remained firm. The hall was grand—marble floors, carved wood paneling, and high ceilings that might be painted—but it was cold and dim. The only light the maidservant’s candle.
 
Dyemore Abbey felt…dead.
 
Iris shook away the morbid thought as she followed the procession deeper into the entry hall. At the back they mounted wide stairs leading to a landing with another staircase branching out from each end. Portraits peered down from the walls in the gloom as they took the steps to the right. On the upper level Nicoletta led the way to a large sitting room and warmth at last.
 
Near the fire—the only point of light in the cavernous room—Dyemore sank heavily into a huge wing-backed chair.
 
One of the men poured him a glass of wine from a crystal carafe.
 
“I apologize for my lack of hospitality,” Dyemore said after taking a sip of the wine. “Most of my Corsicans are guarding the house outside. It’s imperative that you not wander in the abbey. Some of the rooms are locked for a reason. Stay out of them.”
 
His words were arrogant and he lounged in the chair as if it were a throne, but his face was positively gray.
 
She glanced away. She couldn’t look at him. At what she’d done to him. “You must lie down.”
 
“No,” she heard him say, his deep voice even, as if they were discussing the price of ribbons on Bond Street. “The vicar will arrive soon. I will remain upright. We must keep the truth of my injury from the Lords as long as possible.”
 
Her head jerked up at that. “You’re naked under that fur and bleeding. How are you going to hide your injury from the vicar? This is ridiculous!”
 
She made an impatient movement toward him, but Ivo held her back.
 
“Let go of me!”
 
The Corsican looked at her stonily.
 
She held out her free hand to Dyemore. “Tell him.”
 
He stared at her a moment, his gray eyes glassy, and she wondered if he was beginning to lose his senses. Lord, if he fainted now it would be a disaster. His servants would turn against her.
 
Dyemore said something in Corsican to Ivo, and the servant released her.
 
Immediately she was across the room and bending over the duke.
 
Nicoletta hissed her displeasure.
 
Iris ignored her. “Ask your maidservant if she has any bandages to stop the bleeding. And tell your men to fetch a doctor from the village at once.”
 
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Nicoletta slip from the room. Did she understand English?
 
“No.” Dyemore’s eyes were on her, calm, cold, and emotionless, though he must be in pain. “No doctor. I don’t trust anyone in the village. You may bind it yourself, if you must.”
 
“Oh, I think I must,” she replied tartly. “The ball is still in your shoulder and has to be taken out.”
 
He blinked slowly. “We haven’t time for you to remove the ball. My men will be back with the vicar soon. Bandage the wound so that it doesn’t bleed. Ubertino will help me into some clothes.”
 
“This is insane,” Iris muttered, but she moved to do as he bid. Perhaps she had fallen under some spell. Perhaps she’d gone mad from her internment in that horrid little hut the Lords of Chaos had kept her in.
 
Perhaps this was all some dream and she would soon awaken in her boring room, safe in her brother’s London town house.
 
Except she was a practical woman, a woman not given to vapors or delusions, and she knew well enough that this was no dream. This was a real man bleeding under her hands, his skin solid and much too cold.
 
She hadn’t touched a man like this since James had died five years before.
 
She blinked and looked at her fingers, smeared with Dyemore’s scarlet blood. The wound was in the duke’s right shoulder, a jagged, oozing hole below his collarbone. It hadn’t seemed to have broken the bone there. That was lucky, at least.
 
Nicoletta returned with two more male servants following her, their arms filled with clothing, bandages, and water pitchers.
 
Iris reached for one of the bandages, but the maidservant snatched it first.
 
“Let the lady have it,” Dyemore barked. “She has experience tending the wounds of soldiers.”
 
The Corsican woman pursed her lips, but gave the bandage to Iris.
 
“Thank you,” Iris murmured as she accepted it.
 
Really she supposed she couldn’t blame Nicoletta. She was obviously very loyal to the duke and didn’t trust the same woman who had shot him to nurse him now.
 
Iris took the bandage, wet it in the water one of the men held, and began wiping the worst of the blood away. Dyemore’s skin was darker than her own, noticeably so, cool and smooth. She set aside the dirty bandage and folded a clean one until she had a thick pad. This she placed against the wound.
 
“Hold this, please,” she said to the plump maidservant.
 
Nicoletta pursed her lips again, but moved to do as she asked.
 
Iris wound longer strips tightly around Dyemore’s chest and over his shoulder.
 
When Iris was done she stepped back.
 
Dyemore sat upright in his chair, his jaw clenched, his forehead beaded with sweat.
 
He met her gaze and said gently, “Wash your hands, please, my lady. Nicoletta will help you with your coiffure.”
 
Iris blinked. She wasn’t sure she wanted the other woman near her hair, but she followed the maidservant to a corner of the sitting room. Two of the manservants came with them, obviously to keep her from bolting out the door. This was insane—she was being prepared to marry Dyemore, a man she neither knew nor completely trusted.
 
Belatedly Iris realized she wasn’t even sure what part of England they were in. She’d been kidnapped from Nottinghamshire, but it had taken several days’ journey for the Lords of Chaos to bring her to her hut prison. Even if she were to dash from Dyemore Abbey, she wouldn’t know in which direction to run.
 
Or to whom.
 
Perhaps she could enlist the vicar’s aid when he arrived? Signal to him that she was being married under duress? But he would be one man against two dozen of Dyemore’s Corsicans. Even were the vicar the most valiant of men, she didn’t see how he could prevail.
 
And Dyemore was right: the Lords of Chaos would be after her when they discovered that she still lived. They’d track her down. Bring her back to their ghastly revels. Or simply murder her outright.
 
He was her only safety.
 
Her only hope.
 
