COLLINGSWORTH MANOR, ENGLAND, 1821
Her husband was going to kill her. The thought struck Lady Amelia Sinclair Collingsworth about the time Lord Collingsworth's hands closed around her throat. But his usually soft hands did not feel like hands in the darkness. They felt like ... claws. It was her wedding night, and Amelia's shy husband was acting neither shy nor like the gentleman she had married early that morning in London. What had gotten into him?
"Robert, you're hurting me!" she gasped, pinned beneath him on the marriage bed where she had planned to lose her innocence, not her life.
Her bridegroom laughed. Not a normal-sounding one. His voice was deep and garbled, as if he had a throat full of rocks. The feel of his clawlike fingers moved down her neck, ripped the nightgown she wore open from neckline to waist. Amelia screamed, struggling beneath his weight, which was surprisingly heavy for a man her father had once referred to as "frail looking."
"Robert, please!" she begged. "You are frightening me!"
The laugh again. The one that rose hackles on the back of her neck. "Robert is not here," he rasped.
What did he mean by that? Was Amelia having a nightmare? Maybe she would wake in a moment and find herself in her parents' home in London. Maybe she had not married that morning in front of a great number of London's upper crust. Maybe she had not journeyed to Robert's country estate with him for a short honeymoon before they were to travel abroad for an extended celebration of their nuptials.
"I'm dreaming," Amelia whispered, trying to reassure herself. "I will wake in a moment."
Robert barked a short laugh and rolled off of her. Amelia could breathe again. There were sounds of ripping cloth and she thought Robert might now be tearing at his own nightshirt. Dream or not, the hammering of Amelia's heart inside of her chest, the sting of scratches upon her neck, felt real. Every instinct she possessed cried out for her to run ... while she still could.
She rolled toward the edge of the bed, thinking to make her escape. Bony fingers yanked her back, then Robert was on top of her ... only he was naked ... and his skin did not feel like skin. It felt like fur.
Amelia formed her nails into claws and raked his eyes. Robert howled like a wounded animal. She pushed with all her strength and scrambled from beneath him. Rolling, Amelia landed with a thud upon the floor. She quickly crawled away from the bed. For modesty's sake, which she didn't have much of, Robert had insisted the lamps remain unlit. The darkness was as heavy as a blanket. Where was the door?
The garbled hiss sent chills up Amelia's spine and froze her in her tracks. She was afraid to move. Afraidhe'd know her location. Groping around on the floor, her hand met with the leg of a piece of furniture. A secretary, she recalled, having only seen Robert's adjoining room earlier when she'd come upstairs for a short nap before dinner.
Slowly Amelia rose to her knees. She searched the desktop until her fingers grasped something cold and thin. Before she had time to identify the object, she was jerked back and slammed against the hardwood floor.
"You are mine now."
Although she couldn't see Robert in the darkness, Amelia felt him looming over her. His breath was fetid, like the breath of an animal that ate raw meat. Her head hurt where she had struck the floor. Her neck stung from the scratches. Robert shoved her gown up and forced her knees apart. The feel of his smooth, sharp claws against her thighs churned the bile in her stomach.
Now this man, this thing, who couldn't be Robert, would defile her. Amelia's mother had told her that she must meekly submit to Robert on their wedding night. That she must do all that he asked of her. Like hell she would. Clutching the thin, cold object in her hand, she brought it up and struck out.
There was a sound, a sound that reminded her of Cook stabbing a knife into raw mutton. Robert suddenly howled again, then toppled backward off of her. Heart still hammering, Amelia flipped onto her belly and crawled away. She expected the clawlike hands to grab her foot at any moment, expected Robert would kill her in his wounded rage. Instead, the door to her adjoining suite suddenly crashed open.
Amelia had left a candle burning in her room. The soft glow outlined the silhouette of a man--a man nearly as tall as a tree and built like one. Candlelight danced within the strands of his golden hair. Now Amelia knew she must be dreaming. She'd dreamed of this man often.
