Authors: Marguerite Kaye
On a moonlit night, Imogen, Dowager Duchess of Strathfyne, wishes for
to end her loneliness. She has no idea that her wish would summon Vaelen, a striking, otherworldly stranger whose sensual touch brings her more pleasure than she has ever known. In the morning, Imogen is sure the erotic encounter was simply a dreamâuntil she starts seeing Vaelen everywhere she goesâ¦.
London, Spring 1816
“Oh, Allegra, why must you always have your own way,” Imogen exclaimed. The sleek blue-grey cat cocked her head to one side and gazed impassively at her mistress. Mirroring Imogen's own mood, she had been restless all evening, padding about the bedchamber, scratching at the door, wrestling her way under the heavy drapes to mew at the window, before finally jumping onto the four-poster bed and swiping her soft velvet paw at Imogen's hair on the pillow.
“Come on then.” Wearily conceding defeat, Imogen pushed back the sheets and stumbled over to the window, pulling back the curtains to open the sash and allow the cat out. The pitch-dark night was illuminated by the pale glow of a full moon. Below, in Berkeley Square, the few lanterns still alight cast dim shadows onto the cobblestones. She could hear the faint clatter of a carriage in nearby Bruton Street, no doubt bringing some weary rake home from a late session at his club.
Wrapping her arms around her knees and tucking her feet under the flounce of her nightgown, Imogen settled on the window seat and watched as Allegra leapt fluidly from the little wrought iron balcony down onto the wall which formed the border with the extensive gardens of Lansdowne House next door, into which she disappeared. In the distance, the new gaslights on Piccadilly cast a faint glow. The moon hung low in the sky, fat and buttery. It was said to be at its most potent when full like this, Imogen recalled, the most auspicious time for making wishes.
Long hours of reading to Alfred in an effort to take his mind off his suffering had cluttered her brain with such pieces of useless information. A bit like the attics here in Strathfyne house, stuffed full of broken chairs and mouldy hangings and dusty portraits of ancestors no one could recall. Imogen's own portrait would no doubt end up there too some day. She and Alfred had been married less than four years. There would be no cause to remember a duchess of such short duration, one moreover who had been unable to produce an heir before her husband tragically succumbed to the consumption which had been the reason for their very unequal match having been made in the first place.
The melancholy which Imogen had been striving to keep at bay all day settled on her like a lowering November sky. Poor Alfred, his suffering had led him to embrace death when it finally came. She'd loved and pitied her gentle husband in equal measure, though more in the manner of a sister than a wife. It was almost exactly six months since he had died. Time to put off her blacks and emerge from the cocoon of mourning.
Imogen twined a long strand of her hair round her finger. While Alfred's death had been a welcome release for him, it had becalmed her. Try as she might to look to the future, she seemed quite unable to shake off this sense of walking on sand, of being enveloped in treacle. It was as if the energy she had put into looking after Alfred had been buried with him. What she needed was something to jolt her out of this all-encompassing lethargy. Feeling slightly foolish, she screwed shut her eyes and wished. Yearning shuddered through her like a summer wind over a barley field, ruffling the tiny hairs on her skin. A violent shudder made her shoulders bunch.
Someone walking over her grave.
Or something waking from it.
Imogen opened her eyes. The moon's glow was temporarily obscured by a black cloud creeping ominously across the sky. She shivered again. Apprehension, rather than cold, made her skin prickle, forcing the soft hairs on her arms to stand on end. A fleeting spark of fear flamed in her, like a taper lit in a draught and instantly extinguished, but it was enough to send her scampering back to bed, pulling the monogrammed sheets up tight to her chin.
In her haste to get back into bed she'd left the window open, the drapes pulled wide. As the black cloud slithered across the moon, ghostly fingers of light penetrated the gloom of her bedchamber, casting long jagged shadows across the floorboards, glancing off the mirror which hung over the mantel, creeping up the Chinese hand-painted paper on the opposite wall. Telling herself that there was nothing in the world to be scared of, she nevertheless huddled under the sheet, pulling it up over her face. She began to count, an old trick from childhood taught her by her mother. She reached eighty or so before she fell asleep, sinking into the most extraordinarily vivid dream.
She dreamt she heard the curtains ruffle. The brass hoops jangled on the pole, followed by a soft footfall on the uncarpeted boards. Then came a lithe, padding step muffled by the Turkish rugs.
Then her skin prickled. A premonition. Whatever it was, it wasn't the cat. There was someone, or something, in the room. A dark, brooding presence which was watching her. She could feel its eyes upon her. She sat up, pushing her long fall of black hair back from her brow.
He was standing at the foot of the bed. A man. A very tall man, strikingly handsome, gazing at her intently. She opened her mouth to scream, but as ever in a nightmare, no sound came out. She tried again, fighting panic. She couldn't move. The cool night air whispered over her skin, making it clammy.
Be careful what you wish for.
“I didn't wish for this.” The words shaped but did not form. She made herself look straight at him, as if looking would force him back to where he had came from, somewhere in the depths of her imagination. As if looking would waken her, unfreeze her limbs, give her voice.
He had grey-green eyes, the colour of a stormy sea. Strange, but she could see them so clearly though there were no candles lit and the heavy damask drapes were drawn across the other two of the three tall windows. Coal-black hair, worn longer than was the custom now, fell sleekly back over his head, a stray strand flopping over his brow.
She was cold, an icy cold which seemed to emanate from the man at the end of her bed. He had a pale face, with prominent cheekbones. A memorable face. Handsome but too austere for beauty, tooâ¦tooâ¦ She couldn't find the right word.