Nicoletta deftly combed out her tangled hair and pulled it into a simple knot. She was quick and competent. More importantly, she didn’t vent her anger by pulling Iris’s hair.
 
“Thank you,” Iris murmured to the woman.
 
Nicoletta met her eyes and nodded. Her soft mouth was still pursed in disapproval or irritation, but her eyes had gentled a bit.
 
Or at least Iris hoped so.
 
One of the manservants came running into the room. He said something in Corsican.
 
Dyemore replied, “Send the vicar up, then.” He turned to Iris. “Come here, my lady.”
 
She swallowed. Was she really going to do this mad, mad thing? Unlike some widows, she’d not discreetly taken a lover. She’d waited—perhaps naively—for a gentleman who esteemed her enough to make her his wife. More than that, she wanted to be cherished when next she lay with a man.
 
When next she married.
 
She’d not wanted another cold, loveless marriage.
 
This was not at all what she’d planned.
 
Dyemore watched her hesitate. He’d dressed in a black silk banyan while Nicoletta had tended her hair. It was buttoned all the way to his neck, making him look severe and dour. He might just pass at a glance for a gentleman lounging at home, perhaps a little the worse for drink.
 
He held out his good arm to her, his hand commanding. “Come now. The vicar is here. We haven’t much time.”
 
He should look weak, sitting there in front of the fire, his face pale and sickly, his black, shoulder-length hair sticking to the sweat at his temples. He seemed a stark figure of death, here at the center of this house of gloom.
 
But his eyes were icy gray and in control.
 
She wished desperately that she knew what he was thinking.
 
He’d already saved her once. What other choice did she have?
 
Iris crossed the room and placed her hand in Hades’s palm.
 

###
 

Raphael gripped Lady Jordan’s hand with the hazy notion that if he let her go she’d flee his rotting abbey. Leave him here all alone in his house of death and despair.
 
Take her light away from him.
 
He blinked, straightening. His shoulder was throbbing, as if some animal had burrowed within his flesh and were steadily gnawing, attempting to reach his heart.
 
But that was fantasy.
 
He needed to focus his mind. Keep and protect her, this woman with the gray-blue eyes and sweet pink lips.
 
Valente entered the sitting room. Behind him was a small spare man, his bobbed wig askew on his shaved head. The man gripped a black book in both hands. He looked both completely bewildered and completely terrified.
 
Bardo brought up the rear, towering over the vicar. “He thinks we will murder him, Your Grace.”
 
Raphael nodded. “Vicar, what is your name?”
 
The man, who had been staring at Raphael’s scar in horror, started. “I…Er, Jonathon Webberly, sir, but I must protest. Who are you and what—”
 
“I am Raphael de Chartres, the Duke of Dyemore.” He hadn’t time for histrionics. “And I sent for you so that you might wed me to my fiancée.”
 
He drew Lady Jordan closer to him, ignoring how she stiffened.
 
The vicar’s gaze shot to her. “Your Grace…That is…This is very unusual. I—”
 
“Can you marry us legally or not?” Raphael rasped.
 
“I…Yes, of course the marriage would be legal, Your Grace. I’m ordained in the Church of England and need only register a marriage. But this is highly irregular, especially for a gentleman of your importance.” The vicar licked his lips nervously, glancing at Lady Jordan. “Surely you must wish to call the banns and celebrate your nuptials in the village church?”
 
Lady Jordan made an aborted movement.
 
Raphael tightened his hand around hers, keeping her still. “Do I need to call the banns or be married in a church for this marriage to be valid?”
 
“No, Your Grace,” the man said, looking distressed. “The Church naturally frowns upon such hasty weddings, but legally there is no requirement to call the banns. That is—”
 
“Then I have no desire for delay. I wish you to marry us at once.” He stared at the man coldly, well aware of the impact of his visage.
 
Mr. Webberly nodded jerkily and opened his book.
 
Raphael concentrated on staying alert. He let the vicar’s words wash over him, aware of her fingers in his hand all the while.
 
She was…different from other women in some way he still was unable to understand. She was more pure, more bright, more golden. She called to him on an animal level. Her song had seeped into his veins, his lungs, and his liver until he could no longer divide her from his marrow.
 
He needed her.
 
And now he was marrying her, Iris Daniels, Lady Jordan.
 
The notion was as wrong as that of a spring robin tied to a carrion raven.
 
Yet he would not stop this monstrosity. More, he’d kill any man who tried to gainsay him.
 
He wanted her.
 
Past reason. Past honor and good taste. Past his own vows and the things he must see done in this life. Perhaps this was madness.
 
Or the evil of his father.
 
If so, he’d succumbed.
 
The vicar droned on until it was time for them to make their vows. Raphael turned to see if she would protest at this late stage. Perhaps weep and say that she was being forced to do this. Beg Mr. Webberly to help her from this dreadful place and her hideously scarred presumptive husband.
 
But how could he forget that this was the woman who had faced him down with a pistol? Who had shot him only an hour or so before?
 
She was nothing if not courageous.
 
Lady Jordan made her vows in a cool, clear voice.
 
He responded in turn, his voice as ever emotionless and firm.
 
The vicar pronounced them man and wife and closed his black book, looking up. His eyes strayed to Raphael’s injured shoulder and widened.
 
Raphael realized that his wound had bled through the cloth.
 
He nodded to Ubertino. “Pay him well.”
 
The Corsican bowed, took a heavy purse from his pocket, and handed it to the vicar.
 
The Englishman’s eyes widened. “Your Grace, this is much more than I am accustomed to receiving for a simple wedding.”
 
“My duchess and I are most appreciative of your inconvenience,” Raphael replied silkily. “And, of course, I will expect the utmost discretion from you on this matter, Mr. Webberly.”
 
