Alexia’s nightmares become reality: a dead baron, red-eyed wraiths, and forbidden love with a man hunted by these creatures. After an attack close to home, Alexia realizes she cannot keep one foot in her old life and one in this new world. To protect her family she must either be sold into a loveless marriage, or escape with her beloved and risk becoming one of the Soulless.
Alexia was reasonably confident that exiting the carriage was the equivalent of stepping into Hell. She glanced out again at the grand Roman pillars of the finest country estate in Devonshire and shivered. Just let me be invisible.
Mother cleared her throat. Her golden tresses glowed in the lamplight leaking through the open door. Alexia straightened up. Her mouth curled into a forced smile as she smoothed the folds of her amber gown, the newest cut and height of fashion for 1768.
Mother rolled her eyes, took Father’s waiting hand, and descended to the drive.
Alexia scowled. A month ago she had turned sixteen. A month ago the expectation to be lady-like and presentable had begun. A month ago the nightmares had started. Her night terrors certainly resulted from Father’s talk of making her a match early—before anyone had a chance to glimpse the ghastly girl and advise the gentleman against it. Her too-thin frame and sunken jowls were enough to keep her own eyes away from reflective surfaces. How could she fault others for sharing that opinion?
Father extended a hand. “Alexia, come.”
She’d inherited his dark tresses, but that’s where her resemblance to this handsome man ended. He gave her a grim smile and assisted her down before taking his wife’s arm. Her parents pulled together, draping her in their shadow—though out of embarrassment or a need to shelter her, she couldn’t decide.
She glanced back over her shoulder as the carriage rattled away.
Goodbye, safety. Goodbye, anonymity. She turned to the brightened steps. Hello, Hell.
“Ah, the Dumonts! It’s been six years since I’ve had the pleasure.” Baron Galedrew bounced on the balls of his feet as they arrived at the top step. He had only recently returned from living in London, and Alexia didn’t remember quite so many wrinkles.
“Welcome, welcome! And who is this?” He pushed her parents apart. His creased brow doubled, lip drawing back in a grimace. He coughed. “This cannot be Alexia, can it? What a . . . mature young woman you are becoming.” He bowed.
She curtsied, wishing she could douse the heat in her cheeks and hurtle back into the carriage. “You are too kind.”
He opened his mouth to speak.
Thunder pealed behind them. She turned, ready for a distraction, any distraction. A cloud of dust billowed up against the sky, masking the night. With a shimmering white mane, a speckled grey horse sped toward them, the forerunner of an approaching storm, a rider bent over its neck. The beast skidded to a halt at the foot of the steps, spraying dust.
Alexia froze, unable to move even to save her hem from the prevailing dirt. That horse, she knew that horse—but it could not be!
“Oh dear,” the Baron uttered.
A cloaked stranger leapt from the animal and approached through the filthy cloud, face masked in a menacing hood. Alexia stumbled back toward Father.
The newcomer stopped two steps below, head turned in her direction. Her knees shuddered. With a slower but still harried gait, he ascended.
“You will excuse me.” The baron shook hands with her father and hurried into the house.
As the stranger rounded her parents, she glanced up to find him watching her. Though his face remained in shadow, the light caught his eyes, eyes that radiated the hue of deep still waters below wooded boughs—eyes that resonated with her soul.
She grabbed Father’s arm as the stranger disappeared after Galedrew. She forced herself to breathe. Surely she was mistaken—he could not be the same . . .
Alexia’s mind whirled, snatches of the dream racing through her memory:
Starlight streaked across the silvery hair of the man who lay on the entry’s floor, glassy-eyed. His open mouth was frozen in a gasp or silenced scream, a ladle protruding from the breast of his night-dress. Real, warm, oozing blood . . . It pooled across the estate’s open doorway and stained her fingers . . . A speckled gray stallion shrieked in the drive. She cringed into the shadows as the beast’s master, a cloaked stranger, snapped around. Blue eyes flashed.
Father growled, ripping her out of the memory. “Not fit to be seen in a nobleman’s home!”
“Father?” she whispered. “Who is he?”
He glanced at Mother, whose peachy skin had turned pearl-esque. “No one, Alexia.”
She blinked up at him. No one? Then why did Mother look as though she might faint? Why did his eyes hold a darkness and rage reserved for the greatest of miscreants? And most importantly, how had the stranger found a place in her nightmares?
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