Excerpt: The Curse of Lord Stanstead

THE CURSE OF LORD STANSTEAD EPUB (small)

Chapter One

If once to Almack’s you belong,

Like monarchs you can do no wrong;

But banished thence on Wednesday night,

By Jove, you can do nothing right.

—Cornelius Luttrell, illegitimate son of an earl

who nevertheless possessed an Almack’s voucher

by virtue of his wit

“I am not responsible for that fire.” Cassandra Darkin was certain of it.

“Of course you’re not responsible, dearest.”

Cassandra startled guiltily when her older sister Daphne patted her forearm. She hadn’t meant to speak her fear aloud.

“What a silly notion,” Daphne continued. “You weren’t even particularly close when the candle flame leaped from the wall sconce to the ostrich plume on Lady Waldgren’s turban.”

“Make that the ridiculous ostrich plume on the odious Lady Waldgren’s turban,” Cassie amended. Her sister cast a warning glance, but didn’t disagree. No one who’d felt the sting of Lady Waldgren’s waspish tongue would argue the point.

However, they’d probably take care to express it less publicly.

Daphne was right about the rest, though. Cassandra hadn’t been near when the feather had burst into flames, but she had passed by the wretched gossip prior to the incident and had heard her name in whispered conversation. The hissed tone had been enough to tell Cassie that Lady Waldgren’s comments had not been meant kindly.

Still, no one wished to see the gossip’s head aflame.

Fortunately, Lord Waldgren’s quick action and obvious glee at being able to rip off his wife’s outlandish headgear and stomp it into oblivion had averted a tragedy. After that, the evening at Almack’s had progressed with hardly a hiccup.

If Lady Waldgren’s small conflagration had been the only one in recent memory, Cassandra wouldn’t have given the matter a second thought. But only that week, there had been three unexplained fires at the Darkin’s fashionably situated town house. One flame had ignited in the breakfast room when Cassandra’s father had announced he’d heard talk at Brooks that the son of Lord Bellefonte, their country neighbor, was courting the daughter of an earl.

The other fires had erupted in Cassandra’s bedchamber on two separate occasions after that—once when she was trying to decide which gown to wear to a soiree that Roderick Bellefonte was expected to attend, and then again when Cassandra had returned home that evening. An unexplained blaze had flared up when she’d told her abigail to burn the peach silk moiré because she’d never wear it again.

If Cassandra hadn’t been speaking of burning when the candle on her dressing table toppled over of its own accord, she might never have wondered if the frequent fires were somehow her fault. She’d been present each time, but that did not mean she was responsible.

Surely not.

Still, to err on the side of caution, Cassandra stationed herself in a dark corner of the assembly room, far from any sources of flame.

“For heaven’s sake, Cassie, sit up straight,” Daphne saidas they watched the dancers move through the prescribed steps of the quadrille. “You look like a wilted lily.”

Cassandra felt like one, too. Her bodice was cut low enough to keep her shoulders rounded. “I wish I’d insisted on that fichu.”

“Nonsense. Your décolletage is perfectly appropriatefor evening. Look at Lady Cowper. She’s not a bit dismayed over baring her shoulders and a good bit more.” Daphne arched her spine, her own pert mounds shown to good effect by the Empire style. Since Daphne had already accepted the suit of the son of a baron in Kent, she had no need to preen so. “There are plenty of bosoms on display this night.”

“Yet the only bosom I’m concerned with is mine.” Cassie was aware she sounded like a hopeless bluestocking, but she couldn’t help herself. In truth, she wished she could hide all of her, not just her bosom, until the Season was over. Or better yet, convince her father to return to Wiltshire without waiting to see if his youngest daughter would catch the interest of a suitable beau or if she’d be placed firmly on the shelf.

Sir Orlando Mayne passed by with a dance partner on his arm. He sent Cassandra a quick appraising glance and a wink. Heat crept up her neck. Sir Orlando was Roderick’s closest friend.

What did Roddy tell him?

“How do you expect to attract an eligible gentleman if you don’t present yourself with confidence?” Daphne whispered.

“You’re quite right,” Cassie snapped. “Perhaps I should hire a tradesman’s window and put myself on display.”

“Now you’re being vulgar. We are not in trade.”

“Not anymore, you mean.”

Their father had returned from India when Cassandra was ten years old with plenty of wealth to show for his stint in the Gorgeous East. He was subsequently dubbed Sir Cornelius for his service to the Crown, but even with a baronetcy, the Darkins were too nouveau riche for full inclusion by the ton. It was only because Countess Esterhazy’s cousin owed their father an astronomical gambling debt, which he’d been willing to forgive, that they’d been given the opportunity to purchase a coveted Almack’s voucher that admitted them to the weekly assemblies.

