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Authors: Echoes in the Mist

Andrea Kane

BOOK: Andrea Kane
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Echoes in the Mist
The Kingsley in Love Series (Book One)
Andrea Kane

Like Trenton, I am blessed to have a few special people in my life who never let me falter without purpose, who help me regain my balance when I do falter, who demand
almost
as much of me as I demand of myself … and who do it all with an abundance of love that is humbling. It is to these extraordinary people that I dedicate
Echoes in the Mist.
Brad, Wendi, Mom & Dad … you know what this particular book means to me. I hope you also know what you mean to me.

Contents

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

CHAPTER 26

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

A Biography of Andrea Kane

CHAPTER
1

Sussex, England

July 1873

G
REAT WHITE WINGS ILLUMINATED
the sky. Piercing the heavens the owl soared, majesty of his domain, as regal in his splendor as a mountain peak splitting the night.

Ariana leaned, spellbound, against the balcony rail, taking in the grace of his motions, the abandoned freedom of his flight. Already this summer she’d sighted several owls in her savored explorations, but never in all her eighteen years had she found one this pure in color. His bold downy feathers, stark as a snow bank, were bathed in the soft golden glow cast by twin gas lamps heralding his path.

A burst of laughter from within the crowded ballroom pricked at Ariana’s conscience, pressuring her to return to the betrothal party. She owed that much to Baxter. And she
had
been enjoying herself most thoroughly all evening. After all, seldom did she have the opportunity to attend so grand a ball, to chat with hundreds of equally grand people, to dance until her feet barely touched the floor. The experience was glorious.

But it paled in comparison to this awesome spectacle.

So when the owl’s haunting call beckoned her, thoughts of all else had vanished.

Her breath caught in her throat as the magnificent bird alit in the walnut tree before her, close enough to touch. He leveled his fiery topaz stare in her direction, holding her captive with his probing intensity. Ariana gazed back, praying that the evening mist would delay its descent a few moments longer, delay concealing nature’s priceless treasure from view.

For a time, the mist complied with her unspoken request, hovering just above the tree, and Ariana lingered, silently vowing to retrace her steps through the open French doors … in just a minute.

At last the mist lost patience, settling over the vast estate like a milky blanket. The owl blinked once, then raised his great head, solemnly contemplating the heavens. With a resounding cry, he spread his wings and took flight.

“Wait!” Ariana called, grasping the air as if that action alone could summon him back. For an instant, she followed him with her eyes. Then she acted.

Gathering the full skirt of her mauve satin ball gown, she hastened down the winding steps that led to the gardens and raced off in pursuit.

The labyrinthine maze loomed ahead, stretching its wealth of manicured hedges as far as the eye could see. She reached the opening in time to see the flash of white soar inside.

She didn’t hesitate.

She ran in after him.

Engulfed in fog, the owl disappeared in scant seconds, with only a reverberating call in his wake. Relentlessly, Ariana dodged through the winding paths, determined to find him.

A quarter hour later, two realizations occurred.

The owl was lost.

So was she.

Dark, forbidding, the man stared through the imposing iron gates toward the barely visible mansion, his eyes burning with hatred, his soul burning with anticipation.

Six years.

Six years of exile, of scorching hatred spawned by the crime of another. Six years to plan the perfect revenge. At last it was time. Within the hour,
his lordship,
Baxter Caldwell, the
eminent
Viscount Winsham, would solidify his fate. … But the outcome would not be the one the bastard expected.

Lifting the glowing cheroot to his lips, the man inhaled slowly, then blew out, watching the wisps of smoke swirl above him and vanish into the engulfing fog.

A sudden burst of cheers and applause split the hush of night, audible even from this great distance.

A toast, no doubt,
the man deduced.
To the happy couple.

He raised an imaginary glass in mock tribute. Yes, at this very moment the viscount was triumphantly celebrating, what was considered to be the match of the Season: his betrothal to the captivating Suzanne Covington. Caldwell was on the brink of realizing his most fervent dream: mating the old and respected Caldwell name with the widely sought-after Covington wealth.

A title for an empire. That heinous prospect would be untenable, were the marriage actually going to occur.

Idly rolling his cheroot, the man gave a malevolent smile, envisioning the mass pandemonium that would ensue when he issued his ultimatum and Covington made the only choice he possibly could. There were some motivators even more powerful than securing the
right
social position. Motivators such as blackmail.

So the betrothal’s demise was a
fait accompli.

After which, the viscount’s demise—and his own revenge—were but scant moments away.

Inside the manor the music and dancing had resumed, and the French doors were once again thrown open to admit the fragrant July air. Strains of a lively Strauss waltz spilled forth, rolling across the grounds and through the iron gates.

The man went taut, the image of Baxter Caldwell instantly replaced by a more loathsome substitute. For the weak, unprincipled, lazy parasite of a viscount held not a candle to his deceitful bitch of a sister.

Vanessa.

Memories hurtled back in hard, stunning blows to his head.

