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       Wild Heart, p.1

           Lori Brighton
 
Wild Heart


  A SUDDEN MOVEMENT CAUGHT HER ATTENTION

  A man stalked from the house. The wind teased his hair, brushing the strands across his neck—strands much too long for any decent gentleman.

  Stunned and curious, she pushed the curtain farther aside and peered into the evening. In his hand he dragged what looked to be a framed canvas. How odd. Was he real or some mythical beast made visible by the magic of twilight? Her gaze slid from his face, hidden by his long hair, down to the sleeves of his white shirt, which were rolled to his elbows. Even from her vantage point she could see the corded muscles flexed in his forearms.

  An unfamiliar heat pulsed through her body, pushing aside the familiar hum of her powers. The subject of her fascination stopped and threw the canvas in a wide arc. The painting sailed through the garden and landed on a yellow rosebush.

  “Rather peculiar,” Ella whispered.

  He spun around as if he heard her comment. Ella squeezed back behind the curtains. The small porcelain clock on the fireplace mantel ticked the time by. Unable to control her curiosity, she finally peeked between the folds of the drapes. His gaze lingered directly at her window. For a few seconds he merely stared. Surely he couldn’t see her. Her heart hammered in her chest as she waited…waited…waited.

  Finally, he dropped his attention and disappeared into the house. Ella raced across the room and bolted her door. Safely ensconced, she leaned against the thick wooden panel and breathed a sigh of relief. By God, who was he?

  Wild Heart

  LORI BRIGHTON

  ZEBRA BOOKS

  Kensington Publishing Corp.

  http://www.kensingtonbooks.com

  For my writing partners, my friends,

  my wonderful editors and fabulous agent.

  Most importantly, for my family.

  Contents

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 1

  Sussex, England, 1855

  Surely God was punishing her.

  After all, hadn’t Lady Buckley reminded her again and again no good would come to those who had the devil’s ability? Ella plucked at the tattered lace on her cuff, her morose thoughts getting the better of her. As if she had any control over her powers. As if she had any control over the devil. As if she had any control over her life.

  Do not tell anyone what you are capable of, Lady Buckley’s words whispered through her memory, bringing with the heat of shame.

  Too nervous to stand, Ella sank onto a window seat and focused on the garden, attempting to glean comfort from the cheery daisies. Truth be told, she should have been ecstatic to have been given the post. From the crystal chandeliers, to the soft carpets that covered the floorboards, the home reeked of money and privilege. A privilege now extended to include her. So why then wasn’t she thrilled to leave Lady Buckley’s noxious company?

  “You don’t look well,” Fran whispered, stepping close to her side.

  She didn’t feel well either, but Ella forced a smile to her lips. She hadn’t felt right since their carriage swept through the impressive iron gates of Sodalitas Castle. Was it nerves or something more? Blast it, but she couldn’t tell.

  “I’m well. Merely anxious.”

  Fran patted her shoulder. “And understandably.”

  From her position near the walnut fireplace, Lady Buckley cleared her throat. Slouched in the chair, she resembled an albino toad keeping watch over her minions. Her glare received the desired effect and Ella and Fran fell silent.

  “She’ll mind her manners, no doubt,” Lady Buckley said, giving the old man across from her a confident smirk. “She knows the value of being a governess for a real lord.”

  He darted a glance at Ella, a flush to his wrinkled face as if he were embarrassed by Lady Buckley’s remark, when the comment had been made at Ella’s expense. If anyone should be blushing, she supposed it should be her, but she was too bloody nervous for such trivial matters. She’d been in the Buckley household since she was a mere child. In all honesty, she thought she’d always live there.

  “I was delighted to hear that you took the post,” Lord Roberts said with a gentle smile that put her at some ease. With his silver hair and soft blue eyes, he was every bit the gentleman. Yes, she should be grateful.

  Ella forced her lips up. “Yes, my lord. I was surprised and delighted—”

  A loud crash sounded from above, vibrating the floorboards and interrupting the speech she had practiced all last eve. Fran gasped and latched onto Ella’s arm. The crystal drops on the chandelier tinkled together like fairy wings. Neither Lord Roberts nor Lady Buckley seemed to notice, but lifted their teacups in unison and sipped.

  “What was that?” Fran whispered.

  Ella shook her head. “A maid?”

  She knew better than to comment on the noise and embarrass poor Lord Roberts. But really, what sort of man allowed such disrespect from the servants when visitors were at hand? Lady Buckley would have demanded an explanation and punishment for such a commotion. Ella knew first hand.

  Servants are not to be seen, nor heard.

  But instead, Lady Buckley set her teacup down with a soft clank, drawing their attention back to her. If the servants could get away with such rude behavior, what would the little lord of the manner be able to do? Her interest piqued, Ella studied Lady Buckley. Was the woman setting her up for a disastrous fall?

  But there was no cause for suspicion upon her round face. Although, the firelight did make the woman’s skin glow an eerie white from rice powder, bringing forth thoughts of specters haunting castles. As if Ella needed any more reason to be leery of the situation she found herself suddenly in.

