lost to the night (the brotherhood series book 1)

Contents

Title Page

Copyright

Books by Adele Clee

Dedication

She Walks in Beauty - Lord Byron

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Epilogue

Thank You

Slave to the Night

Slave to the Night - Chapter 1

Slave to the Night - Chapter 2

 

 

 

 

 

Lost to the Night

The Brotherhood Series

Book 1

 

Adele Clee

 

This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination. All characters are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

No part of this book may be copied or reproduced in any manner without the author’s permission.

http://wwwadeleclee.com

 

Copyright © 2015 Adele Clee

All rights reserved.

ISBN-13:
978-0-9932832-6-0

 

Slave to the Night
(excerpt)

Copyright © 2015 Adele Clee

All rights reserved.

 

Cover designed by Jay Aheer

 

 

 

Books by Adele Clee

To Save a Sinner

A Curse of the Heart

 

Anything for Love Series

What You Desire

 

The Brotherhood Series

Lost to the Night

Slave to the Night

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Karen,

There are no words to express my gratitude for all the help and support you’ve given.

Your encouragement and eagerness to read the next chapter has been invaluable.

Love you lots x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies,

And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meets in her aspect and her eyes;

Thus mellow’d to that tender light

Which Heaven to gaudy day denies

George Gordon, Lord Byron

(1788-1824)

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

 

A tavern in Schiltach, Bavaria, 1818

 

Alexander Cole’s blood gushed through his veins like hot, molten lava. The sweet fire that consumed him had nothing to do with the buxom wench at his side, merrily massaging his cock.

“You like it?” she giggled playfully, shaking her fleshy wares as if they were easy to miss.

Alexander groaned as she tightened her grip and nuzzled his ear. Yet he continued to stare at the woman sitting on the opposite side of the tavern.

He had noticed her walk in minutes earlier. She’d not ordered a drink, but sat shrouded in a sapphire-blue cloak boldly watching him. Was she aware of the eager hand pleasuring him beneath the table? Was that the reason she stared?

Alexander.

Despite downing copious amounts of wine and ale, his mind suddenly stilled, the noise of the boisterous crowd drowned out by a soft sibilant whisper. He heard his name echoing through the silent chambers of his mind: a siren’s call — luring him, drawing him, forcing him to follow.

Alexander.

He glanced around the crude room, its stone walls and low beams relics of a bygone era, searching for Reeves and Lattimer. Reeves was asleep on the wooden bench, his fingers wrapped around the handle of a tankard as he cuddled it to his chest. Two weeks of drunken debauchery had definitely taken its toll. Through the cloudy mist of stale tobacco smoke, he spotted Lattimer climbing the stairs. The eager wench was pulling him up by his hand, his reluctance due to an unsteady gait as opposed to a lack of enthusiasm.

Alexander.

He heard his name again, the seductive tones of a woman’s sated whisper dragging him back to the mysterious creature across the room.

The wench at his side continued pumping, yet his focus moved to the enchantress, who had lowered the hood of her cloak to reveal a mane of silky golden tresses. He sucked in a breath, captivated by her full red lips and porcelain skin. Drinking in the sight, he groaned as she put the tip of her tongue to her lips and moistened the entrance to her mouth.

Compelled by a sudden wave of disgust, he slapped his hand over the wench’s sweaty fingers.

“Oh, you want to help.”

“No,” he growled pushing her hand away, his desire for a stranger the motivating factor.

He threw a few coins onto the table and hastily buttoned the fall of his breeches.

The golden-haired goddess smiled, raised her hood and moved gracefully to the door before escaping out into the night.

As though connected by an invisible thread, he followed her to the door and yanked it open, ignoring the wench’s cries of protest — jealousy being a trait he despised.

Rain lashed against the solid oak door, and he winced as it pelted his face, quick and sharp, almost knocking him back. He could just make out his quarry crossing the muddy road, heading towards a carriage. Pulling his coat more firmly across his chest, he snuggled into it and braved the weather — some strange force urging him to take the next step.

