Victor Blackburn is living on borrowed time. An ancient curse will claim his life, and his only chance of survival is a witch who vanished long ago without a trace.
Mercy Seymour eagerly counts down the days until the curse will claim Blackburn's life. She witnessed his treacherous deed, and only his death will free her of the hatred and anger she harbors.
But when fate throws them together and he spirits her away to Blackburn Castle, forces of magic and mists from beyond the grave open her eyes to the truth of the past. As Victor and Mercy unearth the fabled stones needed to break the curse, they discover that the only weapon powerful enough to destroy hate is love.
But will they have to sacrifice their relationship to save what means the most to them?
Blackburn Castle is the spellbinding second book in the Tortured Souls gothic romance series but can be read as a stand-alone book. If you love feisty heroines who give as good as they get, you'll swoon over R.C. Matthews' mythical fantasy!
Buy Blackburn Castle and enter a beautifully dark, gothic world!
Release date: November 1, 2019
Publisher: Crimson Romance
Print pages: 479
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The blood of my kin, spilled in greed,
The hunter seeks me, to fulfill his need.
Goddess of love, goddess of light,
I beg for protection, day and night.
Cloud his memories with fog, overgrow,
That he may never find me, in Devil’s Cove.
(Mercy – 1864 – Prayer to Freya)
Devil’s Cove, England
With a stealthy glance over her shoulder, Mercy lifted the hem of her skirt and quickened her steps. She could not shake the feeling of being followed. A sliver of the waxing moon blinked through the rolling clouds, illuminating the dark crevices of the alley for a brief moment. Another quick peek behind her confirmed she was alone. Only one more minute, and she would reach the back entrance to her uncle’s tavern.
Henry would box her ears if he caught her sneaking in so late at night, especially unaccompanied by his trusted staff. But Bruno couldn’t follow her everywhere at a drop of the hat, nor did she want him to, since many of her paying customers relied on her discretion. And the Taplin residence was barely three blocks away. With Mr. Taplin’s cough growing worse by the hour, she couldn’t wait to deliver the new batch of tonic. He was her best friend’s father, after all, and Emma was beside herself with worry.
Something scurried over Mercy’s booted feet, and she leaped sideways, stifling the scream burning up her throat. A mouse raced across the path and into a hole at the base of the brick building to her right. Oh, goodness! Her chest heaved in and out with each ragged breath as she fought to calm her flighty nerves.
What a silly goose she was being! It was a typical autumn night. So why did it feel different? Perhaps it was the unseasonably warm weather? The night air was damp and hot, clinging to her skin and adding to her restlessness. Sweat trickled down the left side of her brow, and she swiped it away. After an eight-hour shift on her feet working the tables of the tavern, followed by an hour of slaving over a hot cauldron, she was desperate to fall into her bed and sleep.
But it wasn’t meant to be.
With less than twenty paces separating her from her destination, the back door of The Black Serpent clattered open, spewing forth traces of ribald jokes and raucous laughter. A tall, lanky figure staggered out, his features drowned in the inky blackness of the night.
Mercy crouched behind an empty barrel propped against the wall of the neighboring building. She held her breath as the man stumbled across the narrow passageway and paused, fumbling with his breeches until his head fell back and he sighed in pleasure. A stream of urine hissed and splattered against the back entrance of Mr. Smith’s tailor shop.
What disrespect! The man was a bloody damned fool, too, considering the men’s loo was adjacent to the back exit of the tavern.
She bit down hard on the inside of her cheek while she waited for the miscreant to finish his business, lest she give her presence away and invite the unwanted attentions of a drunkard, of which The Black Serpent housed many.
As she waited, the thud of heavy boots drew her attention to the far end of the alley, beyond the tavern. She pushed herself harder against the wall as the outline of another man materialized by the dim light of the crescent moon. She turned her face skyward, surprised to find the clouds were breaking up.
“Charles Mitchell, so good of you to join us in the alley,” the newest arrival said, his voice deceptively calm yet possessing a lethal edge.
A nugget of unease lodged in her chest; still, she peeked over the rim of the barrel. What in the dickens did he mean, join us? The man was alone.
Charles grinned and scanned the alley, his eyes bobbing and weaving from one shadow to another. “Evening, Hatchet,” he said. “Shall we head inside and order an ale, then? We’ll be more comfortable. My treat, of course.”
“Not tonight, mate.” Hatchet shook his bald head, and the moon glinted off the silver hoop in his ear. In his tight, fawn-colored breeches and with his sleeves rolled up to the elbow, his brawny muscles could not be overlooked. Tilting his head to one side, then the other, he cracked his neck before stepping in front of Charles, cutting off his path to the tavern.
