Dawson bride, p.1
(WOLF BRIDES SERIES, BOOK 3)
By T. S. JOYCE
Other Books in This Series
Wolf Bride (Book 1)
Red Snow Bride (Book 2)
Copyright © 2014 by T. S. Joyce
All Rights Reserved. Except as permitted under the United States Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, redistributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in any database or retrieval system, without prior written permission from the author.
The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Of all the smells on earth, blood was the most interesting, complicated, delicious scent in existence. It was trapped inside of every living mammal by paper thin skin. While it was probably the most prominent of all smells, such richness and bulk certainly didn’t belong in the English countryside. It wasn’t the genocide of bunnies or deer, or the slaughter of livestock. Each animal had a different signature in the sensitive lining of my nose. No, this type of richness only belonged to humans.
A lot of humans.
A fog had fallen over the woods, and while it wasn’t uncommon where I roamed, it was uncomfortable. Mist dulled the senses. It shortened sight and dampened smells. Even forest sounds were muffled under the blanketing cloud cover. For all of its dimming qualities, still, it did nothing to mask all that blood.
Dark had come, and brought no stars or moon to illuminate the wooded land. Animals skittered to their burrows and nests, afraid of the preternatural silence that cloaked the trees. Even the wind had died down to nothing, stirring not a leaf and rattling not a branch. The air filled with tiny, frightened heartbeats and they weren’t from fear of myself.
I was a part of these woods now.
A whine escaped my throat as I slunk toward the intoxicating smell. I wasn’t a curious creature by nature but something was off, and some deep instinct pushed me farther and farther out of my territory.
My ears twitched and filled with the screams of women and the gunfire of men. Whatever was happening here in my woods was of hell’s making. I couldn’t untuck my tail from between my legs if I tried. The stench of gunpowder, fear, and violence hung in the air, and I paced frantically back and forth as a looming shape appeared through the mist.
Still, I was drawn closer.
I’d been a wolf for a long time now, but the man in me was still inside there somewhere. The shape was a castle, or as close to one as I’d ever come. Complete with sprawling trout pond in the middle of the entrance and acres of gardens, statues, and elaborate fountains. The road was cobbled for fine carriages, and the mansion boasted stonework from the finest architects.
I sniffed again. I’d been mistaken. It wasn’t a castle—it was a tomb.
I growled and shifted my weight from side to side. It was time to leave. I’d seen it. I knew what was happening inside. This wasn’t my fight. I turned and froze at the soft whimper of a child. If I’d had a chance of escape at all, it had been stolen from me with the fear-filled sigh of that little boy.
No matter what happened next, my fate had been cemented with that cry here in the woods—the cry I couldn’t turn away from and live with myself. I guess I’d die with myself instead.
Shrubs, roots, and night air rushed past as I raced for the side of the gargantuan manor.
My change from wolf to man wasn’t agonizing like it was for my brothers. I’d mastered it long ago when I became more animal than human. In a burst of light and pain and cracking bones, my blood was encased in fragile human skin once again. I didn’t cry out or hunch over in pain. None of those things eased the agony that rippled through my insides. Avoidance was a pointless waste of time and if the boy was going to live, time was a commodity I didn’t have.
Front doors were for receiving guests and making a first impression. Back doors led to gardens and quiet getaways where barons and counts snuck kisses to their wives and mistresses. Side doors were for servants.
The knuckles and muscles of my fingers were frozen with disuse and the effort to grip the edge of the cracked door was staggering. I’d been an animal too long. If I was to be of any help to the boy, I’d have to loosen up and quick.
Inside, I was met by the servant’s quarters. Body after lifeless body decorated the floor. Women. The monsters shot unarmed women. A series of crashes upstairs let me know the hunters hadn’t found their prey yet. I slid into a pair of servant’s pants I found folded neatly on one of the small, lumpy beds. A large knife shone in the dancing candlelight of the kitchen and I gripped the handle. It wouldn’t be much match for the loaded pistols of the men upstairs, but I had other advantages over them.
They were human, and I was not.
Plates of food and half-made pastries dotted the kitchen counters. Shards of fine porcelain lay shattered against the wooden floor boards. Through the door, a dining room lay in disrepair. I listened carefully for any signs of life from the bodies, but there were none. Their hunters had been thorough.
At the sound of a man’s voice, muffled through the ceiling between us, I froze. “I think I’ve found our little chicken, boys,” he said.
My heart sank and I bolted for the stairs. I’d made it up the first landing when the pepper of gunfire blasted through the house.
I was too late but it didn’t matter. I’d already made up my mind. I’d kill them for what they’d done here tonight.
I’d kill them all.
“Do you really have to get married?” My little brother, Bryant, asked with a disgusted look upon his face. “If you leave, who will play Cowboys and Indians with me? Who will sing me to sleep if I have a nightmare?”
I donned a brave smile. “I don’t want to get married but it’s not my choice. I’m a woman. Different things are expected of women than they are of men. Someday you’ll understand.”
