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Excerpt for Bitten By the Earl (Lords of the Night Book Two) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




Bitten by the Earl





Lords of the Night

Book two





Sandra Sookoo

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.



All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information retrieval and storage system without permission of the author.



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BITTEN BY THE EARL © 2019

by Sandra Sookoo

sandrasookoo@yahoo.com

Visit me at www.sandrasookoo.com



Published by Blue Tulip Publishing

http://www.bluetulippublishing.com/



ISBN- 978-1-946061-31-7



Edited by: Angie Eads and Heather Garcia



Book Cover Design by David Sookoo



Couple:– Hot Damn Stock

Background images: Deposit Photos



First Digital Edition: 2019

Dedication



To Amber Bell Wentworth. Thank you for your unwavering support over the years. I hope you enjoy Rafe!

Acknowledgements



There is much work that goes into putting out a book, and while the author spends the bulk of that time alone, locked away with their computer and their characters, there are times when it’s essential that friends and readers have a bit of input. I’d like to thank the following people and Facebook friends for all their help and input on various topics while this book was in the writing stage:



My friend Sue Brandes, for always posting pictures of her cats, and to her kitty, Hope, from whence I borrowed the name for Elizabeth's kitten.



Help in naming my heroine.



Shawnee Swick, Tricia Pariso Anderson, Melissa DeBoard, Danielle Dani DeBuono, Angie Eads, Karen M. Llanes, Jill James, Stephanie Cain, Kristin Gearns Bane, Tina Marie Harden-Young, Cindy Bartolotta, Lori Farner Dykes, Elaine Cantrell, Michele Worley, Julie Eichelberger-Ford, Sandy Kenny, Debbie Doggett, Jennifer Jakes, Cindy Drennan von Hentschel, Jennifer August, JJ Nite, Anna Katharine Koehler, Cheryl Sacripanti, Alison Pridie PA, Marci Baun, Saralee Etter, Roni Denholtz, Tana Hillman, Sue Perkins, Christine Ashworth, Charlene Whitehouse, Jennifer Gryner Coleman, Lilly Gayle, Em Taylor, Monique Daoust, Staci Baker Garrett, Sheryl Wamsley Walton, Victoria Hamilton, Stephanie Smith

Blurb



He loves her but can’t convince her... Rafe Andrew Edward Astley, Twelfth Earl of Devon, toils beneath an ancient curse as a vampire. He has made peace with that side of him long ago, except if he cannot banish his beast, he’ll never win the one woman he can never forget, the woman he fell for years ago when he stole that which he hadn’t a right. Yet this Christmastide season holds promise.


She fears his beast but wants the man... Lady Elizabeth Sinclair, sister to the Duke of Manchester, is content with her life and her charity work, but she longs for something more. Older and wiser since the last time she fell in love, she puts herself on the Marriage Mart, where she tangles with the one man she fears, the man who took her blood and her innocence eleven years before, the man she still craves. But horror of what he is keeps her wary, despite romance in the offing.


A sweetly tempestuous love affair that captivates them... Rafe and Elizabeth conduct a clandestine courtship, despite the pitfalls facing them. Caught up in the thrill, understanding and compassion are the key to unlocking the fear she clings to as well as the depression he battles, but when the time to break the curse arrives, everything goes awry. Unexpected danger stalks them, and it doesn’t stem from a creature of the night. Only the ultimate sacrifice can see them through the darkness to grasp their own fairytale ending.






The Legend of the Cursed Lords





At least a hundred years ago, a handful of irreverent, spoiled lords had their way with female gypsy travelers in the countryside of England. In a fit of spoiled, drunken revelry, they set fire to a wagon and laughed as it burned while the remainder of the caravan fled in terror. That vehicle was owned by an ancient witch, existing through the years from the magic flowing through her veins. She took high exception to the destruction, as well as the uncaring attitudes of those English lords, and under the light of a full moon, the gypsy witch brought forth a powerful curse onto those unfortunate men.



From here to eternity, you will never know peace, never live the life of a full human man. You will always be a slave to the shifter, the beast, or anomaly within. All women who look upon your face will turn away in disgust, for in moments of high emotion, they will see the truth; there is no hiding from that. You will be held in terror once your secret is revealed—for tell them you must. And though you might marry, you are destined for the coldness of a joyless union, unless you find the very heart and secret of life. You will carry the burden alone, for this curse will only belong to you and cannot be transferred or shared with a mate.



But I am benevolent, men with no hearts, no morals, and less feelings. Every five years, during one full moon each quarter, the curse might be broken, if you are wise enough to come out of the shadows and see the error of your ways. Beneath the light of that one full moon when the kiss of unselfish, pure love crosses your lips, and pride, fear, and ego falls, then you might know the freedom of living as a full human with your affliction broken and your offspring unhindered. For yes, unless the curse lifts, any male children you might have will suffer too.



Tread carefully, accursed ones, else you will forever go through life cold, unloved, feared, and isolated.



To this day, those men are referred to as the Cursed Lords of England—the Lords of the Night—and until they find themselves hopelessly and helplessly in love so deep that they cannot survive without winning the heart of their lady, they are doomed to walk the earth hand in hand with their beastly halves, alone.









CHAPTER ONE





December 2, 1815

London, England



A chilly breeze ruffled the hem of his greatcoat and whistled in his ears as he strode through the Mayfair streets. That wind heralded the coming winter, even though it was highly unlikely London would see snow. Yet, sporadic flurries persisted, and that suited the earl just fine, for at least it wasn’t cold rain. Shorter days meant he could go abroad more often over hiding from the sun in his Mayfair townhouse. Now, at two hours until midnight, and he headed to his club instead of going straight to the party he’d promised to attend, thrown by a friend—a cursed lord like him, for respectable members of the ton avoided him—but there was a matter of some urgency he must attend to first.

There always was when it came to his affliction.