  “Should be on your knees thanking Lord Roberts, you should,” the old biddy said.

  Perhaps it was the red glow of the hearth, or the leering shadows that danced against the paneled walls like cavorting demons, but a chill snaked over Ella’s back. Something wasn’t right.

  “A brilliant opportunity to gain entry as a governess into a privileged family,” Lady Buckley had said. But since when was Lady Buckley eager to assist her? Never had the woman cared what Ella wanted before.

  Lord Roberts cleared his throat. “Yes, well, we’re both grateful, of course.”

  The sudden racket of coughing forced everyone’s attention to Fran.

  “Contain yourself,” Lady Buckley demanded, as if the condition was something Fran could control. She leaned closer to Lord Roberts, her immense bosom nearly falling from her low neckline. “Impossible to find a decent lady’s maid.”

  Ella resisted the urge to respond. She would certainly not miss the woman. Fran wheezed between gulps of air, her face red with barely concealed effort. Ella reached out, taking her hand. How much longer could the girl last, forced to work as hard as she was? Blast Lady Buckley and her uncaring soul!

  “And how was your trip?” Lord Roberts asked, obviously trying to change the subject. Thank the Heavens someone had sense.

  Lady Buckley sighed. “Quite uneventful. Still, I am rather exhausted. If I may be shown to a room where I may rest?”

  “Of course.”

  Ella felt a moment of panic and the insane desire to bring up
the weather, anything to delay their departure from the room. No, no it couldn’t be over, not already! She tightened her hold on Fran’s thin fingers. “I want you to keep my necklace,” she whispered as Lord Roberts assisted Lady Buckley from her chair.

  Fran shook her head, wisps of her red hair swaying around her pale, narrow face. “No, absolutely not. You know ’ow I am. I’d lose it and I know ’ow important that piece is to you.”

  Ella pulled the necklace free from underneath her collar. “But Fran—”

  Fran sighed and rubbed the silver pendant with the pad of her thumb, tracing the foreign man. “Ella, I won’t take it. Your uncle sent that pendant to you all the way from India.”

  Hesitating but a moment, Ella slipped the necklace back under her dress, the heathen piece hidden from Buckley’s beady eyes. “Who will tame my hair in the morning? Who will I talk to about my silly problems? Who will I go to if the servants are cruel?”

  Fran smiled, took one of Ella’s golden brown curls and tugged on the strand, letting it bounce back into place. “You’ll do fine on your own.”

  “Francine,” Lady Buckley snapped. “Come.”

  Ella stood and hugged Fran, forcing herself not to worry over her friend’s frail condition. “I’ll save my money, won’t spend a cent. Someday we’ll open the millinery shop your mum always wanted you to have.”

  “I know you will. Friends,” Fran said and moved from Ella’s grasp. Before she could hear Ella’s response, Fran was at Lady Buckley’s side, both disappearing out the door.

  “Forever and ever,” Ella whispered.

  As if mocking her inner turmoil, a low rumble of thunder shook the building, rattling the window panes. Ella’s fingers curled into her soft muslin skirt as she resisted the urge to run after her friend.

  “Miss Finch.” Lord Roberts shuffled toward her, a smile lighting his weathered face. The thump of his cane was the only sound in the otherwise quiet room. Too quiet, too lonely after the loud commotion from upstairs.

  She curtsied, refusing to give into the sting of tears. How could Lady Buckley do this to her? She was not a carriage to be borrowed by the neighbors when the need arose. “Lord Roberts.”

  “Do you believe in fate, Miss Finch?”

  Her lips parted to speak, but confusion held her silent. Of everything she’d expected him to say, this was the last on her list. How, exactly, did the man wish for her to respond?

  “You see,” he said, stilling in front of her. “The fact that I needed a governess just as Lady Buckley’s children had grown is all very serendipitous. Do you not agree?”

  “Of course,” she murmured, knowing better than to disagree.

  “I’ve had a bit of trouble finding a tutor for my grandson. And then I heard from Lady Buckley and I just knew you’d be perfect.”

  “My lord, you do understand that I was merely a companion to Lady Buckley’s daughters, not exactly a governess.”

  He waved his hand through the air, dismissing her comment. “Of course, but she explained you did quite well with the younger children.”

  It was true she’d taught Lady Buckley’s youngest daughters more than any governess would, but still, she had no experience with boys. Dare she tell Lord Roberts, or should she keep her mouth shut?

  “Come, I’ll show you to your room.” Lord Roberts took her arm and they started toward the doors. “You will love it here. The countryside is a pure delight. And the ocean…you do like the ocean?”

  “Yes, very much,” she replied.

  She tried to slow her racing emotions, but the moment they stepped into her foyer, her stomach clenched. She bit her lower lip as if the act could prevent her from getting sick all over his marble floor. Not right. Something was definitely not right. Her footsteps echoed up the stairs, the sound slamming against her head, like a hammer against stone. The feelings were so familiar she’d never mistake them for nerves.

  “No, not now,” she whispered.

  “Did you say something, my dear?”

