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Authors: Janet Woods

Daughter of Darkness

BOOK: Daughter of Darkness
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Daughter of Darkness
by Janet Woods
Romance/Historical Fiction

Copyright © 2001 by Janet Woods

First published in 2001

NOTICE: This ebook is copyrighted. It is licensed only for use by the original purchaser. Duplication of this ebook by beaming, email, network, disk, paper, or any other method is a violation of international copyright law and subjects the violator to severe fines and/or imprisonment.

DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS
Janet Woods
Prologue

London—New Years Eve—175

An icy stream of wind blew through a broken window behind the altar. The candles spluttered. The stench of burning tallow caught in Gerard Lytton’s throat as the bishop’s sonorous voice droned on.

The viscount was not paying attention to the words. His head was pounding and his eyes refused to stay open without effort. All his concentration was focused on keeping his nausea under control until the service reached a conclusion.

‘I pronounce you husband and wife in the sight of God.’

Gerard’s powerful frame swayed as he shifted from one foot to the other. He gazed down at the figure of the veiled woman beside him. Her small hand trembled inside his. When he smiled at her she jerked it angrily away.

His lips curled wryly at the gesture. Daphne de Vere had every right to be angry. Although their marriage had been ordained since childhood, this clandestine affair was not what she’d envisaged. Unfortunately, his dalliance with Daphne on the eve of his departure for America had left them with no choice. He’d been caught in Daphne’s chamber. The invitation had been hers, a chance to say farewell in private. Her kisses had been surprisingly seductive for a maid—the wine he’d consumed, heady. His mind was a blank to what had actually taken place between them, but his state of undress had told its own story when her stepfather had aroused him with a well placed foot in the rear.

Daphne had been huddled in a chair. Her eyes had been red from weeping, her bodice torn. She’d avoided his eyes as he’d been hustled away by her stepfather and his two male companions. He rubbed a sore spot on his jaw. They’d been none to gentle with him, but under the circumstances he considered he’d got off lightly.

‘The ceremony is over, sir. I bid you good night.’

Spots appeared before Gerard’s eyes as his head jerked towards the voice. Clutching the back of the pew he waited until the accompanying dizziness abated before allowing his eyes to focus on Daphne’s stepfather. Contempt painted the pale, glittering eyes of the marquis. His smile was a sneer, as were those of his two companions—men who’d sell their souls to the devil if there were a guinea to be earned.

‘Lynchcross.’ Gerard’s acknowledgement of the man bordered on insolence. There was a long-standing feud between their two families—one that would end only when the marquis was dead.

‘You seem loathe to kiss your bride,’ the marquis mocked, his finger’s closing around Daphne’s wrist. ‘If you don’t want her I’ll take her to France with me.’

‘No!’ A terrified sob came from beneath the veil and Gerard’s lips tightened in distaste as he knocked the man’s hand aside. The marquis’s chateau in France had as unsavoury a reputation as its owner.

‘As you will.’ Lynchcross yawned as he turned away. ‘My daughter is your responsibility now. May you each find pleasure in each other. Her servants and chattels will be dispatched to your residence forthwith.’

‘Daphne is not
your daughter,
’ Gerard reminded him as the three men retreated towards the door. ‘Had your blood flowed in her veins I’d not have considered marriage—whatever the circumstances.’ Raucous laughter greeted his words as the door slammed shut.

Throwing his cloak about his shoulders Gerard turned to his bride. ‘Come, Daphne, stop your weeping. I’ll take you to my grandmother’s house.’

Her veiled head turned slowly towards him. ‘I’m not Daphne de Vere.’

Impatience darkened his pewter grey eyes. He was in no mood for jesting. The hour was late and his luggage and servant already aboard the East Indiaman that would convey them across the Atlantic. He should have met Charles, his friend and travelling companion, an hour ago. ‘And I’m not Gerard Lytton, Viscount Sommersley who is heir to the earldom of Lytton, I suppose?’

‘You’ve been duped, My Lord.’

Puzzled, Gerard gazed down at her.

‘I’m Willow Givanchy. Daughter to the Marquis Lynchcross.’

‘What foolishness is this?’ His eyes narrowed. ‘Rumor has it the daughter of the Marquis died in childhood.’

‘Then rumor is wrong. I am she.’

The simple statement shafted dread into Gerard’s heart. ‘Remove your veil, Madam.’

Fear was evident in her every move. Her hand fluttered upward like a bird against her chest. She gave a cry when he reached out and plucked the veil from her face.

‘God’s truth!’
The soaring, vaulted roof sent the blasphemy echoing back at him. The maid was young, about fourteen. Violet eyes fringed with dark lashes dominated a pale, tearstained face. A torrent of dark hair poured down her back in shining ripples.

‘What mischief is this?’ he muttered. ‘Who are you?’

‘That, My Lord, you’ve already been informed of.’

The pert answer displeased him. His eyes blazed a warning at her.

She shrank from him then, sinking on to a stool, with her eyes closed. Tears trickled from beneath her lids as she whispered. ‘The wine you drank was drugged. Daphne de Vere is to wed, Eduard, the illegitimate nephew of my father.’

A void opened in the pit of Gerard’s stomach and a pulse beat painfully in his temple as he stared at her. ‘This is a jest, a new year’s prank, yes? You and this mock Bishop are part of the theatre company. You’ve been hired by the marquis to fool me, is that not so?’

The maid said nothing. Such abject misery was written on her face he knew she’d spoken the truth. The cleric averted his eyes, and moving into the church began to snuff the candles.

The girl flinched as he dragged her by the shoulders to her feet. ‘Why?’

‘I had no choice, My Lord.’ She started to sob. ‘You were the lesser of the two evils. I pray you, stop shaking me.’