Any fear that he’d been too subtle was laid to rest when the vicar paled. “I…I…Yes, naturally, Your Grace.”
 
“Good. I do so value my privacy. I would not enjoy being the subject of gossip.”
 
The man gulped and backed a step, clutching his book and purse to his chest.
 
Raphael nodded to him. “My men will see you safely home.”
 
“Thank you, Your Grace.” The vicar hurried from the room with Valente and Bardo close behind.
 
Raphael sighed and let his head fall against the chair back.
 
Beside him his new duchess tsked. “You scared him half to death. Was that truly necessary?”
 
“If word reaches the Lords of Chaos that I am weakened, both our lives will be in danger. Therefore, yes, it most definitely was necessary.” With an effort he opened his eyes and glanced at her. There were shadows beneath her eyes, and her pale pink lips drooped. A smudge of dirt highlighted her left cheekbone, and he had the ridiculous urge to wipe it away. “I think now I will retire if you do not mind, madam.”
 
She knit delicate brows. “Not before the ball is removed from your shoulder.”
 
His eyelids were so very heavy. “I cannot think such argumentativeness is attractive in a wife.”
 
“Perhaps you should’ve thought of that earlier,” she retorted, but her tone was gentle.
 
“Humph.”
 
“Send your men for a surgeon.”
 
He opened his eyes wide in order to shoot her a glare. “You said you have experience with gunshot wounds.”
 
“Yes, but I’ve never actually removed a bullet.” Her face was drawn with fear, and yet he still detected a glow beneath her surface exhaustion.
 
He waved the objection aside. “I trust you and we have no other choice. If the Lords of Chaos find that I am wounded they will be like a pack of wolves on a lame ram. I won’t survive the night—and neither will you.”
 
He heard her huff, but her hand crept under his shoulder, urging him to rise. Then his men were there as well, a much stronger support. He could walk. He wouldn’t be carried, damn it. Not in his father’s house.
 
The stairs were tricky, the treads kept trying to trip him up, but they made it to the floor above. They trudged past the duke’s rooms, and finally arrived at the duchess’s rooms—the rooms that had once been his mother’s.
 
He lay down in his bed with gratitude that nearly overwhelmed his senses.
 
“I will need a knife and a pair of tweezers or tongs if you have them,” his wife said politely, almost apologetically.
 
“You trust this woman with a knife at your flesh, Your Excellency?” Ubertino growled in Corsican, even as Nicoletta trotted out of the room.
 
With effort Raphael opened his eyes and simply looked at his gathered servants, one by one and said in English, “She is your mistress, your duchess, now. You will respect her. Do you understand?”
 
He heard his duchess draw in her breath.
 
There was a spattering of muttered agreement from his servants.
 
“I am not the one to whom you vow allegiance now,” he barked.
 
Ubertino jerked his head to his fellow servants and turned to his wide-eyed duchess. The Corsican bowed low and said, “Your Grace.”
 
She swallowed. “Thank you.”
 
When she turned back to Raphael she was frowning, her brows lowered over those gray-blue eyes, like thunderclouds over a Yorkshire moor sky. A fanciful thought.
 
He didn’t usually have fanciful thoughts.
 
Someone was unbuttoning his banyan.
 
He opened his eyes to see her, Lady Jordan, looking quite worried, with Nicoletta beside her. But that wasn’t right, was it? She was the Duchess of Dyemore now.
 
“Bring me my mother’s jewelry box,” he ordered the maidservant.
 
Nicoletta hurried out of the room.
 
The bandages were being tugged away from his wound. He gasped at a shard of pain.
 
“I’m sorry,” his wife whispered.
 
“Your Excellency.” He opened his eyes to see Nicoletta holding out the jewelry box. There seemed to be a halo about her head, and he wanted to chuckle. Nicoletta was too sharp tongued by far to be a saint, surely?
 
“Open it,” he said.
 
She took a key from a ring at her waist and inserted it into the lock, then opened the box and brought it close to him so that he could see the contents.
 
Raphael lifted his good hand—it felt uncommonly heavy—and stirred a finger through the jewels until he found the ring. His hand trembled as he lifted the ring from the box. “Lock it again and give the key to Her Excellency.”
 
Nicoletta pursed her lips but did as he said.
 
His duchess merely looked bewildered on being handed a key to a treasure box.
 
“It is yours now,” he said, his voice…Something was wrong with his breath. His gasped. “As my wife. As my duchess. This is yours as well.”
 
He took her hand—so warm in his—and placed the heavy, chased ring on her finger. It wouldn’t fit her ring finger—his mother had been a fragile creature with very thin hands. Instead he pushed it onto the smallest finger of her right hand. The sight of it there, glowing gold, the central round ruby burnished with the years it had guarded his mother’s family, satisfied something within him.
 
His hands dropped to the bed like lead weights.
 
“Protect her,” he whispered to Ubertino as the room darkened. Someone was weeping. Nicoletta? “Promise me. Protect her.”

Iris’s eyes stung, which was totally ridiculous.

She hardly knew this man, husband or not. What matter to her if he lived or died? He was arrogant, abrupt, and demanding—the last things she’d wanted in a husband.

And yet she wept for him.

She blinked, trying to clear her vision. Her fingers were stained with blood as she worked on the wound, the gold of the heavy ring Dyemore had placed on her little finger all but obscured by the gore.

She glanced at Dyemore and realized that his face had relaxed. Black lashes lay against his pale cheeks and his lips were parted softly, though the right side was still twisted even now.

He’d passed out.

For a timeless moment she stilled.

He was entirely at her mercy, this ruthless, violent, powerful man. This man who had saved her life and then demanded she marry him. He’d lain down and without hesitation or fear let her cut into him.

He trusted her—with his life, it seemed.

She’d never been so important to someone before.

