|The image in the middle is from the web page of the model for Van on the cover of Three Heroes. Visit this lovely site. http://www.stefanas.com||
Glorious spring sunshine beamed through the open curtains, and the raised window let in courting birdsong. Nearby, people chattered amidst their busy lives, and wheels rattled as a horse and cart hurried down the back lane.
The golden light danced on the silky, disheveled hair and ravaged classic features of a young man lolling in the faded armchair beside the window. It glinted off half-lowered lashes, and golden stubble that suggested a night without sleep or orderly waking, and dug deep into a jagged scar down one cheek that told of more dangerous adventures in the past.
His legs, in breeches and well-worn boots, stretched before him, and a half-full wine glass tilted in his lax, long-fingered hand. On a round table by his elbow stood a decanter with an inch or so of pale amber wine, and a plain, practical pistol.
He raised the glass and sipped, seeming intent on the small garden outside the window, but in fact Lord Vandeimen's gaze was directed at nothing close or visible. He looked at the past, both recent and far, and with increasing, slightly fretful curiosity, at the future. Switching the glass to his left hand, he placed two fingers on the cold metal of the pistol barrel. His father's pistol, used for the same purpose nearly a year before.
So why was he waiting?
Hamlet had had something to say about that.
In his case, he decided, he was pausing to enjoy this particularly fine wine. After all, he'd spent nearly all his last coins on it. He must be careful not to drift away under its influence and waste this moment of resolution. One bottle hadn't put him under the table since he was a lad, though.
So long ago, those days of wicked youthful adventures. Was it really less than ten years since he'd been a carefree youth, running wild on the Sussex Downs with Con and Hawk?
No, not carefree. Even children and youths have cares. But blessedly free of the weightier burdens of life.
The three Georges. The triumvirate.
His drifting mind settled on the day they'd tired of having the same patriotic name and rechristened themselves. Hawk Hawkinville. Van Vandeimen. It should have been Somer Somerford, but Con had balked at such a effete name. He'd taken a variation of his second name, Connaught. Con.
Con, Hawk, and Van. They'd grown up like brothers, almost like triplets. Back in those days they'd not imagined a time when they'd be so apart, but Van was glad the other two weren't here now. With luck, they'd hear of his death when it was history, the pain of it numbed. They hadn't seen each other since Waterloo.
Con had returned home directly after the battle, but Hawk and Van had lingered awhile. Hawk was still with the army, tidying up Europe. Van had been in England for six months, but he'd carefully avoided his home and old friends.
He drained the glass and refilled it, his hand reassuringly steady. It was strange that Con hadn't hunted him down. Any other time, that would have worried him, but not now. If Con didn't care, that was good.
No friends. No family.
Once, in another life, there had been so much more. When he'd left at sixteen to join his regiment, mother, father, and two sisters had waved farewell. Ten years later, all were shades. Did they watch him now? If so, what did their ghostly voices cry? Wouldn't they want him to join them?
"Don't protest to me, old man," he said to his ghostly father. "You took the same way out when you were left alone. And what have I-? Oh, devil take it!" he snapped, slamming down the glass and seizing the pistol. "When I start talking to ghosts, it's time."
Impelled by some mythical urge, he picked up the glass and poured the remaining wine to stream and puddle on the waxed floor. "An offering to the gods," he said. "May they be merciful."
Then he put the long barrel cold into his mouth and with a final breath and a prayer squeezed the trigger.
The click was loud, but a click didn't kill. He pulled the gun out and stared at it with wild exasperation. A flick showed him the problem. The flint on the old-fashioned pistol had worn and slipped sideways.
"Shoddy work, Van," he muttered, hands trembling now, desperately trying to think whether he had a fresh flint anywhere in his rooms. If he had to go out and find one, the moment might pass. He might try again to pull his life out of the pit.
He knew he didn't have a fresh flint, so he poked out the old one, sweat chilling his brow and his nape, and tried to fix it so it would work. He'd drunk enough to make him clumsy. "Plague and tarnation, and hell, and damnation, and-"
He looked up, dazed, to see a figure standing in his doorway, draped in white, crowned in white, hand outstretched, looking like a stern Byzantine angel... Smooth oval face, long nose, firm lips.
