When they’d entered Swinford Woods, laughing and making merry, passing around a flask of spirits “for warmth”, Denny had offered a forfeit to the first hunter to spot the beast. His last bottle of apple brandy from the pressing two years past.
Well, it would appear Cecily had won. It seemed doubtful, however, that she would survive to claim her prize.
Peering through the darkness, she studied her quarry. Dark, beady eyes regarded her around an elongated nose. The curved, lethal tip of a horn glittered in the moonlight. The creature’s rank, gamy odor assaulted her, even from several paces away.
The animal impatiently pawed the leaf-strewn forest floor, fixing her all the while with an offended glare. Good heavens, it was enormous. It must outweigh her by ten stone, at least.
She didn’t know what to do. Should she run? Climb a tree? Feign death and hope it lost interest and went away? She’d become separated from the others some ways back—stupid, stupid. Would they even hear her, if she called?
“Denny?” she ventured. The animal cocked its head, and Cecily cleared her throat to try again. “Portia? Mr. Brooke?”
The beast shuffled toward her, great slabs of muscle flexing beneath its hoary coat.
“Not you,” she told it, taking a quick step back. “Shoo. Go home.”
It bristled and snarled, revealing a narrow row of jagged teeth. Moonlight pooled like liquid around its massive jaw. Good Lord, the thing was drooling.
Truly panicked now, she drew a deep breath and called as loud as she could. “Denny! Help!”
Oh, Lord. She was going to be slaughtered, right here in the forest. Miss Cecily Hale, a lady of perfectly good breeding and respectable fortune, not to mention oft-complimented eyes, would die unmarried and childless because she’d wasted her youth pining for a man who didn’t love her. She would perish here in Swinford Woods, alone and heartbroken, having received only two kisses in the entirety of her three-and-twenty years. The second of which she could still taste on her lips, if she pressed them together tightly enough.
It tasted bitter.
Luke, you unforgivable cad. This is all your fault. If only you hadn’t—
A savage grunt snapped her back into the present. Cecily looked on in horror as the vile creature lowered its head, stamped the ground—
And began to charge.
God, she truly was going to die. Whose brilliant idea had it been, to go hunting a legendary beast in a cursed forest, by the light of a few meager torches and a three-quarters moon?
Oh, yes. Hers.
* * *
Three hours earlier
“Menacing clouds obscured the moon’s silvered radiance.” Portia flattened one palm against a low-slung, imaginary sky. Her voice portentous, she continued to read from the notebook. “With a mighty crack of thunder, the heavens rent. Rain lashed the crumbling abbey in unremitting torrents, and a crystalline gale blasted like the very breath of Hell.”
From her chair near the hearth, Cecily checked a smile. This performance was pure Portia, right down to the dramatic toss of her unbound, jet-black mane.
“Rain filled the gargoyles’ straining mouths, sluicing down to their craven talons and pooling in the Byzantine crevasses, viscous and obsidian.” Portia dropped the notebook to her lap and closed her eyes, as though to savor the suspense. Then her eyes snapped open, and she tore the page from her notebook and crumpled it savagely before casting it into the fire. “Rubbish. Utter rubbish.”
“It isn’t rubbish,” Cecily protested dutifully. Friends, after all, were supposed to support one another, and if Portia wanted to write gothic novels, Cecily would encourage her. It was gratifying to see her friend excited about something—anything—now that she’d emerged from her year of mourning. “It’s a fine beginning,” she said. “Dramatic and chilling. Truly, it gave me a little shiver.”
“Perhaps there’s a draft,” Mr. Brooke remarked.
Portia ignored him. “Do you really think it will do?” She chewed her lip and fished a pencil from the folds of her skirt. “Maybe I should write it down again.”
“You should. You most certainly should. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a group of sentences so…so very…”
“Wet?” The suggestion came from a shadowed corner of the drawing room.