She inhaled and picked up a small pair of tweezers—probably from a toiletry kit. The servants had brought a stack of cloths, a pair of scissors, water, a basin, a sharp knife, and the tweezers and laid them out neatly on a table beside the bed. They had also lit two candles on the bedside table to provide light in the otherwise dim room.

Carefully sliding the tweezers into the wound along the knife blade, she delicately probed. She was glad he was unconscious—she hated the thought of causing him further pain.

She moved the metal implement about in Dyemore’s flesh, in his shoulder, as the blood continued to ooze out, staining his banyan and the sheets. Sweat slid greasily down the center of her back.

Finally—dear God, finally—she felt the tweezers clink against something. She tried to open the thin blades to grasp the ball, but there wasn’t room.

“Damn,” she muttered under her breath. It was terribly unladylike to swear. But then it was unladylike to have one’s fingers in a gentleman’s bloody shoulder.
She twisted her implement, trying to somehow capture the little bit of metal. For a moment she thought she had it, but then the tweezers slipped off the bullet.

Iris swallowed. She was so weary. She just wanted to correct the wrong she’d done to Dyemore.

Make him whole again.

Nicoletta murmured something and patted around the wound with a piece of cloth, wiping away some of the blood.

“Thank you.”

Iris inhaled and closed her eyes. Working slowly, she felt for the bullet again. Caught the bit of metal…just there…and carefully withdrew the tweezers with the bullet and then the knife.

She blew out a breath, eyeing the nasty little thing, then reached for one of the cloths on the table. She wiped the bullet and examined it.

It was whole.

Thank God. 

She set it down on the table and turned back to Dyemore. The wound was still oozing blood. She licked her lips and inhaled. She’d have to sew it closed.

There was no needle or thread on the table and she turned to Nicoletta. “Do you have a sewing kit?”

The maidservant nodded and hurried away.

That left Iris in the room with three big manservants. Ubertino knelt to stir the fire and put more coal on it.

Iris picked up a cloth, folded it into a pad, and pressed it against the wound. How much blood had he lost tonight? Dyemore was a big man, a strong man from what she’d seen—and she’d seen all of him—but even the strongest man could succumb to blood loss.

The door opened and she looked up to see that Nicoletta had returned with a basket.

The maidservant bustled over and opened the basket, revealing a sewing kit. She selected a sturdy needle and threaded it with what looked like silk.

“Thank you.” Iris took the needle.

She lifted the soaked pad from the wound and hesitated. She’d seen bullet holes sewn up before, but she’d never watched closely.

Well. It wasn’t as if they had any other choice.

She pinched the edges of the wound together, then laid the needle’s point at his skin. It was harder than she’d imagined, piercing a man’s flesh. The needle was slippery beneath her fingers and she almost lost her grasp.

Suddenly Nicoletta’s hands were there as well, helping her by holding the wound closed.

“Thank you,” Iris said again gratefully.

She stitched the wound together as best she could, but she was afraid it was rather a mess when she was done.

At least the bleeding had slowed.

Together she and Nicoletta bandaged Dyemore’s shoulder. At one point the men had to lift the duke so that they could wrap the bandages around his back.

Even that didn’t wake him.

When they were done, Iris found that her hands were trembling.

She blinked, feeling so weary she didn’t know what to do next.

Nicoletta clucked and produced a clean bowl of water. Iris slowly washed her hands, watching the water turn pink from the blood.

She dried her hands and the maidservant gave her a glass of wine and a piece of bread.

Iris ate and drank mechanically, and then Nicoletta showed her the chamber pot behind a screen in the corner of the room.

She should be embarrassed, but Iris found she couldn’t muster the energy. Instead she squatted and relieved herself.

When she emerged from behind the screen she found that the duke had been tucked under the covers of the huge bed and that the other side was turned back.

Waiting for her.

She stopped dead.

It hadn’t occurred to her…

Well, of course they’d married, but…

Oh, good Lord, Nicoletta and the manservants were looking at her expectantly.

Dyemore was injured. Surely she should sleep somewhere else? But what if there wasn’t anywhere else prepared?

And she was so damned tired.

Iris made up her mind. The bed was more than big enough for two—even with such a large man as Dyemore—and she was exhausted. If she disturbed him in the night, she could always sleep on the floor.

She was that weary.

And besides—someone would have to make sure he was all right during the night.

She crossed the room, kicked off her ragged slippers, and climbed into the bed.

Oh.

Oh, heaven.

The light withdrew from the room and she heard the door close.

And then it was just her and this man.

Her husband.

Chapter Three 

That same night the Dionysus sat upon his throne and watched the revels of his followers. Underneath the great arch of the ruined abbey torchlight flickered, drawing macabre shapes on heaving bodies. Moans and the muted slap of flesh on flesh sounded in the night.

The screams had stopped hours before.

He was unaroused by the sights and sounds. These things didn’t appeal to him. Actually, few things of the body appealed to him, truth be known, but this was, after all, a society of debauchery, so needs must.

Besides, they’d made him their Dionysus—their king. It was well to let his subjects celebrate this night.

The Dionysus smiled a little behind the smooth wood of his mask as he watched them. He knew who they were beneath those animal masks. Knew the respectable magistrate fondling the breast of his own sister. Knew the earl being buggered by a handsome youth. Knew the archbishop whipping a weeping woman.

He knew them, and they had no idea at all who he was because, unlike all the idiot men who’d been Dionysus before him, he’d made sure to gain his power without revealing his identity. He wasn’t interested in mere rape and corruption.

While those earlier leaders of the Lords had thought only of pricks, arses, and cunts, he concerned himself with larger things.

He dreamed of power.