Autocratic? Aristocratic? Intimidating?
All of those. Other-worldly. A Roman emperor or an Egyptian pharaoh. A man accustomed to command.
He looked so real
Too real. All of her senses felt stretched taut. Acute. Attenuated. The paralysis of her body that his appearance had cast eased the tiniest fraction. Enough for her to lick her lips, which felt dry and parched. Enough for her to grip the sheet, her knuckles white with the effort. She cleared her throat. “Who are you?” To her relief the words emerged, sounding hoarse.
“Vaelen. I am Vaelen.”
His voice was husky, smoky, like the remnants of a wood fire. Imogen found she could move. She shuffled up against the pillows, putting a few vital inches between them. His brow raised just a fraction, the corner of his mouth twitching into the ghost of a smile. She didn't ask herself how it was that she could see every detail of his face when the gilded ormolu clock on her nightstand was a block of grey. She thought it must be the moon, shining directly on him. Or maybe it was the luminescence of his skin.
“Vaelen.” She had never heard of such a name. “What are you doing here?” Her voice was breathless, tinged with strangeness and a presentment of something she did not know whether to run from, or towards.
“You summoned me.”
“I summoned you?” She was still frightened, but her fear was mingled with recklessness. She dreamt and knew she was dreaming. She'd wished on the moon and thisâVaelenâwas the result.
Is that what he meant?
Longing washed seductively over her like warm honey. She wanted it to be true. That she had conjured him. Vaelen. The product of the moon's magic and her own desires.
As if released by her understanding, he moved towards her. She could see the perfection of his skin now, pale as the moonlight, oddly smooth like marble; his eyes which gleamed not bright but darkly, like strength or power would, if it could manifest itself. It sapped her will, that look, drew it from her like a blotting sheet, leaving her pliant when she should have been resistant. Oddly, satisfyingly helpless. Mesmerised.
Vaelen surveyed the woman before him. Young, though not completely untouched, the unsatisfied yearning which had caused her to summon him shimmering around her, almost tangible. Her eyes were unusual, a curiously luminous blue, smoked with grey, alight with anticipation, darkened with trepidation. He could still smell the remnants of her fear, acrid wisps of it mingling with the muskier scent of her imminent arousal. A combination he was used to, but subtly different tooâor his reaction was, for he was already hard. More hard than hungry, not a trace of his usual
This woman was no ordinary feast. He would need to be careful.
Her mouth was lusciousâa burst of petal pink, sweetly curved, a generous mouth, though he could sense that she had not been smiling much recently. She was beautiful, though more in the fashion of fifty years ago than now. Curves, dips and swells, no sharp angles or jutting bone. The hair tumbling down her back was black as moonlight on deep water. The bosom rising and falling above the neckline of her nightgown was full. There were dimples on her arms, which were soft and round. There would be dimples on her thighs, soft and round too. Vaelen, who had lived through every possible definition of beauty, was surprised to find himself thinking her quite delectable.
Succulent. A twisted smile tugged at his mouth. It was not like him to indulge such thoughts. He'd had them once, many lifetimes before, and had spent the lifetimes since avoiding them. He banished the memory before it surfaced, but was too late to stop the piercing sweetness of longing from twining itself around his insides, twisting into a tight knot in his gut.
Vaelen cursed under his breath. Necessary as it was, he wished he had not responded to her call. There would be others. There were always others, so willing as to be tedious. He should go, but he was here now. She had summoned him to her chamber after all. Why leave without slaking his thirst?
Her gaze, both clear and smouldering, was as ambivalent as he felt. He took a step towards her and his senses stretched and strained as they always did at this time, so acute as to be painful. Her smell, so sweetly female. Her skin, creamy soft. Her breath, warm and shallow. He could hear her heart beating and feel her pulses fluttering, strong and fast, driven by a mixture of excitement and fear. A fast-racing, heady mix. Vaelen's own blood rushed too in response, but cold and sharp, like a melting glacier. “What is your name?” he whispered.
“Imogen.” Soft, like her body. He sat down beside her on the bed. She would not resist him. He already knew that, as he already knew it would be a mistake not to resist her. He reached out to touch her hair, running the flat of his palm down over the delicate shape of her head. Watery silk. “Lonely Imogen.”
It was a statement, not a question. “How did you know?” she asked.
“Why else would you summon such as me?”
Vaelen watched her think about this. He enjoyed watching her, the way her expression softened as she pondered the truth of it, and her mouth, her luscious mouth, turned up into the trace of a smile as she nodded to herself.
An aching hunger gnawed at him. The kind of hunger which would not be ignored, which he knew he could not resist, even though there was something about this one, something vulnerable that he didn't want to damage.
He wanted her. The realisation astounded him. It had been so long since wanting had been any part of him, so inured he thought he was to allowing only acts of necessity, lifetimes of reined-in passions which he handled like a team of bolting horses with the consummate skill of a charioteer.
“Imogen.” Her name tasted sweet and soft. As she would. Her eyelids flickered and widened when he said it. Her tongue flicked pink and moist over her lips, the action connecting directly with his manhood, which hardened into immediate readiness. “Imogen,” he said again, aware of the rough edge of need in his voice now, waking like a wild beast from hibernation.
And by the gods, she smiled at him and sealed her fateâa sleepy, uncertain smile, but an unmistakable invitation all the same.
Did she know what she was asking?
He wondered fleetingly who she was, what was her life, before he dipped his head and touched his lips to hers and ceased wondering, for the touch inflamed him as no other had, save once.