The lady glanced over her shoulder and beckoned him to follow. Whether it was intrigue, lust or a powerful primal hunger that drew him to her carriage, he did not know. She climbed into the conveyance and closed the door, yet the driver made no move to depart and sat staring off into the distance waiting for a command.

Alexander stumbled up to the window and peered inside to find his beauty sitting back in the seat, her cape open, exposing the upper curve of her breasts. Shaping his mouth in an attempt to form a word, he seemed to have lost the ability of speech.

The temptress smiled and opened the door. “Are you coming in?”

He climbed inside, the carriage lurching forward before he’d had a chance to take his seat.

They raced through the cobbled streets at breakneck speed, up along the path curving through the forest. He thought to seduce his vixen with salacious banter, but his tongue felt thick, his lips swollen and numb.

She watched him, her hands resting in her lap, never moving, yet his body reacted to the touch of her wandering gaze. It felt as though her fingers clawed away at him, scrabbling over his chest, tugging at his clothes, freeing him from the confines of his breeches. As the imaginary assault tormented him, he could smell the heady scent of his arousal, and he struggled to draw breath.

“You respond to me well, Alexi,” she whispered. “But now you must sleep — sleep.”

Sleep was the last thing on his mind, but his lids grew heavy, his surroundings hazy, black.

Alexander had experienced many vivid dreams in his life. The best ones always involved forbidden carnal pleasures: taking the vicar’s wife, his daughter, both together.

But this dream was like no other.

He recalled climbing a narrow stone staircase curling up to a tower. The sound of teasing feminine laughter pulled him up. As did the potent smell of exotic incense drifting out from the doorway. The seductive mist creeping towards him felt like invisible fingers massaging his shoulders, determined to relax him, to seduce him.

Time skipped forward.

He lay stretched out on the canopy bed: a monstrous structure of wooden pillars and grotesque carvings. Two naked women fondled with his breeches, stripping him bare, their eager hands and mouths bringing him close to climax. But when his enchantress entered the room they scurried away, the sound of their whimpering dampening his desire.

“I read your thoughts, Alexi,” she said, her cape billowing behind her as she walked towards the bed. “You like power. You like to control. You have had many women, no?”

Alexander nodded.

“After tonight, you will no longer be able to hide behind your chivalrous mask, behind your polished words and fancy clothes.” She crawled onto the bed to straddle him while he watched helplessly. “Your depravity will be your constant companion now.”

As she bent down to kiss him, he felt a coldness sweep through him followed by a raging fire as her tongue and teeth licked and nipped his neck. Something sharp punctured his skin — then he felt lost, alone.

Then he felt nothing.

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 

 

New Forest, England, 1820

 

Evelyn Bromwell pulled the thick tartan blanket over her legs and sighed. “I’ve never known it be so cold,” she said thrusting her gloved hands under the thick material as the wind rocked the carriage. “At least not in April.”

“Well, you know what they say about the weather,” Aunt Beatrice replied, her hands nestled inside a mink muff. “In like a lion, out like a lamb.”

Evelyn frowned. “How can it be in like a lion when the month’s almost over? Besides, I thought the saying referred to March.”

“It applies the other way around, too, and the Welsh often use it for April. If you recall, it was rather mild early on.”

The wind rattled the window just to prove a point, the drawn-out howl like an ominous warning.

“More like in with a whistle, out with a whirlwind,” Evelyn chuckled.

A dull thud on the carriage roof caused them both to gasp, and they froze in anticipation, as though a lion really was about to burst in through the door.

“Either the coachman’s been blown off his perch or the forest is tumbling down around us,” Evelyn whispered, not wishing to tempt fate. “I’d pop my head out and take a look. But knowing my luck, I’d be slapped in the face by a stray branch. Somehow, I don’t expect Mr. Sutherby will want to propose to a lady when she’s sporting a blackened eye.”

Aunt Beatrice smiled. “I think you could sprout a potato from your nose and still Mr. Sutherby would be smitten.”

