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Authors: Shannon Drake

Tags: #Romance, #Historical Romance, #Mystery, #Suspense, #Victorian Romance, #Love Story, #Regency Romance, #Regency Britain, #Regency England

Wicked

BOOK: Wicked
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Wicked
Number I of
Victorian Fairy Tale
Shannon Drake
HQN Books (2014)
Rating:
****
Tags:
Romance, Historical Romance, Mystery, Suspense, Victorian Romance, Love Story, Regency Romance, Regency Britain, Regency England
Romancettt Historical Romancettt Mysteryttt Suspensettt Victorian Romancettt Love Storyttt Regency Romancettt Regency Britainttt Regency Englandttt

THE EARL WAS KNOWN AS A BEAST!

Camille Montgomery is aware of the wicked man's reputation. But as an expert in antiquities, she also knows his family's Egyptian artifacts are the finest in England. The problem is, her wayward stepfather knows this, too - and he's determined to steal them.
So when he's caught in the act of robbing the so-called Beast of Carlyle, Camille must swallow her fear and boldly confront the man whose mask is said to hide a face too loathsome to behold.

The Earl of Carlyle has lived in the shadows ever since the suspicious death of his parents. But he's never stopped trying to unravel the mystery behind what he suspects to have been their murder. And now that the lovely Camille has stumbled into his life, he has the perfect pawn for his deadly game of vengeance and deceit.
But in laying his ruthless trap, will he risk losing his own heart?

“Camille!”

She knew the voice all too well. She froze where she stood, breath caught in her throat, along with her heart. And she stared at the face of the man—
the face beneath the mask.

For long moments it was as if time—the forest, the wind itself—became still. Which, then, was the mask? The bizarre leather, which was crafted in the form of a beast? Or this, the face of humanity, far more shocking than she had ever imagined, with its ruggedly hewn, arresting features, so classic in form they might have belonged to a distant god.

“Camille, please, for the love of God. Come with me. Come with me now.”

Even as he spoke, she heard footsteps coming from behind her. She spun quickly, staring as the other man burst through trees and brush.

“Touch her and you’re a dead man,” growled the man she had known as “the beast.”

“He’s going to kill you, Camille. You know he’s a murderer. For the love of God, Camille, the man is a monster!” the other softly intoned.

She looked from one man to the other, unable to hide the torment that stormed within her. Yes, one of them was a murderer. And the other was her salvation. But which one was which?

RAVE REVIEWS FOR THE WORK OF
S
HANNON
D
RAKE

“Drake weaves an intricate plot into a delicious romance, which makes for captivating, adventurous and wonderfully wicked reading.”


Romantic Times
on
When We Touch

“Bringing back the terrific heroes and heroines from her previous titles, Drake gives
The Awakening
an extra-special touch. Her expert craftsmanship and true mastery of the eerie shines through!”


Romantic Times

“Well-researched and thoroughly entertaining…”


Publishers Weekly
on
Knight Triumphant

“Captures readers’ hearts with her own special brand of magic.”


Affaire de Coeur
on
No Other Woman

“Shannon Drake continues to produce addicting romances.”


Publishers Weekly
on
No Other Woman

S
HANNON
D
RAKE
Wicked

For Franci Naulin, with all the love, thanks and best wishes in the world

PROLOGUE

Unmasked

T
HERE WAS NOTHING TO DO
but run. And pray, because that was her only salvation!

Surely the police would come. There had been a death! Yes, dear God. Surely, the police would come.

No, she was grasping at straws. The death had not happened here, so they would not come to the castle. But if Camille let that fact rule her mind too sharply, she would panic. And she needed her wits about her now, because she was running.
And because she didn’t even know the face of the evil that followed her.

She was far from the great castle of Carlyle itself, and she could hear her own labored breathing. It was like a fierce wind, driving her along. At last she had to stop. Yet when she did, she knew that it was not just her own desperate lungs creating the sound she had heard. The wind had risen. It was playing through the trees, the great canopy overhead. She was glad, hopeful that the anger of the elements would continue to force away the fog that always seemed to linger in these woods, so close to the barren shrub of the moors.

