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by Belladonna Bordeaux
Category: Erotica/Erotic Romance/Romance
Description: He'll bring out the best and worst in her. A pariah amongst London's elite, Julia Westchester has become the toast of Parisian society. She's stunning, well-versed, and in high demand. Little does she know the real reason she's garnered the attention of many a young man is that she's half paranormal and about to enter her first mating season. The enigmatic leader of the harbingers of death, Dante MacGreggor, was promised Julia's hand in marriage shortly after she was born. Now that she's finally matured, he has to open her to the world of the paranormals and their mating rituals and protect her from his many enemies.
eBook Publisher: Atlantic Bridge/Liquid Silver Books, 2011
eBookwise Release Date: August 2011
8 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [125 KB]
Reading time: 74-103 min.
Paris, September 1775
"But this cannot be permitted, mademoiselle," Pierre Rouvesance proclaimed to the crush of people surrounding Julia Westchester. "I did not realize that your glass required attention. May I fetch you more punch?" he asked, extending his hand toward the offending glass.
Julia surrendered her glass with a forced smile. Her grin turned brittle as the man bowed. So this is what my life has been reduced to? she mused. Fops making fools of themselves with the sole intent of garnering my attention. She shook her head at Rouvesance as he made his way to the crystal fountain on the other side of the room.
"I give him credit for his tenacity," her best friend, Alyssa Duvoche, stated from behind her fan. "What would your dear Trenton think of this?"
Trenton. Julia's heart melted whenever she thought of the man she'd pined for since she was thirteen. Then, when she was fifteen, he'd given her a purely innocent buss on her cheek. She'd been lost from that moment on.
Alas, Trenton's attitude toward her was that of a younger sister who needed a protector, mostly from herself. Of course, that was before she'd moved to France, her come-out ball and the world of social butterfly opened up to her. "He'd tell me to either cut him loose or kill him."
Truth be told, she had no idea what Trenton Lincoln would say. Considering he was across the Channel and unlikely to come anywhere near France, she sighed. 'Twas more like she should cut herself from the hopeless childish crush, especially after learning Trenton was destined to wed Mary Pritchard.
To a certain degree, she had achieved the lofty goal, albeit Alyssa loved to tease her over how she'd acted when she'd first arrived on the continent. Then she was perpetually saying "Trenton this" and "Trenton that", her world focused on a knight in shining armor who didn't exist, but would still magically appear to save fair maiden from her loneliness.
Save her from the rage she felt toward her father for moving her away from the man of her dreams. Three years ago, she'd made a stir when she was introduced to society. Unlike in England, where a woman was meant to be seen and not heard, here in France, the circle she walked in entreated her in witty conversation and basked in her slightly wild bent.
At first, she enjoyed the attention lavished on her. The callers appearing on her father's stoop with flowers in hand filled a void in her life. The young ladies who chatted with her in the salon gave her a sense of being the likes of which she'd never known in England. But, like all good things, the reality jaded her even further when young men began falling over themselves to impress her.
Still, 'twas better than being a pariah.
"Why so sad, cherie?" Alyssa pulled her out of her depressing thoughts.
"Oh," Julia whispered on a gasp. A shiver raked the length of her spine, and she sensed a steely stare on her. She quelled the urge to look about in an attempt to discover the man who'd focused his attention on her being. "Forgive me, Alyssa, I'm just out of sorts tonight." Peeking up, she saw Pierre meandering toward them. Her punch glass shook in his hand, and she noticed him inspecting her from afar. His gaze lingered on her breasts before he took a few more steps forward.
Trepidation crept through her. A blush heated her cheeks. Never--not ever--had a fop so blatantly stared at her person. Of all the audacity. Even as the thought skittered through her thoughts, she took in the crush surrounding her. A sweat broke out on her brow. The uneasy sensation of being trapped in a sea of humanity shook a fresh shiver from her.