Even as he thought about it, the overwhelming hunger deep in his chest made its presence known, and it wasn’t for food a normal British peer might indulge upon. No, this went beyond what mortal men wanted… needed. This craving, this throbbing, ravenous emptiness. This plague dogged his footsteps every moment that he lived, for it was blood he thirsted for.

Blood, that he always sought, for that was the curse of a vampire.

Shaking his head in an effort to minimize the need, Rafe Andrew Edward Astley, Twelfth Earl of Devon—Rogue to his close contemporaries—reveled in the darkness of the night. It was the only time he went about Town, for the daylight didn’t afford him the freedom, and he’d become accustomed to the odd hours. Entertainment abounded once the veil of darkness fell. He couldn’t abide the sunlight, not while he labored beneath the curse that had afflicted him since birth, for his skin burned as well as his eyes. The day time hours were not his friends, even if the rest of the city stirred then, and they weren’t kind to those like him—both the hours and Polite Society—if there were indeed more men of the night residing in London.

He rather doubted that, for if it was true, he would have known about them or seen them on his nightly excursions. Rafe grunted. No, in this he was quite alone, cursed to walk the Earth as a beast due to a crime one of his ancestors had perpetrated. Until such time as the stipulations were met and the curse was broken.

It was better this way.

When he arrived at the exclusive place he and the other “accursed lords” had created as a safe haven of sorts, he stared at the outside of that edifice. Bête Noire was what they’d christened the club years ago—rather fitting for the nightmares they were—and if a gentleman wished it, he could obtain any sort of scandal here, for no one in London knew who the founding members were let alone the owners.

No one knew about them and what they truly were.

Rafe and his closest friends worked hard to keep it that way. The club offered sanctuary from the slings and arrows of ton society; it was also a way for the Lords of the Night to partake of that same society without needing to immerse themselves in it, not that they were accepted.

He stood on the street while snowflakes drifted lazily around him. The chilly kiss of the ones that hit his cheeks did nothing to cool to heat and hunger twisting in his veins, but he kept his focus on the club’s facade. Unassuming, and done in much the same style as the much-lauded White’s complete with a bow window, Bête Noire was a sanctuary, and many a night had he spent beneath its roof while gripped in the midst of bloodlust.

Such was a godsend, for it meant he didn’t need to stalk the dark streets in search of a victim. In this way, perhaps, the evidence of his curse was more civilized… but not by much.

As pedestrians passed, jostling his elbows, Rafe allowed himself a small, grim, smile. Within those walls he’d find a warm, willing woman who’d give him exactly what he needed without complaint.

It was another reason he and his contemporaries had built the club, for they all harbored secrets deep within their souls that made them slaves to their respective beasts. Discretion was the first rule, and even if someone told the tales, who would believe such fantastical stories? Horrors such as the Lords of the Night didn’t exist in this reality as most people knew it. When there was no other recourse, they could always retreat to their private rooms in Bête Noire and let the beasts rage, away from prying eyes.

As soon as Rafe opened the front door and stepped into the blessed warmth of the club, the familiar sights and sounds wrapped about him. The shuffling of cards reached his ears, for there were several gaming rooms throughout the lower level. Coins clinked and the genteel, sometimes raucous, laughter of gentlemen filled the air. There was a certain amount of comfort here, something he couldn’t find in every day existence.

And for a few moments, he could forget.

He followed the corridors into the bowels of the club; every step throbbed with the unnatural hunger within him. Cigar smoke trailed out of some of the card rooms, while black-clad waiters hurried about, silver trays laden with cut crystal decanters of spirits and glasses upon them.

As he poked his head into his preferred salon, he caught the brilliant green gaze of one of his friends, Evan Sedgewyck, the Earl of Coventry. “What the devil is he doing here tonight?” he murmured to himself, and as curiosity swept over him, he loped through the room and then deposited himself into a chair at the earl’s table. “I assumed you’d be immersed at Mountgarret’s rout, or at the very least bedeviling him for throwing it to begin with.” The viscount was another close contemporary, and it was rare indeed that Valentine entertained, for he despised London life and much preferred his country estate near the sea. No doubt to a merman, being more or less landlocked sat like a prison sentence. But Valentine loved his sister and would do anything for her—even attempt to help launch his nieces into the very society he hated.

Yet the stigma and rumor attached to his name wouldn’t do them many favors. No doubt a good portion of the guests attended to gawk.

The other man snorted. “I’ll arrive fashionably late after I finish my drink—or two. The evening is happening merely to thrust his nieces into society, a grouping of people that will find fault with those girls, even though the curse doesn’t tinge them.”

“I understand.” Mountgarret’s sister had two grown children—both girls barely past their Come Outs—and both looking for husbands, yet because of the viscount’s curse, because of the men he called friends, because of the constant, never forgotten rumors, the bulk of society would eventually shun the girls once they were done scrutinizing them, rabid to pry or perhaps find evidence that the gossip swirling was true. “I wished to avoid the invite, but had no valid excuse this time.”

“Same for me, and since I’ve avoided numerous events tossed my way by people who tolerate me—both within the ton and out—I figured I’d best make an appearance tonight.” The earl’s raven-black hair, so dark that it gleamed nearly blue beneath the candles in the chandeliers, was styled just so and in a fashionable way, while his square-set jaw hinted at stubbornness. The man was a dragon shifter, and such a beast necessitated his avoidance of London most of the time. He couldn’t very well rampage through the streets without drawing notice. An expression of distaste crossed his face. “I do not fancy myself leg-shackled to a school chit, if that’s what Mountgarret intends.”

“I rather doubt he’d want one of us matched with his kin. Every cursed lord with sisters or female relatives has said they won’t see them matched with ones such as us. Why invite trouble?” Rafe protested with a faint chuckle. It was yet another obstacle thrown into his path that would need conquering sooner or later. But the hunger within him demanded immediate attention and would prove difficult to ignore. He wished the earl would get on with it.

Coventry raised an ebony eyebrow. “Why are you not there?”