"What the bloody hell is going on?" he demanded.
Odd. He had never spoken in her dreams before. If he had, she would have conjured just the voice he spoke with now. Deep, low, disturbingly sensual. Only Lord Gabriel Wulf would have a voice like that. Only he would come crashing through her nightmares to save her. But of course he couldn't really be here. This couldn't really be happening. She giggled at her own imagination, but she couldn't ignore the hysterical edge it held.
"Who's there?" he asked.
Would he converse with her if she answered? Her dream had grown more absurd by the moment. "Lady Amelia," she answered. "Collingsworth," she added, then stifled another giggle. "Or I was. I've just killed my husband."
An awkward pause followed her statement. The silhouette stepped farther into the room. Amelia noticed the dark shape of a pistol clutched in his hand. Oh, good grief. Would he shoot her now? Would the nightmare turn from Robert trying to kill her to Gabriel Wulf becoming the murderer?
"Where is Lord Collingsworth?"
Amelia supposed even in a dream she should answer a man carrying a weapon. "There, on the floor beside the bed." If she was dreaming, and she must be, thenightmare was much too vivid. She swore she felt blood trickling down her neck. "Robert ... he tried to hurt me. He is ... not himself."
Why she bothered to explain anything when nothing about her dream made one whit of sense Amelia did not know. But perhaps on a deeper level she did understand why she would dream that her husband of one day had become a monster and why Lord Gabriel Wulf had appeared to save her. Society was the true monster.
Doing what had been expected of her came with a punishment. Gabriel Wulf represented the rebellious side of her nature. He represented freedom.
"Robert is not here."
That he would repeat the very words Robert had rasped raised the hair on her arms. More than a reminder of earlier events unnerved her. If Robert was not there, where was he?
A dark shape suddenly loomed up behind Amelia's blond angel. A flash of silver shone in the darkness. The object moved downward in a stabbing motion, straight into Gabriel Wulf's shoulder. There were sounds of a scuffle. A pistol fired. Amelia screamed and closed her eyes, covering her ears with her hands. She screamed again when someone touched her.
"Don't be afraid. I won't hurt you."
How could a man possess a voice that was darkly sensual and yet soothing at the same time? One couldn't. Not unless he was a figment of her imagination. Amelia grasped that tiny shred of sanity and held it to her. She should wake now. Wake before she threw herself into his arms. Before comfort became something else. But she did not wake, nor did she throw herselfat Lord Gabriel Wulf. The door to Robert's room suddenly creaked open. A tiny flame flickered there.
"My lady?" a female voice called. "I heard a shot. What is happening?"
Eyes round with fright, a slim figure hovered in the doorway. Amelia couldn't recall the young servant's name. She had been the only one to greet Amelia and Robert when they'd arrived at Collingsworth Manor. The girl, willow thin and around Amelia's height, wore a worn dress, an apron, and a cap upon her head, covering the entirety of her hair. Amelia had judged her to be around fifteen and certainly too young to take on the responsibilities she had at Collingsworth Manor.
Robert had been more than a little distressed to learn all of his servants but this girl were gone. Only one man had been tending the stable. Her husband had told Amelia to go upstairs and rest while he got to the heart of the matter. But later, when the girl had come to fetch Amelia for supper, Robert had acted differently. He hadn't wanted to discuss what he had learned.
"My lady?" the girl called again.
"Bring the light over here, girl!" Gabriel Wulf ordered. "Quickly!"
As if from a long distance, Amelia saw the flicking flame of the candle move closer. The girl bent beside her, the candle casting an eerie glow around the dark room. Amelia's gaze sought out Gabriel Wulf. She'd once seen him riding down the streets of London with his older brother, Lord Armond Wulf. At the time she had thought Gabriel Wulf was the most handsome man she had ever seen ... and he still was.
It was him all right. She might be gawking like a milkmaid, but he was busy studying her form, probably looking for signs of injury, possibly looking at her breasts, which had no doubt spilled from the front of her torn nightgown. He gently touched her neck, and Amelia winced. His gaze lifted and met hers. In the dim candlelight, his eyes widened a fraction.