Debating whether or not to plead a headache so she could be quit of the ball, Julia turned toward the French doors at the south side of the ballroom. Just get some fresh air. Beyond those doors were the Armands' formal gardens. "If you'll excuse me, Alyssa. 'Tis terribly hot in here." She nibbled on her lower lip and weighed her limited options. Stay? Go? Following her instincts, she nodded to her friend. "Terribly hot," she reiterated and grabbed a fistful of her ball gown's satin skirt to keep from wiping her brow.
'Twasn't a lie either. The ballroom was packed as it normally was whenever the Armands threw a gala. Several fops came forward and offered their arm to her. Each silent request to escort her during her stroll was met with a small smile and a shake of her head. Casting a glance over her shoulder, she watched Pierre hand the punch to a passing waiter and follow her.
She was about to exit the ballroom when she spied Pierre lick his lips. Goosebumps rose on her arms when a slow, lazy grin brightened his face. Debating the wisdom of leaving the ball unescorted, Julia gasped. She took another step and then another toward the French doors. Her instincts told her plainly something was amiss.
Run, her common sense commanded her.
Hide, her brain shouted next.
She'd never run a day in her life, and she wasn't about to start now. Besides, Pierre was a man of good breeding. He'd no more force his advances on her than she would on him.
A horrified giggle escaped her mouth when she inadvertently bumped into another man. "Forgive me," she said, turning around to finish her apology. My goodness. Somewhere between her brain ordering her to sound contrite and her stare snapping upward to the man's handsome face, everything was forgotten. There was no ball. No revelers. No young bucks sniffing about her, measuring her for a walk down the aisle. There was only the man standing in front of her and warmth blooming on her cheeks. "I..."
"You promised me a dance," the handsome stranger informed her. He put his hand beneath her elbow and exerted just enough pressure to begin drawing her with him toward the dance floor. The touch also snapped her out of her unladylike stupor.
Torn between telling him she hadn't promised him aught and happiness that he'd saved her from having to confront Pierre, Julia politely nodded. She glanced over her shoulder to see Pierre's smile disintegrate.
Pierre was forgotten, however, as she stepped into the man's arms. He whirled her around in time to the sweeping strains of the string quartet situated on a small raised platform in the corner of the ballroom. The grace in his easy moves made her think he'd waltzed before and often. Around and around they floated until she relaxed. There was a quiet strength about this man, and she suspected he spoke only when necessary but when he did his statements garnered immediate attention.
"I really shouldn't be dancing with you."
She made the mistake of tilting her gaze to the chiseled planes of his face. Her heart gave a hard thud in her chest. Too handsome for my own good. "My chaperone will surely have an apoplexy when she hears of this break in protocol." Julia dropped her voice to a shallow whisper. "She's overprotective."
"She has every right to be, but we have met before. Ms. Winston gave her wholehearted approval of me."
"Did she?" Julia found that hard to believe. Her chaperone was better known for beating fops off with the cut direct and a swat of her ever-present fan when one of them attempted to press his attention on Julia. Her gaze skittered to the woman standing with the other matriarchs to watch the ball from a corner. Ms. Winston appeared to be totally engrossed in an animated conversation with Lady Rothschild. "I don't believe you."
"I have no reason to lie."
Surely she'd have remembered his deep, rich voice. She shook her head. "I'm certain I've never met you before." A note of certainty entered her voice. She doubted he ran with the younger set who trailed after Alyssa and her.
"We met at the theater," he informed her. "You were surrounded by a clutch of squawking friends who were more entertaining than the play, if memory serves me."
Had he just insulted her friends? Aye. "I find it infinitesimally difficult to believe you have a faulty memory, sir." She, on the other hand, couldn't place the play or the man.
"I escorted the Countess de Ardenois," he prompted her.
"Oh." Now that lady's name she recognized straight off. The gossip surrounding the Countess was utterly riveting, mostly due to her many liaisons and the whispers of how her husband, the late Count de Ardenois, had met his death. Being a young woman of breeding, her father refused to tell her the cause, which only intrigued her and the debutantes in her circle to speculate on the mode of his demise. Some said the poor man was poisoned and died in horrible pain, screaming his unfaithful wife's name. Others said his wife had grown tired of waiting for him to slip into the grave so she assisted with a mighty push off the balcony of their Paris manor. Taking on a haughty attitude, Julia maintained her poise but determined the man was a liar. "Ms. Winston would never have approved of you if she knew you kept company with the Countess."