Daphne had explained that it would take another two generations before their family would be fully considered “good ton.”

“I don’t make the rules,” she said airily. “But I’m certainly glad my fiancé is light enough in the pockets not to mind that my blood isn’t as blue as his. In any case, it’ll be ever so nice to be Lady Mooreland someday.”

Unfortunately, Roderick Bellefonte’s father was not in dun territory. Along with thousands of acres, he had plenty of coin. What the viscount needed was a politically and socially advantageous match for his son and heir in order to increase the family’s standing and range of influence. Against such requirements, the second daughter of a recently made baronet did not signify.

Cassandra understood that. Certainly she did. If she truly loved Roderick, she’d want what was best for him. It would be selfish of her to try to hold him back.

But she wished with all her heart that she’d held herself back.

Does it show?

Another of Roderick’s friends smiled at her. Perhaps the mark of sensual experience was perfectly visible to those who knew to look for it. Her gaze dropped to the dance-worn floor.

A pair of spit-shined shoes with silver buckles appeared on the hardwood in her line of vision.

“Will you do me the honor of this dance, Miss Cassandra?”

She looked up the sleek stockings, past the correct kneebritches, starched white shirtfront, and cutaway jacket. Sir Orlando’s boyishly round face was attached to the request.

A lady was always supposed to accept a dance with a gentleman to whom she’d been properly introduced. She’d known Orlando for years. They’d played together as children when he’d visited Roderick’s family. The boys had snuck over the rambling rock wall that separated the viscount’s land from her father’s. She and Daphne had excelled at being fair maidens in need of rescue from imaginary dragons lurking in the haymow. Roderick and Orlando had been their worthy champions, subduing menacing hay bales with a single blow.

Cassandra wondered what sort of game Orlando wanted to play with her now.

No, I’m imagining things. There’s no slyness in his gaze.

Even so, she almost pleaded a headache to avoid dancing with him. Then across the room, Roderick entered with Lady Sylvia on his arm. In another moment, Cassandra’s heart would cease beating and she’d have the perfect excuse not to join Sir Orlando in the gavotte.

Lady Sylvia was slim, but not lacking in curves in the proper places. Blessed with fashionably blond curls, she also boasted a flawless pale complexion. The earl’s daughter floated across the room as if her kid-soled slippers didn’t deign to touch the floor. A being of such loveliness ought to have been winged.

Even if Lady Sylvia hadn’t possessed overwhelming social advantages, Cassie couldn’t compete with that brand of ethereal charm.

How could I have been so monumentally stupid?

Roderick leaned down and whispered in the lady’s ear. Lady Sylvia laughed, a silvery sort of laugh that lifted the hearts of everyone near her by virtue of its otherworldly cheer.

Sir Orlando cleared his throat.

Cassie had no excuse to refuse him. Despite expectations to the contrary, her heart continued to pump in her chest.

However, something unnamable smoldered in the space around it.

The burning malevolence wasn’t directed at Lady Sylvia. She couldn’t help being beautiful and wellborn. And Cassie couldn’t fault Roderick for choosing to woo her. Two such pretty people deserved each other.

No, Cassandra’s ire was reserved for herself. Every candle in the room flared for the space of two blinks.

“Of course I’ll dance with you, Sir Orlando.” Cassandra rose and made a correct curtsy. She forced a smile. “The honor is mine.”

“A secret panel in the room reserved for séances does suggest skullduggery.” Edward St. James, His Grace, the Duke of Camden, prowled the perimeter of his sumptuously appointed parlor. He considered himself a man of moderate temperament and would have been surprised to learn that his intensity made even his friends liken him to a wolf stalking a weakling to cull from the flock. “Then it is your opinion that the medium in Cornwall is a fraud?”

“As much a fraud as the notion of Cornish society,” said Garret Sterling. He didn’t count himself Camden’s friend and lounged with one knee hitched over the arm of the leather wing chair as if he weren’t in the presence of one of the most powerful peers in the realm. If Camden was the lead wolf, Sterling was the wary stray on the fringe of the pack who hadn’t made up his mind whether to join the group or challenge the ruling authority.

Camden glared at Sterling’s booted foot. Camden House wasn’t a courtesan’s salon, after all, but he resisted the urge to order Sterling to conduct himself with more decorum. Though the duke would have no qualms about dressing down a member of the House of Lords who quarreled with him, Garret Sterling required special handling. Camden had high hopes for him and his considerable gifts.