She swept forward to grip the pistol barrel. "You must not."
He kept a hand tight on the butt. "What the devil business is it of yours, madam?"
An elegant woman in high fashion, including a turban-style hat with a tall feather. Where the pox had she come from, and what business was he of hers?
Her steady eyes held his. "I need you, Lord Vandeimen. You can kill yourself later."
He dragged the pistol out of her gloved hands. "I can kill myself any time I damn well please, and take you with me!"
She straightened, looking down her long nose. "Not with only one pistol ball."
"There are many ways of killing, madam, and I'll save the pistol for myself."
(New excerpt starts here. February 25th 2001)
He saw her pale and suck in breath, but when she spoke it was steadily. "Give me a few minutes of your time, my lord. Then, on my word, if you still wish it, I will leave you to your purpose."
Such scorn. Such judgment in those blue-gray eyes. If the pistol had been working, he might have shot her to wipe away that scorn. He immediately put the weapon down.
She snatched it and retreated a few wise steps, pistol clutched to her creamy gown. Then she looked down at it, shuddered, and placed it on his open desk by the papers he'd carefully prepared.
Curiosity suddenly wiped out anger and urgency.
This woman knew him, but he had no idea who she was. Not surprising, since he hadn't been moving in fashionable circles.
Her gown was in the height of fashion, as was the long, pale Cashmere shawl that looped over both elbows and almost trailed the ground. He knew enough of women's furbelows to price that shawl at a sum that would re-roof Steynings.
It wouldn't fix the damaged plaster or the rotting wood, but the roof would be a start.
"Well?" he asked, linking his hands, ready to enjoy this interlude at the gates of hell.
She subsided into the chair that matched his, then jumped when it sagged down beneath her.
"It hasn't collapsed under anyone yet," he remarked. "Am I to know your name, or is this all cloaked in hoary mystery?"
Color blossomed in her creamy skin, making her look less like a plaster saint, and much more interesting in a fleshy way. He suddenly wondered what she'd look like far gone in sex, which was another thought he'd not expected to have again.
"My name is Maria Celestin."
His brows rose. The Golden Lily. The wealthy widow who had just emerged from mourning, causing every red-blooded fortune hunter to seethe with desire. Someone had suggested that he pursue the woman as the solution to his woes.
She'd have to be insane to marry him, however, and he'd no mind to marry a madwoman.
He knew the age of the Golden Lily. Thirty-three. That explained her composure and steady eyes. He knew her bloodlines. She'd been born a Dunpott-Ffyfe and married down to some upstart foreign merchant.
"And your purpose here, Mrs. Celestin? If you are seeking consolation of the flesh, I regret that I am neither in the mood nor the state to oblige."
"Then it is as well that I am not, my lord."
She didn't blush. Perhaps she'd heard the same too often. Distressing to be cliche.
She too had linked her hands in front of her, and now she'd grown accustomed to the chair she was trying to be elegant and composed. She wasn't, though. She was wound tight as a watch spring like a raw recruit on the brink of battle.
Gad, he hoped she wasn't here to fight for his immortal soul.
"You lost ten thousand at Brookes' last night, my lord."
It stung, but he hoped that didn't show. "And how did you find out about that, Mrs. Celestin?"
"There were many people there. Word is out. You cannot possibly pay."
He looked down at his hands before gathering enough will to meet her eyes coolly. "My estates, decrepit though they are, will probably settle the bill."
"I will pay that debt in return for your services for six weeks."
He hadn't expected to feel shock again. "You do want consolation of the flesh."
Now she did blush, though her tone was chilly. "It seems an obsession of yours, my lord. Unfortunately for you, I am not at all interested." She even dared to look him over, briefly, with patent lack of interest. "What I require is an escort and a bodyguard."
"Hire a dragoon, madam."
He began to rise, ready to throw her out, but something in her steady gaze pushed him back into his chair. Whatever this was about, she was deadly serious.
"A dragoon would not serve, my lord. To be precise, I wish you to pose as my affianced husband for the next six weeks, in payment for which I will give you ten thousand pounds. What is more, if you fulfill our agreement to the letter, I will give you a further ten thousand pounds at the end. You can drink it, game it, or use it to rescue your estates. That will be up to you."