There was a full moon tonight, as well. If the fog dissipated, she could see more clearly. But so could those pursuing her.

Indeed, it meant that she could be seen, as well.

She gasped in deep breaths, and when she thought she could move again, she spun slowly in a circle, trying to get her bearings. The fragile lace tie on the bustle of her skirt caught upon a twig, and she wrenched it free, heedless of the elegance she so readily destroyed. Her mind was strictly upon escape and self-preservation.

The road was to the east. The road to London, to civilization, to sanity, was to the east. There had to be a coach upon it, bringing visitors back to the city. If she could just make it to the road before…the killer came upon her.

She was certain this game had been played long enough, certain he was coming to destroy her, to make sure that she never told what she knew. To make sure she never gave away the secrets of Carlyle Castle.

In the darkness and the mist that swirled with the growing fury of the coming wind, she heard the eerie sound of the howling. Wolves, restless as she, were crying out to the heavens. Yet, at this moment, she hadn’t the least fear of the wolves of Carlyle. Because she knew the real danger. Call it a beast, but it came in the form of a man.

A rustle in the foliage warned her that someone was near. She straightened, praying that instinct would give her a hint, a way in which to run…. But the rustling was near, too near.

Run!

The command screamed in her mind. But even as she gathered her strength, it was too late. From the brush, he burst upon her.

“Camille!”

She knew the voice, all too well. She froze where she stood, breath caught in her throat, along with her heart. And she stared at the face of the man—
the face beneath the mask!

Once she had known him only by touch, seen him only
in fleeting moments of abandon. His was a striking face, rugged but aesthetic, with a strong chin, the nose fine and straight. And the eyes…

She had seen the eyes clearly, always. They had challenged, disdained and assessed her. They had fallen upon her with a startling blue tenderness.

For long moments, it was as if time—the forest, the wind itself—became still. She stared, seeing his face now. Which, then, was the mask? The bizarre leather, which was crafted in the form of a beast? Or this, the face of humanity, far more shocking than she had ever imagined, with its ruggedly hewn, arresting features, so classic in form they might have belonged to a distant god.

What was real? The predatory menace of the beast or the righteous strength of the man?

“Camille, please, for the love of God. Come with me. Come with me now.”

Even as he spoke, she heard the footsteps coming from behind her. Someone else? A savior? Or someone with a far more classic and customary facade? One of the others who purported to be her champions, yet all of them entangled in the mysteries and riches of the past? Lord Wimbly himself, Hunter, Aubrey, Alex…oh, God, Sir John.

She spun quickly, staring as the other man burst from an overgrown trail through trees and brush.

“Camille! Thank God!”

He came toward her.

“Touch her and you’re a dead man,” growled the man she had known as “the beast.”

“He’s going to kill you, Camille,” the other said softly.

“Never,” the beast intoned softly.

“You know he’s a murderer!” the other charged.

“You know that one of us is a murderer,” the beast said calmly.

“For the love of God, Camille, the man is a monster. It’s been proven!”

She looked from one man to the other, unable to hide the torment that stormed within her. Yes, one of them was a murderer.

And the other one was her salvation. But which one was which?

“Camille, quickly, carefully…come to me,” said the one.

The man she had known as the beast caught her eyes. “Think carefully, my love. Think of all that you have seen and learned…and felt. Think back, Camille, and ask yourself which man here is the monster.”

Think back? To when? Rumor and lies? Or to the day when she had first come to this forest, first heard the howling and…the sound of his voice.

The day she had met the beast.

CHAPTER ONE

“G
OOD
L
ORD,
what has he done
now?”
Camille asked with dismay, looking at Ralph, Tristan’s valet, man’s man and—unfortunately, most often—his cohort in crime.

“Nothing!” Ralph said indignantly.

