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Authors: Loretta Chase

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The Mad Earl's Bride

BOOK: The Mad Earl's Bride
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The Mad Earl’s Bride

L
ORETTA
C
HASE

 

Dedication

For my parents.

 

Prologue

Devon, England

June, 1820

T
HE
D
EVIL WAS
partial to Dartmoor.

In 1638, he rode a storm into Widdecombe, tore off the church roof with a lightning bolt, and carried off a boy who’d been dozing during the service.

This was merely one of several personal appearances. More often, though, Satan appeared in disguise as an enormous black hound or a ghostly stallion galloping across the moors.

His attachment to the area surprised no one, for Dartmoor could not have been better fashioned to suit satanic natures.

Storms lashed the rocky uplands, which loomed stubbornly in the path of Atlantic gales. Heavy damps swirled into the valleys, blanketing villages in impenetrable mists, shutting off communication and travel for days.

Then there were the bogs, filling the hollows and crevices of the highlands, shrinking and swelling with changing weather and season.

Narrow tracks of firm ground coiled through this unwelcoming terrain, yet even the paths could be perilous. At night, or in a mist or storm, it was easy enough for the unwary traveler to lose his way and—if he were especially unlucky—slip into a pulsing morass from which he would never emerge.

Some believed Dartmoor’s mires were the Devil’s own traps, devised to suck their victims straight down to Hell, Aminta Camoys told her son.

It was twenty-year-old Dorian Camoys’s first visit to Dartmoor and the first time he’d seen his mother since Christmas.

“Most considerate of the Archfiend,” he replied as he walked with her to the edge of the narrow track. “After slow suffocation by quicksand, the unfortunate sinner will find Hell’s torments less shocking to his sensibilities.”

She pointed to a suspiciously verdant patch in the bleak wastes below. “Some are bright green like that. There’s a larger one half a mile ahead, but it’s gray—much better camouflage.”

The afternoon had been bright and warm when they’d first ridden out, but a chill wind whirled about them now, and gray clouds swept in, driving out their wispy white predecessors and blanketing the moorland in shadows.

“Thank you for the directions, Mother,” Dorian said. “But I do believe I can find my own route to Hell.”

“I collect you’ve found it.” She glanced at him and laughed. “Like mother, like son.”

He was like her, in more ways than many would suspect.

Although at six feet tall he was by far the larger, the physical resemblance was inescapable. While fully masculine—and puffy and pale at present, thanks to months of dissipation pursued as diligently as his studies—his was the same exotically sculpted countenance.

At the moment, one would never suspect that she, too, was addicted to sins of the flesh. He was the only one, apart from her lovers, who did know. Dorian was her sole confidante.

My mother, the adultress
, he thought, as he gazed at her.

Like him, she detested hats, resenting even that small concession to propriety. She’d taken off her bonnet as soon as they’d ridden out of sight of the house. Thick raven hair like his, though much longer, whipped about her face and neck in the sharpening wind. And when she turned to him, the same unblinking yellow stare met his.

Because of those odd-colored eyes and their disconcerting stare—and because he kept to himself and hissed at anyone who came too close—the boys at Eton had nicknamed him Cat. The nickname had followed him to Oxford.

“You’d better take care,” she said. “If your grandfather finds out something besides studying is to blame for your pallor, you’ll see all your carefully laid plans swept into the maelstrom of his righteous wrath.”

“I’ve exercised considerable ingenuity to make certain he doesn’t find out,” Dorian said. “You may be sure I shall make a deceptively healthy appearance at Christmas for the annual lecture intended to guide me through the new year. After which I shall watch him scrutinize—for doubtless the hundredth time—every penstroke of the academic reports, looking for an excuse to yank me out of university. But he won’t find his excuse, no matter how hard he looks. I’ll have my degree—with honors—at the end of next Easter term, and he’ll be obliged to reward me with a year’s trip abroad, as he’s done for the others.”

“And you won’t return,” she said. She moved away, her gaze turning to the surrounding moors.

“I’ll never be free of him if I do. If I don’t find work abroad, I’ll be tied to his purse strings until the day he dies.”

That prospect was intolerable.

His grandfather, the Earl of Rawnsley, was a despot.