The little beat of excitement that started in his chest was a betrayal. He was as good as dead, dammit. He didn't want this now.
It was the chance, the new beginning he'd been hunting for months. He wouldn't show hope or excitement. He wouldn't reveal his need to this madwoman.
"Tempting," he drawled. "I have learned, however, that if a bargain appears too good to be true, it probably is."
Her neatly arched brows rose. "What trap do you foresee? That I hold you to our mock betrothal? Do you object to marrying a fortune?"
"Not at all. Why don't we simplify everything by marrying now?"
"Because you drink too much, and game too wildly, and, it would seem, choose the easy way out."
He knew he was turning red. "I see. So, what benefit do you find in your strange arrangement that is worth twenty thousand pounds?"
She rose with admirable smoothness, rearranging her fabulous shawl so it didn't drag on the floor. He was suddenly aware of full breasts and round hips beneath the elegant vertical flow of her ivory gown. Inappropriate for an almost-dead man to note such things but she was, in a chilly way, a very attractive woman.
"My purposes are none of your concern, my lord," she said in a voice one might use to a greengrocer. "I merely require you to engage yourself to marry me, and to act for the next six weeks as if that were true. This does mean," she added pointedly, "that you will have to act like a man I might wish to marry."
"Ah," he said, belatedly rising. The room wavered slightly, and he hadn't drunk enough for that. He wondered if the pistol had worked, if this was some heavenly illusion.
"What dreams may come...."
The smell of spilled wine soured the air, however. Surely heaven could do better than that. "You will expect me to resist excessive drink and gaming, madam? Gad, will I have to squire you to Almack's? They'd never let me in."
"Almack's is boring. Balls, routs, breakfasts, masquerades...." She gestured vaguely with a hand covered by fine cream kid in color remarkably like her fine cream skin. "I will require you to escort me to most events I attend, to stay by my side for the usual amount of time, and to be well mannered and sober. When not by my side, you will do nothing to shame my choice."
"Alas. I must avoid my favorite opium dens and wild wenches?"
"You must avoid anyone hearing about them." She looked him in the eye, despite being six inches shorter. "You are in love with me, Lord Vandeimen. For six weeks, and a payment of twenty-thousand pounds, in the eyes of the world, you adore me."
"Do I get to kiss you, then?" he asked, advancing on her, suddenly furious at this demanding woman who thought she could buy him, body and soul.
And probably could.
He found himself looking down the barrel of his pistol, held in her steady, but tense, hands. "You will never, ever, touch me without my permission."
He smiled at the pointless threat. "Why not pull the trigger?" he drawled. "That will achieve my end, and save me from the sin of self-destruction."
Her eyes widened, and for the first time he saw overt fear. She'd put herself in a situation she didn't understand and couldn't control, and had the wit to know it.
It was time she learned some other lessons.
Glancing to one side to distract her, he snatched the pistol. She gasped and stepped back, pale becoming pallid.
He was tempted to seize her, press the useless pistol to her lush breasts, and claim the kiss he'd threatened. Disgusted by that, he stepped back. "Leave."
She looked at him, breathing rapidly. "You are rejecting my offer?"
He wanted to say yes, but the same impulse that had sent him to the tables ruled him here. "No. You've bought six weeks of my life, Mrs. Celestin. I accept your terms. However, I'll need an advance on the second ten thousand if I'm to put on a show worthy of you. I am literally penniless."
Now she had what she wanted, she attempted her former manner, but she couldn't hide her fear. Not a foolish woman, at least.
"I'll deposit eleven thousand for you at Perry's Bank," she said, a touch of panic fluttering in her voice. "One thousand is advance on our final settlement. Arrange your affairs, my lord, and have a night's rest. We can meet formally tomorrow at the Duchess of Yeovil's ball. Do you have an invitation?"
He glanced at the messy pile of cards on the desk. "Probably. Even a ruined lord is a lord."
She too looked at the pile, lips suddenly pursing. What was it? A powerful urge to organize? Was she a meddlesome, managing woman? He almost set limits on their bargain, especially that she keep her fingers out of his affairs, but why fool himself? He'd come this far and would go further if necessary.