“Nothing? I am left to wonder why you are standing in front of me, breathless, looking as if I’m about to be called to once again come to the aid of my guardian and rescue him from some jail cell, brothel or other place of ill repute!”

She knew that she sounded indignant and angry. Tristan was incapable of staying out of trouble. She also sounded as if she would let him stew in his pot of problems, which she would not. Ralph knew it, and she knew it.

Tristan Montgomery was not much of a respectable figure as far as guardians went, despite the fact that fate had provided him with a certain status, this being a time when a man’s title meant far more than his true situation or character.

But twelve years ago he had rescued her from a workhouse or a worse fate. She shivered, thinking of other penniless orphans who had been left to fend for themselves. Tristan’s means of support had never been what one would call acceptable, but from the day he had first seen her, alone with her mother’s still-warm body, he had given his heart
and his means—whatever they might be—to her. And she would never give him less.

However, she had been striving valiantly for several years now to give him more—stability! An honest place in society. A home. A far more decent life….

Luckily, Ralph had met her discreetly at the corner, rather than coming into the British Museum, where his disheveled appearance and anxious whispers might have cost her the job she had at long last acquired. She knew more about ancient Egypt than most of the men who had been on excavations, but even Sir John Matthews had hemmed and hawed about the idea of bringing in a woman. And with Sir Hunter MacDonald in on the decision, it had certainly not been an easy road. Hunter actually liked her very much, but the fact that he admired her might well have worked against her. He thought himself something of a seasoned explorer and adventurer—one who apparently gave no credence to the new breed of women suffragettes and sincerely thought that the fairer breed belonged at home. At least Alex Mittleman, Aubrey Sizemore and even Lord Wimbly seemed to accept her presence without much ado. Thankfully, Lord Wimbly and Sir John mattered the most.

Yet the trials and tribulations of her work could not be of much import at this moment. Tristan was in trouble. But on Monday evening! Just at the start of the workweek.

“I swear, Tristan did nothing.” Ralph flushed. He was a little man, no more than five feet five inches, but he was spry. He could move with the speed of a lynx, and just as supplely and secretively, as well.

Camille was aware that although Tristan might not have done anything, he had certainly been
planning
something illegal when he arrived in whatever his current—and dire—situation might be.

Camille turned, looking back. The scholarly curators of
the museum were now exiting the grand and beautiful building, and might stumble upon her at any second. Suddenly Alex Mittleman, Sir John’s next in command, appeared. If he saw her, he’d want to talk, to escort her to the trains. She had to move, and fast.

She caught Ralph’s elbow, hurrying him down the street. As she did so, the wind expelled a mighty breath, making the nip in the air more like a true bite of ice. Maybe it wasn’t just the wind. Perhaps it was a premonition of fear that snaked so cruelly along her spine.

“Come along, speak to me and speak quickly!” Camille warned. She was already worried, very worried. Tristan was smart, incredibly well-read, with a street education to match that he had procured at the hands of a multitude of tutors when a young man. He had taught her so very much—language, reading, art, history, theater…And also the fact that perception was nine tenths of the law—the
social
law. If she spoke like an impoverished but genteel lady, and dressed as such, that is what people would believe her to be.

He could be so amazingly perceptive regarding so much around him. And yet, at times, it seemed as if he had no common sense whatsoever!

“Dougray’s is ahead,” Ralph said, referring to a pub.

“You do not need a quota of gin!” Camille remonstrated.

“Aye, but I do!” the little man moaned softly.

She sighed. Dougray’s was known as a working class establishment and was of a better repute than many a place both Ralph and Tristan had frequented. The pub was also not averse to serving women, particularly the growing sisterhood within the clerical office force in the country.