“I require feeding first.” Another pang rocked his chest, stronger than the rest. If he didn’t take nourishment soon, bloodlust would overcome him and he couldn’t control his beast when that happened. Already, his gums ached where his incisors rested. They would lengthen into fangs, and if he wasn’t somewhere safe…

His friend nodded. “I haven’t seen you around Town for a couple of months. Is all well?”

“Yes,” Rafe managed to bite off, the word nearly pulled from his throat. He didn’t wish to dwell on why he’d fled the capitol following his best friend’s marriage. “I decided to go on a holiday of sorts. Went to Bavaria for a while.” To keep his own sanity. To remain away from temptation. To refrain from thinking about Elizabeth. “It was… easy to hide there, where stories of ones such as myself are ever-present.” The fact he had indeed come upon a couple of vampires while walking the streets at night didn’t escape him. Myths and legends were more widely accepted throughout Europe, especially in small villages and towns.

“I’ll wager it was.” The earl looked him over again. “Your trip overlapped Manchester’s absence. Quite lonely around here with the two of you gone. Valentine grows more maudlin as the full moon nears, so he’s rather a miserable companion of late,” Coventry continued, apparently oblivious to Rafe’s tension. He drained the red wine from his glass.

“Yes, I imagine you found something to help pass the time,” Rafe murmured and didn’t invite further speculation, for he’d indeed left town to avoid his ducal friend’s townhouse… as well as Donovan’s sister.

“Well, no matter. I shall see you here, at least.” He waved a hand in dismissal. “Go do what you must. Once Manchester returns, we shall discuss his recent change in marital status and applaud his luck. I still regret not being in Town to witness all the drama.”

And quite the tale it was.

“Very well.” Hot saliva pooled in Rafe’s mouth and he swallowed to alleviate the relentless throb in his gums. I have to feed. He’d ignored it for too long. Nearly stumbling from the salon and toward the private, back staircase, he shook his head as a red haze fell over his vision. He didn’t begrudge Donovan his marriage. Lord knew the duke had needed the love of a strong female in his life to help soothe his beast. However, Rafe yearned for the same, but his own romantic outlook was a hopeless cause.

He’d had no choice but to interact with Elizabeth—Donovan’s sister—while the duke had been in crisis trying to win over his wife. It had been hell seeing her and knowing their history together prevented anything from growing between them. He’d hated the formal politeness they’d fallen into, the stilted conversation, the brewing tension, for what else could there ever be?

Anything over and above hatred and regret.

As he climbed the stairs to the second floor, the plush red carpeting masking his urgent footfalls, he let his mind dwell on Elizabeth, the woman he’d never gotten over, the one who would always torture his thoughts.

Years ago, he’d fallen for her in a mad, heady, rush of passion. Unable to control his beast that had been unleashed amidst desire and need, he’d more or less attacked her, and they’d come together violently. She’d been twenty, barely a woman, and though she’d matched him in desire and want, what he’d done to her was unforgivable, what he’d taken from her beyond the pale, if even she’d given consent.

At least for part of it.

She hated him, feared him now, avoided him in social settings or if he happened to visit her brother. Practically fled from him if he came too close. Who could blame her? He’d let the beast take control without giving thought to how the aftermath would have affected her. It didn’t matter that he held considerably more domination over himself these days, that he made certain he’d already fed if being in her presence was required.

Perhaps I’m better off alone for the remainder of this miserable life.

Giving into a wince as he traversed the left-hand corridor, Rafe attempted to ignore Elizabeth, for if he didn’t, he’d fall into a perpetual brown study and perhaps let depression claim him. There was one more full moon this year, which meant he had one more chance to break the curse surrounding him, else he’d have no choice but to wait five years before the opportunity arose again. And he knew, beyond a doubt, that such an opportunity would not afford itself to him this time around.

That was almost as hopeless as thinking Elizabeth would suddenly fall in love with him and what he was during the dark of the night.

You could end the whole of your torment by not feeding, locking yourself away and letting the bloodlust take your life…

He shook away those thoughts. I cannot give up, not yet. There might still be hope. No matter that he wanted a second chance with her, she refused to pass any significant amount of time alone with him. Beyond that, Donovan remained adamant his sister not find herself involved with one of the Cursed Lords. If he knew that Rafe harbored feelings for Elizabeth, hinted at what he had done to her, at what he and she had shared, they’d find themselves on a dueling field at dawn.

Bah! As if he is more honorable as a wolf shifter than I as a vampire.

The logic appeared fair enough, perhaps, but it didn’t mean he had to adhere to it as a final dictate, for Donovan had never banked on falling in love either. It had happened, changed him in ways none of his friends had anticipated, and it remained to be seen if he’d allow his curse to continue. Rafe would use that logic to his favor if need be.

At the door to his private suite of rooms, he pressed the brass handle. When the oak panel swung open, he stepped into what was a sitting area and swiftly closed the door behind him.

The hunger raging through his body intensified. His incisors lengthened into razor sharp fangs as he glanced about the small apartment, tastefully decorated in dark, masculine colors. A tiny sound, the rustle of fabric from the adjoining bedchamber, alerted him to the fact that the female he’d ordered had indeed been supplied. Of course she had. That was why the club existed, no matter how abhorrent to everyday sensibilities.

Drawn by the scent of her, the smell of the hot blood coursing through her veins, Rafe strode over the floor, the thick Oriental carpeting muffling his footfalls. When he appeared in the doorway, the woman on the bed scrambled to her feet.

“You requested my services, my lord?” she asked in a quiet voice tinged with a quake of excitement. Or perhaps it was fear as she eyed his fangs and her eyes rounded.

“I did.” He drew his gaze up and down her form: petite, voluptuous and red-haired, clad in a diaphanous nightgown and wrapper, both trimmed with froths of lace, no doubt designed to showcase every charm of her body. She was beautiful, trained to be so, as were all the women in the club, but her appearance wasn’t what arrested his attention. The rapid flutter of her pulse in her throat was more seductive than her curves. At least for now. “Come.” Rafe didn’t stop moving until he’d thrown himself into a winged back chair in one corner of the room. “Join me.”

