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A Sneak Peek at The Demon's Bride

This novella was first published in 1993 in Moonlit Lovers.
An e-book special in February, 2011
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Chapter 1
    Suffolk, England, 1761
    "So the girl was burnt to a cinder," drawled Lord Morden impassively.
    The Reverend Joseph Proudfoot rubbed his plump hands together. "Fascinating, my lord. Fascinating."
    The vicar's daughter, however, gazed at the earl in shock. How could any human -- even soulless rake -- be so unmoved by such an event?
    As if Rachel had spoken, the earl met her disapproving gaze and she was the focus of startlingly blue and wicked eyes. He raised a brow and said with derisive gentleness, "It was nearly a century ago, Miss Proudfoot."
    Rachel hastily lowered her head and recorded the grisly details, wishing her color wasn't always so ready to betray her. She found her writing was not as neat as usual, but it wasn't all the fault of the disreputable earl. She had been prey to a morbid fear of burning to death since it had happened to an aunt when Rachel was but a child. She had not witnessed the event, but her parents' whispered comments had made a deep impression. The thought of a poor girl being consumed by the flames of a Walpurgis Night bonfire was truly horrible.
    "And no one was ever brought to book over it, my lord?" her father asked.
    "Back in 1668 matters in this corner of the country were primitive, vicar. Inquiries were made, of course..." The earl had been standing by the fire, one booted foot raised on the scuttle there, but now he moved restively to sit in a chair. "The people here are secretive by nature. They claimed that their innocent revels turned tragic when the girl fell into the fire. It may have been true."
    Rachel flicked a glance at Lord Morden. It was not just the local peasantry who were secretive, it would appear. She noted in her record that the earl had concealed something, perhaps some connection between his family and the tragic event.
    Her father pursued it. "Do you doubt that it was a simple mischance, my lord?"
    The earl made no other betraying move, but every arrogant line of his body seemed to say, I have been gracious enough to consent to speak to you, and to tell you of the customs on my land. Do you presume to interrogate me?
    Such a man could not be pressured for details, but a silence would often bring out information just as well as questioning. Rachel spent the small hiatus flexing her tired fingers and trimming her pen. Then she allowed herself the indulgence of admiring the pleasant room in which they were seated. The earl might be a rake and a wastrel -- which is what local gossip said -- but his house was very fine.
    Instead of somber paneling, the small drawing room was finished in the new style, with white paint and plaster. It gave the chamber a sense of air and light even on a rather gloomy October day. With a large fire in the beautiful marble fireplace, and a thick carpet over the floor, it was the epitome of modern comfort.
    Rachel was not a young woman who hankered after luxury, but comfort was another matter, and sadly lacking in the vicarage. Their new home was a warren of small, darkly-paneled rooms with bare floors and drafty windows.
    Her wandering eye was caught by a portrait directly opposite her. It featured a handsome young man somewhat arrogantly posed beside a very fine black horse. His blond hair was carelessly dressed so that strands blew loose in the breeze and his bright blue eyes shone with the joy of living. The artist appeared to have captured a moment when his subject had just dismounted after an exhilarating ride, and was ready for more adventures.
    It was astonishingly life-like, and Rachel found the subject's direct look and challenging half-smile compelling. It was as if he were about to invite her to share in his next mad-cap scheme....
    "Miss Proudfoot." The earl's voice abruptly captured her attention. "Are you admiring the artist, or the subject?"
    Rachel colored, as much at having given the earl an excuse to change the topic, as at being caught staring. "It is a remarkably fine portrait, my lord."
    "Indeed it is. The picture was executed by a man who lived locally, a Mr. Gainsborough. He has recently removed to Bath, where I predict a fine future for him. The subject is myself some twelve or more years ago -- in my innocent youth."
    Rachel felt her face heat, and was hard put not to stare between the portrait and the earl in astonishment. How had the golden youth turned so to dross?
    And yet now it had been pointed out, she could see the resemblance -- the same lean, fine-boned features, startlingly blue eyes and careless energy.
    The earl spoke again, and Rachel concentrated on her recording.
    "To answer your question, vicar, I have wondered about that tragic event. But Walpurgis Night is celebrated on Dymons Hill every year, and there is no other record of tragedy. The festivities appear innocent, or as innocent as such things ever are."
    The earl looked again at Rachel, but she was ready for him this time and smiled innocently back. She was twenty-four years old and had acted as assistant and amanuensis to her father for eight years. She was perfectly aware that these local revels always included excessive drinking, and often grossly lewd behavior.
    "Walpurgis Night revels are not unknown in England, my lord," prompted the vicar. "And despite their roots in the worship of the demon Waldborg and their connection to witchcraft, I have found no case of one that was anything but an excuse for unseemly jollity."
    "Ah," said the earl with a glint in his eye, "but here we have a refinement."
    Rachel came to full alert.
    The earl smiled slightly, and seemed to be speaking directly to her. "There is a local tradition that when Walpurgis Night falls on the feast of the Ascension, it is of special significance. They call it Dym's Night."
    "But St. Walburga's day is May the first," said the vicar with a frown. "That would make Walpurgis Night April the thirtieth, which is far too early for Ascension Day, my lord."
    "I think you will find that is not, vicar."
    Rachel's father performed some rapid calculations. "It would mean that Easter would have to be.... March the twenty-second!" he announced, eyes bright. "The earliest possible day! Rare, but it does occur."
    "The last occurrence being in 1668," pointed out the earl gently. "The year the girl died in the fire. The next occurrence, I am told, will be in 1761. Next year."
    "By the stars!" exclaimed Reverend Proudfoot, sitting up straight. "This is most fortuitous, my lord. What an opportunity to record a rare ceremony!"
    "Burning and all?" asked the earl dryly.
    Reverend Proudfoot flushed. "No, no. But..." His voice dropped almost to a whisper. "My lord, you cannot suppose that we have here a tradition of human sacrifice?"
    Despite her training, Rachel almost dropped her pen. She stared at the earl. Was it only in her imagination that his sardonic face became macabre? Despite the fire the room was turning decidedly chilly.

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