"Ashley is a master storyteller." -- RT Book Reviews "A master of her craft." --Maggie Shayne Beauty Fair of face and figure, Kristine is young, innocent, pure. Yet she has been condemned to the gallows for killing a man. The only one who can save her is a lord so infamous that some say he is the son of the Devil himself. . . And the Beast Erik Trevayne is called the Demon Lord of Hawksbridge Castle, but few know of the curse he lives under. Or the terrifying changes slowly gnawing away at his humanity. When he weds her, all he wants of Kristine is a son. But when he beds her, a wild hope is born--that love that can tame even the most monstrous of beasts. . .
Release date: September 1, 2014
Publisher: Zebra Books
Print pages: 353
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She whirled around at the sound of a key in the lock, backed away from the door as it swung open.
“I’ve come to cut yer hair,” the burly guard said, moving into the room. He shoved a three-legged stool toward her. “Sit down.”
Hands clasped, she did as bidden, her nostrils wrinkling with distaste as he leaned toward her. He smelled of old sweat and ale. The stink of the prison clung to his clothing.
She recoiled at the touch of his dirty hands moving through the heavy fall of her hair, dug her fingers into her arm to keep from crying out as he made the first cut.
“Damn, girl, ye’ve got enough hair for a dozen women,” he muttered.
The sound of the heavy shears sounded like thunder in her ears, and with each cut, another lock of hair fell at her feet. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut as he deprived her of her one true beauty. She had always been vain about her hair. Unbound, it had fallen in thick golden waves past her hips. Was this the punishment for her vanity?
“Ought to bring a fine price from the wigmaker,” the guard remarked as he gathered her hair from the floor and moved toward the door. “More than enough to pay fer yer buryin’.”
Kristine waited until he was gone, and then, feeling like a sheep shorn of its wool, she ran her hands over the short, spiky ends. Tears burned her eyes and she stiffened her shoulders. She was going to die. She would not cry over the loss of her tresses.
A short time later, a tall, solemn-faced priest came to hear her last confession. A single tear escaped as he gave her absolution, then traced the sign of the cross on her forehead.
Alone again, she sank down on the floor, her head cradled in her hands.
She was going to die.
Feeling numb, she sat there. Would it hurt? Would her legs hold her as they led her up to the gallows? Or would she collapse, weeping and crying like some spineless coward?
She didn’t want to die. She had nothing to live for, but she didn’t want to die.
Her head jerked up when the door opened again.
Was it time already?
Only it wasn’t a guard who entered her cell, but a kind-faced nun bearing a wooden tray laden with a plate of broiled chicken, fresh vegetables, and a loaf of bread still warm and soft instead of hard and stale and crawling with worms. There was a glass of warm sweet wine, as well.
“For me?” After weeks of watered gruel, moldy bread, and tepid water, it seemed a feast indeed.
The elderly nun nodded.
Kristine wept with gratitude as she savored each bite of tender chicken, each morsel of the warm, yeasty bread.
The nun didn’t speak, only smiled sympathetically as she patted Kristine’s arm, then carried the dirty dishes away.
Later, full for the first time in weeks, Kristine curled up on the thin pallet in the corner. Seeking oblivion in sleep, she was too steeped in despair to give heed to the skinny, long-tailed rats that scurried across the stones in search of some small scrap of food. No need to worry about being bitten now, she thought glumly. What difference did it make if she caught the plague?
The rattle of the guard’s keys roused her from a troubled sleep. She bolted upright, fearing that it was morning and they had come to take her to the block. Stomach churning with fear, she stared at the guard, blinking against the light of the lamp.
“That’s her,” the guard said. He stepped into the cell and lifted the lamp higher. “Stand up, girl. His lordship wants to see yer face.”
She had learned long ago to do as she was told, and to do it quickly. Hardly daring to breathe, she scrambled to her feet.
It was then that she saw him, a dark shape that looked like death itself shrouded in a long black woolen cloak. The garment fell in deep folds from his broad shoulders to brush the tops of his black leather boots. The hood of the cloak was pulled low, hiding his face from her view. Black kidskin gloves covered his hands. He stood there, tall, regal, and frightening.
“Her name’s Kristine,” the guard remarked. “Don’t recall her family name.”
The hooded man nodded and made a circling motion with his forefinger.
“Turn around, girl,” the guard demanded brusquely.
She did as the guard asked, her cheeks flushing with shame as she felt the hooded man’s gaze move over her. She was barefoot and filthy. What was left of her hair was dirty and crawling with lice. Her dress, once the color of fresh cream, was badly stained, the hem torn. And worst of all, she smelled bad.