Besides, a reprimand to Sterling would have all the effect of waving a red flag before a bull.

Sterling had come to Camden’s attention one night at a dinner party. From out of nowhere, the outlandish idea of stripping off all his clothing and going for a swim in Lord Fairbank’s deep fountain had lodged itself in Camden’s brain. Since the duke had sensed a release of psychic energy nearby, he realized the thought was not his own. He had traced it immediately to the gentleman seated at the far end of the long table and knew he’d found another soul to add to the Order of the M.U.S.E, the Metaphysical Union of Sensory Extraordinaires.

Not that Sterling had come willingly. He had been quitecontent to invade the secret core of others and imprint them with his own brand of mischief. However, once Camden had offered to help him harness his other, more unwieldy gift, Sterling had sullenly been brought to heel.

“Make a note regarding the Cornish medium, Bernard,” Camden said as he continued his circuit of the room. Walking helped him think and now that yet another medium had proved to be a fake, he needed to boil away some frustration as well.

“Very good, Your Grace.” His steward’s sagging jowls and bushy white brows always put Camden in mind of the breed of mountain dog whose name Bernard shared. However, his trusted servant was far too dignified for Camden to share this observation with him. Bernard scratched notes of the Order’s meeting at the small escritoire that sat beneath a bank of Palladian windows.

“Next time you decide to send me to the hinterlands, Your Grace,” Garret said with considerably less deference in his tone than Bernard, “I beg you to lace my port with arsenic instead.”

“Poison is a woman’s weapon.” The small voice came from the far corner. The girl it belonged to took a handkerchief from her sleeve and dusted the side table. “His Grace would never stoop to such methods.”

“Thank you, Miss Anthony. Your support is roundly appreciated.” Then Camden frowned at her. “Confound it. Will you cease your infernal cleaning?”

“Yes, Your Grace, of course.” Stricken, she shoved the cloth back into her sleeve and dropped a stiff curtsy. “I’m ever so sorry, I’m sure.”

If Sterling took Camden’s rank too lightly, Meg Anthony was all but undone by it. The duke forced what he hoped was a welcoming smile to his lips. “Please have a seat, my dear.”

Her pale eyebrows shot skyward. “Oh, I couldn’t. T’wouldn’t be proper.”

“Nonsense,” Camden said. “If I order you to be seated, you may be assured that makes it proper, but I’d rather not give that order. I want you to realize your own worth and take your seat by right.”

“An order within the Order isn’t the ‘done’ thing, you know,” Sterling drawled. “However, if His Grace asks us all to stand on our heads, you’d be correct in assuming he expects us to do it posthaste and with a smile on our faces, Meg.”

“She is Miss Anthony to you, Sterling,” said Camden.

“You may not address her so informally while the pair of you bide here.”

Garret shrugged and looked away. The younger man made a virtue out of seeming not to care about anyone or anything, though Camden knew better. Garret was afraid to care and as long as that attitude continued, Camden feared he couldn’t help him. The duke stifled the urge to swear.

He’d persuaded Meg Anthony that with enough tutelage, she might adopt a lady’s persona so she could move smoothly in the circles he planned for her. If he ever hoped to convince her that her special gift made her fit to be considered a lady, Camden had to act the gentleman in her presence. And see that the rest of his household did, too.

“If you please, Miss Anthony.” Camden indicated the wing chair opposite Garret Sterling. To his relief, she crossed the room and perched on the edge of the chair. Her knuckles whitened when she laced her fingers on her lap, but at least she was seated. “Now then, Bernard, where are we on the matter of the ASP?”

“Nothing more has been discovered about how those holding the item intend to smuggle it into the country.”

His steward leafed through the weekly reports from other members of the far-flung Order. “Our Watcher at Brighton thought he had a lead, but it turned out to be a false alarm.”

“Are we certain this ASP even exists?” Sterling asked.

“It does,” Camden said. “My French counterpart assures me of it.”

Bonaparte languished on the Isle of Elba, but that didn’t mean there still weren’t those on the Continent who wished the English Crown ill. Now that military measures had failed, Britain’s enemies had turned to other, less easily defended methods, specifically, arcane weapons of a psychic bent. Camden and his Order had already intercepted three such objects en route to the court of their mad king. The duke still wondered if perhaps one had sneaked in beneath their notice and was responsible for George III’s periodic descents into lunacy.

“If only we knew what the ASP is, perhaps I could find it for you,” Miss Anthony said.