Camille always dressed carefully to maintain her station as assistant to Sir John Matthews, associate curator for the burgeoning department of Egyptian Antiquities. Her
skirt was a somber gray with a small bustle, and her blouse, with an attractive, tailored look that primly ringed her neck, was in a similar but lighter color. Her cloak was of good quality and appropriate. Once it had belonged to a lady of class who had presumably let it go to the Salvation Army when she had acquired one of more recent style. Skeins of rich sable-brown hair—which Camille considered to be her one beauty—were dutifully pinned atop her head. She wore no jewelry or ornamentation other than the plain gold band that Tristan had found on her mother’s person, and which she had worn ever since—on a chain when she was a child, and now upon her finger.

She didn’t think they were particularly noticed when they entered the pub.

“We’re hiding?” Ralph whispered.

“Please, let’s just move to the back.”

“If you’re trying to be nondescript, Camie, you should be aware that every fellow in this place has turned to look at you.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“It’s your eyes,” he told her.

“They are an ordinary brown,” she said impatiently.

“No, lass, they’re gold, pure gold. And sometimes they have a touch of the old Emerald Isle. Quite remarkable. I’m afraid that men do watch you, the proper ones—and them that aren’t so proper!” he said, looking around with a flash of anger.

“I’m not under attack, Ralph. Please, move!”

She quickly urged Ralph into the smoky rear of the establishment, ordering him a gin and herself a cup of tea. “Now,” she commanded, “talk!”

So he did.

“Tristan loves you dearly, child. You know that,” Ralph began.

“As I love him. And I am hardly a child any longer, thank the good Lord!” Camille retorted. “Now tell me, immediately, what mess I must rescue him from this time!”

Ralph muttered into his glass of gin.

“Ralph!” she remonstrated, showing backbone and temper.

“He’s in the hands of the Earl of Carlyle.”

Camille gasped. Of all the things she might have expected, it was not this. And though she didn’t have the story as yet, already she was dismayed.

The Earl of Carlyle was known to be a monster. Not just in his dealings with workmen, servants and society, but in truth. His parents, wealthy beyond comprehension through dual inheritances, had considered themselves scholars, great antiquarians and archeologists. The fervor regarding anything from ancient Egypt had taken root in their hearts, and they had lived their adult lives in Cairo. Their only child had been sent back to England for a proper education and university, but he had joined them immediately after.

Then, according to newspaper reports, the family had fallen victim to a deadly curse. They had discovered the tomb of an ancient priest, filled with precious artifacts. Among those artifacts was a canopic jar containing the heart of the priest’s most beloved concubine. The concubine was supposedly a witch. Naturally, stealing away the canopic jar cast a serious curse upon the family. It was reported that one of the Egyptian diggers began to rant, pointing to the heavens, declaring that the selfishness and cruelty in stealing the heart of another would bring about disaster. The earl and his countess merely laughed at the man, which was a serious mistake, apparently, as they died themselves quite mysteriously—and horrendously—within days.

Their son, the present earl, had been with Her Majesty’s troops, putting down insurrectionists in India at the time. Upon hearing the news, he had gone quite insane in battle and turned the tide in a skirmish in which Her Majesty’s troops had been seriously outnumbered. He had prevailed, but not without injuries so serious that he was hideously scarred. And embittered. And saddled with a family curse, as well, one so dire that, despite the fortune he had inherited, it kept him from seeking a wife during any season in London.

According to rumor, the man was beyond vile. Hideous in face and form, he was as gnarled, blackened and evil as the heart that had come to Carlyle Castle in the canopic jar.

It was said that the relic had then disappeared, and many believed that the heart had become one with that of the now evil Lord of the Castle. He simply hated everyone. A hermit living at his overgrown and massive estate, he prosecuted any trespassers—at least, those he did not shoot—to the utmost degree of the law.

This much, Camille knew. If she hadn’t read about it in the papers, she would have heard the story anyway—embellished she was certain—as it was always a subject of discussion in the Egyptian Antiquities section of the museum.

Ralph didn’t need to say another word for her heart to be filled with dread.

She remained impassive and forced her voice to an even level as she asked Ralph, “Just how did Tristan manage to run afoul of the Earl of Carlyle?”