“Dyemore hadn’t the right.” The Fox had risen from the mass of bodies and was attempting to saunter toward the Dionysus’s throne. He stumbled, though—his usual grace inhibited by the wine he’d drunk. “He flouts your authority.”

“How so?” The Dionysus tilted his head, watching the Fox.

Like the animal he’d chosen for his mask, the man was sly and untrustworthy. But the Fox had also managed to live through the last six months of bloody upheaval that started when the old Duke of Dyemore—their Dionysus—had been murdered, leading first to a savage struggle for power, and then to the final catastrophe, when the Duke of Kyle discovered them and nearly destroyed their illustrious ranks. Few of the old guard in the Lords of Chaos had weathered the storm.

The Fox was one.

Which was why he bore watching.

“Took the woman, didn’t he?” The Fox waved his arm, presumably to indicate where Dyemore had taken Lady Jordan. Or perhaps simply because he enjoyed waving his arm. “The woman was for us. For tonight.”

The Dionysus sighed impatiently. “She wasn’t the Duchess of Kyle. Her sacrifice would not have been the grand revenge against Kyle that I’d planned.” He shrugged. “I made the decision to give Lady Jordan to Dyemore. It’s done.”

“It was a mistake—”

The Dionysus sat forward, the abrupt movement drawing several eyes in the crowd, among them those of the Mole, lurking alone under a broken pillar. “The mistake was in taking the wrong lady. That mistake was yours, I believe.”

The Fox took a step back before he caught himself and stood his ground. “I wasn’t the only one on that foray. The Mole and the—”

“Yes, but they’re not here complaining to me now, are they?” the Dionysus asked. “They aren’t questioning my authority and despoiling my enjoyment of the revelry.”

“I…I only sought to warn you, my lord,” the Fox said, his head lowered in submission.

“Of course,” the Dionysus said, gentling his tone smoothly. “I know you are loyal to me.”

“I am,” the Fox said, raising his head cautiously. “Dyemore wants your throne.”

The Dionysus sighed silently. Of course Dyemore wanted his throne. Everyone wanted his throne. Most, however, hadn’t the brains or the ruthlessness needed to challenge him.

Dyemore, however…

If nothing else, the Dionysus liked to keep his enemies close under his eye to better understand their plans.

“You cannot trust him,” the Fox said, his tone whining. He’d crept nearer. “Please, my lord, beware of Dyemore.”

“Your concern is sweet.” The Dionysus saw that the Mole was watching them from behind his pillar. “Come. Let us partake together. Bring a sacrifice and we will share.”

“Oh, yes, my lord,” the Fox said eagerly. He darted away and was soon dragging back a drunken wench, her hair the color of burgundy. “Does this one please you?”

“Indeed,” the Dionysus lied. He drew his finger down the woman’s slack face—watching as her eyes widened in fear—and then drew the same finger down the Fox’s freckled shoulder.

The Fox shivered at his touch.

Over by the pillar the Mole started forward, then froze.

The Fox thrust the woman down before the throne so that her face was between the Dionysus’s legs, her task obvious.

The Dionysus sighed silently. His prick was limp—and would remain limp for her mouth or any other’s were that the only thing available to stimulate him.
But needs must. A show was important—to him, the Fox, and, perhaps most importantly, the Mole.

So his fingers found the small dagger hidden in the side of his throne, and he palmed it in his fist and drove it into the inside of his right thigh, perilously close to where an artery ran just under the skin.

Pain blossomed and bright blood gushed over his fingers.

His prick awakened.

He took his bloodied fingers and daubed them about the stunned woman’s mouth before meeting her terrified eyes. “Begin.”

As she bent her blood-painted mouth to his genitals he dug his thumb into the wound, sweet, blissful agony shooting through his body.

The Fox was already grunting over her back.

The Dionysus glanced up once to make sure the Mole was watching, his fingers clenching the pillar, before he closed his eyes.

Yes, he’d have to look after Dyemore. Make sure he’d gotten rid of Lady Jordan.

And nullify him as a threat to his throne.

###

Iris awoke the next day to sunshine.

She blinked.

Sunshine seemed most inappropriate, considering the ghastly events of the night before, but there it was, all the same. A merry little beam of sunlight danced across the ancient wooden floor of the ducal bedroom, almost to the huge bed she lay in. She could see the window where the sun was coming in—made of stone, with a severely pointed top. The surrounding wood paneling was a dark, reddish brown, intricately carved into vertical points and honeycombs. The paneling continued all the way up to the ceiling. If she tilted her head, peering past the heavy purple canopy of the bed, she could just make out the edge of a carved medallion in the very center of the ceiling.

Iris let her head drop back on the pillow.

She could hear Dyemore breathing beside her, even and deep. It was actually rather comforting, knowing he was there with her. Knowing that he’d given so much to protect her.

Iris frowned at the thought. She really oughtn’t to feel safe with Dyemore—she knew so little about him, and what she did know was suspect—and yet she did.

Carefully she inched from her side to her back, the sheets bunching around her waist and rustling horribly. She froze for a moment, but his breathing didn’t hitch, so she rolled to face him.

Dyemore lay on his back, his lips slightly parted, his cheeks ruddy. From this angle his aquiline nose rose in sharp profile.

Iris propped herself up on her elbow.

Lines were drawn on his forehead, between his brows, and on the unscarred cheek from his nostril to the corner of his mouth. She didn’t think they sat there normally. He looked as if he suffered in his sleep.

She gingerly laid the back of her hand against his brow.

His skin was hot and damp and she frowned worriedly—had he started a fever?

He sighed and she snatched back her hand.

She might feel safe with him, but intellectually she knew she had no reason to do so. If she woke him, would he start ordering her about as he had last night?

Iris wasn’t sure she wanted to submit to this man’s rule. His husbandly right to do with her what he wished.