She heard a faint noise, like the rustle of dry paper, and realized the stranger had asked the guard a question.
“Just turned seventeen,” the guard replied with a leer.
She heard the rasp of the hooded man’s voice again and then he turned away, melting into the shadows beyond her cell.
The guard followed him, pausing at the door to look back over his shoulder. “This be yer lucky day, girl. Seems his lordship has taken a fancy to ye.”
“I don’t understand.”
“He just bought yer freedom.”
Kristine staggered back, overcome by a wave of dizzying relief. She wasn’t going to die.
“He’ll be comin’ by to fetch ye tomorrow night.”
Coming for her. Tomorrow night. Relief turned to trepidation. “What . . . what does he want with me?”
The guard threw back his head and barked a laugh. “He says he’s going ta marry ye.”
“Marry me!” Kristine stared at the guard in shock.
“But . . . he doesn’t even know me.”
The guard shrugged. “What does it matter?”
Why would a stranger want to marry her? And why did she care, if it would get her out of this terrible place with her head still on her shoulders? “Can you tell me his name?”
“Why, don’t you know? That’s his lordship, Erik Trevayne.”
Stunned, Kristine stared at the guard. She would rather lose her head that very night than become the wife of the infamous Lord Trevayne. A beheading, at least, would be swiftly and mercifully over. “And he wants to marry me? Are you sure?”
“Aye, girl. It seems a fittin’ match. A murderin’ wench bein’ wed to the Demon Lord of Hawksbridge Castle.”
I am to be the bride of Erik Trevayne, Demon Lord of Hawksbridge Castle.
It was the first thought that crossed Kristine’s mind upon waking in the morning. And hard upon that thought came every rumor she had ever heard of the man, every bit of idle country gossip, every lurid tale.
He was a monster who hadn’t been seen in public since his wife died.
He had killed his first wife and child with his bare hands.
He had been cursed by the devil himself.
He was half man, half beast.
He was old, ugly, deformed, cruel, the seventh son of Satan.
He had been beset by some rare plague that left him horribly disfigured.
Kristine huddled under her thin blanket, shivering uncontrollably. Why did he want to marry her? What manner of man took a condemned murderess for a wife? She fought back a wave of hysterical laughter. She had murdered a man. The lord of Hawksbridge Castle had murdered his wife. As the guard had said, it did, indeed, seem to be a fitting match.
Never had the hours passed so quickly. Why, she wondered, did time seem to limp along when one waited for a happy occasion, and run on eager feet for an event one dreaded?
She tried to pray for strength, for courage, but words failed her and all she could do was murmur, “Please, please, please,” over and over again.
At dusk, two plump women clad in identical gray woolen gowns entered the cell. One carried a small box, the other carried a large bag.
A short time later, one of the guards dragged a small wooden tub into the cell. Two other guards followed and filled the tub with buckets of hot water, shuffling out when the task was complete. One of the women added several drops of fragrant oil to the water.
Kristine stood against the far wall, watching, wondering. Who were these women? What were they doing there? Were they also nuns? It seemed doubtful, considering the way they were dressed. Both had dark brown hair and eyes.
She looked longingly at the tub. She had not been allowed to bathe in the five and a half weeks she had been imprisoned. One needed money to procure a bath, a decent meal, a change of clothing. She had no funds of her own, nor anyone she might appeal to for aid.
She hesitated when the taller of the two women gestured for her to step into the tub. Surely they didn’t expect her to undress and bathe in their presence?
The women smiled reassuringly as they approached her. Why didn’t they speak? When they began to undress her, Kristine shook her head. Stripping off her soiled clothing, she hurriedly stepped into the tub and sank beneath the water, her cheeks flaming with embarrassment.
She tried to protest when the women began to wash her, but they ignored her, their hands gentle, quick, and competent, their eyes sympathetic when they saw how thin she was. One of them vigorously scrubbed her cropped hair and scalp, the other washed her from head to toe. When they were satisfied that she was clean, they helped her out of the tub and toweled her dry, then smoothed a soothing balm over her face and neck, her breasts, her arms and legs.
Kristine was shivering with nervousness when one of the women opened the bag and withdrew a chemise, drawers, and a petticoat, all trimmed with pink ribbons and dainty pink rosettes. Next came a gown of shimmering ice blue silk.
Kristine gaped at the dress. Never in all her life had she beheld anything so lovely. The cool silk felt like heaven against her skin, so much richer and softer than the rough homespun she was accustomed to. There were matching blue slippers for her feet.
She knew a moment of embarrassment as the two women studied her hair, or lack of it. Then, with a sigh, the shorter of the two pulled out a delicate veil of cream-colored lace from the satchel. With a small shake of her head, the woman set the veil in place.
