Authors: Renee Bernard
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2014 by R. Renee Ferguson
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. It isn’t good manners and even worse, it makes the author very sad. Purchase only authorized editions. Although,
if you would like to send the author additional money if you feel you enjoyed the book beyond its cover price, it is permitted. (She isn’t proud and will probably take it.)
Cover Design by Cora Graphics.
This book is dedicated to
my dear friend and twin sister, Lisa Watson. I know what you’re going to say. The twin thing is a little bit of wishful thinking on my part but I’m not letting it go. Because it took less than three minutes for me to figure out that we’ve been friends forever—or we should lie and make that claim. It’s a connection I don’t need logic to explain. The heart knows what the heart knows. So here’s what I know: No one will cheer louder or longer for you, no one will make you laugh harder and no one will convince me that your friendship means I’ve haven’t made something of myself in this world.
Forget the rules. Let’s do this as if no one is looking because let’s face it. Few people bother to do more than scan the acknowledgments so I say that means I can run a little wild here. Before I thank anyone else I want to thank the readers that have not only waited patiently for this next incarnation of Renee Bernard to take place—but they never stopped believing that it would be worth it. Man, I hope I don’t let anyone down! Because those emails and FB posts and amazing notes you’ve sent…it’s humbling. I owe you my sanity. I hung on because you let me know that you wanted me to keep going. So, thank you. If anyone gets acknowledged, it’s you.
I want to thank Deborah Elissagaray for being an inspiring and beautiful person who not only makes AMAZING wines (Ursa Vineyards…I kid you not, people…) but for being that friend who never fails to reflect the best in this world. Deborah, you were an oasis for me and books would not have happened if you weren’t so generous with your time and your support. When the bullies came and knocked me down, you poured me a glass of wine and let me believe I could conquer the world.
I want to thank Anne Elizabeth for defining generosity of spirit and for always keeping things level. My circle will grow and change as I go, but you will always be at my side and that’s something I don’t think an acknowledgment can really cover. Sheila English is in the same boat. If I tried to include all the reasons for being grateful to have you in my life, it would just turn into another book…
Lindsey Ross, when I said I wanted to write a trilogy about a sexy, dark villainess and break every rule I knew about romances, you actually sounded excited about the idea. So, bottom line, when no one else was up for the game, you raised your hand and I remember thinking that if nothing else, I would write Raven’s story for you. Thank you for being there and for putting up with the craziness.
I have to thank Nancy Goodman for being fantastic in every way that a friend and fellow author can be fantastic. Where have you been all my life? I also have to quickly thank Danelle Harmon for making me rethink snow, the meaning of life and my need for a dog. Danelle, you are stuck with me now.
And I want to thank my awesome Street Team, Bernard’s Bombshells, for rocking it! I love each and every one of you! I mean it. When we make it big, we’re going to have our own mini-retreat and I’m going to spoil you rotten!
And last but never, never least, I have to thank my Mom. Even though I know it’s practically a given that moms think their kids are the best, it still amazes and humbles me when you say those things. Showing you off at RT in New Orleans was one of the highlights of my life and no matter where this roller coaster takes us, I will never forget the magic of sharing those days and giggling over eating way too many beignets. (Is there such a thing as too many beignets? Seriously.)
Villains are not born—they are made. And in the case of a Villainess, she is crafted and carved out of the fires of a broken heart and God help the man who thinks to trespass, bruise her further and then survive the encounter.
Most villains swing with a club in blind rage and think to overwhelm you with brute force. But a true Villainess can cut you with a blade so fine that it will be some time before you realize that you are already dead.
And you will remember the kiss of that weapon with fondness…and long for her return.
-- Phillip Warrick
“You ungrateful baggage!”
Raven bit the inside of her lip as the Head Mistress’s words echoed in her head.
Stupid woman. Baggage is a thing. Things can’t be grateful—or ungrateful, really. And if they were I’m betting her corset would be grateful for mercy after trying to hold in that fat belly of hers all day…
“What are you smirking about, you slip of trash!?”
Mrs. Hoggerty had a thousand insults she spewed on the useless vile little human-animals in her tender Christian care. The orphans who had been blessed to be dropped off at the Greenwood Charity House were regularly exposed to the Head Mistress’s opinions on the worth of illegitimate children and their immoral natures—and as a result, Raven was nearly immune to most of them.
“I was…trying not to cry,” Raven said, forcing her eyes to look at the edge of her shoes. It was a weak performance and she knew it, but a bout of poorly timed giggles could end with broken ribs if she weren’t careful. “I’m very sorry, Mrs. Hoggerty.”
“You will be, Raven Wells! You will be sorry! I’ll see to that if I see to nothing else!” Mrs. Hoggerty grabbed her by her thin upper arm and began to haul the ten year old from the dormitory.
Raven risked a quick glance over her shoulder to try to reassure her friends that she was taking the turn in her fortunes in stride—and not to cry.
Don’t cry, Pepper. See? I’m not scared of her and it was worth it to have a little fun!