Mr. Sutherby might be smitten, but Evelyn wasn’t.

Oh, she was hardly in a position to complain. A handsome gentleman with an affable character and a sizable fortune wanted to marry her. It sounded perfect. For a gentleman to embody all three traits was a rare find indeed. It’s what her parents dreamed of. It’s what they would have wanted.

The only thing that could possibly make Mr. Sutherby more desirable was a title. But such far-fetched aspirations were only to be found in fairy tales, not dreams.

The wind gave a mournful cry, and the carriage rocked from side-to-side.

“Do you think we’ll even make it to the inn?” Evelyn asked feeling a little wary. “I think the forest is the worst place to be in a storm.”

“I’ve heard the sea is the worst place to be, waves as tall as houses, they say. We’ve only a few miles to the inn. We’ll bed down for the night, have a late start and be at Mytton Grange by luncheon.” Aunt Beatrice removed her hand from her muff and patted Evelyn’s knee. “Let’s not think about it. We’ll soon be tucked up nice and snug. Perhaps if we talk, we’ll distract our minds.”

Evelyn groaned inwardly. She didn’t want to talk about Mr. Sutherby, but it seemed the only thing her aunt was interested in.

“Of course, once your Mr. Sutherby —”

“Can we talk about something else?”

Her aunt narrowed her gaze but then gave a knowing smile. “I understand. You’re nervous. It’s to be expected. Very well, I shall think of a different topic to occupy our thoughts.”

Her aunt fell silent while she stared at a point beyond Evelyn’s shoulder.

Feeling somewhat impatient and having never ventured as far as the New Forest before, Evelyn asked, “Do you know anything about the area? Any exciting tales from ancient folklore?”

“Not really,” her aunt sighed, “though there are tales of the Earl of Hale. He lives a mile or two from here. Have you heard of him?”

Evelyn pondered the question. “The Earl of Hale. The name’s familiar. Do you mean the gentleman who’s said to be horribly disfigured?”

“Well, that’s what folk say.”

“But you’ve never seen him?”

“No, no,” her aunt said shaking her head vigorously as though the thought was abhorrent. “No one has.”

“Then how do they know he’s disfigured?”

Her aunt shrugged. “I’m sure someone must have seen him at some point. They say he had an accident abroad. When the old earl died, they say he wouldn’t set foot near the grave. He hung back in the shadows, his collar raised up to his cheekbones, the brim of his hat touching the tip of his nose.”

“To hide his terrible scars, I imagine.”

“Some say he’d been standing there all night.”

Evelyn was so intrigued she’d almost forgotten they were in danger of being blown away. She imagined all sorts of hideous marks: raised pink rivulets running down his cheek, an earlobe missing, an eye drooping and sagging. Had the earl been injured in a fight or fire?

“And he lives not far from here?” she said trying to distract her wayward thoughts.

“Yes. In an old Elizabethan house in a clearing.”

They fell silent for a moment.

Aunt Beatrice’s head shot up, and she gave a little gasp. “Have I told you about the
Pixey
mounds? Well, that’s what the locals call them. You’ll find them dotted all around the forest.”

“Someone must have seen him recently.”

Aunt Beatrice jerked her head back. “Who, the
Pixey
? The mounds are old burial sites. I don’t think they’ve got anything to do with real pixies.”

“Not the pixies — the earl. Someone must have seen him since the accident.”

Her aunt shrugged. “Well, I guess we’ll never —”

They heard the dull thud before they felt the tremor that shook the carriage. The horses’ high-pitched neighs were long and loud and interspersed with the coachman’s cries and curses. The carriage swayed left and right, throwing them from their seats as they scrambled to hold on. They felt an almighty bump, the wheels on the right lifting clean off the ground, the carriage tipping left as they hit a ditch.

They continued to fall, crashing down onto the forest floor, the sound of splintering wood lost amongst their shrieks and screams. Evelyn’s head rebounded off the inside wall, and suddenly everything went black.