When she did and she climbed into his lap, straddling him, he stifled a sigh of relief. This horrible hunger, this need, would soon pass and leave him be. He fisted a hand in the red waterfall of her unbound hair and claimed her with an open-mouthed kiss meant to arouse. Indeed, his length tightened, but he wasn’t of a mind for sexual satisfaction this night. One of his fangs scraped the plump flesh of her bottom lip. The metallic, slightly spicy taste of those first tiny droplets exploded upon his palate, and the hunger increased tenfold. His fingers throbbed, his very nails aching to develop into horrible, hideous claws capable of ripping out a throat.

When he released her with a gasp, she looked at him with eyes of mossy green as she pressed her breasts to his chest, her hands on his shoulders while the scent of honeysuckle wafted to his nose. She put her lips to his ear. “Shall I undress, my lord?” Her voice was a purr, well-practiced to lure a man into her web. “How would you like to have me? I have heard you are a thorough lover.”

“Tempting.” He drew a fingertip along the slope of her cheek, the nail beginning to lengthen. Did he use the women at the club to quell physical urges? Of course. Even vampires had lust to slake, but he was loath to take a mistress, and this creature had eyes and hair the wrong color, and she didn’t smell like roses. At present, he wasn’t of a mind to relieve the ache in his prick, not when there was a chance that he might catch a glimpse of Elizabeth at Mountgarret’s soiree. He wished to appear somewhat more honorable than she probably thought—than he thought of himself. The overriding hunger prompted his next words. That tiny taste the doxy gave wasn’t enough. “No, I’ll not need those services this night.”

A seductive smile curved her pink-hued lips, and a drop of blood lingered, mesmerizing. The hard points of her nipples were outlined beneath the gauzy material she wore and she wriggled on his lap, a fully wanton baggage. “Perhaps later then. I did so hope to experience all of you this night.”

“Sorry to disappoint.” Yet his length hardened, and despite himself, he loosed a groan. No, Rafe. If he wished to make a good showing with Elizabeth, he must quell some of these urges.

She pouted. “What is it that you wish from me?”

Oh, this one knew, of course she did. It was why some of the women were installed at the club; they had a specific purpose. They were appraised of that going in, for these women weren’t stupid, and they were well paid for their discretion and service—and sacrifice. They were also provided for and taken care of, for the club’s founders wouldn’t have it any other way. He needed to feed, and he’d rather do it in a controlled setting than drift about the streets of London after dark, terrorizing the citizens and running the risk of drinking from an unsavory victim.

“Your blood, my dear,” he whispered, and a shiver went through her that transferred to him. Gently, he lifted her chin and tilted her head to the side so that the column of her ivory neck was revealed. “Are you amenable?”

Not that it mattered, but it was easier if they were willing.

“Yes, but I would prefer if you’d utilize all of what I offer.” She pressed her whole body against his, layering herself to him, her breath warming his chin. There was no doubt about her desire. “It makes the bite that much more enjoyable.”

“I’ll wager you do.” Rafe tamped down the urge to grin. He did have some skill in the carnal arts, but tonight he wasn’t of a mind to indulge. Yes, it made him a popular member of the club, but those relationships were empty, vital to his well-being, of course, but there were no feelings attached in those joinings, and they left him cold. The fact he hadn’t bedded a woman there for months was telling. “Again, I must decline, for I have other obligations this evening.”

The women here served one purpose and that was all. At least employed at Bête Noir, they were kept off the streets and given a better life. There was but one rule within the club—never develop personal feelings or tendres for the women beneath its roof.

“I can make it worth your while, my lord.” Her voice, low and seductive, was tempting.

But she wasn’t the one he wanted above all else.

“Perhaps another night.” While maintaining his hold on her chin, he stared into her eyes. The ring about his pupils would flare red, and with that, the enthrallment process captured the full of her attention. Her eyes rounded, reflecting wonder, darkened with desire, and she went pliant in his arms. Being enthralled by a vampire temporarily stunned the intended victim, which was convenient for a safe feeding. If they thrashed about, there was every possibility of tearing out one’s neck. And he wasn’t a killer. “Thank you in advance for your donation,” he whispered, and then he put his lips to her neck, drawing them down until he encountered her jugular. The rapid trip of her pulse thrummed against his lips.

Quickly, he opened his mouth wide and then with the force and skill he’d long ago perfected out of necessity, Rafe sank his fangs into her skin, puncturing that all-important artery. Her blood spilled, thick and hot, into his mouth, and he settled the woman more comfortably in his arms as he drank from her.

Dear Lord, this might be the height of sinful, but it tasted like the finest ambrosia. The only thing better would be if he’d fallen into release right before the bite.

Greedy, he suckled at her neck, swallowing the life-giving liquid, his primary source of nourishment, as she writhed on his lap with sounds of satisfaction escaping. How long had it been since he’d actually enjoyed normal food at a dinner? He couldn’t remember, but he did when it was required of him. A groan escaped as he took his fill from the saucy bit in his arms, and as he did so, she stared at him with eyes frozen open while pleasure scudded across her features. It felt as if he cheated, somehow, for each time he fed from one of the whores at the club, though they would remember nothing in the morning except the feelings of experiencing an intense release, for that was a side effect of his bite, he gained nothing pleasurable from such intimacy.

I do what I must to survive.

But, there was always something missing, a part of him that longed for something else from life.

Eventually, he took his fill, but left off early enough that he didn’t drain the woman of all her blood. That wouldn’t have been well-done of him, and he wasn’t in the business of killing women for satiety. He might be the devil’s own emissary as the rumors said, but he wasn’t a criminal… at least not a common variety criminal. He lifted his head. Blood trickled down his chin. The metallic scent filled his nostrils and brought an odd comfort.

Ironic, that. Did sucking the blood of a victim constitute immoral behavior? In some circles—most—it did, but to him, it was forced upon him to live another day trapped in the damned curse. What was the greater crime?