Heaven alone knew how many rich men had been the recipients of that perfect smile … how many she had been willing to whore herself for in exchange for the promise of wealth.

With a quick, savage snap of the wrist, he sent the cheroot rolling to the grass, grinding it beneath his heel.

He slipped through the gates and moved toward his quarry.

The day of retribution had finally arrived.

Ariana wrung her hands in frustration. The mist had indeed grown thicker, plunging the maze into an opaque prison. Pangs of guilt intensified her worry. By now Baxter had discovered her absence and was undoubtedly furious. Not that she blamed him, given the cause of the night’s celebration. She simply had to find her way.

The fog settled lower, shrouding the night’s wonders in warm, hazy mists, eclipsing her earlier elation and clarifying the grim reality. When would she ever learn to listen to her head and not her heart?

Straining her ears, she listened for sounds of the ball, the music and laughter that had accompanied her on her walk. In reply, she heard only the chirp of an occasional cricket and the sweet call of a nightingale.

Lord only knew how far she’d wandered, Ariana conceded with a frown. The Covington estate was massive; the maze she walked within meandered endlessly. She quickened her step, stumbling on every unseen stone, hastening along the cold ground.

One hedge was the same as the next, leading nowhere but to another facet of the puzzle. Groping her way down each open path, Ariana carefully searched for the avenue that would guide her to safety. She found none. Nor did she hear even the faintest murmur to reassure her the manor was near.

Minutes ticked by.

Panic set in.

Breaking into a blind run, she cupped her hands over her mouth, hoping that, by calling out, she would alert someone to her plight.

The shout never emerged.

With a telltale tug, the full skirt of Ariana’s gown lodged beneath her slipper, upsetting her balance and toppling her to the ground. Shards of pain shot through her right ankle as it bent awkwardly beneath her.

Biting back a cry, Ariana waited until the physical agony had subsided to a dull throb. Then, shakily, she gathered up her skirts and resolutely hoisted herself to a standing position—but collapsed just as quickly to the grass. Gingerly, she touched her ankle, wincing at its tenderness. It was badly sprained, at best. Walking was out of the question.

Gritting her teeth, Ariana silently admonished herself for hot having the good sense to tell someone of her destination. When it came to embracing nature’s splendor, she seemed unable to retain a whit of judgment, continually succumbing to some foolhardy, whimsical inner voice that dominated her reason, urged her to relent. And inevitably got her into trouble.

She considered crawling, then dismissed the idea as ludicrous. How far would she get with copious layers of petticoats in her way? Trying once again to stand, she fell to the grass with a soft whimper of pain. It was no use.

She gazed around, acutely aware of the darkness, the seclusion that enveloped her. The ball would still be at its ebullient peak; how long would it be before anyone searched for her?

With a frightened shiver, she gave in to her earlier intent. Raising her face to the ominous hedges, she cried out, “Help!”

Only the sound of her own voice echoed through the mist.

He heard the scream.

Startled, he stopped in his tracks and scanned the milky darkness, trying to assess the direction from which the sound had emerged. He saw nothing. He had almost decided he’d imagined the cry, when he heard it again.

“Help!”

It was definitely real. The voice belonged to a woman, one who was obviously in distress.

Scowling, he cast a brief glance at the manor, contemplating his choices. He had waited this long. A few more minutes wouldn’t matter.

That decided, he made his way through the fog.

Ariana brushed a damp auburn strand from her forehead, feeling the heavy tresses tumble free of their restraining pins to settle in a limp, disheveled mass on her back.

No one had responded to her call. That meant she was even farther away than she’d realized. Well, she couldn’t just sit here forever, praying to be rescued. Perhaps if she managed to pull herself upright she could put all her weight on her uninjured foot and hop—but in what direction? She hadn’t an inkling of her whereabouts. And she couldn’t remain standing long enough to discover them. The throbbing in her ankle was intensifying, as was the swelling.

She bit her lip in frustration. Futile though it might be, she tried once again. “Help!”

Holding her breath, she waited. Silence. Surely she couldn’t be the
only
one who had ventured from the party to stroll the grounds. But apparently she was. She dropped her head wearily.

A twig snapped, and Ariana’s head came up in a flash. “Help! Please help me!” she cried out, flooded with relief when the soft but distinct plod of footsteps reached her ears.

“Keep talking,” a deep, resonant voice instructed. “I’ll follow the sound.”

“I’m inside the maze,” Ariana called, desperately wishing the mist would lift. She had no idea who her rescuer was; his voice was unfamiliar but disturbingly close. Uneasily, she wondered why he was walking alone in this particularly isolated section of the estate. On the heels of that thought came the reality of its absurdity: She, who had gone in avid pursuit of an elusive owl and was now hopelessly lost in a forest of trees, was concerned about a stranger’s motives for strolling the Covington grounds?

“Can you hear me?” the stranger called, closer this time.

BOOK: Andrea Kane
10.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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