“No doubt you could, but the one thing we do know is that it is not an actual snake. You’d have found it otherwise. No, ASP is code for something we may safely assume is quite lethal. And according to all the intelligence we’ve gathered, the next metaphysical attack is going to be directed at the Prince Regent, not His Majesty.”

Camden stopped pacing for a moment, his gaze caught by the portrait of his wife above the mantel. Mercedes had sat for it during the weeks when she first discovered she was increasing with their child. The artist had captured the glow of impending motherhood as it softened her already lovely features. At night in his solitary bed, Camden fancied he could still feel her silken skin under his fingertips. A shadow passed over his heart and he jerked his gaze away from thepainting.

“Oh, and Miss Anthony,” he went on, hoping no one had noticed his momentary distraction. “His Royal Highness wishes me to convey his thanks to you for discovering the whereabouts of his diamond studs. They were exactly where you said they’d be.”

Meg ducked her head in shy acknowledgement.

The door to the parlor burst open and Vesta LaMotte swept in. Bedecked with ropes of matched pearls and swathed in a red velvet wrap trimmed with ermine, she was a glittering feast on neatly shod feet.

“So sorry to be late,” Vesta said as she breezed around the room. “It’s deucedly difficult to pry myself away from the theater.”

Though she was a good ten years his senior, Garret Sterling leaped to his feet to give her gloved hand the homage that was beauty’s due. Vesta granted him a voluptuous smile. When Meg Anthony rose respectfully, she was astonished when Vesta clasped her hands and kissed the air by both her cheeks.

When Vesta finally turned to Camden, he saw that her artfully rouged lips were poised to call him “Edward,” but she changed her mind at the last moment. Instead, she sank in a curtsy worthy of an operatic diva and rose slowly, allowing her gaze to travel the length of his body with possessive boldness. He roused to her, despite himself.

“Good evening, Your Grace,” she said with a naughty twinkle in her eyes. “You’re looking remarkably…fit.”

“Down, girl,” Sterling said. “You’ll be drooling on the rug in a moment. If you were a spaniel, His Grace would have to smack your bum with a newspaper.”

“Oh, you wicked man.” She turned on Sterling and flicked her fan at him, but her smile widened. “How did you know a little smack on the bum is just what I need?”

Garret Sterling laughed but Meg Anthony looked as if her eyes might pop right out of her head. Camden needed to redirect the focus of the meeting and quickly.

“Vesta, I asked you here this evening because I believe there is someone in London who possesses the same ability you enjoy.”

“Only one ability? Impossible, Camden.” Vesta draped herself over the settee, allowing far more of her sweetly turned ankles to show than she ought. “You know perfectly well that I possess many gifts.”

Camden set his mouth in a reproving line. A few lucky men of wealth and distinction had succeeded Camden as Vesta’s protector, but he hadn’t been her lover in years. Not since he’d conceived of the Order and set its operation in motion. In light of the critical work they did together, it wouldn’t be appropriate for them to continue their white-hot liaison.

Besides, Vesta LaMotte could so possess a man’s mind that he was good for nothing but slavering after her. Camden would not allow himself to be ruled by his passions.

“I meant there is a neophyte fire mage on the loose,” he said. “We need your help.”

“Well, you might have said so plainly before I shocked poor Miss Anthony, yet again.” Vesta flicked her fan in the direction of the cold candelabra on the Broadwood grand pianoforte and flames instantly danced on every wick. Miss Anthony flinched at the display of power.

“Honestly, my dear, you’re as nervous as a cat.” Vesta pursed her generous lips. “We ought to find a man for you. Or better yet, two!”

Miss Anthony blushed to the tips of her ears. “Do you know the name of the new mage, Your Grace?”

“No, but I’ve narrowed down the releases of power to the home of Sir Cornelius Darkin.”

“You said a neophyte, Camden. So the power is new to the bearer. Does the gentleman have children?” Vesta asked.

“He does. Two daughters. Both unmarried, though one is recently engaged,” Camden said. “But the fire mage might as easily be one of their household staff.” He shot an approving look at the former lady’s maid. “Miss Anthony is proof that the aristocracy has no monopoly on this sort of power. The essence is unmistakably feminine, though.”

“Oh, lovely,” Vesta said. “I do so adore it when another woman comes into her own.”

“I doubt the young lady sees it that way. I suspect she’s bewildered by her ability. Likely afraid of it,” Camden said. “Each time she releases power, the field is stronger and more erratic.”