Dorian’s father, Edward, was the youngest of the earl’s four sons, all of whom, with their spouses and offspring, lived at Rawnsley Hall in Gloucestershire, where His Lordship could control their every waking moment. The adults might go away on short visits and spend time in London during the Season, and the boys eventually went away to school; but Rawnsley Hall was their home—or prison—and its master ruled them absolutely. Always, wherever they were, they must behave and think as he told them to.

They did it because they had no choice. Not only did he control all the Camoys money, but he was utterly ruthless. The smallest hint of rebellion was promptly crushed—and the earl had no scruples about how he did it.

When, for instance, whippings, lectures, and threats of eternal damnation proved ineffective with Dorian, Lord Rawnsley turned his vexation upon the incorrigible boy’s parents. That had worked. Dorian could not stand by and watch his parents punished and humiliated for his faults.

Consequently, though he’d been born quick-tempered and rebellious, Dorian had learned very young to keep his feelings and opinions to himself.

His outward behavior strictly regulated, all he had to call his own was his mind—and it was an exceptionally good one. That, too, he’d inherited from his mother, the Camoys not being renowned for intellectual acuity.

Since Dorian had performed brilliantly at Eton, his grandfather had been obliged to send him on to Oxford. In another year, Lord Rawnsley would be obliged, likewise, to finance the year abroad.

Dorian would have one year on the Continent to look for work. He was sure he’d survive, and he wasn’t concerned about living in poverty at first. He would move up in the world eventually. All he had to do was concentrate as he did with his studies . . . and keep his sensual weaknesses under stricter control.

The thought of his weaknesses drew his mind and his gaze back to his mother. She had taken off her gloves and was playing with her rings.

Gad, but she loved trinkets—and fashionable gowns, and Society . . . and her romantic intrigues.

He wondered why she’d come to Dartmoor. She’d been born and reared here, yet it hardly suited her nature. She was meant for the gaiety of Society, for parties and gossip and admiring men swarming about her.

He’d expected to find her bored frantic. Instead, she seemed quieter than he could remember her ever being. He supposed her recent illness accounted for the apparent tranquillity. All the same, he couldn’t help wondering why, when the doctor proposed a change of air, she’d asked to come here, of all places. She’d been quite adamant about it, Father said.

He approached her. “
I
wish you would think about coming to stay with me on the Continent,” he said.

“Don’t be absurd,” she said. “I cannot live in a garret. And don’t pretend you’ll miss me,” she added irritably. “I never was the least use to you. I had all I could do to look out for myself. It isn’t easy, as you well know. Lud, I’m so tired of it. You’ve no idea the relief it is to be here, away from temptation and the everlasting thinking and planning and lying. And pretending, always pretending. No wonder my head still aches. It’s so in the habit of laboring, it doesn’t know how to stop. When there’s nothing to think about, it makes something.”

She thrust her hair back from her face—a habit of his, too, and one that had always irritated his grandfather. “That’s the trouble with secrets,” she said. “You can never be rid of them. They haunt you . . . like ghosts.”

He smiled. “Your sins are not so grave, Mother. Bertie Trent’s grandmother
*
goes through lovers as she goes through bonnets, they say.”

Her brooding gaze upon the bleak wastes beyond, she did not seem to hear him. “I dreamt my sins took the shape of phantasms,” she said in an odd, low voice. “They pursued me, like the Furies in Greek myths. It was frightful—and so unjust. I can’t help my nature. You understand.”

Dorian understood all too well. He loathed the weakness in himself, but no matter what he did, he could not master it. He could not resist the scent of a woman; he could scarcely resist the mere thought of one. Time and again the need drove him—and Lord, the distances he traveled, the subterfuges he resorted to . . . for what always, afterward, left him sick with disgust.

It was not nearly so bad with her, he was aware, but then she was constantly under scrutiny, which he wasn’t, and she was a female, smaller in her sensual appetites as she was in size. Still, even her little escapades had taken their toll on her health.

He ought to heed the warning, Dorian knew. She’d only recently recovered. That made it more than six months since Mr. Budge, the Camoys family physician, had diagnosed a “decline.” She’d spent half that time between a chaise longue and her bed.