Butterflies fluttered wildly in Mercy’s belly. This could not be good. Oh, why couldn’t she have arrived five minutes sooner? Then she would already be tucked into her bed. She peered down the alley once more, unable to detect anyone else’s presence. Perhaps she could sneak along the wall and enter the tavern unnoticed while Hatchet’s back was still facing her. Taking a deep breath, she steadied her nerves and stood.
“Best to avoid prying ears for what we have to discuss,” another man suddenly said from the shadows.
Mercy slid back down the wall, her heart skittering to a halt.
The man ducked out of an alcove and seemed to take perverse pleasure in stalking toward his prey. Even at a distance, his towering height and distinctive blue-black tresses stood out. Victor, first mate on The Savior. The ship had arrived in Devil’s Cove harbor over a month earlier, and the rumors regarding its captain and crew spread like an infectious disease, crawling under one’s skin.
After the brawl the sailors had incited only a week earlier within the tavern, Mercy was of a mind to believe the chilling stories of their reign on the high seas. Besides, one need only look to their choice of lodgings to confirm their character. Devil’s Cove Manor was an abandoned mansion on the outskirts of town, shrouded in mystery and reputed to house Josephine, the gatekeeper to Hell. Only men of ill repute would dare to live there.
Taking a calming breath, Mercy prayed silently that she wouldn’t faint. She ought to look away but found that she could not. A disconcerting intensity vibrated off Victor, yet he possessed a devilishly handsome face, despite the slight crook in his nose, or perhaps because of it. It was no doubt earned at the beating of another man’s fist.
Strange fluttering sensations flourished in her breast. She bit her lip. Was this wild attraction or unbridled fear? ’Twas difficult to differentiate. But she was an intelligent woman and knew better than to pine over an unscrupulous man, no matter how handsome he might be.
A heavy gold chain hung around his neck and disappeared below the open collar of his flowing shirt, which was tucked into fitted trousers that hugged his sinewy thighs. Knee-high Hessians encased his calves, the heels of the boots echoing ominously through the alley with each measured step. He melded with the night, dressed entirely in black as he was.
The fine hairs on her neck prickled, and her instincts flared to life, warning her to flee. Whatever business these pirates had with Charles Mitchell was best left between them and their Maker. She glanced at the tavern door, mentally calculating the odds of sneaking inside now without notice. Quite poor, considering the angle at which Charles stood. But with the pirates’ backs to her, it was now or never.
Just as she crept from behind the barrel, Hatchet sidled up behind Charles and clasped his upper arms in an iron grip, both men now facing her. The deadly glimmer in the pirate’s eyes halted Mercy in her tracks, and she crouched lower.
“Tarnation,” she grumbled under her breath while peeking over the top of the barrel.
Charles grunted in shock, before he struggled to break free. His fair skin paled a shade further when Victor grasped a handful of his shirt. “What can I do for you, Victor?”
“Well, you can start by keeping your fucking mouth shut,” he said, slamming one fist and then the other into Charles’s jaw in rapid succession.
The dull thud of bone on bone rippled through Mercy, and she shuddered as blood spewed from Charles’s battered mouth. Well, that had escalated quite quickly. She clasped her hands to her chest, praying for her patroness Freya’s guidance. Should she hold her tongue or scream? Would anyone come to her rescue? Not likely, given the boisterous patrons of The Black Serpent. No, best to remain silent. They wouldn’t kill the man in an alley, would they?
“I’ll keep it shut,” Charles said, slumping forward. “Tell me what I’ve said wrong, and I promise not to say another word.”
Good man. Yes, listen close and keep your mouth shut.
Victor sank his hand into Charles’s hair and yanked his head up. “Stop spreading filthy lies about your wife and daughter, you rat bastard.”
Charles snarled, his lip curling in an unsightly manner. “Eveline isn’t my daughter! She’s Deveraux’s bastard.”
Mercy shoved her fist into her mouth. She had met Eveline the day she moved to Devil’s Cove. Her aunt had hoped they would become friends, being of an age with one another. But then Charles Mitchell had sent his daughter to live at the priory under Brother Anselm’s care and renamed her Grace. An odd business, that. Or, perhaps not so odd, considering this bit of news.
Without warning, Victor pummeled Charles in the stomach with so much force that the man doubled over and vomited with great, heaving gulps. The second he recovered, Hatchet held him up for another round of beatings from Victor’s effectual fists. He was relentless, pounding his victim without mercy until he hung like a rag doll in Hatchet’s firm grip.
Bile threatened to choke her. Despite years of working in her uncle’s tavern, she’d never witnessed a beating as prolonged and vicious.
Victor’s shoulders heaved with every breath, and he shook out his hands before taking a step back to assess the damage. “Not another goddamned word, Charles,” he said, motioning for Hatchet to hold up the man’s lolling head. “The next time I catch wind of your rantings, you’re a dead man.”