Evelyn opened her eyes and blinked rapidly as she tried to focus. She had no notion how long she’d lay there in a crumpled heap, curled next to the body of her aunt. She felt no immediate pain, other than a pounding behind her eyes.

“Aunt Beatrice,” she whispered to the listless woman lying next to her. “Aunt Beatrice.”

She waited for a sign of life: a cough, a gasp, a sigh. But the world had fallen deathly silent. Flexing her fingers and lifting her arms to check her limbs were able, Evelyn grabbed the edge of the seat and tried to stand. The carriage lay on its side, the window above them framing a mass of purple and black clouds, so thick she imagined she could touch them.

Dragging herself up on her feet, she turned to examine her aunt’s body. Lying on her side with her head facing away, her aunt was too quiet, too still. She patte
d the folds of her aunt’s skirt, moving up to her arm and shoulder. Nothing appeared to be broken. Then she noticed that her head was squashed against the shattered window. Evelyn pushed her hand under the old lady’s cheek, and it felt slimy and sticky.

With a gasp she pulled her hand away, her pale pink glove now a deep shade of red.

There was blood, too much blood. She needed to get help, quick.

Pushing the carriage door open, she climbed out and lowered herself down to the ground.

An uprooted tree trunk blocked the road, the knobbly branches disappearing into the forest.
No doubt this was the reason for the startled horses.
Miraculously, the team of four were unharmed and stood quietly waiting for instruction, oblivious to the disaster that had just unfolded or the upturned wreckage behind them.

Evelyn scanned the area looking for the driver and spotted the burly figure lying sprawled out on the ground. She raced over to him and touched the back of his coat, rocking gently in the hope of rousing him.

Nothing.

Her aunt’s words drifted into her thoughts.

It’s just a few miles to the inn.

After giving each one of the horses a reassuring pat and a few calming words, she wrapped her cloak around her, climbed over the trunk and hurried down the road.

She tried to run, desperate to reach the inn before dusk, knowing how difficult it would be to rouse help come nightfall. But the biting wind made her task more arduous.

When she came to a fork in the road, she stopped and took a moment to catch her breath as she examined her options. Surely the road ahead led to the inn. It appeared to be wider, the well-worn grooves suggesting regular use. So why was she drawn to the narrower, overgrown lane? Why did she feel a strange tug in her stomach at the thought of taking any other route?

Dismissing the feeling, she carried on along the wider path, her thoughts focused on reaching the inn.

But then she stopped abruptly, glanced back over her shoulder and stared.

The earl lived near, her aunt had said.

For some strange reason unbeknown to her, she turned around, retraced her steps and hurried down the narrow lane. Evelyn had always believed, instinctively, one knew when something felt right. The further down the lane she ran, the more it felt like the right decision.

Doubt crept in when she came to the clearing, when she stumbled upon the huge, rusty iron gates. She could see the Elizabethan building at the end of the path — the home of the Earl of Hale, she presumed.

The gates were locked.

A thick chain had been threaded through the railings, making it impossible to open them. Judging by the amount of weeds sprouting out of the gravel, the entrance hadn’t been used for some time. The impression was one of neglect, of desolation, of utter hopelessness.

Evelyn was not foolish enough to attempt to climb the gates, and the stone wall running along the boundary seemed too high.

Surely there was another way in.

She followed the boundary to the left for a few minutes until she came to a tree; its lowest branch overhung the wall. Bunching her dress up to her knees she climbed the tree, receiving a few bumps and grazes in the process. If only she’d not discarded her blood-stained gloves, she thought, as she lay along the branch and pulled herself across before jumping down into the earl’s estate.

When she eventually reached the oak front door, it was dusk. With no sign of activity, she glanced at the twenty-or-so windows scattered across the facade. Not a single light shone from within. Each one looked dark and ominous, conjuring an image of its master’s disfigured face.

Evelyn wrapped her fingers around the iron knocker and let it fall, the dull echo resonating along the hallway beyond. She waited for the clip of footsteps, for the rustle of keys.

