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“Wake up, sleepy-head.” The deep masculine voice rumbled beneath my ear. “We’re here.”
Yawning, I snuggled closer against the silken waistcoat. I could hear the steady beat of my husband’s heart, feel the rise and fall of hard-paved muscle beneath the layers of fine fabric. The familiar scent of his clean soap and exotic wood-spice pervaded my senses, blending with the sensuality of some half-finished dream. Loath for the dozy pleasure to end, I burrowed deeper and mumbled, “A few more minutes?”
I heard a low laugh. Then husky tones entered my ear, awakening tingles over my skin. “Sorry, my love, but I sent word ahead. The staff will be ready to greet us—and the new lady of the house especially. Bad form to keep them waiting.”
With a sigh, I relinquished the fading fantasy and opened my eyes. The elegant green and gold interior of the carriage came into focus. My glance darted to the windows. The shades remained drawn, I saw gratefully, shutting out the world beyond for a little longer.
Though I shook my head, my chin was tipped up, and I found myself looking into my husband’s vivid blue gaze. My blood quickened, an instantaneous reaction that six weeks of marriage—or a lifetime, I suspected—couldn’t dull. For a moment, I had the wild fancy that I was still asleep for what else but a fever-dream could produce the magnificent male before me?
With his strong, classical features and long, lean physique, Lord Lucien James Langsford, Earl Huxton, cast Michelangelo’s David in the shade. His lips curved, and that sensual movement alone declared his victory over any statue, no matter how perfect. For his was no cold-marble beauty but one forged from more sweltering stuff.
Hux had once been a rakehell, and he possessed the sinful looks for the part. His thick raven locks ran wild with silver, framing the dramatic slash of his cheekbones. Beneath dark slanting brows, his eyes were heavy-lidded and lushly fringed, and the sapphire flames within them pronounced him as hot-blooded a man as ever there was.
With just such irresistible wickedness, Hux murmured, “Poor wife. Being a gentleman, I suppose I ought to shoulder the blame for your peaked state. I did keep you up most of the night.”
“To the contrary, my lord,” I managed, as heat blossomed in my cheeks (and other parts), “’twas the reverse that occurred.”
His brow arched. “Reverse, my sweet?”
I tried for a demure voice. “If memory serves me correctly, would you not say that it was I who kept you, er… up?”
One could not live with a rake without learning a few things, after all.
“Naughty minx.” With an appreciative grin, he lifted my hand, and turning it over, kissed the underside of my wrist, above the edge of my glove, his lips lingering against the bare and throbbing pulse. “You have acquired some Continental polish, haven’t you? Reluctant as I am for our wedding trip to end, it seems we have returned in the nick of time. Who knows what damage another month in France might have done to your moral sensibilities.” He paused. “On second thought, I’ll have Edgar turn us around immediately. We’ll board the next ship back to Calais.”
“I wouldn’t mind going back,” I said quickly.
Too quickly, for my husband’s eyes lost their lazy gleam, and he began to study me in that keen way of his. The way that had always made me feel as transparent as glass.
Sure enough, he asked, “What is troubling you, Abby? You’ve been ill-at-ease ever since we set sail yesterday morning.”
“It is n-nothing.” I silently cursed the stammer, the tell-tale sign of my nerves. Attempting a lighter tone, I said, “It is only that France was wonderful, and there was so much we did not see. I should like to explore more of the countryside for I heard the lavender fields in Provence are quite spectacular this time of year—”
Seeing the implacable set of my husband’s jaw, I bit my lip. In truth, I was embarrassed by the worries that had begun to nibble at me as our honeymoon had drawn to a close. For days now, I’d been dreading the return to English shores, knowing that we would end up here at the Huxton London townhouse. This was to be our temporary home during the rebuilding of Hope End, Hux’s estate in Hertfordshire; with an anguished pang, I recalled the nightmarish destruction of that sprawling, beautiful manor—and more so the precious lives that had been lost.