Mercy gasped then sank to her haunches. Stupid mistake! Blood rushed into her ears, and her heart thundered with each passing second. Had they heard her over Charles’s groans and feverish pleas for mercy?
“Drag the bloody blighter home, Hatchet, and leave him on the doorstep.”
She closed her eyes and rocked softly, tapping her head against her knees as she counted to twenty. Please go away. Taking one final, deep breath, she opened her eyes—and screamed.
Victor pressed his hand against her mouth, muffling her cries as he hauled her to her feet and backed her against the wall, covering her body with his. She stiffened, unable to move a single inch. His touch was firm but exerting only the requisite pressure to ensure her compliance. Pressing his lips into a grim line, he regarded her with his emerald eyes.
The hue was unusual, so calm, almost beckoning her to lay down her defenses. Oh, dear, she shouldn’t gaze into his eyes. But he held her head in place, so she glanced down instead and was met with a view of his cracked and bloodied knuckles.
Her stomach lurched, and she struggled to break free from his hold, using every ounce of strength she possessed.
“Calm down before you attract every bloody man in the tavern,” he said, his gaze steely. “I won’t hurt you. Do you hear me?”
She nodded vigorously while tears stung her eyes. What would he do to a nosey young lady who’d witnessed his ruthless deeds?
“I’m going to remove my hand so you can answer my questions. No more screaming. Or I’ll be forced to cover your mouth with mine.”
His mouth on mine? Better than his bloodied hand, but no, feeling his lips pressed against hers would not be good. Well, it would certainly feel good, but it would not be good. Because he would wish for more. And more, until … Questions? The pirate wanted to ask her questions? She nodded again.
His brow furrowed. “How much did you see or hear?”
What did he expect her to say? Every single blow of his lethal fists upon a man half his size. Secrets capable of destroying Eveline’s already tenuous reputation. Threats against his victim’s life. Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth, and she swallowed hard before finding her voice.
“Nothing,” she whispered, avoiding his piercing gaze. “I didn’t hear or see anything, I tell you.”
He chuckled, drawing her gaze back to him. A wisp of a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as he studied her face, and a blush heated her cheeks. She was a horrible liar.
“Good girl,” he crooned, rubbing the soft pad of his thumb absently over her cheek. “I believe you. What’s your name, lass?”
She breathed for what felt like the first time in five minutes and inhaled a rich mixture of sandalwood and his perspiration. His eyes burned with desire as they dropped to her mouth, lingering there for a few heart-stopping moments before he met her gaze again.
Her belly quaked under his possessive stare. Goodness, he wanted to kiss her with those full, supple lips … and a small part of her longed for his kiss, to feel the warmth of his mouth. ’Twas useless to deny her physical attraction to the man. But succumbing to his charms would be foolish. He would only offer a taste of passion, bringing her ruin and shame. Yet, she couldn’t fight him off if he wanted to take her innocence in the dark alley, so why did he not ravish her?
Instead, he traced his thumb along her jaw until his hand threaded into her hair at the nape, holding her prisoner to his steady gaze. “You tremble in my embrace. I would never hurt a woman or force her into submission. Do you believe me?”
She nodded, though, in truth, her instincts warned her otherwise. He had brutally beaten another man only minutes before. And he was first mate on The Savior to the Devil himself, a renowned pirate. She didn’t wish to reveal her name to him. Best that he forget her.
“Come, tell me your name, sweet lass.”
The back door of the tavern flew open, and Henry barreled outside. “Are you out here, girl? Show yourself this instant.”
Equal parts relief and panic roiled in her gut. Her uncle had broken the spell Victor had weaved over them, yet she feared for Henry’s life should he find her wrapped in the pirate’s embrace—because he would feel honor-bound to defend her virtue.
Victor leaned closer, blocking her from her uncle’s line of sight. His heart thumped against her chest, its rhythmic cadence intoxicating in the otherwise still night. She held her breath, shocked by the heat of his cheek against hers.
“I’m going to toss you over my knee and tan your hide,” Henry called out. “Do you hear, girl? The alley is no fittin’ place for young ladies. Show yourself now, and I’ll go easy on you. I know you’re out here. Bruno saw you slip out the back door earlier.”
Victor cursed under his breath, and then pushed her toward her uncle as he blended into the dark alley, his footfalls barely a whisper on the wind. She glanced over her shoulder, seeking a glimpse of his receding form. But he was gone. Picking up her skirt, she charged out of the dark alcove.
“There you are,” her uncle said, wrapping her in his tight embrace. He rested his chin on her head for a moment before ushering her through the tavern door. “I swear, you’ll be the death of me.”
She swallowed back the trickle of fear burgeoning in her chest. Somehow, she’d cheated fate.
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