Her eyes shuddered closed as the enthrallment faded. The drugging effects of his bite, of a low-grade toxin given off as soon as his fangs broke the skin, sent heavy lethargy into her limbs, and she faded, drooping with a satisfied sigh and shiver.

Rafe licked at the spot on her neck where the puncture wounds gaped. The one positive of his curse was the fact that something in his saliva would heal the wounds of his creation. Just as the toxin relaxed them, he could repair the bite marks. In the morning, no trace of his feeding would linger, either on her skin or in her mind.

He snorted as he wrapped the woman in his arms and stood from the chair. Her head lolled upon his shoulder, and he carried her across the floor. Though his very presence invoked fear and terror in the one woman he cared about, in everyone else, it was as if he’d never existed.

I’m a damned thief in the night, taking whatever my body demands.

No one remembered that he’d been with them.

How ignoble and deuced annoying. Shaking his head, Rafe laid the redhead upon the sumptuous bed. He covered her with a quilt and then once he’d cleaned the evidence of his feeding from his lips and face, he quit the room.

The hunger had abated, but the perpetual irritation of the curse remained as it always did. Did he wish to break it? Some days, yes. Most days, he’d become used to this way of living. It would be nice not to play slave to the bloodthirst, the skulking about at night, avoiding the sun, being with women only to feed and relieve physical need. If he had his druthers, he’d rid himself of the curse, merely to escape the half-life he lived.

I want to live as a human, damn it. He wished for the love of a good woman, a help mate, and, if fate was kind, a wife, perhaps children who wouldn’t labor beneath the curse as he did. Was that so hard? Gah! He wanted to rail at the heavens, but from past experience it would make no difference. Living as a human man was nigh impossible, and ordinarily, Rafe would cease to torture himself with such thoughts…

But…

… Donovan had managed to live with his curse, had been the first in their set to prove that it could be done and a man could live happy with that existence if one found the right woman to stay by his side, to accept him. The duke remained cursed with his beast, but he’d also made peace with that fact. And his lady didn’t mind.

Rafe heaved a sigh. Being a vampire was different than living as a wolf-shifter. His was a more hand’s on type of curse—direct, invasive, and it was deuced uncomfortable at times.

If only the damned curse hadn’t alienated him from Elizabeth. If he had her regard, perhaps he might wish to actively pursue ditching his fate. Yet, he had neither, and so he existed, merely because letting himself die was the coward’s way out.







CHAPTER TWO





December 2, 1815

London, England



Lady Elizabeth Sinclair—younger sister to the Duke of Manchester—glanced about Lord Mountgarret’s semi-crowded Mayfair ballroom with a critical eye. It wasn’t exactly a rousing crush by ton standards, but the viscount had managed to entice a fair number of people to the event. Good for him. She hoped the rumors that constantly swirled about the man—as well as her brother—would continue to die down and the Cursed Lords of London, as the men were called, would keep integrating into Polite Society.

At least that was the plan and why she worked tirelessly on her brother’s behalf. He was afflicted by a curse, of course, but he didn’t deserve shunning.

None of them did.

Neither do I.

However, tonight, she most certainly did not feel in a festive mood, nor did she want to spend her time being a societal liaison for her brother and his contemporaries. She had only consented to make an appearance for her friend Felicity’s sake. Since the woman was the Earl of Coventry’s sister and the same age as she—plus her best friend—Elizabeth had showed up mainly for the chance to gossip. I need chatter. Her brother and his new wife, Alice, had been out of pocket on their wedding tour, which meant the St. James Place townhouse had been lonely and quiet… and boring, especially after the harrowing events a couple of months ago that had put both his life and his wife’s in peril.

When Elizabeth had had no choice except to see Rafe, to be in his company…

Well, that was neither here nor there. She needed noise and people about her for the moment. So her thoughts wouldn’t keep dwelling on him, the man she couldn’t forget, no matter how hard she tried. The man who’d come back into her life with the advent of her brother’s marriage. The man who’d torn her life apart with violence and terror.

Because of what he was.

“There you are!”

The sound of Felicity’s voice yanked Elizabeth from her thoughts. She smiled at her friend, and her hand shook as she lifted it in greeting. “I promised to come, and I did,” she responded and gave the other woman a quick hug.

Raven hair, brilliant green eyes, coupled with red cheeks and lips all worked together to make Felicity one of the most beautiful women in the room. She resembled her older brother heavily, and she enjoyed the earl’s overprotection too much, for she flirted shamelessly knowing Coventry wouldn’t stand for any man to come too close.

Donovan is same way with me.

Long ago she’d accustomed herself with the knowledge, and mayhap she skirted the edge of safety because of it. Perhaps it was warranted, for there were bounders and men bent on evil throughout the ton, men who would prey on the sisters of the Lords of the Night merely for leverage, even if no one knew with any certainty the Cursed Lords of London were indeed afflicted.

It was a strange position she found herself in because of that. Strange and fettered, for she often chafed at the lack of freedom, for Donovan was always watching, and she didn’t put it past him to follow her about while he was in wolf form.

Drat his eyes. Now that he’d married, perhaps his diligence regarding her would slack.

Felicity snorted and linked their arms. “You might have promised, but anyone can see you’d rather be elsewhere, and I’m here to make certain you don’t take yourself back to that empty townhouse where you’ll stew.”

“I don’t stew,” she said with a toss of her head that set the long trail of glossy brown curls of her topknot bouncing over her shoulder. “I merely have a talent for overthinking.”

“Oh, I won’t try to argue with you about that, but you also need to live for yourself.” A giggle emanated from the other woman as she pulled Elizabeth toward a collection of delicate, gilt-painted chairs at one side of the ballroom. “It’s been an age since I’ve seen you. Is it true that your brother is happily married?”

“Oh, yes.” A natural smile tugged at the corners of Elizabeth’s lips. “Donovan is so in love with Alice, it would be quite nauseating if it weren’t adorable and the match much hoped for.” She’d long thought her brother would never find love, but then he met Alice, and entered into a hard-won battle for her heart.