Nothing.

Determined to muster a response, she knocked again, twice.

Nothing.

Evelyn muttered a curse. Her aunt lay bleeding to death, the coachman a lifeless lump. She’d run until her chest burned, until fire scorched the back of her throat. She’d fought her way in, her hands battered and bruised, her cape in tatters.

The earl would welcome her in, even if she had to pound on the door until her fingers bled.

Racing to the lower level window, she cupped her hands to her face and peered inside, moving to the next and the next until she’d worked around to the west wing.

The first thing she noticed when she looked through the next window was that the fire had been lit. The bright orange flames roared within the stone surround.

She saw him then — the maimed earl.

He sat in a wingback chair, wearing a fine shirt and waistcoat, his head bowed as he stared into the flames. A mop of dark hair hung over his brow, his hunched shoulders reflecting his melancholic mood.

Evelyn rapped on the glass pane, but he simply sat there as cold and as solid as a block of stone.

An elderly woman entered the room, her stout frame and apron suggesting she was a housekeeper or cook.

Evelyn tapped again. “Please, I need your help. Please let me in.”

The woman caught her gaze and muttered to the gentleman in the chair, pointing to the window before throwing her hands up in the air.

Without raising his head, he waved her away, refusing to look at her let alone listen to her plea.

“Please,” she said banging the window with both fists.

The woman shrugged before turning her back and leaving the room.

Evelyn turned away in frustration, pacing back and forth while she decided what to do. She should have taken the other path. She would have been at the inn by now. She would have found help.

Why wouldn’t he open the door? Did he think she’d be appalled by his face?

Frustration turned to anger when she thought about her poor aunt, and she kicked the gravel along the walkway.

Then she saw the stone. Smooth and oval in shape, it was small enough to fit in her palm, large enough for what she needed.

Before rational thought found its way into her muddled mind, she picked it up and hurled it at the window.

The sound of shattering glass was accompanied by a deep masculine curse.

 

 

 

Chapter 3

 

 

 

Alexander shot out of the chair, his gaze fixed on the stone lying amidst the shards of broken glass. Thankfully, the windows were stripped with lead, and only the bottom pane had shattered.

Mrs. Shaw came scurrying in, wiping her hands on her apron. “I heard a noise, my lord. Is everything alright?” Her eyes widened when she looked to the window. “For all the saints, what on earth …”

The lady was still standing outside, her hand plastered across her mouth.

Alexander inhaled.

He could smell her blood, just a hint, fresh and sweet.

Swinging round, he turned his back to the window. “Get rid of her. Get rid of her now.”

Mrs. Shaw gasped. “But she might be hurt, my lord, she might need —”

“I don’t care what she needs.” And he didn’t. Other people’s petty trials were no concern of his. “Drag her away kicking and screaming if you have to. Just get rid of her … and find out how the hell she got in.”

Pacing back and forth to stop his traitorous mind from considering any other option, he clenched his teeth and hardened his jaw.

She was probably just another ogler come to see the hideous earl. He knew that’s what they called him. Perhaps she thought he needed saving. Perhaps she needed money and believed it was more preferable to lie with an ugly man than to suffer the pain of hunger writhing in her belly.

The thought of hunger roused the faintest flicker of sympathy.

Something forced him to turn back to the window: a tug in his chest, in his abdomen — but the lady was gone. A sense of relief coursed through him, accompanied by the familiar feeling of regret.

Ignoring the broken glass scattered about the floor, he threw himself down into the leather chair and resumed the state of thoughtful contemplation as he continued to gaze into the flames.

He heard the lady’s cries and protests resonate along the hall as Mrs. Shaw met her at the front door.

“Wait, wait, you can’t come in. His lordship doesn’t take kindly to visitors.”

“Do I look as though I’m here to take tea?”

Alexander straightened. The predator in him was alert and ready to pounce — the man curious and inquisitive.

“Come back here. Trust me. You won’t want to make him angry.”