Bryant was slight with straight, dark hair that fell forward over his brown eyes. He favored my father while I, the complete opposite, was gifted my mother’s fair skin and pale hair. My parents had been perfectly happy to settle with me as their only child after years of trying with no success. Bryant had been a pleasant surprise as was obvious in our age difference. He was only six years old while I was fourteen years older and past marrying age. I’d like to say I held out for love but though I’d tried, it hadn’t found me. Instead, Ralston Bastrop did.
I was lucky, they said. He was handsome and would be one of the wealthiest men in Britain someday, they said. He was also a tyrant and a pervert, but I supposed such things didn’t matter to parents marrying off their children.
I gripped the silver mirror handle and slammed it down. Best not to think of their betrayal. “That’s fine, Glinda,” I said to the servant pinning my hair. She’d used jeweled accents throughout the curls in the back to match the light blue of one of my finer dresses. It would be lovely if I could breathe, but as the horrid corset restrained any movement, I could not. Maybe if I was lucky enough, I’d suffocate before my wedding day.
Bryant scampered onto my bed while Glinda had another go at shrinking my waist to nonexistence with the whale bone torture device while I clutched onto the cherry wood post at the corner of the mattress. There was no use fighting it. If Mother didn’t think it was tight enough, she’d badger me into redoing it. She’d broken my spirit on such things when I was twelve and showed my first distaste for current fashion. I’d bartered a pair of pants from a boy in town and proudly wore them for thirty seconds until Mother nearly exploded.
“Is it true he’s an A
I thought of the crass way with which he came to my window on nights he’d had too much drink and the filthy, frightening things he said. “Terribly American.”
“I thought you said you’d never get married.”
“Yes, well that would have been the plan if not for Father’s need for this business arrangement. I didn’t know at the time women were chess pieces to be played.”
Glinda released me and I flopped unbecomingly onto the bed beside him. “Listen, I’ll come and visit you whenever I can. And I’ll write you every day.” My heart ached at the thought of leaving him. He was the most central and important part of my entire life, and now everything was about to change for the worse. “At least we’ll live in London so it’s not too far away.”
The door to my bedroom creaked open and Mother stood silently in the shadows. Glinda’s skirts made swishing sounds as she hurried from the room and Bryant hopped from the bed and stood ramrod straight like one of the toy soldiers clutched in his small hand.
“Bryant,” Mother said. “I need a minute with your sister. Alone.”
He shot me a sympathetic look and scurried out after Glinda. I tried not to scowl as I slid stiffly from the bed, but it was hard to bend in the middle so I likely resembled a trout out of water.
Mother tapped her foot impatiently. “Lucianna, you really have to mind your manners tonight. Tonight, of all the night’s Ralston has courted you is imperative to your engagement. Tonight it will be official.”
“So, I can relax after dinner?”
“No! From here out, you never relax. It’ll be your responsibility to keep him happy. He’s very wealthy and driven, and men like him need exceptional wives on their arms. You must be perfect. Any imperfections will invite scandal and shame his name and ours. Your father’s business depends on the success of your engagement—of your marriage. Without your father’s money, we’ll be destitute within the year. For the comfort of your family, of your brother, you’ll be the perfect wife.”
My nightmare come to life. Lucky me. Oh, I knew of my importance. My parents had been batting away proposal after proposal in order to find me the wealthiest match possible. I’d fancied a few of them along the way, and though they would’ve kept me comfortable, they didn’t benefit my family name. Father settled happily on the cruelest man of all. There was no question of who was getting the short end of the stick in this business proposal.
“Mother, I know you love me.”
Her face went completely blank.
“You do,” I said. “I still remember when you used to sing me to sleep and tell me stories when I was scared of thunderstorms. You cradled me when I fell and spent hours brushing my hair. Things have changed between us, I know they have. I can feel the difference between your love then and now. But somewhere in there, you still see me as your little girl. You can’t marry me to this man, Mother. He’ll take my happiness.”
Her lips pursed and a stirring of feeling swam in her blue eyes for just a moment before it was replaced by a disapproving look. “Lucianna, you know full well duty is more important than happiness.”
I’d never wanted to say the words aloud but this was unquestionably my last chance to save myself from the fate that was coming for me. “He comes to my window some nights.”
Her eyes widened and she looked scandalized. “Who?”
“Ralston. He drinks in town, and then he comes to me and says the vilest things. Horrifying things that haunt my nightmares.”
Mother spun and stomped to the door. Her fine heeled shoes clacked across the marble floor. “A man can speak to his wife however he pleases. I don’t want to hear another word!”
I rushed. “He tells me about what it will be like in his bed. He says he’ll cut at me until I find pleasure in the pain!”
She paused at the door. Her perfectly manicured hand rested on the frame and she turned as if she heard the fear in my voice. There for that moment, I could see the love she hid from me. In an agonized whisper, she said, “I can’t stop what’s happening. Your father made this decision without me.” She dragged watering eyes to my face. “You’ll make the best of this situation because you must. You’re a woman now. You’ll bear the pain because that’s what we do.”