"Who I keep or have kept company with was not part of our discussion."
There was something in his steady gaze that warned her away from playing verbal games with him. Her heart accelerated. Her throat grew desert dry. If 'twas possible, she'd think he was peering into her eyes and passing judgment on her soul.
When the strains of the waltz died, she stepped away from him. "If you'll excuse me." Julia turned toward Alyssa, who was standing near the edge of the dance floor. Her partner claimed her hand and, after tucking it under his arm, drew her toward the gardens.
They were nearly outside when Julia's gaze collided with Pierre's. The anger she saw broiling in his dark-as-night stare terrified her, and she allowed the stranger to escort her into the night. Slightly assured her reputation would remain intact when she noticed the dozen or so couples taking in the fresh air, she breathed a sigh of relief.
"I'll have to discuss with your chaperone the current company you keep, Miss Westchester."
"What's wrong with my friends?"
"Do they always make you want to run screaming from a packed gala?"
He had her there. How he knew of her terror was far out of her scope in the moment. She drank in a deep breath of the flower-scented air to clear the worry from her head. She waved her discomfort away with a slightly haughty swipe of her free hand. "You mean Mr. Rouvesance? I don't know what has gotten into him tonight. He's normally a very pleasant man." An involuntary shiver raked her spine. She stretched out the nervous tension from her shoulders. Realizing he was watching her every move, she smiled to cover the discomfort he'd caused her. "Pierre does come from one of the best families in Paris."
"So it's his pedigree that's won him a spot in your ever-expanding circle of friends and close acquaintances?"
Immediately offended, Julia glared at him. "What would you know of my friends?"
"Four of them are destined for hell." He stopped their forward progression at a white-washed wrought iron table. The scrape of a chair's metal legs on the stone veranda made her grit her teeth. "Half-dozen others will pay heavy penance in Purgatory before they are allowed to pass through the Pearly Gates and enter Heaven."
Was he serious? She snapped her gaze back to his face. With the lamplight behind him, she couldn't clearly see his features. "I beg your pardon," she whispered, incredulous. She rejected the chair he offered her. "I see. My friends are all in league with the Devil or sinners of the highest degree." She turned her face away from the incredibly tall man and forced calm to the fore. 'Twould do her reputation no good to act like a shrieking shrew. Pulling away from him, she scrubbed her hands up and down her arms to ward off the chill riding the breeze.
His chuckle told her she'd completely misread him.
"Forgive me, milady. Very few find my wit the least bit humorous."
"May I ask your name?"
"I'm a friend."
"We've already determined you aren't my friend."
"I'd like to be one."
With the same casual grace he'd shown on the dance floor, he captured her wrists. Drawing her forward until her hip pressed against his hard thigh, Julia felt a foreign bubble of warmth build in the pit of her stomach. Delicious tingles ran up her arms. Her nipples hardened to tight buds. Fear mingled with the wanton desire no gently bred woman should feel. Julia didn't know which end was up. "Please, let me go."
Astounded when he did, she swallowed hard. The heaviness in her belly lingered a long time after he'd released her. She couldn't do aught else but stare at him. Her imagination created a hundred rather lewd images of them kissing. "You didn't answer my question. Who are you?"
"Julia, before long you'll understand my motives for befriending you. All I can do for right now is ask you to trust me."
She whispered the first question that sprang to the tip of her tongue. "How can I trust you if I don't know your name?"
He met her gaze. "I have many names," he answered cryptically.
"This is ridiculous." Tired of his games, she determined she'd rather die than parley with him further. Tears of exhaustion and frustration gathered in her eyes. She'd never met a man like this one. She fervently hoped never to meet another again.
He grabbed her hand when she turned away. "Stay here."