All at the hands of Lilith, the vengeful Queen of Demons.
But the terror was over now. The need to believe that, to begin to heal the wounds dealt so maliciously by Lilith, had fueled the ardent days and nights in France. The passion of our bodies and the intimacy of our minds had rekindled that most miraculous thing: hope. Despite all that we had suffered, we found ourselves still capable of joy. Of trust that our future together would shine as brightly as our love. And so, given the enormity of what Hux and I had surmounted—the life-and-death perils we had faced to finally defeat Lilith and find peace—I could scarcely credit my current doubts. My trifling anxieties.
“I am waiting,” my husband said.
I blew out a breath, wondering if there was a way to explain my concerns without sounding like a ninny. “Oh, all right. If you must know, it’s… it’s the staff I’m worried about.”
“The staff,” he repeated. “I see. Well, most of them began service with my parents, so I think they will prove competent enough. If you find anything lacking, however, we will rectify matters immediately. The Huxton residence is to be your domain: I’ll leave the decisions of hiring and firing entirely at your discretion.”
“I couldn’t! I mean, I wouldn’t dream of letting anyone go.” Horrified at the notion of that responsibility and feeling more self-conscious by the moment, I aimed my gaze at my lap. Fiddled with a loose ribbon on my skirts. “That is to say, I am sure the servants will be very experienced and diligent. It’s just that I hope they will… like me.”
Silence greeted my confession, so I slid a look at Hux. His brow was furrowed, as if he were trying to comprehend some foreign language. Which, in a way, he was, I thought ruefully. For despite his unique mind and unconventional ways, he was still the product of a long line of blue-bloods. An aristocrat born and bred. His confidence, his assumption of absolute command—these qualities were bone-deep. How could he possibly understand my insecurities?
For I’d been born into neither wealth nor rank. I did not even know the name of my father as he had not bothered to marry my mother. All I knew of my origins were a few facts, most of them disreputable. My mother had died whilst giving birth to me within the walls of Westhaven Sanitarium, an asylum for the insane. Through previous adventures, I had discovered the source of her lunacy: she’d been possessed by real and virulent demons. Driven mad, by the legacy of her own blood. That same blood flowed in my veins and bound me by kinship to Lilith.
To sum, I could claim this as my pedigree: bastard, commoner, and descendent of evil.
Left to my own devices, I could come to terms with those aspects of my heritage. In truth, I had much to be grateful for. I had known my mother’s love and that of my Aunt Agnes who had raised me. Through Aunt Agnes’ teachings, I had learned the importance of fortitude and hard work, qualities which had seen me through the darkest time when I’d found myself alone in the world, struggling to survive as a maid. Perhaps the most unexpected blessing of all, I’d ended up winning the heart of my employer, a man who valued me, oddities and all, and whose soul was mate and twin to my own.
Yet therein lay the crux of the problem: I could no longer think only of myself. I had to consider my husband’s position. Marriage had catapulted me into Hux’s social stratum, a place so high above my rightful place that I grew dizzy just contemplating it. The thought of disappointing him, of bringing shame to his name—
Warmth cupped my cheek.
“I cannot believe it.” Turning my head gently side to side, Hux studied me with solemn inquisition. “Can this be the same girl? The Abigail Jones I knew who fearlessly battled demons? The brave girl who vanquished the despised, all-powerful Lilith? No, this cannot be the little heroine who boldly marched into her wicked lord’s dark lair and showed him he had a heart after all.”
Feeling my throat swell, I swallowed and said, “I know it’s silly. But you don’t understand how it is below stairs. How exact that world is.” I struggled to convey the sense of rigid moral order. “It is like a table setting: every piece of cutlery and china has a proper place. If one item is a smidgen askew, if it doesn’t quite match with the rest . . .”