"You," he said softly, although she had no idea what that meant.
Amelia's head began to spin. Her vision blurred. Darkness closed in on her, and Gabriel Wulf's face became farther and farther away. She had never fainted in her life, but she realized that was exactly what she was getting ready to do.
Lord Gabriel Wulf gathered the unconscious woman in his arms and rose. If he didn't have adrenaline racing through his blood like wildfire at the moment, he might have been more conscious of the stab wound to his shoulder and the even more serious bullet wound to his thigh. He carried the woman into the adjoining room and placed her upon the bed.
"Water," he called over his shoulder to the serving girl. "And clean cloths to wipe away the blood."
He touched the lady's neck again. Two deep scratches marred her pale skin. He glanced at her face, making sure she was, in fact, who he thought she was. Her skin was like white marble. Soft blond curls framed her face, and her eyes, when open, were heavy lashed and as blue as a robin's egg. Her face was oval shaped and she had a slight dimple in her chin.
She was beautiful, which he supposed was the reason she had caught his eye on the streets of London months ago to begin with. He'd never met her, but since that day he had dreamed of her. Often.
"The water, my lord."
Even while carrying a clean crock of water and washing cloths stuffed beneath her arm, the young servant moved as silently as night slipped into dawn. She settled the crock next to a basin on the stand beside the bed.
"Where are the other servants? The head housekeeper?" he asked the girl.
"Gone," she whispered. "Everyone is gone. Frightened away."
Gabriel poured the fresh water from the crock into the empty basin. "Frightened away by what?" He'd spent a good deal of his boyhood at Collingsworth Manor and never had thought there was anything to fear here.
For a moment, the girl did not answer. Gabriel glanced up at her. "I fear if I tell you, my lord, you will think I'm daft in the head."
"Give it a go," he said drily. Gabriel was trying like hell to ignore the pain in his shoulder, the throbbing in his leg, and the fact that he had just shot his boyhood friend.
"Beasts, my lord," the girl whispered. "The beasts in the woods surrounding the house. Sometimes they are wolves. But sometimes they are men."
A normal man would indeed think the girl was daft. Gabriel was not a normal man. "Have you seen these creatures, girl?"
Lowering her gaze, she nodded. "Yes, my lord."
Gabriel took the clean cloths the girl had brought and dipped one in the water. "And yet you stayed when everyone else fled? Are you so very brave?"
Her head jerked up and she shook it vigorously. "No, my lord. I had nowhere to go. Got no family except my brother, and he's off working God knows where. Was new to the staff and then this business began. No one offered for me to come along. It was every man for himself when they ran."
Gently dabbing at the unconscious woman's neck, Gabriel asked, "Why did you not answer my summons downstairs? I saw that there were still lamps burning in the house."
"Don't answer the door these days," she said. "Not with this strange business going on."
Gabriel still wasn't certain what "business" he had stumbled upon. What had gotten into Robert to attack his bride? To attack Gabriel, as well? He'd only stopped at Collingsworth Manor because of the throbbing wound to his thigh and his lame horse. No one had been in the stable when he'd stalled his horse.
He'd thought about simply stealing one of Robert's horses and forging ahead to Wulfglen, his own family estate, which bordered the lands of Collingsworth Manor, but he and Robert had been boyhood friends. Conscience dictated that Gabriel at least ask the man for the use of one of his horses.
When no one had answered Gabriel's summons earlier at the door, he'd resigned himself that he might indeed be forced to take one of Robert's horses and explain later. Then he'd heard screams. He'd tried thedoor again, but it was firmly bolted against him. Recalling a tree that he and his brothers had often scrambled down from Robert's room, when they would swim naked late at night in a pond not far from the house, Gabriel had climbed the tree to gain access to the house.