"I can't...the guests will talk."
A low growl rose from his parted lips. "Stay here," he repeated.
Julia gripped the back of the chair until her knuckles ached. "What's wrong?"
"It seems your friend Pierre doesn't know when to let off."
Willing to give a king's ransom for a snippet of sense in this nonsensical situation, Julia gasped when Pierre strode out the door. From the expression on his face, she could tell he was fighting mad. She took a step forward to intervene when Pierre gave up an animalistic growl.
"Our fight is not for mortal eyes," her escort announced gravely.
"She's mine." Pierre pulled his cravat from around his throat and shoved it into his jacket pocket. He was joined by a few of his friends. "By the stroke of midnight, she'll be one of us."
"Over my dead body."
"That can be arranged, Cu Sith." Pierre stated gruffly. "In the garden." His glare sliced down Julia's frame. The wicked leer he fixed on her face made her shiver. "You have ten minutes to make your peace with my lady and your god."
"That's very generous of you, Rouvesance." The stranger didn't sound concerned. In fact, he sounded bored.
Julia scowled at the two men. "Cease." She moved to position herself between the opposing forces but found herself shoved behind the stranger's back. "I'm not worth fighting over."
"Aye, you are," Pierre and the stranger answered at the same time.
"Rally your forces, werewolf. I'll meet you near the rear garden gate in ten minutes."
"Don't be late, Cu Sith. I have other, more enjoyable dalliances to partake of tonight."
Werewolf? What in the blazes is a werewolf? The stranger pulled her in front of him once Pierre and his lot had strode back into the ballroom. "Find Ms. Winston and go straight home. Do not stay at the ball. Promise me."
Julia nodded. "Fine. I'll say goodnight to Alyssa and our hosts first, but I'll go to the townhouse."
"Straight home. Do not waste precious moments with farewells and empty gratitude."
"I can't be rude," she told him. Oh, the horror of it all.
"Do as you're told."
She didn't understand what was happening, and was on the verge of not caring either. What she was aware of was the abnormal and dangerous attraction she had for this unknown man. He evoked a tug on her heartstrings that pulled her closer to him and gave her wanton desires. "Can I at least have your name?"
"MacGreggor," he informed her on a sigh. "Dante MacGreggor. Most people call me the Cu Sith."
"Cu Sith?" A frown inched across her brow. She didn't know how much more of this she could take.
"Aye, lass. 'Twill take too long to explain." He laid a peck to her forehead.
Unbidden, she wrapped her arms around his waist. A lingering howl broke the night in twain. She hugged him tighter. A gasp rushed from her mouth when he engulfed her in his embrace.
"Go, before you are caught in the melee."
Another low baying howl of a wolf rose from the far end of the formal garden.
"All right." 'Struth she didn't need to be told twice. She was walking into the ballroom when she laid her hand against the doorframe. "Be careful."
"Never fear, milady." He sent her a wink. "I'm always careful."
"How many times must you warn Herr Westchester before he'll believe his daughter's scent is an aphrodisiac to werewolves?" Jager Bayreuth commented as he joined Dante on the patio. "Or should I more appropriately say, 'her very being has the ability to boil the blood of most four-legged paranormals'. Yourself included."
Dante tilted his gaze to the tall Hessian who appeared in the doorway. Never had a stranger friendship been created. The Cu Sith, immortal enemy of the werewolf, and a German-born soldier who'd been infected with wolf bane over a hundred years ago.
"Westchester is misguided." Dante took off his jacket, folded it carefully as was his habit, and draped it over his arm. "He doesn't believe Julia's mother's blood has aught to do with the number of paranormals sniffing around her skirts. Rather, he trusts it's his daughter's wit that attracts young jacks like moths to the flame."
"Her wit? That is rich. The chit has charm, but she's easily flustered. Too easily for my tastes." Jager snorted with derision. "The madchen has much to learn. Ja, many lessons before she becomes the woman she's destined to be."
Dante slid his friend a lopsided grin. "You don't lust for her?"