Ralph finished his gin with a shudder, sat back and looked at Camille. “He had it in him to…well, to waylay a carriage from the north.”

Camille sucked in air, staring at him with dismay. “He
meant to rob someone, like an ordinary highwayman? He might have gotten himself shot—or hanged!”

Ralph squirmed uncomfortably. “Well, you see, that wouldn’t have happened. We never got that far.”

Hurt, as well as dismay, suddenly filled her. She had a job now! A perfectly respectable job. Work that filled her with fascination and paid quite decently. She could support the two of them—and Ralph—decently, if not in the lap of luxury, without his resorting to any criminal trickery.

“Pray, tell me, what prevented the two of you from getting your fool selves killed?” she demanded.

He squirmed in the badly upholstered seat once again. “Carlyle Castle,” he said, his eyes downcast.

“Do go on!” she said.

His lashes flickered and he said defensively, “It’s because Tristan does dote on you so, Camie, that he seeks another way to set you up properly in society.”

Camille stared at him, anger growing in her heart, then dissipating. There was simply no way to explain to Ralph that she would never be a part of “society.” Perhaps her father had been a nobleman; perhaps the fellow had even married her mother in some secret ceremony. The ring she had worn had been testament to a man regarding her mother with at least enough affection to invest in a fine piece of jewelry.

The world believed that Camille was the child of a distant relative of Tristan’s, a man knighted for his gallantry in Her Majesty’s Service in the Sudan. But it wasn’t the truth. And there would never be such a thing as a socially prominent marriage, or a season or anything resembling the like. And if she pushed too hard, the truth would be discovered.

The truth was not attractive in the least. Her mother had
been a prostitute; she had died in Whitechapel. Once upon a time, she had surely had dreams of a different life. But she had fallen in love and been discarded in London’s East End, disinherited and penniless. Whoever Camille’s father was, he had long disappeared by the time she was nine years old. And Tess Jardinelle died in the same streets she had worked. If Tristan hadn’t come along that day…

“Ralph,” she said with a heavy sigh, “please, just explain.”

“The gates were ajar,” he said simply.

“They were ajar?” she demanded.

“All right…they were locked. But there is a break in the wall, and it seemed quite tempting to an adventurer such as Tristan.”

“Adventurer!”

Ralph flushed but did not revise his adjective. “There were no dogs about. It was early evening. There are stories about the wolves that prowl the forest, but you know Tristan. He thought that we should just venture in.”

“I see. Just to enjoy the grounds and the moonlight?”

Ralph shrugged uncomfortably. “All right. Tristan believed there might be some trinket…just to be found on the ground, which might fetch a fortune if sold to the right people, in the right places. That’s all. It was nothing heinous or evil. He believed he might find something that wouldn’t even be missed by one so great as the Earl of Carlyle, and that might still bring about a great deal of money when sold—properly.”

“Black market!”

“He wants the best for you. And there is that young man at the museum who has shown such an interest!”

Camille could not help but roll her eyes. He was referring to Sir Hunter MacDonald, a “consultant” to Lord David Wimbly and the titular head of the Antiquities section, due to his experience at Egyptian digs and, no
doubt, the vast amounts of money he had contributed to the museum.

Hunter was attractive. He was quite dashing, really. And he’d earned his knighthood in the service, as well. Tall, charming, well-spoken and broad shouldered. Yet, though she did enjoy his company, she was careful. Despite his allure, his continued flattery and attempts at something closer, she never forgot the circumstances of her birth. Many times she had imagined her mother, alone and beautiful, trusting in just such a man, her heart outweighing and denying all logic and reality.

She knew Hunter was interested in her, but there was no future there. No matter what his compliments and kind words, she was certain that she was not the type such a man would bring home to his mama.

In her life, she would accept no less than a real commitment. There could be no such thing as falling head over heels in love, or letting passion rule her mind. And Camille meant to keep her pride, dignity—and position—at all costs. The thought of losing her employment at the museum was one she refused to entertain, and it was why she was determined to be so careful now.

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