Felicity lowered her voice and leaned closer to Elizabeth. “She doesn’t mind his… tendencies?” Her brother clashed with his dark, cursed side, which was a dragon shifter, so she had reason to ask. It was always uppermost in their minds.

“Apparently not. Alice is the sweetest thing, and I love having a sister.” Elizabeth’s grin faded at the edges. “I believe she keeps his wolf in check. He still runs as the animal, but he’s never gone for days anymore. And at times, Alice walks with him.” How did she reconcile herself to having a husband who wasn’t fully human, who would always bend before those beastly urges?

Her friend’s eyes rounded as they both sat on the crushed velvet of the chair’s cushions, their skirts draped about them—emerald green silk for Felicity and ruby satin for Elizabeth, for they both loved bold colors, and it was Christmastide after all. “Will he attempt to break the curse?” The full moon this month was the last chance any of the cursed lords had for breaking the curse; otherwise, they’d need to wait five years before the next opportunity arose.

“Perhaps, if he hasn’t already while on his wedding trip,” Elizabeth murmured. She’d been privy to his struggle with his wolf half, and wouldn’t deny being surprised that he’d opted to live beneath the curse even though he loved Alice to distraction and she him. “That is entirely his decision. Mayhap they have both come to terms with what he is and it doesn’t matter now.”

In such a way, Alice was a much stronger woman than she. I don’t know that I could do it, could forgive such a thing, live with what the curse entails. Oh God, the horror of the bite…

“Lucky girl,” Felicity said with a fair amount of breathless regret in her voice. “The duke is dreamy and so handsome. I might have tried to snare him at one point.”

“Oh, stop.” She rolled her eyes. “I will not sit here while you moon about my brother.” But she laughed. “He and Alice come home tomorrow.” She stifled a sigh, for she didn’t begrudge Donovan his wife. Alice was everything sweet and darling, but it had been just the two of them for so long that she missed her brother and sharing confidences. Now things would change, in good ways, of course, but it might grow… awkward around the newlyweds.

“You will continue to serve as Her Grace’s social secretary and assistant?”

Elizabeth shrugged. “For a bit, until she is settled.”

“His duchess, is she wonderful?”

“Oh, yes. There is absolutely no guile in her. She’ll fit the role of duchess well. Already she has the command and courage required. The staff adores her.” Elizabeth stifled a sigh. Would acting as secretary and personal assistant be her lot in life? She didn’t mind, for Alice was truly appreciative and she was blind so would always need the help, but surely there was something else destiny had in mind over and above that. “Perhaps the bustle of Christmastide will have me feeling more the thing.” Above all, she dreaded the holiday season, for it was much about gathering with family and being cozy in romance.

And it drives home the point that I am not matched, and probably will never be.

The vestiges of her brother’s curse were far-reaching despite her efforts to cloak them all in respectability.

“Mayhap you’ll stumble upon a holiday romance?” Felicity asked with a gleam in her eye. “How lovely that would be.”

Elizabeth sighed. “I am not of a mind for love.”

“You are a terrible liar, Elizabeth,” her friend cautioned with a laugh. “You have long wished for the fairytale.”

“Perhaps my tastes have changed,” she responded in a quiet voice. For in what sane fairytale was the hero a monster?

The ladies lapsed into silence as a new dance began. The floor filled with couples moving in the intricate patterns while laughter and conversation wafted in the air.

Felicity sucked in a breath and clutched Elizabeth’s arm. “Look there,” she hissed, excitement infusing that whispered command. “Lord Rockingham cannot keep his gaze from you. He’s been staring since we sat down.”

“Don’t be a goose, Felicity. The marquess would never look twice at me, and you know why.” Anyone so high on the instep of the ton—especially anyone normal—wouldn’t give her the time of day due to her brother’s history and the rumors surrounding him. It had been such for years. She’d come to this ball due to being friends with the ladies of honor.

“That may be true, yet so is the fact that he is interested.” Felicity squeezed her arm. “Even you must admit the marquess is more handsome than any man has a right to be.” She giggled. “In a world full of balding men, and aging lords with paunches, he is refreshing; the perfect fairytale man.”

Despite the urge to deny the notice, Elizabeth looked to see which man had caught her friend’s attention. Across the ballroom where colorful skirts swished and flared, her gaze met the startling blue eyes of the marquess. Even at this distance, their clear, lake-blue hue beckoned. When he lifted a blond eyebrow in question, a furious blush blazed in her cheeks and she glanced away. There was no doubt he was pleasing in face and form, and that brief glance had her heartbeat accelerating.

It troubled her that she cared, but his hair was too golden and his shoulders too broad and his chest too barrel-like. In short, the marquess wasn’t him.

No one would be.

And truly, I don’t want a fairytale.

Why couldn’t she reconcile herself with that fact that the earl was not the one for her and move on? It had been eleven years. Yes, she was a spinster in ton terms, but as the sister of a duke, such a trivial thing as age could be overlooked in the face of her dowry. Elizabeth didn’t give a jot for any of that. She still believed in love for love’s sake. However, Rafe hadn’t been interested in love and romance all those years ago—he’d only wanted blood. What made her think anything had changed now? He was certainly still the vampire. She only had to remember those fangs, the red ring around his irises, the pain when those razor-sharp teeth had punctured her skin to remember exactly what he was.

But that didn’t remove the ache for something she hoped he’d be.

Felicity grinned. A knowing twinkle appeared in her eyes. “Perhaps it’s time you turn your regard to courtship now that your brother is married. I’m certain your new sister-in-law would interview for your replacement if you’d but ask and let yourself live.”

“Perhaps…” Perhaps I don’t know how to live anymore, for ever since Rafe and I did… things, I haven’t been able to think of any other man in that capacity. None of them had managed to intrigue her like he did. Elizabeth glanced across the dance floor to where Lord Rockingham stood, still watching her. This time he casually lifted his champagne flute in salute. That couldn’t have been an accident. An unaccountable thrill danced down her spine and she sat up straighter. It had been a long time indeed since a man had paid her any mind. “He’s handsome enough, but I’m not certain…”

Even if he was interested, her past rendered her soiled and ruined and well beyond the touch of such a lofty gentleman as the marquess.