His right to bed her.

She shivered, staring down at him, forcing herself to examine the horrific scar that marred the right side of his face. The Duke of Kyle—Hugh, as she knew him—had been with her when she’d first seen Dyemore at that ball so many months before. He’d mentioned that there were rumors surrounding the scar. That there had been a duel between Dyemore and an enraged father because of a corrupted daughter. That Dyemore’s own father, the old duke, had carved the scar into his son’s face. Or that the scar was somehow the sign of a family curse.

That Dyemore had been born with half his face disfigured.

Her gaze dropped to the right side of his mouth, to the corner of his lip that was permanently pulled into a slight snarl by the edge of the angry scar, and then to the other side of his mouth, to the sensuous curve of his lips. She raised her hand, reaching out to touch that perfect curl, before she caught herself.

Iris inhaled and jerked her hand back before she made contact. This man might be her husband now—courtesy of a series of terrible events and his own stubbornness, but he was still a stranger.

A stranger she wasn’t even sure she could entirely trust.

She shook her head and rose from the huge bed.

Hugh and Alf must be insane with worry. Iris had been taken from her carriage, but Parks, her lady’s maid, the driver, and her footmen had been left behind. They would’ve notified Hugh of her kidnapping. There was also her elder brother, Henry, to consider.

Iris lived with Henry and his wife, Harriet, in their London house. Though she hadn’t given them a specific date for her return from Hugh and Alf’s wedding, surely Henry would be concerned over her continued absence by now. Hugh might even have ridden to London and raised the alarm over her disappearance.

She had to send word to them that she was still alive.

Dyemore had said the previous night that she couldn’t be seen in the nearby village, but perhaps she could convince one of his men to ride with a note to Hugh or Henry.

Iris turned from the bed and froze.

At one side of the room a huge medieval fireplace took up most of the wall, blood-red marble veined in ivory framing the hearth.

Above the mantel was a portrait of a woman.

She was dark haired, wearing the rounded neck and long waistline of several decades before. Her complexion was so fair the artist had tinged it faintly green in parts. She was hauntingly beautiful, but it was the tragedy in the lady’s light-gray eyes that made Iris stare.

Her eyes were the same gray as Dyemore’s eyes.

Dyemore, however, never expressed such deep emotion—or any emotion at all save for anger. At least Iris had never seen him do so.

His eyes were as cold as winter ice at midnight.

The woman in the portrait must be Dyemore’s mother. Iris thought, but she couldn’t remember hearing anything about her.

She glanced around. Besides the massive bed, the room was almost stark. There were a dainty chest of drawers standing on gilded legs in the corner, two trunks sitting on the floor beside it, a few low velvet chairs before that enormous fireplace, and the screen in the corner, hiding the commode.

She cast a worried look at the bed, but Dyemore slept on, so she hastily relieved her bladder and felt much better afterward. Unfortunately, now she could think about other matters—such as the state of her clothes and her person.

She needed a bath and to send word to Hugh, and Dyemore needed someone to nurse him.

Time to go in search of the Corsicans.

She opened the door as quietly as possible so as not to wake the duke, and ventured into the corridor. It was completely deserted, but she could hear the faint murmur of voices from below.

Iris strode down the corridor to the staircase. In the light of day, the abbey was better maintained than she’d thought from her impressions of the night before, but it still had an air of neglect. As she descended she noticed that the stairs were carpeted, but dust was matted in the corners of the treads. The paintings that hung on the walls, too, needed dusting, and motes danced in the sunlight that weakly struggled in from the few windows. There should be more candles lit, the marble banister should be polished, and the chandelier hung high above in the entry hall should be taken down and cleaned.

It was as if this house had been shut up and forgotten.

She frowned, following the voices back through the abbey into the servants’ quarters. The hall became narrow and dark, and she followed a short set of servants’ stairs leading down. She emerged into the kitchen, a large low-ceilinged room.

Ubertino, Nicoletta, and three other servants were sitting around the central table.

“Good morning,” Iris greeted them as she entered.

“Good morning, Your Grace,” Ubertino replied, rising and bowing.

He turned to the other manservants and said something sharp. They immediately rose as well, and Ubertino introduced them.

“This is Valente and Bardo, who brought the English priest last night.”

The first was a gangly youth with thick black hair untidily clubbed back. He looked at her shyly from under extravagant eyelashes. The second was a scowling man in his thirties with silver threading his copper-colored hair. He wore a bright-red waistcoat that made his blue eyes seem almost unnaturally bright.

“And this is Ivo,” Ubertino ended.

Ivo was the manservant who had brought her into the abbey last night. He was tall and rawboned and flushed blotchily at her attention.

“I’m pleased to discover your names,” Iris said.

“They do not know the English,” Ubertino replied apologetically. “But if you will, I can convey your words to them?”

“Of course,” Iris said.

Ubertino murmured to the other servants in Corsican.

Only Valente—who smiled at her—changed expression.

“Are there no English servants here?” she asked curiously.

“No, Your Grace,” Ubertino replied. “Lu duca sent away the English when we arrived. He does not trust the people in this place.”

“Ah.” Iris remembered Dyemore’s saying something similar last night.

No wonder the abbey seemed deserted: usually an entire battalion of servants would be taking care of a place like this. One maidservant and two dozen men, most of whom apparently were on guard duty, were not nearly enough.

She nodded. “The duke is still asleep. I would like someone to attend him. But first, can you send a man on horseback to the Duke of Kyle with a letter?”

“Naturally I shall go directly to lu duca,” Ubertino said gravely. “But I am afraid it is not possible to send a horseman to this Duke of Kyle.”

“Whyever not?” Iris asked, trying for a smile. “I am, after all, your new duchess.”