Before Camden finished speaking, a glowing ball of warmth flooded his chest. More psychic energy had radiated into the universe. The duke closed his eyes and reached out with his mind, trying to discern the identity of the new mage. He gasped and clutched his chest. Raw waves of force surged through him, licking at his limbs and caressing his skin in hot lashes.

The new mage was formidable. If she wasn’t taught to harness her gift, London might see another fire like the one that nearly destroyed it in 1666. A wall of flames descended on Camden’s vision, searing everything with wavering heat. He held his breath. His skin prickled. If the mage tried to protect herself from his psychic probing, Camden might well emerge from this vision with watery blisters and fresh burns.

When Camden came to himself, he found Vesta had left her comfortable seat and taken position under his arm, supporting him on one side while Sterling propped him up on the other. It was always thus when he discerned the awakening of a new power. The raw bursts of energy from an untrained psychic sometimes rendered him unconscious, but at least his sensitivity gave him ample warning when another Sensory Extraordinaire arrived within his sphere of influence.

“Careful, Your Grace.” Sterling eased Camden into the wing chair he’d vacated. Camden drew a shaky breath, testing the air for remnants of smoke and heat.

Vesta knelt by his knee. “What did you see?”

“It’s not so much a question of seeing as feeling.” When searching for a new Extraordinaire, Camden completely opened himself to the psychic tantrums of the newly empowered. It was rather like standing by while a toddler played with a lightning bolt. He couldn’t interfere fast enough to bring the young fire mage into his fold.

This time however, two names were imprinted on his consciousness. Either both the Darkin sisters were fire mages or one had been very near the other when she’d released her gift.

“Daphne.” Camden sipped air in short gulps. “Or Cassandra. I can’t be sure, but it’s definitely one of the two sisters.”

“Daphne Darkin. Cassandra Darkin,” Meg Anthony repeated. Her eyes rolled back in her head and her entire body went rigid. She trembled for the space of several heartbeats. Then her eyelids fluttered closed and she slumped in her chair. After a moment, Meg blinked twice and sat up straight. She dabbed at the corner of her mouth with her handkerchief where a small amount of foam had gathered.

“Both the Darkin sisters are at Almack’s this evening,” she said in a whisper.

“Bloody hell,” Camden said wearily, forgetting his resolve not to swear before Miss Anthony. “I haven’t a voucher. You’ll have to go, Sterling.”

“What makes you think I have a voucher?”

“I’m sure you haven’t, but I also know not being invited has never kept you from going anywhere you wished. Use your gift. Gain entry and find out which of the Darkin sisters is our new fire mage.”

“How am I supposed to do that? Upset her and see if she immolates me?”

“I wouldn’t advise it,” Vesta said in all seriousness. “If she’s new, as Camden says, it means she’s only recently lost her virginity. And the fact that she’s expressing her gift without training means she’s less than pleased about her situation.”

“Hmph! Then my money is on the newly engaged one,” Sterling said. “She wouldn’t be the first bride-to-be to anticipate her nuptials. Or be less than pleased with her betrothed’s bed skills.”

Vesta frowned at him. “Tread warily. It could be either young lady. If she’s manifesting, she’s angry. She likely won’t be charmed by your rakish manners, Mr. Sterling. At least”—she allowed herself a small smile—”not until she learns how she can use a man of your talents to help put the fire out.”

“That still leaves me wondering which sister we need,” Sterling said.

“Take Westfall with you,” Camden suggested.

“Westfall? What possible good could he do?” Sterling said. “It’s only been a few days since he was released from Bedlam.”

“And in that short time,” Camden said, “he’s applied himself with diligence to the mental exercises I assigned him. Something you’d do well to emulate. He’s made remarkable progress.” If Sterling was a universal dispenser of unwanted thoughts, Westfall was a human receiver of the secrets rattling around in other people’s heads. “Viscount Westfall still hasn’t learned how to filter out the silent chatter going on in the minds around him. However, he might be able to focus well enough to hear something of use. I believe he’ll be a help to you in identifying our new mage.”

Sterling rolled his eyes. “All right. Where is he? In a straitjacket someplace, I hope?”

“Lord Westfall is not restrained. He’s in the conservatory, Mr. Sterling. Plants are restful, he says.” Bernard replaced his quill and stood. “Shall I fetch him for you, sir?”

“Yes, Mr. Bernard, do,” Meg said as a delayed tremor rolled over her frame. She seemed to forget the fact that it wasn’t her place to give orders. Then she turned haunted eyes toward Garret. “And please, Mr. Sterling, whatever you do, you must hurry.”

 

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