  She shook her head and focused on the foyer, desperate to think of anything but what was bound to happen. Compared to the Buckley’s golden Georgian home, this castle felt oppressive. The dark stone walls seemed to press down on her, suffocating, watching.

  A loud crash sounded from above. A crash similar to the one she’d heard only moments before. Ella gasped, her hand tightening on Lord Roberts’s arms.

  “The sea is but a five-minute walk from the house. There’s a trail that leads from the back of the estate to the shore,” he added as if he hadn’t heard the loud sound from above. Dear Lord, was he hard of hearing? Or was she insane?

  “The sea? Lovely,” Ella murmured, feeling she ought to say something. She rested her hand on her chest, taking small comfort in the familiar hardness of the pendant underneath her bodice. But the moment her foot hit the first step the vibrations flared, thrumming under the surface of her skin, growing stronger with each step.

  “I’ve known Lady Buckley for…”

  Blood roared into her ears, drowning out Lord Roberts’s words. She knew what was happening, she knew it was wrong, but God help her, she knew she couldn’t stop the torment. As always, the hum started deep inside her core, a soft vibration that pulsed up her body until it burst into a cry that clenched around her heart. “The gift,” her mother had called her powers. “The curse,” Lady Buckley had condemned.

  Lord Roberts continued to ramble, his voice a hollow murmur she couldn’t quite comprehend. He led her down a dark hall, past door, after door, after door. She was barely aware of where they traveled, if her feet touched the ground, if she still stood in her own body.

  “Here you are.” His words roared through her ears like crashing waves breaking through the silence. “The room has a view of the back gardens and on a clear day, you can see the ocean. I hope you find the accommodations to your liking.” He smiled and used his cane to nudge open the last door in the hall.

  The large room wavered, before finally focusing into a fairy forest of gold and green.

  “Your things should be waiting. If you need anything, just ring. I’ll be up in a bit to escort you to my grandson.”

  With that said, he bowed and left. Eager to be alone, Ella stumbled into the room, closing the door behind her. Her heart raced in her chest, her mouth dry. Familiar feelings, but completely inappropriate at the moment.

  “Why now?” she whispered, looking heavenward.

  She took in a deep breath and moved to the narrow windows, pushing them wide. A crisp breeze swept inside, rustling the thick, green curtains and providing relief to her fevered skin. Below, a rich and colorful garden thrived. There wasn’t enough light to see the ocean, but the flowers below would be a merry sight to greet her every morning. She leaned forward and breathed deep. The perfumed scent of roses wafted in from a vine that crawled up the house to her window. Taking comfort in the blooms, she closed her eyes and focused.

  An animal, desperate but not crying out for help. She didn’t understand the mixed signals, had never experienced such a confusing blend before. Fading and then pulsing to life as if the poor beast weren’t quite sure if he needed assistance or not. A trapped hare? A sickly bird? But it felt larger. A hunted deer?

  She pulled the necklace from her collar, running the pendant up and down the thin, silver chain. Frustrated, she started to turn away when a sudden movement caught her attention. A man stalked from the house. The wind teased his hair, brushing the strands across his neck—strands much too long for any decent gentleman. Was he the culprit? The man responsible for tormenting whatever animal was in need of help?

  Stunned and curious, she pushed the curtain farther aside and peered into the evening. In his hand he dragged what looked to be a framed canvas. How odd. Was he real or some mythical beast made visible by the magic of twilight? Her gaze slid from his face, hidden by his long hair, down to the sleeves of his white shirt, which were rolled to his elbows. Even from her vantage point she could see the corded muscle
s flexed in his forearms.

  An unfamiliar heat pulsed through her body, pushing aside the familiar hum of her powers. The subject of her fascination stopped and threw the canvas in a wide arc. The painting sailed through the garden and landed on a yellow rosebush.

  “Rather peculiar,” Ella whispered.

  He spun around as if he heard her comment. Ella squeezed back behind the curtains. The small porcelain clock on the fireplace mantel ticked the time by. Unable to control her curiosity, she finally peeked between the folds of the drapes. His gaze lingered directly at her window. For a few seconds he merely stared. Surely he couldn’t see her. Her heart hammered in her chest as she waited…waited…waited.

  Finally, he dropped his attention and disappeared into the house. Ella raced across the room and bolted her door. Safely ensconced, she leaned against the thick wooden panel and breathed a sigh of relief. By God, who was he?

  “This castle has been in our family for three hundred years,” Lord Roberts explained.

  Portraits of dour relatives glared down at Ella, as if demanding to know how she had been allowed access to their privileged family. She studied each picture looking for a familiar man with dark hair. All afternoon he’d commanded her thoughts. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask about the strange garden visitor. Perhaps he’d been a disgruntled servant? But the cut of his clothing and arrogance of his stance did not suggest servitude.

  “My elder brother.”

  Lord Roberts’s voice broke into her thoughts. Feigning interest, she looked up to a tall portrait of a man with tousled brown hair and a wide grin.

  “He looks cheerful,” she said.

  Apparently, it was not the correct response.

 
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