“Do I look as though I care? I have far more important things to worry about.”

With those stony words, the lady burst in through the door, forcing him to jump up from his seat and face her while Mrs. Shaw waddled in behind.

“I tried to stop her, my lord. I told her you don’t want company.”

He raised a hand to calm his housekeeper.

The lady strode up to him, coming to a halt a mere foot away. She wore no bonnet, and her chestnut-brown hair looked dull and shabby. Her left cheek was grazed, the skin red and swollen, the rest of her face smudged with dirt. Her filthy cloak didn’t look fit for a pauper. Yet, in spite of it all, her countenance conveyed strength, good breeding, and an unshakable resolve.

“You must hurry,” she said not bothering with an introduction. “There’s been an accident … my aunt is … my aunt is …”

She stopped abruptly, her curious gaze searching his face as though scrutinizing every line, every detail. He knew why, of course. She’d been expecting a monster.

“Your face,” she continued, tilting her head. “There’s … there’s not a mark on it. Not even a blemish.”

He couldn’t help but smirk.

With a look of wonder, her gloveless hand drifted up towards his cheek, and he noticed her dirty nails and the cut that ran across one knuckle. Worst of all, he noticed the dried blood.

Sucking in a breath, he stepped back.

“Forgive me,” she said, dropping her hand and shaking her head. “I don’t know what came over me. I heard you were, that you were —”

“Disfigured.”

“That you’d been in an accident and had suffered —” She gasped and her hand flew to her chest. “The accident … our carriage has overturned, no more than a mile from here. I fear my aunt has received an injury to her head, and I need your help. Please, you must come quickly.”

Alexander shook his head. He could not be alone with her, not in the forest at night, not when there would be blood. “I’m afraid I cannot help you.”

Her mouth fell open.

“There’s an inn a few miles along the road,” he added not knowing why he felt a sudden need to offer assistance. “My groom will escort you there directly. I suggest you leave now. It will not take long to prepare the horses.”

“But there’s no time. It will be too late. You must come now. ”

“I can’t help you.”

She turned away from him and muttered something about taking the wrong path. Hitting her clenched fists against her legs in protest, she swung back around. “Do you have kin, my lord? Do you have someone you care for, someone you would do anything to save?”

“I have no one.” The words were not said to incite pity, and he felt anger flare when her gaze softened.

Mrs. Shaw gave a weak smile and shuffled further back into the shadows.

The lady simply stared at him. “Well, there must have been someone once, someone you cared for?”

Alexander considered the question. He’d had a mother who lavished gifts and attention on her lovers, a father who appeared indifferent and a whole host of women he’d barely even liked.

“No,” he repeated, aware that his tone sounded cold.

“Oh. I see. Well, I do have one person who means the world to me, and she is currently lying in an upturned carriage, teetering on the brink of death.”

Alexander knew how it felt to waver between the two worlds, to feel the icy pull of death sucking him under while he struggled to cling on.

“And I would do anything to save her,” she continued.

“As I said, my groom will escort you to the inn. You’ll find a —”

“Why won’t you help me?” Her eyes brimmed with tears, and he could feel her frustration. “Outwardly, you may not look like the monster everyone believes you to be. But a man with no heart surely hides a monster within.”

She looked shocked upon uttering the words, and his attention was drawn to the full lips responsible for forming them. If only she knew the truth lurking within her statement. It was the monster inside he was trying so desperately to keep at bay.

Refusing to accept his decision, she thrust her arm out and grabbed his sleeve. “Please, I implore you, my lord. You must help me.”

The touch of her innocent fingers caused the fire in his blood to rage. But it felt different. The urge to drink from her, to feel the thick, warm liquid coat his tongue and throat was tempered by another feeling — an obscure need to comfort and protect.

It rocked him to his core.

In the last two years, he’d never felt anything close, most human emotions being a distant memory. So why now? Why this particular lady? Perhaps he’d not lost everything, after all. Perhaps his humanity was still trapped inside the body of a beast, waiting to be released, waiting for an opportunity to reveal itself.