I understood all too well what it was like to be that outlier. All my life, I had suffered snubs for being different and not like the other village girls. Even after I’d left the parish and entered service at Hope End, acceptance had eluded me. Then, through a turn of events, I’d found myself promoted from maid to the master’s secretary, and many below stairs had resented me further. There’d been no escaping the ugly whispers, the derisive looks that said louder than words, You’ll never belong, Abigail Jones. Not here—not anywhere.
The memory of panic flooded my heart.
“You have a place now.” Hux’s firm words pulled me from the undertow, anchored me again in the present. “You are Countess Huxton. That is all the help need concern themselves with.”
I worried my lower lip. “But servants know everything. Even here in London, they will have heard the talk. ’Tis not every day that an earl marries a maid, after all. And they will blame me, for turning the whole order of things topsy-turvy—”
“To hell with what the servants think,” he said dismissively.
“But it’s not just the servants, Hux.” The more I aired my anxieties, the more they propagated. As I uprooted one worry, another sprouted in place. “Don’t you see? They’ll be others, too, people from your world. The Upper Crust. Royalty, dukes and duchesses, to say nothing of the foreign dignitaries—”
Hux cocked a brow. “Yes, heaven forbid we offend a Russian prince or two.”
“They’ll all be watching me, knowing that I don’t belong.” I envisioned a sea of cold, high-nosed faces, their solid gold monocles and jewel-encrusted opera glasses turned upon me. Magnifying my every flaw, my every mistake. My palms grew clammy, yet I forced myself to go on, to admit my greatest fear. The inevitable challenge merely postponed by the weeks abroad. “What if …” Hearing the quaver in my voice, I felt even smaller. “What if I can’t pass as a countess? What then?”
“Who said anything about passing?” Hux said. “You are a countess. Mine, as it happens. And it seems you need reminding of that fact.”
The warm possessiveness in his tone made my stomach flutter, and before I could respond, he had me upon his lap. His mouth claimed mine, masterfully setting fire to my senses. Even as I struggled to hold onto my arguments and uncertainties, my mind began to blur and soften. Everything began to melt away, everything but my awareness of him. Of the passion that ignited so easily between us. Our kiss deepened, and the taste of him overflowed my senses, richer, headier than the finest brandy.
Oh, he was delicious, this husband of mine.
As he drank the sigh from my lips, I ran my hands through his hair. The glide of thick, rough silk between my fingers inflamed me. I wanted him closer, wanted every part of him in contact with every part of me. We tumbled to the cushions, my mouth fitted to his, and I partook of him with an eagerness that I could never quite contain.
“Butler or baron, kitchen maid or king—the world can go hang itself, Abby,” he rasped against my ear. “Don’t you know that nothing matters but our love? That you are my own perfect countess?”
“I’m not perfect,” I protested.
“To me you are. Perfect to touch,”—I trembled as his knuckles brushed my jaw—“to taste,”—my neck arched as his kisses travelled lower, along the collar of my chemisette—“to lose my senses in.”
My fingers dug into his muscular shoulders as his lips roved just beneath the perimeter of linen. A rash of heat spread over my skin. I could barely breathe due to the exquisite restriction of my new finery. For as my arousal grew, the clinch of the French-made corset tightened, the pressure spreading outward from my constricted mid-section. Above the laces, my breasts felt engorged, the tips taut and straining against the shield of whalebone and fabric. Below, dew slicked my throbbing flesh, yet there was no surcease to be had, not with the layers upon layers of fabric.
“Please, Hux.” Squirming beneath him, I panted, “Do something. I can’t stand it—”
His eyes darkened to a familiar midnight, and I felt his fingers slip under me, undoing me, setting me free. “With pleasure, my love.”
I stretched up toward his kiss, lost myself in the drugging bliss.
A sudden sharp rap made me start. Hux, too, stiffened in response—at least his shoulders did. Lying beneath him as I was, I knew another part of his anatomy had gone rigid some time ago.
“Bloody hell. What is it?” he growled at the door.