Dorian could not afford so long a period of debility. He would fall behind in his studies . . . and the trip abroad would be delayed . . . and his bondage to his grandfather would stretch on . . .

He shook off the grim prospect. “It’s Dartmoor,” he said lightly. “Every foot of ground seems to have a spook attached to it. Small wonder you dream of ghosts and demons. I should be amazed if you didn’t.”

She laughed and turned back to him, her melancholy mood lifting as swiftly as it had descended.

From then until the end of Dorian’s two-day visit, his mother seemed to be her lively self again. She related, along with more Dartmoor legends, all the London gossip gleaned from her friends’ letters, and told slightly improper anecdotes that made Father blush, yet laugh all the same. Away from Rawnsley Hall, Edward Camoys was more human and less his father’s puppet, and though he still treated his wife like a wayward child, that had suited them both for years.

All seemed well when Dorian departed.

He had no idea that his father had secrets, too, and as the months passed, Edward Camoys would find them increasingly difficult to conceal.

A
MINTA
C
AMOYS’S
LETTER
writing, like Dorian’s, was erratic at best. That was why he suspected nothing, though he didn’t hear from her after early September.

It wasn’t until shortly before Christmas, when Uncle Hugo, the earl’s eldest and heir, turned up at Oxford unexpectedly—and, as it turned out, against the earl’s orders—that Dorian learned the truth.

Then, deaf to his uncle’s warnings, Dorian boarded a mail coach headed north.

He discovered his mother where Hugo had said she was.

It was a private, exclusive, and very expensive lunatic asylum.

Dorian found her in a small, rank room, strapped to a chair. She wore a stained cotton gown and thick, rough stockings on her delicate feet. Her long black hair had been sheared to a dark skullcap. She didn’t know who he was at first. When, finally, she recognized him, she wept.

Dorian did not weep, only cursed inwardly while he unfastened the cruel straps. That sent the attendant running out of the room, but Dorian was too distraught to care. He carried his mother to the narrow bed and laid her down and sat beside her and chafed her icy hands and listened, his gut churning, while she told him what they’d done to her.

She’d fallen ill again, she said, and in her weakness, she’d let her secrets out. The earl knew everything now, and so he’d locked her up to punish her because she was a scarlet woman. Her keepers mortified her flesh to make her repent: they starved her and dressed her in stinking rags and made her sleep on filthy linens. They thrust her into ice baths. They shaved her head. They would not let her sleep: they beat on the door and called her a whore and a Jezebel and told her the Devil was coming for her soul.

Dorian didn’t know what to believe.

Though she sobbed uncontrollably, her speech was coherent. Yet Uncle Hugo had said she’d gone after Father with a knife and tried to burn down the Dartmoor manor house. She heard voices, he said, and saw things that weren’t there, and screamed of ghosts and cruel talons ripping into her skull. Edward Camoys had told nobody about her condition and tried to look after her himself, with the help of the local doctor, Mr. Kneebones. But the earl had visited them in Dartmoor a month ago and, horrified at what he found, summoned physicians from London. Deciding she needed “expert care,” they’d recommended Mr. Borson’s private madhouse.

“Don’t look at me so,” she cried now. “I was ill, that was all, and the pain was dreadful, tearing at my skull so that I couldn’t see straight. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t watch my tongue. Too many secrets, Dorian, and I was too weak to keep them in. Oh, please, darling, take me away from this wicked place.”

Dorian didn’t care what the truth was. He knew only that he couldn’t leave her here. He looked about for something to wrap her in, to keep her warm, so that he could carry her away, but there were only the rank bedclothes.

He was tearing them from the bed when the attendant returned, with reinforcements—and Dorian’s grandfather.

The instant the earl entered, Aminta turned into a she-demon. Uttering obscenities and threats in a guttural voice Dorian couldn’t believe came out of her, she lunged at Lord Rawnsley. When Dorian tried to pull her away, she clawed his face. The attendants grabbed her and swiftly shackled her to the bed, where she alternated between bloodchilling curses and heartwrenching sobs.

When Dorian objected to the painful restraints, the attendants—on the earl’s orders—removed him from the room, then from the building altogether. Shut out, Dorian paced by his grandfather’s carriage while his mind replayed the scene over and over.

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