If he let this lady leave, he would never know.

“Very well,” he suddenly said, driven by an overwhelming desire to test the theory. “I will see what I can do.”

The lady gave a relieved gasp, which was nothing compared to Mrs. Shaw’s shocked expression as she hovered in the background.

“You will wait here while —”

“But I will need to show you where to go. It’s dark out. You’ll never find your way.”

Alexander did not need her help. He would have no problem following the scent of blood or the smell of death.

“I move too quickly. You will never keep up.”

“I will.”

“You’ll be a hindrance.”

“I won’t.”

“Stay here.” It was an order not a request, and he ignored her forlorn expression to take a few strides towards the door.

She rushed to his side and placed her dainty hand on his thin linen sleeve. “Please, my lord. What if it’s the last time I’ll see my aunt alive? What if I miss the chance to say goodbye?”

Alexander should have felt indifferent to her exaggerated display of sentiment, yet something deep inside him stirred. He could not argue with her logic or motive, and he found he admired her persistence.

If only someone had fought for him with such passion. If only someone had thought him worth saving.

“If you fall behind, I will continue without you.” His words were deliberately blunt, harsh even. “We will need to cut through the forest on foot. It can be treacherous enough by day.”

She raised the hem of her gown a fraction to reveal a pair of sturdy brown boots and then gave a satisfied grin. “These will suffice.”

Mrs. Shaw stepped forward. “I’ll pack some water, bandages, a needle, and thread. Come, miss, you can wait for the master in the kitchen.”

Some five minutes later, Alexander strode out of the herb garden, through the alley of overgrown topiary to the door in the boundary wall, aware that his quarry tottered behind him in a bid to keep up.

He stopped as his hand curled around the iron ring on the door. “I’ll be quicker on my own,” he said, offering her one more chance to change her mind.

“I’m coming with you.”

The wooden door scraped along the ground as he forced it open and he raised the lantern to light their way.

“Be careful where you place your feet and stay close behind. If you fall, I won’t carry you.”

They made their way through the forest, the crunching and cracking underfoot breaking the uncomfortable silence. She tried to suppress a groan when she almost stumbled, and he resisted the urge to offer assistance.

“How did you get in?” He asked the question purely to prevent his solitude from being disturbed by another unwelcome intruder.

“The gate was locked,” she said pausing to catch her breath, “so … so I climbed a tree and dropped down over the wall.”

“Wearing a dress?”

“I had no other choice.”

“How did you know where to come?”

“My aunt said that the Earl of Hale lived nearby. I assume you’re him.”

“I am.” Or he had been once. Now he was but a fragment of his old self.

No doubt her aunt was the one who’d told her the tale of his scarred face, and she’d come to the house believing she’d be greeted by a monster. The lady certainly had courage in abundance.

“Wait,” she said, and he swung around to find her leaning back against a tree trunk, her hand covering her heart. “I think … I think we’re going the wrong way.”

Alexander lifted the lantern higher, purely for effect. “No, we’re not.” He imagined her inquisitive mind trying to establish how he knew the way. Her aunt must have lost a fair amount of blood as the potent smell hung in the air, drawing him closer. “It’s this way.”

She simply stared at him, her silver-blue eyes peering through the darkness like bright stars in the night sky.

“You knew the gate was locked,” he continued by way of an explanation. “Therefore, you took the lane at the fork in the road. I doubt you’re capable of running more than a mile, so I have a reasonable idea where I'm going.”

She raised her chin in acknowledgement, and they continued through the forest. Despite snagging her dress on bracken and dead branches, she kept moving, radiating a level of determination he found admirable.

When they found themselves out on the road, she barged past him and stopped in the middle of the path, thrusting her hands on her hips as she searched left and right. Eventually, she pointed to the left and said, “It’s this way.”

She didn’t wait for him but lifted her gown an inch and ran through the darkness, her torn cloak billowing behind her. Alexander followed, choosing to hang back rather than race on ahead.