Cecily recognized the deep, wry voice, but she refused to acknowledge the speaker. Why should she? Luke had spent the past week at Swinford ruthlessly ignoring her. Four years ago, during a ball at this very house, they’d been interrupted in the midst of a most intimate conversation. He’d left to join his regiment before dawn, and Cecily had spent four long years—the best years of her youth—waiting for him to return, praying God would one day give them a chance to resume that discussion.
Now he’d come back. They’d been in the same house for eight days. And he’d made it perfectly, painfully clear he had nothing whatever to say.
Well, she supposed she must be fair. He had spoken the word “wet” just now.
“Atmospheric,” she said evenly, forbidding any note of impatience or frustration or bitter heartbreak to tweak her voice. “I was going to say it’s very atmospheric.”
Portia looked to their host. “Denny, what did you think?”
Cecily shot him a pleading glance. She and Denny had practically grown up together, and she knew him well enough to recognize the peril in Portia’s question. He was a good-hearted, uncomplicated man, and he had a way of being too honest at times, without realizing it. Come on, Denny. Give her a kind word. A convincing one.
“Capital,” he exclaimed, rather too loudly to sound sincere. “First rate, I’m sure. At least, I know I could never write a thing to touch it, what with the torrents and the sluicing and those Byzantine crevasses.”
Portia pinched the bridge of her nose. “Lord. It is rubbish.”
“If you want my opinion…” Brooke said, lifting a decanter of whiskey.
Brooke, of course, was undeterred. To the contrary, a keen anticipation lit his eyes. The man possessed a cutting wit, and used it to draw blood. Some gentlemen angled trout while on holiday; others shot game. Arthur Brooke made it a sport to disenchant—as though it were his personal mission to drive fancy and naiveté to extinction.
He said smugly, “My dear Mrs. Yardley, you have assembled a lovely collection of words.”
Portia eyed him with skepticism. “I don’t suppose that’s a compliment.”
“No, it isn’t,” he answered. “Pretty words, all, but there are too many of them. With so many extravagant ornaments, one cannot make out the story beneath.”
“I can make out the story quite clearly,” Cecily protested. “It’s nighttime, and there is a terrific storm.”
“There you have it,” Denny said. “It was a dark and stormy night.” He made a generous motion toward Portia. “Feel free to use that. I won’t mind.”
With a groan, Portia rose from her chair and swept to the window. “The difficulty is, this is not a dark and stormy night. It is clear, and well-lit by the moon, and unseasonably warm for autumn. Terrible. I was promised a gothic holiday to inspire my literary imagination, and Swinford Manor is hopeless. Mr. Denton, your house is entirely too cheerful and maintained.”
“So sorry to disappoint,” Denny said. “Shall I instruct the housekeeper to neglect the cobwebs in your chambers?”
“That wouldn’t be nearly enough. There’s still that sprightly toile wallpaper to contend with—all those gamboling lambs and frolicking dairymaids. Can you imagine, this morning I found myself humming! I expected this house to be decrepit, lugubrious…”
“Lugubrious.” Brooke drawled the word into his whiskey. “Another pretty word, lugubrious. More than pretty. Positively voluptuous with vowels, lugubrious. And spoken with such…mellifluence.”
Portia flicked him a bemused glance.
He added, “One pretty word deserves another, don’t you think?”
“I don’t suppose that’s a compliment.”
“This time it is.” He raised his glass to her. “But if it’s gothic inspiration you seek, Mrs. Yardley, I suggest you look to our companion.” He swiveled to face Luke’s corner. “Lord Merritt, I must say you are the picture of decrepitude. Lugubrious, indeed.”
Luke said nothing.
Did they teach men that in the army? Cecily wondered. Drill them in the practice of cold, perfect silence? Years ago, he’d been so open and engaging. So easy to speak with. It was one of the things she’d most lov—
No. She must not use that word, not any longer.
“Actually,” said Portia, giving Luke an assaying look, “with that dark, ruffled hair; the possessive sprawl of his limbs… I would say he is the picture of gothic intrigue and raw animal magnetism.” With a dramatic sigh, she returned to her chair. “That’s it. I shall put aside my novel for the evening and work on my list instead.”