All because of him.

“Come now,” Felicity continued. “You haven’t let any man close for ever so long.”

“There’s a reason for that.” She’d never shared that horrible night with anyone. Not Felicity. Not Donovan. Not anyone. She’d kept the secret that one other knew—the man who’d taken her innocence. I cannot come to a husband as a proper bride should, especially the daughter of a duke. That had been stolen years before, when she’d been a young lady of twenty with stars in her eyes for her brother’s best friend.

He’d taken advantage but left a horrible, sinful longing behind. What would Donovan think if she ever told him? She stifled a snort. Her brother would lock her in a room or consign her to a convent, so great was his dictate that she never have anything to do with a cursed lord.

Even if a man managed to overlook such a thing as her sullied and complicated past, would she want him to when she couldn’t go through one day without thinking of Rafe and how his body had felt against hers, how his kiss had set her aflame, how the memories of such even now had heat bouncing through her veins?

“Men can be horrible, true,” Felicity continued, hugely misunderstanding Elizabeth’s reticence. “But the marquess’ reputation is sterling. He has never landed in scandalbroth and doesn’t do anything to invite gossip. I’ll wager he will treat you with respect.”

So had another… until he hadn’t.

Felicity patted her hand. “Let Lord Rockingham dance with you.” She tapped the card hanging by a ribbon at Elizabeth’s wrist. “You have no one waiting—you never do—and it is merely a dance not a life sentence.”

“Drat it,” Elizabeth muttered, and with a forceful yank, she wrenched the card from her person and then dropped it onto the empty chair beside her. “I don’t care for such things.”

“You need to enjoy yourself,” Felicity cautioned with a small frown. “We all do, and if we have to make ourselves bolder to do it because of what our brothers are, so be it. If our places were reversed, I’d sprint across the floor to talk with that man.”

You are not me, nor do you know why I do what I do.

Despite the folly of it, Elizabeth threw a glance about the room, searching for a gentleman with dirty blond hair and hazel eyes that had a tendency to have a faint red ring around the irises when he was under the influence of high emotion. She blew out a breath. Of course the Earl of Devon wouldn’t attend, for he only saw her in passing now, and the last time had been when Donovan had been tried to repair the shattered pieces of his marriage. And what would she say to him anyway?

Over the years, she and Rafe had become wary friends out of necessity due to his friendship with her brother, but she could never forget. She’d purposefully kept him at arm’s length, perhaps due to her fear of him as well as the fear of her own desires. Yet, neither could she forgive—

“Oh, he’s coming over!” Felicity whispered and once more shook Elizabeth’s arm.

Her pulse kicked up as she started, assuming her friend meant the earl. Then her stomach flipped, for it wasn’t Rafe at all, but the marquess who approached their position with determination sparkling in his eyes. When Felicity bounced to her feet, Elizabeth clutched at her hand. “Don’t you dare leave me,” she hissed, but her traitorous friend pulled away. She fled the area as if her skirts were on fire.

Bloody hell.

The Marquess of Rockingham stood before her, his lips tipped in a smile, his shoulders blocking her view of the dance floor. “Lady Elizabeth.”

“My lord.” Not having any other recourse, she stood and offered him her gloved hand, which he took and carried it to his lips, placing a brief kiss on her middle knuckle. Rafe used to do that, back when he’d made an effort at courting, before he’d broken her trust and given her nightmares instead.

“I am glad you attend tonight,” the peer continued, his deep baritone rumbling in her chest. He held her hand a few seconds longer than proper. On the dance floor, the current set winded down and polite clapping ensued.

“Thank you.” At the last moment, she tamped down the urge to roll her eyes. Stop being such a goose, Lizzy. “Uh, I mean the ladies Dorcas and Letty are acquaintances of mine. I wished to give them my support.”

“Indeed.” He said nothing else.

Elizabeth blew out a breath that ruffled the curls on her forehead. “Why are you here tonight, my lord?”

“Suffice it to say I’m intrigued with the viscount.” And then he smiled, and it was devastating to her insides. Peculiar, indeed.

Was he in earnest? Hard to tell. Perhaps she harbored an overdeveloped sense of protectiveness regarding her brother and his afflicted friends.

“Oh.” Tingles swept over her skin. At one time, this man would have been her ideal for a romantic partner, the hero of the fairytales. Did she still think that? He certainly didn’t have fangs, and his attention was flattering. How long had it been since any man in the ton had sought her out? Perhaps her tireless work to convince the powers-that-be her brother wasn’t the threat the rumors said had paid off. Whatever was responsible for this boon, she couldn’t help but say a prayer of thanks. Even if she wished he were someone else entirely. “I’m not intimately acquainted with Lord Mountgarret.”

“I have also been curious as to what club he attends, for I have seen him or your brother at White’s, Brook’s, or any of the usual haunts,” the man continued.

There was a reason for that, but she’d never tell. His interest in the men was confusing and surprising. Did he have a nefarious purpose in mind, or was it indeed simple curiosity and the interest of expanding his circle that motivated him?

She shrugged. “I am not privy to that information, and it isn’t appropriate conversation by half.” Yes, it was a lie, but one she needed to say out of safety.

“Fair enough.” The marquess held out a gloved hand, recalling her attention to his face. There wasn’t anything malevolent she could see in his eyes. “I’d be honored if you would grant me this next dance.”

“Well, I…” She couldn’t very well be rude, for she had no excuse as to why she couldn’t dance with him, especially as half the room looked on. It wasn’t every day that a gentleman with such a title singled a lady out. Yet, he wasn’t the gentleman she wished to see most of all. Don’t be daft, Lizzy. Rafe wasn’t a gentleman by any stretch of the word. If he was, he wouldn’t have done what he’d had, or he would have offered for her after he’d done it. She would have refused him soundly. There was no other choice. Then why couldn’t she banish the earl from her thoughts after all this time? Why is my life so complicated? Stifling a tiny sigh, Elizabeth nodded and slipped her fingers into his. Perhaps encouraging the marquess was just the thing she needed to blow away the blue ruin she’d clung to for far too long. “That sounds delightful.”