The two women walked around Kristine, smoothing her skirt, making a slight adjustment to the veil, and then they smiled at each other, obviously pleased with what they had accomplished.
One of the women rapped sharply on the door. A moment later, the guard standing watch outside the cell turned the key in the lock and the two women escorted Kristine out of the cell, down the long dank corridor, and out of the prison.
Kristine emerged from the darkness feeling like a newborn lamb about to be led to the slaughter. She took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of clean, fresh air for the first time in over a month.
As soon as she stepped outside, two men wearing the bold green and black livery of Hawksbridge Castle fell into step beside her and escorted her to the small red brick chapel located across the road from the prison.
Her heart was pounding wildly as she entered the church, followed by the two men and the two silent women.
As soon as she was inside, her gaze flew to the altar, to the tall hooded man who stood waiting for her there.
“Come, my daughter.”
At the priest’s words, Kristine dragged her gaze from the man who was to be her husband. Taking a deep breath, she walked down the short, narrow aisle, noticing, for the first time, that there was a woman seated in the front pew. A petite dark-haired woman dressed in unrelieved black.
Kristine was trembling from head to heel by the time she reached the altar. A wave of panic washed over her when the hooded man took his place at her side.
The priest smiled at them. “You will please join hands.”
Kristine’s gaze darted toward the man at her right. He was tall, so tall the top of her head barely reached his shoulder. A cloak of finely woven dark blue wool shot with fine silver threads shrouded him from head to foot. Soft black leather boots covered his feet. He hesitated a moment, then extended his hand, revealing a long arm clad in fine white linen.
For a moment, Kristine stared at the gloved hand he extended toward her and then, wishing she could still her trembling, she placed her hand in his. His hand was large, the fine leather of his glove velvet-soft against her palm. She could feel the latent power in that hand as his fingers closed firmly around hers.
She looked up at the priest, her heart racing. If she begged the good father for help, would he offer her sanctuary? If she refused to marry, would her savior send her back to prison to face the executioner’s axe?
In a daze, she listened to the words that bound her to a man whose countenance she had never seen.
Too soon, it was over.
“Lord Trevayne, you may bestow a kiss upon your bride, if you wish,” the good father said cheerfully.
Kristine stared up at the man who was now her husband, every instinct she possessed urging her to flee as she waited for him to claim his first kiss. Tall and regal, he stood there, not moving, his face hidden in the deep folds of the cowl, and then, slowly, he shook his head.
She felt his fingers tighten on hers—an apology for humiliating her, perhaps?—surprised to find that his rejection should hurt so badly.
“The Lord bless you both.” The priest made the sign of the cross, then turned toward the elegant woman clad in black. “Madam Trevayne, come forward and make your new daughter welcome.”
The woman in the front pew stood and walked toward Kristine, her face an indistinct blur beneath a short black veil. She was a small woman, with fine bones and small, delicate hands. Her dark brown hair was liberally streaked with gray. Kristine found it hard to believe that this petite gentlewoman had given birth to the tall, broad-shouldered man who stood so silently beside her.
“Welcome, daughter,” the woman said, her voice cold, distant. She pressed a cool kiss to Kristine’s cheek, but her gaze was focused on her son.
With both their faces covered, it was impossible for Kristine to see their expressions, but there was no mistaking the tension between mother and son. It crackled between them, leaving Kristine to wonder at its cause.
“Is this wise, Erik?” Lady Trevayne murmured softly. “Are you not tempting fate?”
Kristine winced as her husband’s grip tightened on her hand; then, without a word, he released his hold and stalked out of the church.
Lady Trevayne looked at Kristine, then slowly shook her head. “Leyla and Lilia will see you to your new home, daughter. Fare thee well.” And so saying, she moved past Kristine and knelt at the altar, where she bowed her head in prayer.
Glancing over her shoulder, Kristine saw the two women who had assisted her at the prison waiting for her near the door.
“Do not be afraid, child.” The priest offered her a reassuring smile as he firmly traced the sign of the cross on her brow with a spatulate thumb. “Go with God and fulfill your duty, as a wife should.”
With a nod, Kristine followed the two silent women out of the church.
A shiny black carriage drawn by a pair of matched chestnut geldings awaited her. When she was settled inside, the two silent women joined her. She heard the crack of a whip, and the carriage lurched forward.
Trevayne paced the deep shadows of his chamber, waiting. In the adjoining room, Leyla and Lilia were preparing his bride for bed.