He'd sell himself to her in any way she wanted for nine thousand clear and a fresh start. She didn't need to know that, however.
"Is that all, Mrs. Celestin?" he asked in a bored tone, pistol still in his hand.
She jerked slightly, nodded, and after a hesitation where she clearly felt there was more to be said, walked rapidly out of the room.
Maria paused for a moment on the landing, a faint shudder passing through her. Athena, but she'd almost been too late. A few more seconds...! And then she'd pointed his pistol at him, threatening to kill him.
She pressed a gloved hand to her mouth. Was anything more absurd? She'd never held a pistol before in her life, and then he'd dared her to kill him as if he wanted it! He was so young, so full of promise. Was self-destruction too deeply rooted to be pulled out?
Then he'd taken the weapon from her. So easily. She should have expected that from a man known as Demon Vandeimen. She should have expected that uncivilized edge anyway. He'd survived a long and bloody war. Of course he wasn't safe!
She hurried out of the house. Her liveried footman leaped forward to open the carriage door and assist her in to sit besides her aunt.
Harriette Coombs, round in face and body, was merry by nature, but knew when to worry. Like Maria, she was a widow, but she had enjoyed thirty years of happy marriage instead of ten years of mixed blessings. She had three children set up in the world, whereas Maria had none.
Maria sometimes felt that except for wealth, she had nothing. No, not true. She had Aunt Harriette.
"Home," she said, and as soon as the footman shut the door, the coach began to roll away from the most difficult thing she had done in her life.
"Well?" asked Harriette.
"I was almost too late! He was.... No one answered the door. Some instinct made me enter anyway, and he was.... He had a pistol in his hand, ready to fire!"
"By my soul! You promised him the money, dear? He will be different now?"
"I did, but...." It had all been done in urgency and on impulse, and now reaction was setting in. "He looked so terrible, Harriette. Haggard. Clothes all awry. The room stank of wine and he was drunk. I was going to pretend the money was an old informal debt, but I knew I couldn't do that. He'd probably have gamed it away tomorrow!"
"So what did you do?"
Maria bit her lip, unwilling to even put her ridiculous plan into word. "I... I bought him. For six weeks. For six weeks, Lord Vandeimen is to be my besotted, impeccably behaved, husband-to-be and escort."
Harriette's eyes widened, but she said, "Very clever, dear! If he has any honor at all, he will have to behave well, and it may give him a chance to change."
"Will it work?"
Harriette patted her hand. "You've done the best you can, dear. It will expose you to talk, though."
"Oh! I'll look like...."
"A widow after tender meat."
"A tender wastrel, even. People will think me a complete fool. Or a predatory harpy. Harriette, he's eight years younger than I am!"
"I was eight years younger than Cedric."
"It's not the same." Maria sucked in a deep breath. "I have to do it, though. Maurice swindled his father out of that money. Ruined him, and pushed him to suicide. I have to put it right, at any cost."
She leaned her head back against the satin squabs. "Did I mention that he is beautiful? Hair the color of primroses. Classic bones. Lips so perfect they could have been carved. A mess, of course, after the wild life he's led recently, and scarred. But still, Lord Vandeimen is the most beautiful young man I've ever stood face to face with."
And the world would think her turned idiot because of it.
Harriet squeezed her hand. "Don't worry, dear. While you're pulling him back from the brink, I'll look around for a suitable young lady for him, one with a strength of character and a generous dowry."
Maria smiled. "Thank you. I don't know what I'd do without you."
She firmly ignored a betraying stir of dissatisfaction with that plan.
The Demon's Mistress is the first story in the trilogy THREE HEROES, published in June 2004 by NAL. ISBN 0-451-21200-2 If you wish, you can order it now from AMAZON.COM or look for it at your favorite place to buy books
It is the first story in the collection, THREE HEROES, and is followed by the complete novels, THE DRAGON'S BRIDE and THE DEVIL'S HEIRESS. All these stories were previously published in 2001, but now they are brought together in a trade paperback collection that forms a true trilogy, and all for the great price of $14 US. THE DEMON'S MISTRESS and THE DRAGON'S BRIDE were both finalists for the RITA, romance's top award.
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Cover of Three Heroes.
Cover of original collection.