“Beggin’ yer pardon, milord.” The groom’s voice, which did not sound remotely apologetic, filtered through polished wood. “Thought you should know the ‘orses are getting’ a might antsy, an’ that’s to say nothin’ ’bout the old stick peepin’ through the front door. Reckon ’e’s ’bout to stampede through, ’im an’ the rest o’ the lot wif their noses pressed up ’gainst the parlor windows—”
“That’ll do, Edgar,” Hux said, his tone curt. “We’ll be out shortly.”
As Hux pulled me to sitting position, I tried to regain my equilibrium. Unrequited arousal simmered in my veins, and my hands trembled as I tugged at my crushed bodice. Sweet Lord, there was no denying my husband’s power over me. With a word, a touch, he could unspool my self-possession and reduce it to a pile of gossamer threads.
With a ragged sigh that heartened me, Hux set about restoring himself. In no time at all, he appeared his usual, impeccable self: the epitome of male elegance in his burgundy frock coat and striped charcoal waistcoat. His smoke-grey cravat held a precise, complicated knot.
“So much for those Continental ways,” he said. “It seems we are back in England, my lady, and much to my regret.”
“Mine too,” I said with indelicate emphasis.
With a quiet laugh, he took my hand and kissed it. “I am the luckiest of men. And I promise you that we shall soon finish what we have begun. But for now I’ll have to content myself with playing ladies maid. Turn around for me, sweet.”
I obeyed, shivering at play of his nimble fingers along my spine. No challenge for Hux, all those buttons and hooks. I supposed this was one advantage of having wed a reformed rake. During our wedding trip, there had been no need for a maid to hamper our privacy, for my husband had been quite pleased to help me dress—and undress.
A final tug on my corset strings reined in my breath and my wayward thoughts. Glancing down, I saw with relief that the autumn-colored silk fit smoothly once more. Ordinarily, I did not concern myself much with my appearance, but for this first meeting with the servants I needed to look my best.
Anxiety nudged me to ask an age-old, female question. “How do I look?”
“Beautiful, as always.” Hux paused. “There is just the matter of your hair…”
I reached to ascertain the state of my coiffure. When my fingers encountered the disordered mass, my eyes widened in horror. Beautiful? ’Twas a Bedlamite I resembled, more like. Pins stuck out this way and that, and renegade strands straggled pell-mell over my shoulders. At the back of my head, I discovered a matted patch suitable for avian habitat.
“I’m a disaster.” In vain I tried to constrain my disorderly locks. “Where is my dashed hat?”
With a suspicious twitch to his lips, Hux replied, “At an enviable place of rest.”
I tilted my head in question.
“Beneath your bottom,” he clarified.
With a gasp, I pulled free the remnants of a once-stylish straw bonnet. Hux had insisted on purchasing it—and a great many others—from a famed milliner in Paris. The beribboned and be-tucked confection was now reduced to the approximate dimensions of a crêpe (which, incidentally, I’d discovered to be France’s rather scrumptious answer to a pancake).
Mayhap, I thought glumly, I should have spent less time engaged in gluttonous pursuits and more on acquiring fashionable polish—or polish of any sort, for that matter. Resigned, I studied the flattened headpiece. “What on earth shall I do? Oh, this is a lost cause, Hux. I’ll never be a proper countess.”
“Faint words from a fair lady,” he chided. “And here I was expecting you to shower me with pearls from your Aunt Agnes’ trove. Something along the lines of, Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
“But my hair—” I tugged at a fallen nut-brown filament, saw with despair how it refused to do anything but lay stick-straight over my shoulder. “We haven’t the proper tools nor time to fix it. And, ingenious as you are, even you cannot repair the hat: ’tis trampled as a thistle underfoot.”
My husband shook his head. “Ye of little faith. You should know me better by now. I have a solution, of course.” So saying, he reached inside his coat and withdrew a small pouch. “Your hands, if you please.” I held out my palms, and he poured into them what appeared to be a lustrous web of pearls and dark knotted silk.