Once he'd slipped inside, the screams had led him to this room, where he realized they were actually coming from the adjoining suite. The lady moaned and he glanced back down at her. Her gown was torn open, and although he tried not to notice, her pale breasts were partly exposed to his eyes. He glanced away.
"Tend to her," he told the girl, placing the bloodied cloth aside. "Find something to cover her."
He rose, took the candle, and went into the next room. Gabriel half-expected Robert to come at him again, even though he was fairly certain a shot from a pistol at close range had killed the man. He still couldn't quite believe he had killed Robert or that his boyhood friend had stabbed him. The Robert he had known was a shy, frail boy.
Their friendship had ended years ago. All of Gabriel's prior friendships had ended once it was discovered that the Wulf family was cursed.
Moving the candle closer to the floor, although he had no need for the added light, Gabriel searched the area. He saw quite well in the darkness, but what he saw confused him. It was not Robert Collingsworth who lay dead on the floor from a bullet wound.
"Girl," he called. "Come here."
Quiet as a mouse, she appeared beside him.
"Who is this man?" Gabriel asked her.
The servant sucked in her breath sharply. "'Tis Vincent. Stable help--the only one left who hadn't run away. What is he doing in the lord's bedchamber?"
A question Gabriel wanted answered, as well. What the man had been doing, or trying to do, was obvious. He was naked. Where was Robert? How had he let something like this happen?
"See to the lady," Gabriel said to the girl. "I will search for Lord Collingsworth."
"Don't go outside," she warned. "You may not come back."
Gabriel suspected the girl's imagination had gotten away with her, yet he knew such things existed as men who could shift their shapes. Years earlier, Gabriel's father had killed himself over just such a transformation. Gabriel's mother had followed his father shortly to the grave, a result of shock or madness. All of society believed the Wulfs were cursed by insanity, and they were therefore excluded from the social set. Gabriel had always thought the joke was on them. If only it were a mere case of madness.
Gabriel walked toward the door leading into the hallway. "Close that door." He indicated the adjoining one, although it hung precariously from its hinges. A result of Gabriel's foot.
"What about ... about him?" The girl nodded toward the body on the floor.
"I'll deal with him later," he assured her.
After exiting Lord Collingsworth's bedchamber, Gabriel snuffed out the candle he held. He had unusually good eyesight in the dark. He had unusually good hearing. He had a good deal of unusual things abouthim. He decided to check the upstairs rooms first.
Nothing looked out of place upstairs. It was upon the stairs going down to the lower level that he again became aware of his injuries. For months he'd been searching for his younger brother Jackson. The fool had gone missing in London, and Gabriel had promised his older brother, Armond, that he would find Jackson. It hadn't been easy, tracking him.
Finally, Gabriel had trailed Jackson to a little village called Whit Hurch. Gabriel had ridden into the village to inquire as to whether or not anyone knew the whereabouts of his brother, only to be set upon by angry villagers carrying pitchforks and muskets. The villagers had obviously mistaken him for Jackson. Gabriel took a ball to the thigh before he'd been able to get his horse turned around and charge his way through the mob.
They'd given chase. He'd spent the better part of a week trying to lose them. He'd spent the better part of another making his way back to Wulfglen. For all he knew, his idiot younger brother had returned home. Now this.
The parlors downstairs were empty. The study, as well. In the kitchen, a pot of stew simmered on the stove. Gabriel limped toward the pantry. Not well stocked, and empty of anything save necessary staples. He found a door leading down to the root cellar.
The stairs creaked beneath his weight. His thigh throbbed. It was blacker than pitch, but still, he made out shapes. A scurrying mouse--supplies that needed the cooler temperature to keep from spoiling. The cellar smelled like damp dirt and ... he stopped. Gabriel closed his eyes for a moment and inhaled. Death.
Gabriel moved farther into the cellar, already sure of what he would find. Robert lay upon the damp dirt floor, staring sightlessly upward, his face a mask of horror, one hand clutched to his heart. He was dead.
Copyright © 2006 by Ronda Thompson.