‘The devil I was!’ He avoided the temptation to crush her frail bones beneath his hands by releasing her. His palms came away sticky.
Blood?
For a few moments he stared at it uncomprehendingly. The situation became clear when the girl whimpered. Tight-lipped, he eased the cloak from her shoulders. Her gown hung in bloodied strips from her back and was crisscrossed with whip lashes. She would be in agony.

‘The Marquis did this?’ Anger burned in him. Before anything else she needed comfort and medical attention. ‘Why?’

Her eyes came up to his, luminous with tears. ‘I reminded him of my mother.’

‘Your mother?’ He still didn’t understand. ‘What has your mother got to do with this?’

‘She was Marietta Givanchy.’

Gerard spun round as a strangled gasp came from behind him. The cleric was grey-faced as he snatched up a cross. ‘God save me from hellfire,’ he cried. ‘Banish this demon from your house, Lord.’

‘What are you gibbering about?’ Uneasiness pricked Gerard’s spine as snippets of drawing room gossip came to his mind. They didn’t seem so amusing now. ‘Speak, man.’

The Bishop’s eyes rolled upwards and he sank to his knees. ‘Marietta Givanchy was in league with the devil and cursed the Marquis on her deathbed. That’s why he has no male heirs. His infant daughter was banished to Ireland lest she inherit the evil eye.’ He started to moan. ‘Go, My Lord. The church is no place for heretics.’

‘I’m no heretic,’ the girl said indignantly.

‘Be quiet,’ Gerard snapped as he hauled the man to his feet. His wits all but restored, his grey eyes impaled those of the cleric. ‘The marriage was illegal. It must be annulled immediately.’

The Bishop shook his head. ‘There was no illegality. The documents were duly signed and witnessed, vows were exchanged at God’s altar.’

‘Damn it, man! I was under duress. Besides, the girl is hardly more than a child.’

The Bishop’s glance shifted away. ‘There was no duress and the maid is of marriageable age. I perceived only that you’d partaken of too much wine.’ He shrugged from Gerard’s grasp and backed towards the door, the cross held aloft in front of him. ‘The Marquis is responsible for my living. If need be I shall testify to the legality of the marriage in parliament. Take your bride and depart, sir.’

‘The only place I shall take her is back to her father’s house,’ he snarled. As the door closed behind the priest he set off up the aisle. ‘Come child. I’ll escort you safely home and we will sort this matter out.’

‘I’d rather die.’

The desperation in her voice made him spin round. His heart leapt in alarm when the light from a solitary candle glinted on the silver blade of a dagger. ‘Stop, don’t be foolish!’

Several rapid strides took him back to her, but too late. The knife stabbed against her chest in a slashing downward motion. It struck against a brooch on her bodice, shattering the stone into glinting shards. She screamed as he twisted the knife from her hand, striking out at him with her fists.

‘Please let me die, for my life will be spent in suffering should you return me to my father.’

Gerard’s heart went out to her. Drawing her close he held her until her hysteria became shuddering sobs. She was too slender, her bones gaunt under her skin. In all conscience he couldn’t abandon her to her father’s care. She’d not survive another beating. As for her bloodline… his forehead creased in a frown as he tipped up Willow’s chin and gazed at her again. She was of good birth. Her mother had been born from a liaison between a French Duke and one of his mistresses, it was said. He was relieved to see that she bore no resemblance to her father. This skinny little maid was not one he’d have taken by choice, but now he must make the best of the match and provide Lytton estate with heirs from her. He was no debaucher of children though. He could afford to wait until she grew up.

‘Hush,’ he soothed. ‘Once my grandmother has been made aware of the situation she will care for you whilst I’m abroad.’

‘You promise you will not return me to my father?’ Her violet eyes were wounded beyond trust.

‘My word of honor.’ Testing the blade of the dagger with his thumb he flicked her a grin. ‘You’d best get it honed. This would not slice through butter.’

She gave a weary shrug, and stifling a yawn, rested her head against his arm. The gesture was touching, the rush of tenderness he experienced unexpected. She made no protest when he hefted her slight figure up in his arms, just nestled her head on his shoulder.

Anger built up in him as he strode from the church and picked his way through the clutching hands of the beggars huddled on the steps. Tomorrow, he’d be the laughing stock of London. A Lytton and a Lynchcross paired by marriage? It was unthinkable!

‘Yet it’s happened,’ he muttered, hearing the girl whimper as he stumbled in a pothole. ‘This unloved, and unwanted child is now my responsibility.’

His fierce, hawk-like gaze and powerful body discouraged liberties from the human flotsam who littered London’s dark streets. The moon was full, the night cold enough to glaze the mud with ice.

Gerard’s feet hardly made a sound as he moved with a fast catlike gait, his eyes searching the shadows for danger. Within minutes he’d reached his destination. Depositing his sleeping burden on a couch he quickly explained the situation to his astonished grandmother. He gave Willow a troubled glance. ‘She is too young to be a wife.’

His grandmother smiled. ‘She will grow. Her mother was a childhood friend of your dear mamma. The notoriety Marietta gained was without substance. I shall enjoy having her daughter as a companion. May God go with you, Gerard,’ Her parting words brought him comfort.

As he was leaving the house Willow’s servants arrived. A young maid, and an Irish groom leading a young mare. He took a moment to admire the animal which, though fully grown, was still young. A coat of black satin shone as the groom held a lantern aloft. Vapour snorted from her nostrils as she pranced nervously upon the cobbles, and sparks flashed from beneath her hooves. Her grace and beauty awed him. The filly was too spirited for a girl of Willow’s small stature. In fact, Willow looked hardly old enough to have graduated from a pony.

BOOK: Daughter of Darkness
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