“Indeed, Your Grace, and I am most ashamed that I cannot help you, but His Grace has ordered all the men to stay here to guard you,” Ubertino replied. “Until he wakes and gives a different order, we will do as he said.”

Iris fought to keep her expression neutral as heat crept up her face. It was humiliating that the servants wouldn’t obey her—no matter how apologetic Ubertino looked.

And more, she was irritated that she couldn’t send word to Kyle.

She inhaled. “Then would it be possible to have a bath?”

“Yes, yes, certainly, Your Grace.” Ubertino turned to Nicoletta and told her something in a flurry of words.

The maidservant scowled, shook her head, and snapped something back.

Ubertino insisted and finally the woman tutted and went to the hearth, where a kettle was already steaming over the coals. The other three manservants began filling large kettles with water from a cistern.

Iris raised her eyebrows in inquiry at Ubertino.

“Ah,” he said, his face a little redder from his argument with the maidservant. “Nicoletta says that perhaps you will wish to partake of breakfast while the bathwater heats. She understands the English,” he confided in a whisper, “but she does not speak it.”

“That is good to know,” Iris replied. “And yes, I’ll have breakfast while I wait.”

Ubertino looked relieved.

Nicoletta brought back an enormous stoneware pot of tea and plonked it down on the wooden kitchen table while Iris sat. Valente brought over a basket of bread and some hard-boiled eggs. Bardo offered a dish of butter and another of cheese, and Nicoletta poured the tea into a dainty china cup. Ivo was apparently in charge of the fire and heating the water.

Iris took a sip of the tea and nearly burned her tongue. The tea was strong enough to make her blink rapidly.

She smiled at Nicoletta anyway.

Nicoletta crossed plump arms under her bosom and lowered her brows, watching Iris.

Iris sighed silently and buttered her bread. She knew better than to offer food to the servants even though she sat in what was their domain—the kitchens. She might be in near rags, dirty, and in dire need of a bath, but she was the mistress of the house. As such she was forever apart from them.

She swallowed a bite of the bread. “Delicious.”

Nicoletta—presumably the baker of the bread—didn’t change her expression at all.

Perhaps the truce Iris had thought she’d struck with the maidservant the night before was over.

She sighed and addressed Ubertino. “Your English is quite good. How did you learn it?”

“Thank you, Your Grace.” He bowed. “In my youth I was a sailor and my ship often came across other ships from different countries. When this happened the passengers of these ships became…guests on our ship. A large number of these guests were English.”

He grinned again, rather roguishly.

Iris paused with her teacup raised to her lips and squinted at him. Came across…? Had Ubertino just confessed to having been a pirate?

Carefully she put her teacup down and glanced at the other manservants. Were they all former pirates?

Valente and Bardo stared back innocently enough.

She shook her head and picked up her teacup. “Ah…indeed. And do any of the other servants speak English?”

Ubertino shrugged. “Valente has some English. The others, not so much. But many are like Nicoletta and understand more than they can speak, Your Grace. They all know that you are the duchess now.”

“Ah.” Iris took another sip of her tea, remembering the duke lying so still in the bed, his scar angry and red. “Ubertino?”

“Your Grace?”

She hesitated, and then just asked her question. “Do you know how the duke got his scar?”

But Ubertino shook his head. “No, Your Grace.”

Iris nodded, frowning as she wondered if anyone knew how he’d received that awful slash across his face. It must have been horrific when it had happened. The cut would’ve laid his face open from brow to chin. How painful it must’ve been. How awful the realization that he was so scarred for life.

She frowned, feeling uneasy at her sympathy for the duke. He didn’t seem like a man who would like pity.

She finished her breakfast and pushed back from the table. “Thank you. The bread was lovely—fresh and with a nice crunchy crust.”

Nicoletta sniffed and began clearing the dishes.

Ubertino rolled his eyes. “Nicoletta says she is gratified you enjoyed her food.”

He blatantly ignored the fact that Nicoletta hadn’t spoken at all.

The woman grunted and briskly snapped out some words to the manservants. Then she turned to Iris and made shooing motions with her hands.

This seemed to mortify Ubertino. His eyes widened before he smiled, made an elaborate bow, and said pointedly, “We are all happy to serve you. I shall come with you to the ducal chambers and the others will bring the water when it is hot.”

Iris bit back a smile and led the way.

She’d expected Dyemore to have woken while she was gone, but he still lay in the bed when they entered the room.

Iris frowned.

“His Grace has usually risen by this hour,” Ubertino muttered behind her, confirming Iris’s fears.

He was still sleeping, wasn’t he?

Her heart stopped in her chest for a moment. She crossed to the huge bed and bent over him.

There. She could see his chest rising and falling beneath the thin black silk of his banyan.

She exhaled, feeling light-headed with relief as she looked at him.

“Lu duca is too hot,” Ubertino said from the other side of the bed. “I will fetch fresh cool water.”

The Corsican slipped from the room, but Iris’s attention was still on Dyemore.

He appeared to have pushed down the coverlet and undone the first few buttons of his banyan. Sweat had pooled below his throat, just at the junction of his collarbones, and she could see a few black hairs peeking up from the black silk. They were stuck to his chest with the moisture.

She’d seen this man naked.

She grew warm at the thought. He was so…so…male, even lying here, unconscious and wounded. She could feel the heat rolling off of him, could almost smell his musk, and she had a strange urge to touch that throat…

He has a fever.

Her heart fell at the realization. Fever could kill a man.

The door opened and Ubertino came back in, followed by the other servants. He carried wine, bread, and a jug of water. “I will see to His Grace while you bathe.”

Valente carried a copper hip bath. Behind him were Bardo and Ivo, both holding huge jugs of steaming water, and last came Nicoletta with a pile of cloths in her arms.