“I think that’s the carriage,” she said, calling to him over her shoulder as a monstrous shadow appeared in view. “Aunt Beatrice. I’m here.”

The carriage lay on its side, but there was no sign of the horses or the coachman. The lady tried to climb the wreckage in an attempt to reach her relative.

“Here, let me try,” he said tugging at her cloak for fear of touching her.

She stepped down and took the lantern. “Quickly. You must hurry.”

He wedged his foot between the spokes of the mangled wheel lying crushed under the weight of the carriage and vaulted up before dropping down inside.

“Is she alright? Tell me she’s alive! Tell me all is well.”

“At least give me a minute to look,” he shouted with some frustration.

Alexander placed his fingers to the woman’s neck. “She’s alive.” Although her pulse was weak and she had yet to regain consciousness. He ignored the blood, the sight causing a pang deep in his belly. Rolling the woman into his arms, he stood and lifted her closer to his chest, shuffling her up over his shoulder so he could use his hands to climb out.

It was not an easy task.

“You’re going to drop her.”

“I am not going to drop her. If you’re so worried why don’t you put the lantern down and help me, damn it.”

“There’s no need to curse and shout. I am only …”

Her attention was drawn away, and he followed her gaze to the cart clattering into view further along the road.

Without a word, she ran forward and held the lantern high in the air. “Stop, please we need your help.”

There were two men in the cart, one being the innkeeper, Fred Harlow, and the other he assumed was their coachman.

The cart stopped directly in front of them, and the men jumped out.

“I’m sorry, miss, for going off and leaving her,” the other man said. “I took the horses and went to get help.”

Fred Harlow came up to the carriage. “Do you need help, my lord?” he said, failing to hide his surprise.

“If you could take her arms, I think that would be best. We’ll lie her down in your cart so we can treat the wound to her head.”

“As you say, my lord.”

The men carried the old woman to the cart and used a stuffed sack as a pillow while Alexander examined the cut. “It will need a few stitches before you can take her anywhere. Hopefully, after a few days’ rest, she’ll be up on her feet.” When no one volunteered for the task, he turned to the lady. “What’s your name?”

“My name?”

“I assume you have one.”

“It’s … it’s Miss Bromwell.”

“Miss Bromwell, you will climb into the cart and hold your aunt’s hand while I stitch her head. If she wakes and is startled, I fear I’ll do more damage.”

“Do you even know what to do?” she said as she climbed up opposite him. “Have you done this sort of thing before?”

“Would I attempt it if I didn’t?”

She sighed when she looked at the old woman, took the ghostly pale hand and brought it to her lips. “Don’t leave me, Aunt Bea. Don’t leave me here alone.”

Alexander swallowed. The overpowering scent of blood made it more difficult for him to concentrate and the odd feeling in the pit of his stomach sent his thoughts into disarray.

“Just hold her still while I sew.” The quicker he got on with it, the quicker he’d be rid of them.

Miss Bromwell ignored his harsh tone and sat through the whole procedure without looking away once. She continued to stroke the woman’s hand and whisper endearments while he covered the wound with a bandage.

Alexander glanced down at the innkeeper. “There, all done. Take it steady on the way back and you’ll need two to lift her into bed.”

Fred Harlow shook his head. “There’s no room at the inn for them tonight. What with the cockfight in Brier’s field and the road closed near Setley, we’re having to put ‘em up in the barn.”

Alexander jumped down and pulled the man to one side. “I’m sure you will find somewhere suitable. I shall make it worth your while.”

Fred threw his hands up. “You can’t expect me to turf folk out their beds at this hour. Their coachman says they’re on their way to Mytton Grange. If you send word, I’m sure they’ll come and take ‘em off your hands.”

Alexander gave his most stern frown. “Are you saying you won’t help me?”

“What can I do? I’ve already given up my own bed.” Fred sighed. He stared into Alexander’s eyes and then said, “I suppose I could see if anyone minds sharing.”