Pepper was only five and she’d cry herself sick if she could.
Mrs. Hoggerty had caught Raven teaching the others to dance. It had been a fun game to pretend they were at a country dance and prance about in between their beds, using a flannel sheet like a cape and making faces at the little ones to make them laugh.
Well, fun until…
“It’s whores that dance, Raven Wells! It’s in your blood, I suppose, but that you would cavort about like that in front of the others and—and encourage them to do the same!” Mrs. Hoggerty’s pace was so quick that Raven had to struggle just to stay on her feet sure that if she fell Mrs. Hoggerty would break her arm just for spite.
“L-ladies dance, don’t they?”
“Hah!” Mrs. Hoggerty snorted. “You ain’t no lady! Nice old parson and his wife took you in as a baby and filled your head with an education fit for nothing but parlors and tea parties but it’s all shit! Died suddenly without leaving a farthing or a word, didn’t they? Nothing for the little bastard they thought to turn into a fine little lady? Well, you’ll see you’re no better than the rest of ‘em and you’ll mind them sly looks you keep sending me!”
“I’m s-sorry, Mrs. Hoggerty,” she offered, the hitch in her voice from nearly stumbling as they passed through the open door into the outer courtyard of the house.
“Two years you’ve been here and don’t think I ain’t wise to you, you little slut!”
Eyes down, Raven’s brow furrowed. She wasn’t sure why at ten years of age a person could qualify as a “slut” or how to redeem the sins of parents she’d never known. Her blood was fouled according to Mrs. Hoggerty but the Reverend Porter and his wife had said only the sweetest things to her and called her their little angel. It was hard to know whom to believe.
But whatever kindness and care she’d grown up with was nearly forgotten now. Mrs. Hoggerty and Greenwood believed that the only things that might save her soul from the black stain of her birth were hard work, hunger and prayer.
Raven Wells was young but she’d already decided she liked none of those things.
The bell rang to summon the children to morning prayers and a breakfast of weak porridge and crusts but Raven knew better than to ask.
The morning was cold and the gray skies threatened rain as Mrs. Hoggerty pulled her up onto the single square flagstone that was raised a few inches at the small muddy yard’s center. It wasn’t much of a pedestal but it served Mrs. Hoggerty’s purposes.
“You’ll stand here until I come for you.” Mrs. Hoggerty’s grip on her arm was released at last and Raven almost cried out at the pain of her blood rushing back that made her fingers feel like they were on fire. “Don’t you dare move! I find you off this block and I’ll get the flogging stick and beat you until you’re down for good, you hear me?”
Raven nodded. “Yes, Mrs. Hoggerty.”
“Not. One. Toe. Off.” Mrs. Hoggerty punctuated each word with a poke of her thick finger against Raven’s chest.
Raven nodded again, not answering this time.
She’s hoping I’ll get cheeky and give her an excuse for it.
Mrs. Hoggerty finally left her alone, the fat woman’s boot steps echoing off of the gray stone walls of the yard. Windows reflected the gray clouds and added to the otherworldly effect of her cube-shaped world.
Time passed and she had trouble tracking it without a sun in the sky.
Raven sighed and it began to rain.
As punishments went, this one was of her favorites.
She didn’t mind the rain.
Raven tipped her face up to the skies and imagined the rain was washing away weeks of Greenwood grime and sweat from her features. She used the tips of her fingers to scrub her cheeks and wash behind her ears, undoing her braids to make the most of the bath. She stroked the back of her neck and stretched her hands upward, a pagan goddess taking each drop as her due and laughing at the downpour.
Lord Trent’s breath caught in his throat.
The overstuffed wraith at his side was practically panting in fury. “I’ll beat her for it! Do you see her, sir? Do you see what a shameless animal she is?” Mrs. Hoggerty crossed her arms. “She’s a witch!”
He nodded with a smile, his eyes never leaving the little figure perched on her stone reveling in the storm. Her impromptu dance was almost gypsy-like and he was immediately taken with her. “Calm yourself, madam. She is…free-spirited.”
He’d hoped she’d have a bit of her father’s bearing and braced himself for disappointment but this—this was a gift from the gods. She had aristocratic lines and even at the gangly age of ten, he could see beyond the raw coltish beauty to her potential.
My god, the
She was almost feral in her pleasure, an unashamed vixen cavorting in the cold spring rain as unaware of her beauty and appeal as a cub of its claws.
She’ll suit my plans perfectly.
Lord Trent shook his head. He’d nearly missed it. When a friend had confessed of his bastard daughter’s existence and begged him to look into the fate of a child he’d lost track of after some vague tragedy, he’d promised to see to the girl—without a single thought of wasting a moment on it.
But a few weeks later and a dark turn of events, the Earl of Trent had begun to think about revenge and what the perfect game would look like. And he’d remembered his promise and the existence of a girl without legitimate family. And his imagination had seized on the notion of using her like a bit player in a grander scheme…
It would take time, true cunning, craft, and best of all, just the right pieces on the board. The wait would be long but it would make the taste of vengeance all the sweeter.