His bride. He had chosen her because she was marked for execution, because she had been the most pathetic of the lot, because he had looked at her scrawny arms, flea-bitten legs, and shorn head and felt nothing. Nothing at all. He had not expected her to clean up so well. Washed and scrubbed and clad in ice blue silk, her dark green eyes luminous beneath the gossamer veil, she had looked incredibly young and vulnerable, like a little girl playing dress-up in her mother’s clothes.
He wished she had remained ugly and unattractive.
He raked a hand through his hair. It was time to fulfill his father’s last wish, now, while he was still able. As promised, he had taken a bride. In the nights to come, he would plant his seed within the girl’s womb and pray it took root quickly. Once the child was born and pronounced healthy, he would seek the peace of mind and soul that only the grave could bring.
He whirled around as the door opened. Leyla stood there. She nodded, indicating that his bride was ready.
With a sigh, he waved the buxom woman away. Then, taking a deep breath, he left his chamber to do his duty.
Kristine paced the floor, her nervousness increasing with the passing of each minute.
The women who had attended her in the prison had readied her for her bridal night. She had surmised, from their strong resemblance to each other, that they were sisters. Had they been born mute, she wondered, or had their tongues been taken as punishment, or perhaps to silence them?
They had bathed her, powdered her, and dressed her in a diaphanous white gown that revealed far more than it hid, though she had little to hide, small-breasted and skinny as she was.
Unable to help herself, she reached up again and again to finger the ends of her shorn locks, which barely brushed her ears. Her one true beauty taken from her.
In an effort to avoid thinking of what was to come, she studied her surroundings. The chamber was large, larger than any room she had ever seen. Intricately woven tapestries hung from the walls. A thick carpet covered the floor. The bed was bigger than her room at home. The soft mattress was covered with fine linens and furs and numerous pillows in all shapes and sizes.
A small writing desk and chair occupied one corner. She would have no need of that, she mused. Even if she were so inclined, she had no one to write to, no friends, no family.
A round table held a ewer and matching basin, both painted with tiny blue flowers.
Standing in the middle of the room, she turned around slowly, realizing as she did so that there were no mirrors—not on the wall, not on the dressing table. That seemed passing strange for a lady’s chamber, but then, much of what had transpired in the past few days had been strange in the extreme.
With hands that shook, she poured herself a glass of water. In spite of the circumstances that had brought about her marriage, she was determined to make the best of it. She knew nothing of her husband save for the rumors she had heard. She reminded herself that rumors were seldom accurate and rarely contained more than a grain of truth. Gossip had a tendency to grow and take on a life of its own the more oft it was repeated. People had talked about her, too. Little they had said was true. Holding that thought in mind, she endeavored to put her fears away. She would not judge her husband by what she had heard or by what others thought, but by how he treated her.
Going to the window, she stared out into the darkness beyond, one hand absently massaging her neck. Her husband had paid a high price for her, had saved her from a horrible fate. She could not fathom his reasons for taking a condemned woman for his bride, but he had and she would ever be grateful. She knew of several women in the village who had not met their husbands until the day they wed, and yet these women had grown to love their husbands, had borne them children, had grieved when their men were laid to rest.
Squaring her shoulders, Kristine took a deep breath, determined to be a good wife, to make her husband happy in any way she could and hope that, in time, she would learn to love him and that he would love her in return.
She turned when she heard movement in the hallway, all her good intentions fleeing in the face of reality. He was here! She placed the glass on the table, her heart galloping in her chest as she turned and saw him standing in the doorway. He wore the same long blue cloak he had worn at their wedding. It covered him from head to heel, his face again hidden in the shadow of the cowl’s dark folds. Like a phantom from a childhood nightmare, he stood there, silent and still. His gaze moved over her in a long, assessing glance. Was he pleased? Disappointed?
Oh, Lord, she prayed, I’m so afraid. Please let him like me . . . please let him be kind. . .. I’m afraid . . . so afraid . . .
Wordlessly, he stepped into the room. She had forgotten how tall and broad he was. The sound of the door closing behind him sounded unusually loud in the stillness.
He crossed the floor on silent feet and extinguished the candles, plunging the room into utter darkness. “Get into bed.”
His voice was low and rough, almost a growl. Just hearing it made her throat ache, causing her to wonder if it was painful for him to speak.
The tone of his voice propelled her into bed. She scrambled under the covers, clutching them to her breast, watching, wide-eyed, as he moved toward her, a tall black shadow gliding soundlessly through the darkness. She willed her stiff muscles to relax, told herself this man was her husband. It was her duty to submit to him.
There was a whisper of cloth as he removed his cloak and tossed it aside. He tossed the blankets to the floor. The bed sagged as, fully clothed, he straddled her hips.
She fought the urge to scream as his weight pinned her to the mattress. Fear rose within her, making her heart pound frantically as his hands slid under her . . .
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