“Your list?” Denny asked. “What kind of list?”
“My list of potential lovers.”
Cecily coughed. “Portia, surely you don’t…”
“Oh, surely I do. I am no longer in mourning. I am a widow now, financially and otherwise independent, and I intend to make the most of it. I shall write scandalous novels and take a dozen lovers.”
“All at once?” Brooke quipped.
“Perhaps in pairs,” she retorted, without missing a beat.
The two locked gazes in challenge, and Cecily did not miss the current of attraction that passed between them. Portia, be careful. She knew her friend’s salacious plans to be nine-tenths brave talk. But Brooke could take that last tenth, her vulnerable, lonely heart, and slice it to ribbons.
“Luke Trenton, the Viscount Merritt,” Portia said, scribbling in her notebook. She gave Brooke a spiteful glare. “We widows do favor those dark, haunted types.”
No. She wouldn’t. She couldn’t possibly be so obtuse. During all the years Luke was at war, Cecily had never told Portia of her hopes—she’d scarcely dared admit them to herself—but surely her friend must know her well enough to understand, to intuit…
“I thank you for the compliment, Mrs. Yardley,” Luke said from the shadows.
No. He wouldn’t. He couldn’t possibly be so cruel.
“Actually, Portia,” Cecily said, determined to cauterize this vein of conversation, “you may find gothic inspiration in the neighborhood, if not within the house. Denny, tell her that story you used to tell me when we were children, summering here.”
His brow creased, and he ruffled his sandy hair. “The one about the vinegar bottle?”
“No, no. The one about the woods that border Corbinsdale.”
“Corbinsdale?” Brooke asked. “Isn’t that the Earl of Kendall’s estate?”
“The very one,” Denny said. “And well done, Cecily. Now that is a story for Portia’s gothic novel.”
“I don’t know about my novel,” Portia said, scribbling again, “but the Earl of Kendall definitely goes on the list.”
“Now wait,” Luke protested, “I cease to be complimented, if you’re lumping me in with that old devil.” He eased his chair into the firelight, and Cecily could not divert her gaze in time. Or perhaps she simply could not bring herself to look away. Portia was right; he did look haunted. Haunted, haggard, in perpetual need of a shave. The rough suggestion of a beard covered a sharply angled jaw and crept up gaunt, hollow cheeks. His face seemed more shadow than substance now. And his eyes… She could scarcely make out the green anymore, through that persistent glaze of liquor. When their gazes met, she saw only the pupils: two hard, black lodestones that trapped her gaze, pulled the air from her lungs, drew on her heart.
Oh, Luke. What has happened to you?
He turned away.
“The old devil you refer to died almost a year ago,” Denny informed him. “The son’s inherited now. A good enough fellow.”
“So the ladies report.” Portia flashed a wicked smile as she underscored Lord Kendall’s name in her book. “He’s quite a favorite with the widows, you know. Oh, Mr. Denton, do invite him for dinner!”
“Can’t. He’s not in residence at Corbinsdale. Never is, this time of year.”
“Pity,” said Brooke dryly.
“Indeed,” Portia sighed. “My list is back to one.”
“Leave him alone.” Cursing her unthinking response, Cecily added, “Lord Kendall, I mean. And do put away your list. Denny was about to tell his story.”
Luke moved to the edge of his armchair. Those cold, dark eyes held her captive as he posed a succinct, incisive question. “Jealous, Cecy?”
Cecy. No one had called her that in years. Not since that last night before he’d left, when he’d wound a strand of her hair about his finger and leaned in close, with that arrogant, devastating smile teasing one corner of his mouth. Won’t you miss me, Cecy?
Four years later, and her blood still responded just as fiercely as it had that night, pounding in her heart and pushing a hot blush to her throat.
She had missed him. She missed him still.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, deliberately misunderstanding him. “Why should I be jealous of Lord Kendall?”
“Yes, how absurd.” Portia gave a throaty laugh. “Everyone knows Cecily’s going to marry Denny.”
Lifting his tumbler of whiskey, Luke retreated into the shadows. “Do they?”
