Excerpt: The Madness of Lord Westfall
The defining moment of my life occurred when I was eight years old and fell from the topmost limb of an oak tree. I remember naught about the incident. They tell me my head struck several branches on the way down. I was insensible for the better part of a sennight, which was a mercy because it allowed the doctor to set my broken arm without my being aware of the agony he inflicted. For the injury to my brain, he did nothing.
Perhaps that was another type of mercy.
I only know that when I finally opened my eyes, the voices were there. They have been with me ever since.
~from the private journal of Pierce Langdon, Viscount Westfall
It was said that an invitation to Lord Albemarle’s salon was second only to presentation at court as a means of sealing one’s reputation among the bon ton. His soirees were glittering assemblies of all the right people wearing all the right fashions, listening to all the right sopranos, or poets, or politicians. The music was always perfect, the food sublime, and everything was stamped with Lord Albemarle’s unquestioned good taste.
But this evening was not one of Albemarle’s salons.
Make no mistake. The music, décor, and refreshments were as exquisite as ever, though wine and spirits flowed more freely than usual. The main difference was the guest list. On this night, Albemarle’s Mayfair town house was filled to the rafters with the demimonde—disgraced lords and their mistresses, actresses and courtesans, anarchists and freethinkers.
Such company made Lord Stanstead feel very much at home. He liked nothing better than thumbing his nose at the world in general and the ton in particular. However, nothing about this gathering made Pierce Langdon, Viscount Westfall, comfortable.
His sense of aloneness was rarely more intense than when he was in a crowd. He could not bring himself to count Stanstead his friend. Indeed, he had no friends. Their work together for the Order of the M.U.S.E. had made them colleagues of a sort, but they were very different men possessed of widely divergent abilities.
When the pair entered Albemarle’s grand parlor, the myriad minds in the room pressed up against Westfall’s consciousness. It was like a disturbed hive of bees seeking entrance through a hole in a beekeeper’s protective suit. He could hear them clamoring to break through, a determined buzzing trying to overpower him. Westfall drew a deep breath and fortified the mental shield his mentor, the Duke of Camden, had taught him to erect.
Steady on. Or they’ll find a way to send me back to Bedlam.
“Wipe that pained expression from your face,” Stanstead said. “Otherwise someone will suspect you’ve mastered the feat of standing on your own testicles.”
“Easy for you to say. No one is battering down your defenses.”
If anything, the reverse was true. Stanstead possessed the psychic gift of being able to broadcast his thoughts to others and in such a subtle way, the recipient usually couldn’t tell that the thought wasn’t his own. Like a cuckoo’s egg in a warbler’s nest, Stanstead’s idea pushed aside the ones that had every right to be there. As a result, his psychic target often behaved in other than expected ways.
The ton was still nattering on about Lady Waldgren’s impromptu soliloquy from Macbeth at the theater last Season. Since the old gossip was generally disliked and universally feared, when she had mounted the stage and begun reciting “Out, damn’d spot!”—and rather badly, it must be admitted—the aberration in her deportment was met with unabashed glee. But when the poor lady’s husband took an unexpected dip in a public fountain wearing naught but his birthday suit, Polite Society shook its collective heads and tut-tutted under its breath.
Living with such a wife as Lady Waldgren, his lordship was bound to break eventually. What else might one expect?
More unusual behavior, if Stanstead had his mischievous way with the couple who’d landed in his metaphysical sights.
In contrast, Westfall was Stanstead’s psychic opposite. Instead of projecting his thoughts to others, he was the unhappy receiver of whatever was tumbling about in the minds of those around him. Being in the company of others left Lord Westfall drained and more than a little cynical. After all, he knew what people were really thinking behind their false smiles.
“How’s your shield holding?” Stanstead asked, nodding a greeting to those he knew as they moved around the room.
“Better than expected,” Westfall said. It had taken several months of mental discipline to learn how to create the shield. The first time he had managed it, his relief when the voices finally stilled was like having a weight lifted from his chest.
Then, to his surprise, if he maintained the shield too long, he began to miss the voices. The world around him seemed flat and two-dimensional. It was as if he moved through chalk drawings, peopled with pale imitations of humans, instead of living, breathing ones. Still, that was better than being bombarded by their random thoughts. He had to protect himself from the disjointed scramble of ideas that careened toward him from all sides.
“Want to try a filter?” Stanstead asked.
“Perhaps later.” Westfall had experimented with lowering his shield enough to target a single mind for him to listen in on, but he hadn’t perfected the process yet. He also couldn’t admit to Stanstead that keeping up his shield was straining his last ounce of psychic energy.
“I’d fancy knowing what that tasty bit of muslin is thinking.” Stanstead nodded toward their left.
Westfall didn’t follow the direction of Stanstead’s gaze to see the example of feminine beauty who had captured the earl’s attention. He despised a lie of any stripe and breaking a wedding vow counted as two in his estimation—once to one’s spouse and another to the third party involved. “In case you’ve forgotten, you are a married man.”
“Make that a happily married man,” Stanstead corrected. “However, that does not make me dead. I’m blessed with a wife who knows what men are. Cassandra doesn’t care where I get my appetite so long as I eat at home. She knows I’d never stray. Besides the fact that I adore her too much to hurt her, she’d immolate me if I were to put so much as a toe out of line.”
It was no idle threat. Lord Stanstead’s wife was a fire mage, an elemental who also served alongside the gentlemen in the Order of the M.U.S.E. Westfall had no doubt the countess would singe more than her husband’s eyebrows if his eyes wandered and the rest of him followed.