All too soon, Lord Rockingham pulled her onto the parquet dance floor, and they assumed the correct position for a waltz. Once the string quartet played the opening notes, the marquess set them into motion.

Elizabeth hadn’t danced for some months. There had been little opportunity and even less social engagement, and when her mother had died years before, her brother had had the music room permanently closed until he’d married Alice. The fact that the marquess had an excellent grasp of the steps didn’t escape her. He felt powerful as he held her with the lightest of touches, and they moved together as if they’d partnered each other for years. “You dance divinely, my lord.” It was an appropriate statement to utter while other couples swirled around them, for it was the truth.

“Thank you. As do you, Lady Elizabeth.” As he guided her through a turn, his hand at the small of her back tightened ever so slightly.

A tiny curl of heat unfurled in her belly. “Please, call me Elizabeth. I’m not one to stand on ceremony.”

The smile he gave her was as polite as the rest of his bearing, but it reflected in his eyes, and she realized how tall he was, dwarfing her average height by nearly a foot. Rafe was only six inches taller than she, and he used to tuck her head beneath his chin just so…

No! He’s part of my past, and I am moving forward. Finally.

“Neither am I, so do please call me Oliver. Though the Watson family is rather large and sprawling, we’d confuse everyone if we demanded the use of titles when together.” When he laughed, the rich sound flowed around her like honey, and she wracked her brain to remember his relatives and their multitude of titles within the ton.

“I will.” Suddenly shy, which wasn’t like her at all, Elizabeth fixed her gaze upon the starched folds of his cravat. A sapphire stick pin winked from those snowy depths, the stone almost the same color as his eyes. “Be certain you dance with the ladies of honor this evening. They shall dine out on that for months,” she said with a smile.

Forever trying to manage everyone’s lives, are you, sister? The favorite admonishment of her brother rang in her ears.

Well someone has to, was her favorite response, though the irony wasn’t lost on her now. She knew what was best for everyone around her… except herself.

“I absolutely will.” Then he dissolved into small talk, consisting of the weather and the social events they were both to attend. Finally, he said, “Will you remain in Town for Christmastide?”

The muscles in her stomach clenched in both alarm and anticipation. “For this year, yes. My brother returns from his wedding trip tomorrow, and I rather doubt he’ll wish to upset the household again so soon by traveling to his country estate.”

A chuckle emanated from her partner. He leaned closer. “I didn’t ask after your brother’s plans, Elizabeth. Though I do respect Manchester and find him intriguing enough, he is not who holds my interest.” The way he said her name sent a thrill down her spine. “I wanted to know about your plans.”

Gentle heat stung her cheeks. For so long she’d existed in Donovan’s shadow that it was a novel idea someone took notice directly in her. “Ah, well, that’s the thing. I live with my brother, and what he desires is what occurs, so in London we shall stay.” Not that it was a bad thing. Traveling to the castle in the country over shoddy roads and in wretched weather didn’t sound appealing.

And Rafe wouldn’t be there.

“Yet what do you desire?” he asked in a barely-there whisper as he turned her again through the steps of the waltz.

Someone all too wrong for me. A tremble began at the base of her spine and slid upward. Perhaps Felicity was right. She should make the attempt at settling her own life. Elizabeth raised her gaze to Oliver’s. “I desire peace and happiness.” Then she offered him a smile, which was as good as giving him an invitation.

Would he take it? Anxiety crawled over her skin. Lud, it had been an age since she’d let herself approach the Marriage Mart. Perhaps she was out of practice.

He said nothing as they finished the dance. Once they stood on the floor, politely clapping their appreciation, he put his head closer to hers. “I would like to call on you in the coming days, perhaps take you driving when it’s fine or accompanying you around London if the weather is foul.”

Elizabeth tamped down the urge to gawk. “All right.” In the event he misunderstood, she hurried to nod. “I would like that.” Dear heavens, was this actually happening?

In the blink of an eye, she finally saw herself as a married woman, mayhap with children and moving away from her brother. Starting my own life with a man who won’t harm me. And her heartbeat pounded loudly in her ears even as that ever-present longing flared. Could the marquess banish those lingering feelings for the earl who’d left her life in chaos?

“Excellent.” All too soon he led her to the side of the dance floor, where he took possession of her hand and once more kissed the middle knuckle. “I’ll come ‘round in a few days, once your brother is back in residence.” Then he was gone, off to claim the attention of Lord Mountgarret’s niece, Dorcas.

She put a hand to a heated cheek, hardly daring to believe she’d taken the first step in managing her own life. As she glanced about the room, hoping to catch Felicity’s attention and tell her the bizarre turn of events, her gaze skimmed over the flash of golden hair, the twinkle of that ever-present emerald stickpin—the one she’d given him—in the folds of a cravat tied in a unique knot only he favored.

Oh no!

With her stomach twisting, Elizabeth panicked. Not here, not now, not when I’ve taken a step forward in my future. A ripple of interested whispers accompanied the newcomer’s arrival, of course they did. She picked up her skirts and whisked herself behind a grouping of potted ferns and other hothouse plants as she gasped. Dear Lord, it’s him.

The Earl of Devon had arrived at the party, the man she could never forget, the vampire, the man who’d attacked her all those years ago and took what she hadn’t wished to give, the man who’d left her with the fleeting vestiges of startling rapture tinged with horror.

The man she wanted still but refused to chase, for he was indeed a monster.

Her heartbeat accelerated, beating out a frantic tattoo even as frissons of need made themselves known deep in her core. Then, almost as if in slow motion, he turned his head, looking at the exact spot where she’d taken refuge, causing her to shrink further behind the plants.

And he started her way.


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