Nicoletta marched across the bedroom to a connecting door, the others trailing obediently behind her.

Iris peered through the door and saw that a dressing room lay beyond. Nicoletta was already supervising the filling of the tub.

Iris turned back to the bedroom. She needed something to wear after she was clean.

She went to the chest of drawers and pulled the top out. Inside were handkerchiefs, stockings, and smallclothes. The next drawer down, though, held shirts—his shirts. She took one out and held it up. It would be disgracefully scanty, of course, but it would cover her body from neck to knees. Rather like a chemise.

And it wasn’t as if she had anything else to wear.

She took a pair of stockings as well, and then the servants trooped out of the dressing room—all but Nicoletta.

Iris clutched the shirt and stockings to her chest and entered the dressing room.

Nicoletta was waiting, hands on hips, the copper bath steaming gently beside her. There’d been only enough water to fill it a couple of inches, but that was enough.

Iris closed the door to the bedroom and set the clean clothes down on a chair. The dressing room held a small bed—presumably for a maid or valet—a tall cabinet with many small drawers, and two chairs.

Nicoletta bustled over without a word and began unlacing the back of her dress.

Something inside Iris relaxed. This at least was familiar. One didn’t need a common language between mistress and maid to undress. The chore was the same whatever the country.

Nicoletta helped her out of her bodice, tutting over stains and a rip at the shoulder seam. The skirts were untied and fell to Iris’s feet. She stepped out and stood still as the maid unlaced her stays. The stays were a fairly sturdy garment and as a result were still in good shape.

Underneath, her chemise was wrinkled and damp from her body. Iris sat on a chair to remove her shoes and stockings, and then hastily pulled the chemise over her head. She shivered as the cool air hit her bare skin.

Quickly she lowered herself into the little copper hip bath.

Oh, this is lovely. She simply rested for a moment in the hot water as Nicoletta moved about the room, muttering and shaking out her clothes, and thought about what the last twenty-four hours had wrought.

She was married. Again.

For a fraction of a second she let her face crumple, and then she smoothed it before the maid could turn and see. This…this wasn’t how she’d wanted her life to be.

She’d hoped that after her marriage to James—a “good” match to a man nearly twenty years older than she—she could marry for love. Or barring love—for she wasn’t such a romantic that she would hold out forever for an impossible dream—for affection. Iris wanted a gentleman who enjoyed the same pursuits as she—reading by a fire, attending the theater in winter, strolling in the country in summer.

Those sorts of everyday, simple things.

But most of all she longed for children of her own. A family of her own. At one point, months ago, she’d hoped that Hugh, the Duke of Kyle, could help make that family with her. But that was before he’d met Alf and they’d fallen in love. At that point Iris had told Hugh in no uncertain terms that really, a marriage between her and him just would not do.

She’d wanted a man to love her.

Because the thing was, she was alone.

Oh, she had friends, but none of them were close—not since the death of Katherine, her childhood bosom bow. She had her brother and sister-in-law, but they weren’t hers.

All her life she’d wanted a close inner circle, a family that knew her intimately—all the good in her and all the bad—and loved her anyway.

A family in which she could be herself.

Instead she was married to a stranger—a violent, possibly dangerous stranger—who had also saved her life.

Iris was brought back to the present when Nicoletta bustled over and briskly began removing the pins from her hair. However careful Nicoletta was—and Iris could tell the maid was attempting to be gentle—her hair was hopelessly tangled.

Iris winced as her hair was yanked again and again.

When the pins were finally out, the maid placed her hand against the back of Iris’s head and firmly pushed.

Iris leaned forward so that her head hung between her bent knees.

Warm water poured over her head. Nicoletta’s strong fingers worked soap through her hair. It smelled of something nice—oranges, perhaps—and Iris let the movement of the maid’s hands lull her.

Another splash of warm water over her head made her start. It felt good, though.

She pushed back her dripping but clean hair and set about washing herself. Scrubbing away the terror and exhaustion and trepidation. Letting fresh water rinse away the last couple of days.

And what might have been.

When she was done, Nicoletta held out a large drying cloth for her.

Iris stepped from the copper bath, feeling as if she had been born anew. She was the Duchess of Dyemore now, for better or for worse, and really she’d rather pick better if she had to choose. Perhaps…perhaps she could somehow build a family with Dyemore.

If Dyemore recovered from his wound.

She frowned as she rubbed herself dry and then found the clean clothes she’d set out on the chair. Lord, she hoped that he had only a light fever.

That he’d soon wake up.

Iris pulled the shirt over her head. It did indeed come down to her knees, and the sleeves fell over her hands. She heard a sound and glanced up in time to see Nicoletta covering her mouth with both hands, obviously trying to hide a smile.

She met the older woman’s wide brown eyes, and for a moment they both froze.

Then Iris’s lips twitched. “Yes, well, there wasn’t anything else to hand.”

Nicoletta clucked, said something in her native tongue, and then helped her roll up the sleeves. Iris pulled on the stockings while Nicoletta produced a comb from somewhere and patiently tamed the tangle of her hair. When the maid was done, she wove Iris’s still-damp hair into a loose braid and tied the end with a ribbon.

“Thank you,” Iris said.

Nicoletta didn’t smile, but her face somehow softened. She dipped a curtsy and bustled from the room, her arms loaded with the dirty clothes. Hopefully she was off to find a way to clean and mend them, and not to discard the lot.

Iris, left alone, shivered as she looked about the little dressing room. A shirt really wasn’t enough to wear. She should see if Dyemore had another banyan she could borrow. Or perhaps a coat.

But when she opened the door to the bedroom, the first thing she saw was her new husband, standing by the bed, his crystal eyes aimed at her.

“What,” he said in his smoke-filled voice, “are you doing in my shirt?”