Was it disappointment she detected in his voice? Or merely boredom? And for heaven’s sake, why couldn’t she simply forbid herself to care?
“Denny, won’t you tell Portia the story? Please. It’s so diverting.” She forced a bright tone, even as tears pricked her eyes.
“As you wish.” Denny went to the hearth and stirred the fire, sending up a plume of orange sparks. “The tale begins well before my time. It’s common knowledge, among the locals, that the woods stretching between Swinford and Corbinsdale are cursed.”
“Cursed,” Brooke scoffed. “Ignorance and superstition are the true curses. Their remedy is education. Don’t you sponsor a school on this estate, Denny?”
“It’s a story,” Portia said. “Even schoolchildren know the difference. And they could teach you something about imagination. Your cynicism is not only tiresome, but pitiable.”
“You pity me? How amusing.”
“Pity won’t get you on my list.”
“Really?” Brooke smirked. “It seems to have worked for Lord Merritt.”
Enough. Cecily leapt to her feet. “A man-beast!” she exclaimed, gesturing wildly toward the windows. “There’s a fiendish creature living in those woods, half man and half beast!”
There, now she had everyone’s attention. Even Luke’s, for the first time all week. He was regarding her as though she were a madwoman, but still.
Denny pouted. “Really, Cecily. I was getting to that.”
She gave him an apologetic shrug. She was sorry to ruin the end of his story, but it was what he deserved for dithering so.
“A man-beast?” Portia asked, her eyes widening. “Oh, I do like the sound of this.” She put pencil to paper again.
Brooke leaned over her shoulder. “Are you taking notes for your novel or adding to your list?”
“That depends,” she said coolly, “on what manner of beast we’re discussing.” She looked to Denny. “Some sort of large, ferocious cat, I hope? All fangs and claws and fur?”
“Once again I must disappoint you,” Denny replied. “No fangs, no claws. It’s a stag.”
“Oh, prongs! Even better.” More scribbling. “What do they call this…this man-beast? Does it have a name?”
“Actually,” said Denny, “most people in the region avoid speaking of the creature at all. It’s bad luck, they say, just to mention it. And a sighting of the beast…well, that’s an omen of death.”
“Excellent. This is all so inspiring.” Portia’s pencil was down to a nub. “So is this a creature like a centaur, divided at the waist? Four hooves and two hands?”
“No, no,” Cecily said. “He’s not half man, half beast in that way. He transforms, you see, at will. Sometimes he’s a man, and other times he’s an animal.”
“Ah. Like a werewolf,” Portia said.
Brooke laughed heartily. “For God’s sake, would you listen to yourselves? Curses. Omens. Prongs. You would honestly entertain this absurd notion? That Denny’s woods are overrun with a herd of vicious man-deer?”
“Not a herd,” Denny said. “I’ve never heard tell of more than one.”
“We don’t know that he’s vicious,” Cecily added. “He may be merely misunderstood.”
“And we certainly can’t call him a man-deer. That won’t do at all.” Portia chewed her pencil thoughtfully. “A werestag. Isn’t that a marvelous title? The Curse of the Werestag.”
Brooke turned to Luke. “Rescue me from this madness, Merritt. Tell me you retain some hold on your faculties of reason. What say you to the man-deer?”
“Werestag,” Portia corrected.
Luke circled the rim of his glass with one thumb. “A cursed, half-human creature, damned to an eternity of solitude in Denny’s back garden?” He shot Cecily a strange, fleeting glance. “I find the idea quite plausible.”
Brooke made an inarticulate sound of disgust.
“There’s a bright moon tonight. And fine weather.” Portia put aside her pencil and book, a merry twinkle shining in her eyes. Cecily recognized that twinkle. It spoke of daring, and imprudent adventure.
Which suited Cecily fine. If she had to endure this miserable tension much longer, she would grow fangs and claws herself. Imprudent adventure seemed a welcome alternative. With a brave smile, she rose to her feet. “What are we waiting for? Let’s go find him.”