I looked at him, still uncomprehending, and his lips quirked. “’Tis a snood, my love. A net to capture all that lovely hair of yours. Just braid the stuff and tuck it beneath. None will be the wiser.”
“You think of everything, don’t you?” I mused as I quickly plaited my hair.
“I find it prudent to be prepared for emergencies.” A muscle twitched alongside his mouth. “There being so many when it comes to your wardrobe.”
Given my uncanny ability to destroy any garment unfortunate enough to be attached to my person, I could not, in all fairness, refute this last statement. Yet, I thought darkly, ’twas one of Hux’s faults that he found my problem a bizarre source of amusement. Really, could I help it if in battling demons a gown or two had been set aflame? Or that in moments of passion with his lordship my clothes ended up hopelessly crumpled whilst his suffered nary a wrinkle? Or that, in truth, I had more interest in books than frocks and fripperies and the like?
“It isn’t funny,” I muttered.
“Not in the slightest.”
Seeing the betraying tremor that ran over my husband’s wide shoulders, I grabbed the most convenient object—the demolished hat—and waved it in mock threat. This seemed to amuse him further for despite his bland expression, his shoulders began to shake in earnest. Just as I was considering letting loose my floppy projectile, the carriage door opened.
The stocky groom scowled up us, his face drawn into its habitual bull-dog expression. Apparently used to our antics by now, he grunted, “Takin’ yer time ’bout things, aren’t you?”
“Sorry, Edgar,” I said, frowning at Hux, who was staring intently at the floor. His jaw quivered; anyone who knew him could see he was trying his damnedest not to laugh. “We were delayed by his lordship’s excessive wit.”
Edgar rolled his eyes, and as he let down the steps I heard him mutter under his breath, “Wit, is it? I’d another name for it meself.”
An ordinary employer might have chastised such impudence. But Edgar had been in Hux’s service for years and what he lacked in manner, he more than made up for in steadfast loyalty. After my marriage to Hux, he’d begun to treat me with the same surly protectiveness with which he guarded his master.
Hux cleared his throat. “I was merely admiring another of Lady Langsford’s many charms. In particular, that style of hers—so carefree and unaffected.” He donned his hat; beneath the brim, his blue eyes held a devilish sparkle. “She manages to make fashion appear positively extemporaneous.”
Before I could retort, he stretched out his long legs and vaulted easily to the ground. From there, he delivered an elegant bow. The gallantry of the gesture was, in my opinion, undermined by his roguish wink. Shaking my head at such irreverence (and trying to squelch the reluctant tugging of my lips), I gathered my things. As I took one last look around the coach, however, a strange sensation gripped me. Out of nowhere, chilled fingers curled around my insides, and all else faded to a gut-wrenching premonition.
Stay. Do not leave here. It is not safe.
The impulse was so fierce that I felt the words rising in my throat to call Hux back inside. To tell him we needed to remain here, within this velvet-lined cocoon, protected from unknown dangers beyond.
“Ready, love?” From the pavement, Hux held a gloved hand out to me, his gaze quizzical.
My respiration fitful, I peered beyond him. I saw nothing ominous in the quiet street, no threat looming in the clear, summer sky. My cheeks burned, then, at my foolish fancy. Like some feather-witted heroine in a gothic novel, I had let my overwrought sensibilities run roughshod over my good sense.
Words floated into my mind, a quotation that Aunt Agnes and I had discussed during my lessons: We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.
Well, I was no longer a child. I had walked into the heart of darkness and survived it. Through our faith in love and our perseverance in the face of suffering, Hux and I had defeated Lilith and her demonic offspring and delivered them into the custody of the Light. The world could rest now, free of her menace. And I, a once-shunned servant, was wed to my beloved master and poised upon the threshold of a new life.
What more could there possibly be to fear?
Drawing a resolute breath, I reached for Hux’s hand. The strength and vitality of his grip steadied me. I straightened my shoulders and descended into the brightness.Return to Abigail Jones and The Asylum of Secrets
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