A full-blown thought crashed through Westfall’s mental shield. The idea carried far more power than the others trying to gain entrance. It shredded his defenses and plastered itself at the forefront of his consciousness.
Here’s what you’re missing, you sanctimonious prig.
Stanstead had Sent him one of his directed thoughts, devil take the man. A mental image accompanied Stanstead’s Sending.
It was of a young woman.
No, that didn’t begin to be adequate. She was a goddess.
Languid eyes, black as the Stygian depths, invited him to plunge into her. The woman’s abundant dark hair was drawn up to bare her nape and tease her delicate neck with loose curls. Westfall ached to kiss the tender skin just there, beneath her jaw. Full and plum-colored, her lips beckoned. The apples of her cheeks were dusted with just enough pink to appear virginal, but the seductive hollow beneath them suggested a smoldering sensuality that was anything but chaste.
If Westfall could assemble perfection, taking the best feature from each woman present—graceful arms here, a high, full bosom there, a willowy waist and long legs from another—the result would have been this paragon.
He prided himself on his extreme degree of self-control, but this woman had him rock hard and aching merely from the mental sight of her. He couldn’t stop himself from turning toward the real woman.
“You’re welcome.” Stanstead chuckled. “But you’d best close your mouth, friend. You’re in danger of being mistaken for a codfish.”
Westfall clamped his jaw shut, chagrined at having been caught gaping but, in all honesty, this woman’s beauty stopped him cold. Like the night sky in splendor, her very existence was evidence of a creative God. She was why lovesick poets wrote bad verse.
She tempted him to lower his shield.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Go talk to her.”
“I can’t,” Westfall said, grateful not to have stammered. “We haven’t been properly introduced.”
“Regular rules of etiquette don’t signify at these sorts of events. Start by giving her your name, if you must. Then find a way to give her a compliment. By Jove, it shouldn’t be hard.” Stanstead clapped a hand on his shoulder. “I’ll even Send her a suggestion that she finds your ugly mug fine to look upon.”
“No. No Sending.” He didn’t need Stanstead’s help. Besides, he’d been told that he was not without a certain rugged appeal, if a woman fancied a man who had unfashionably large hands and feet to match his breadth of shoulder. Westfall’s facial features were considered raw-boned rather than refined, but he didn’t care. If someone didn’t like his looks, they were welcome to look the other way. “If you Sent that she should like me, I’d never know for sure if she did. It would be cheating.”
“What a bore you are sometimes.”
“What a bounder you are, all the time.”
“Look,” Stanstead said, suddenly all business, “we can swap insults or we can do what we came here to do. The Duke of Camden has sensed the presence of a psychic relic somewhere in this town house. It may be in Lord Albemarle’s possession. It may belong to one of his guests. All we know for certain is that the intention behind it is not conducive to the welfare of our future king.”
That steadied him. Becoming part of the Duke of Camden’s Order of the M.U.S.E. had given Westfall new purpose and new hope that his debility—he couldn’t think of his psychic powers as a gift quite yet—might be put to good use. M.U.S.E. stood for Metaphysical Union of Sensory Extraordinaires. That seemed a little grandiose to Westfall, and he felt nothing like an “Extraordinaire,” but the Order had proved its worth a dozen times over.
With France’s military defeat, England’s enemies had turned to more subtle means to harm the British royal family. Someone with resources and intelligence was intent on infiltrating the Crown’s collection of art and oddities with psychically debilitating relics. The Duke of Camden was convinced that at least one object of malicious intent had slipped through his gauntlet and was responsible for the king’s periodic descents into madness.
But Camden and his Order had stopped plenty of other items from reaching the royals. Often, they worked with only the sketchiest of information about the relics—a rumor, a string of unusual events or, as in this case, because the duke had experienced one of his visions about an object of power.
So now, Westfall and Stanstead were dispatched to Lord Albemarle’s rout to try to ferret out the elusive item, discover who held it, and what its special properties might be. Then the Order could decide how to deal with the threat.
“So are we going to work?” Stanstead asked. “Or are you going to stand there like you’ve got a broom handle shoved up your arse?”
“Elegant as always, Stanstead.”
“One does one’s best.”
“One could hardly do worse,” Westfall said sourly. “Very well, I’ll take the left side of the room. You circulate on the right. We’ll compare notes when we reach the other side.”
“Good. I’m highly gratified to learn you aren’t dead. You chose the side she is on.” Stanstead waggled his eyebrows meaningfully. “Bon chance, old chap.”
Westfall was tempted to clout Stanstead a good one over the head. He moved away from his colleague before he could act on the impulse. He located the beautiful woman again in a blink. She was standing behind a gentleman at the whist table. Then she leaned over and whispered something into his ear. The man laughed, caught up her hand, and kissed it.
Palm up. A lover’s kiss.
Westfall’s insides did a slow boil. He didn’t have any right to those unsettling feelings. Didn’t want them.
But there they were.
As he drew closer to the whist table, he lowered his shield by the smallest of degrees, enough to target the woman’s mind only.
It was always a risk.
Very few minds were tidy, well organized, and ready for his inspection. Usually, when he opened himself to another, the mind in question flooded into his own like the Deluge, until he was swamped by their loves and hates and secret shames. To his surprise, very little trickled in from the woman.
She was a closed book.
Westfall frowned. He’d only encountered that level of resistance when he tried to peer into the minds of those who regularly trod the boards on Drury Lane. Because actors so embraced their roles, so became the characters they portrayed, nothing of their own lives, their own thoughts, broke through. It was deceit at the most elemental level, and Westfall recoiled from it in abhorrence.
Whoever she really was, this beauty was clearly trying to be someone else.