He’d always been obsessed with games but in the pitch black of an empty ball room, the Earl of Trent had decided that he was just the man to demonstrate to the world what dark justice could look like when mastered by a genius in a gentleman’s form. The world preached forgiveness but Geoffrey couldn’t remember the taste of it. In recent years, he’d begun to accept only the dictates of his own needs and the inner voices that ruled him.
And ever since he’d met Phillip Warrick…
A passing dislike had coalesced into pure hatred for the young rake and Trent gave in to the intricate and convoluted scenario that unfolded in his mind with a seductive allure that soothed the storm in his head. He would build a labyrinth of pain that he would guide Phillip Warrick into and deprive him of his happiness.
I’ll teach him what humiliation truly is…
Trent’s gaze narrowed as he leaned closer to the glass window, and his smile widened. He would need a few years to polish and train her for what he had in mind, but who’s to say he couldn’t enjoy it?
Mrs. Hoggerty saw his smile and matched it with a wicked knowing look of her own. “Free spirited? She suits you, does she? Looking for a scullery maid, your lordship?”
“Please gather what things she has and prepare her to leave, Mrs. Hoggerty.”
“Hah! She’s got nothing and I ain’t just handing her over without—“
He unfolded his wallet and took out a few notes. Her immediate silence was almost comical.
She’d sell me a dozen girls without blinking even if I told her I was procuring them for a blood sacrifice.
“Prepare her to leave.” He shed any pretext of civility, deciding it was a waste. “Now.”
Her mouth dropped open making her look like a bovine fish gaping for air but she dropped a quick curtsey as her face flushed red. “As you wish, your lordship. I’ll get her then.”
He shook his head. “I’ve changed my mind, Mrs. Hoggerty.”
“Y-you don’t want her?”
“Very much. But I think I’ll fetch her myself.” He straightened his coat to refasten it against the weather. “Our business is concluded. See to it my coachman is ready and the gates are open.”
He breezed past her without another word, heading down a narrow stairwell toward the ground floor and the stony courtyard. He put on his hat and stepped into the rain.
“Tell me your name,” he commanded, wondering if she’d yelp from surprise at his sudden appearance or turn into a mouse.
She lowered her arms slowly, finishing a careful pirouette before tilting her head like a small bird. Curiosity flashed in eyes the color of smoke. “It is Raven Wells. And your name?”
“I am Geoffrey Parke, the Earl of Trent. I know your father and I’ve come to take you from this place if you wish it.”
The joy that sprang to life in her eyes was so pure he almost felt a tug at his deadened conscience to let her go.
I’m no weak man to turn at the first obstacle. And you, my pretty little bird, have a part to play in the game ahead. Every drama needs a leading lady…
Raven couldn’t believe it. She’d been daydreaming about storm fairies and some nonsense about sprouting wings and flying away as soon as her father, the King of Clouds, realized she was there. And now a man in a top hat and a grey wool coat with jet buttons was offering to take her away. The King of Clouds had come after all!
Raven smiled and did what she’d always done.
She accepted whatever was ahead with the faith of a creature that still clung to hope.
“Well?” he asked coolly and she realized she’d failed to answer him.
“Yes! I would very much wish to go, your lordship!”
“Then we’ll go.” He held out his gloved hand and she took it, placing more than one forbidden toe off of the stone square and allowing him to lead her from the yard.
“Can I bring Pepper? She’s five but she’s very—“
Raven held her tongue, despite the hundreds of questions that began to clamor inside of her head. She had no desire to irritate her savior and decided that there would be time enough to ask about her father, or where he was taking her, or even how he had found her. As for Pepper, she was sure that there would be a better time to ask and convince him that Pepper would be no trouble at all and that Raven would happily share her food and provisions to make room.
At the outer gate, a black carriage with gold painted piping was waiting and Mrs. Hoggerty stood by the stone arch, her mouth pinched into a tight line of disapproval.
Raven lifted her chin a fraction of an inch and the instant she had one foot safely on the other side of Greenwood’s locked iron gate, she risked sticking her tongue out at the woman who had tormented her for months.
But instead of the stream of curses Raven expected, the woman smiled maliciously and leaned in to whisper, “The Devil has you in hand now.”
Raven blinked in surprise.
“Miss?” the coachman asked as gestured for her to climb up the step he’d unfolded from the carriage.
The interior was the sumptuous color of cherries, velvet and leather bespoke luxury she’d never seen before and the warmth of it beckoned. Raven swallowed hard. Her new benefactor was already inside and the earl leaned forward just a bit to give her a challenging look. “Are you coming? Yes or no?”
“Yes.” She frowned at the way her voice sounded small and shaky but she took the coachman’s hand all the same and climbed up the steps, doing her best to ignore Mrs. Hoggerty’s ominous smiles and the haunting sound of her final words.
The Devil has you in hand now.
Well, then, let’s see where he takes me.