I watched my last hope float lazily out the door behind her full skirts. “He’ll kill me,” I whispered. It was the first time I’d admitted the fear to myself. It had scratched away at the edges of my mind since the day I met the man with the cruel eyes, but never until this moment had I given my terror a voice.
My embroidered handkerchief lay delicately across the armoire, and I plucked it off and dotted my filling eyes with it. At least I’d leave the world knowing Mother did love me. She just didn’t know how to show it. If I bore Ralston children, they’d have to be the bright spot in my life that absorbed all the bad until the day he tired of me. I’d tell them and show them every single day how much I cared about them. Long after I was dead and gone, they’d still feel the echoes of my love in their bones. I swore it.
Glinda knocked lightly on the open door. “He’s here.” Her eyes were filled with a sadness that pressed against my chest.
I tried to smile and reassure her everything would be all right, but my lips trembled too badly. I inhaled until my restricted lungs were filled and blew it out. With my breath, I pushed the fear away to be dealt with later. I was a Whitlock. We didn’t bend; we didn’t break. We adapted. I frowned with the determination it took to harden my heart. The less I felt, the easier my life would be.
I paused on a break in the stairwell. A window stretched from floor to ceiling and the cool evening night beckoned me. Fog had floated in while I’d been stalling and it gave the darkness an eerie look. A fitting evening to match the shackle that would be placed on my finger.
Bryant slipped his tiny hand into mine. “I don’t want you to marry him. We can run away and I’ll protect you.”
I smiled at the top of his dark hair. I couldn’t see his face but I knew only seriousness dwelled there. “I know you would.”
“Mother says I can’t eat with the adults tonight.”
My gaze drifted to the thickening fog again. I squeezed his hand and said, “It’ll be terribly boring. If anything interesting happens, I’ll tell you all about it before you go to sleep. I promise.”
“Lucianna?” Father sternly asked.
Bryant watched me descend the stairs with sad, dark eyes. I couldn’t look back at him anymore if I wanted to keep my nerve. Ralston stood in the entryway flanked by two men I didn’t recognize. They wore suits of dark material but the quality didn’t match his. Ralston wore black silk and removed his top hat before he gallantly bowed. His eyes, as always, were empty. Raven black hair brushed his collar and the color of his eyes was a dusty hazel that seemed to change color depending on what he wore. Tonight, they were greenish. The smile that curved his lips was forced, like some actor who didn’t like the play he was performing. His gaze raked over every inch of me and a chill lifted gooseflesh on my arms.
“Lucianna,” he said as he bent forward and pressed his cold lips against my hand.
“Good evening, sir,” I said with a slight curtsy.
He offered his arm and I touched the crook of it lightly. His men followed closely behind us and the hairs rose on the back of my neck. When I turned, they were looking at each other with an unfathomable expression. Expectation and excitement mixed into their panther smiles.
After I was seated in a chair directly across from Ralston, he slid a black velvet pouch toward me. “I thought we could get this out of the way before we eat.”
The air became thicker until I could barely draw breath. Until I opened it, my reality was just a bad dream.
Slow fury burned over Ralston’s features at my hesitation. “Open it,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Put it on,” he demanded.
“Lucianna,” Father warned. His downturned eyebrows said I needed to work harder at the farce.
I slid the ring onto my finger and said, “My sincerest apologies, sir. It’s just such a big moment for me. I wanted to savor it.”
Ralston tipped his chin up and the fury in his eyes cooled. His smile didn’t quite reach the rest of his face as he said, “I’m sure you can understand my anticipation of our wedding, Lucianna. I’ve wanted you as my wife for some time now. I’m not used to waiting, you see.” His heated look landed on Father.
The servants brought bowls of thick broth and I sipped it like it was the most interesting thing in the world. Ralston’s gaze never left me.
“So, Ralston,” Mother said. “Lucianna’s told me you will be settling in London near your businesses. Have you already a house there?”
His spoon clinked against the fine china plate beneath the bowl and he wiped the corners of his mouth with a silk napkin. “I’ve actually decided to expand my business. I’m sure you know I’m originally from America and I plan to set up my home there while I get our international relations off the ground. Do you think you’d like to live in America?”
My heart fell to the earth beneath the house. “No.”
Ralston’s face turned to stone. “I’m sorry?”
I cleared my throat and spoke clearly. “No, I wouldn’t like to live in America.”
Father smashed his hand against the table and we all jumped.
Ralston put a calming hand up. “And why not?”
“Americans are crass and ill-mannered. When they aren’t in a war with Indians for their lands, they’re warring with each other.”
His smile was slow and chilling. “Well, I’m sure when you’re busy with your wifely duties, you won’t have much time to worry about such trivial things as where you live. You’ll be working too hard keeping me happy to have opinions of your own. So long as you keep your pretty face and figure, that’s all I require from you.”