"Of course I do, Cu Sith, but I know better than to step on your territory," Jager said on a sigh. "I tell you this, Cu Sith, if you are determined to take her for your mate, you best get on with the courtship. The juveniles grow restless. Their base desires for her are reaching a fevered pitch."
"I'll formally introduce her as my bride at the next council meeting."
"You'd take her to Falstaff Manor?" Jager shook his head. "Mein Gott, you covet danger."
Fully aware of the risk he was taking by introducing Julia to the Council of the Seven Seals, Dante walked toward the back edge of the formal gardens. 'Twasn't so much the Knights he had to worry over. Nay, 'twas the common paranormals who always flocked to the council meeting who'd give him fits.
"There is news that the Knights are disbanding. Is this true?"
"You aren't going to be at the next council meeting?"
"Nein, I'm for the Colonies. England's king has bought and paid for the service of thirty thousand German soldiers. I follow the beat of the drummer once more." Jager took a moment before he pressed the burning issue setting the entire paranormal world on its proverbial ear "Is it true, Cu Sith? The council is in disrepair? I've heard the damage is too far gone for even the Goddess to step in and make peace between the royals."
"Unfortunately, 'tis true. The Knights are at odds. The damage is done." The ancient prophecy had been fulfilled. The next angelic war was in full tilt. Sides were being drawn, and at the meeting fast approaching, he'd have to name his allegiance. He still debated whether or not to join the Strigoi in their battle against the Fay, or if he would take himself off to the Borderlands and wait out the war.
Part of him ordered him to stand and fight for his beliefs; another part told him this wasn't his war. "Gentlemen," Dante said, recognizing the five werewolves milling near the garden gate. "It's a pleasant night to die."
"You can tell us before you take your final breath," Pierre stated with the cool confidence of a young werewolf.
Jager laughed at that. His lips twitched with suppressed mirth when he addressed Dante. "Do you require assistance, Cu Sith?"
Dante eased open the knot at his throat. His neck cloth slid from around his collar smoothly. "Nay. There are only six of them, including the one hiding behind the garden gate."
"If you need me, I'll be right over there," Jager said and pointed to an arbor. "Do me a favor this time. Be sure to get their names afore you cut them down. You have nein idea what troubles you put me through the last time during the notification process."
"Tell the man your names," Dante conceded quickly. The fops chuckled. Dante turned his withering glare to Jager. "They don't believe I can take all six of them, do they?" he muttered, his words dripping with sarcasm.
"Fools run in packs, Cu Sith."
"You may want to enlighten them," Dante stated. He was unbuttoning his shirt, exposing the many battle scars he carried. "After all, this is their funeral, not mine."
"Ja, I should."
"Enlighten us of what?" Pierre asked.
Jager's grin grew. "You can't kill what's never been alive. The Cu Sith has never drawn breath." Jager shook his head. "I should also state, so there's no confusion in your tiny minds, he's a heartless killing machine."
'Struth, I'm conscienceless. Dante felt his shift overcome him. The pain of his bones stretching and the thick hair rising from his skin was part and parcel of his creation. He bared his teeth in a snarl. A growling chuckle rumbled in his chest when two of the werewolves backtracked toward the garden gate.
Be afraid. Be very afraid, young ones.
Rearing on his hind paws, he waited for Pierre's shift to come about. You don't know me or my deadly side.
He was a creation wrought from white magicke and a spell cast by the Goddess he held on high. He was what he was--the black-hued wolfhound who foretold a human's death and the immortal enemy of all the werekind. 'Twas that simple.
There had been no joy in his long life. No sorrow. There had only been his duty to perform.
His gaze tilted to the garden wall where a hooded crow had perched. Sniffing the air, he caught the scent of a Hell Rider wafting off the black bird. Bahne. Julia's mother and the great prognosticating bean-sidhe, banshee, had traveled from her ethereal home in the Borderlands to protect her daughter too.
"The fact is..." His lips curled into a smile. He leveled his glare on Pierre. "You can try to cut me down, but in the end, I'll own your souls."