Lord of Sin
Harlequin (September 1, 2009)
ISBN-13: 9780373773985 ♦ ISBN-10: 0373773986
This is the fourth book in the Fane series that began with The Forest Lord then was followed by Lord of the Beasts and the newly released Lord of Legends.
Nuala is descended from ancient witch folk, eternally bound to help others find love. But after the death of her husband, she harbors no such dreams for herself. Then she meets, Sinjin, the Earl of Donnington, and feels something stir within her for the first time in centuries…
Handsome and scandalously tempting, Sinjin has never met a woman he couldn’t seduce. Yet from the moment he sees the stunning young widow, he knows he wants more than just one night of sin – and even the discovery of the dark secret they share won’t stop him from trying to possess her forever. But first he must free her from her immortal bondage, which means robbing her of her magic for all time.
Read an Excerpt
The Royal Academy was hot and crowded, even though the Season had scarcely begun. It was supposed to be the Private Viewing, open only to the best and brightest of Society, but that seemed to include half of London.
St. John Wade, the Earl of Donnington, yawned behind his hand and glanced at the paintings with only the mildest of interest. He was far more intrigued by Lady Mandeville’s backside. Unfortunately, she was very happily married, unlike a great many of the peerage, and her husband was a rather large man. Sinjin strolled the hall, seeking more amenable prey. There was Mrs. Laidlaw, whose husband was known to be involved with Lady Winthrop. She was quite acceptable in every way but her hair. It was blond, and that was anathema to him.
Lady Andrew, on the other hand, was dark-haired, and her gown was very tight in the bodice, the impressive curve of her bosom all the more accentuated by the severity of her garments. Her husband was a known philander, making her ripe for the plucking. As if she felt his stare, Lady Andrew turned. Her eyes widened as she saw him, and he wondered what was going through her pretty head.
The Earl of Donnington. Wealthy, handsome, possessed of every grace a peer ought to display. Impeccable clothing. The bearing of an Indian prince.
Sinjin laughed to himself. Ah, yes. The very pinnacle of perfection.
And London’s most notorious bachelor rake.
He smiled at Lady Andrew. Her lips curved tentatively, and then she turned back to the painting. It was enough. She was interested, and when it wasn’t so damned hot, he might pursue the opportunity that had so readily presented itself.
Out of habit, he continued his hunting. Far too many blonds. But here, a little beauty with soft brown hair, a figure too abundant to be fashionable, and a much older husband by her side. There, an Amazon with shining black hair and the confident manner of a woman who has been desired.
And across the room, standing before one of the new Alma-Tademas…
A mass of curling ginger hair that couldn’t quite be contained in the tightly-wrapped styles of the day, a height neither petite nor tall, a figure neat and fine, a dress so unobtrusive that it made her fiery head all the more striking.
Ginger hair was not fashionable. But it drew Sinjin like a roaring hearth in winter. It collected all the heat in the room and crackled with light.
“Ah. You noticed her, too.”
Mr. Leopold Erskine joined Sinjin, his tie somewhat wilted and his tall, rangy body bent as if the heat were a physical burden riding on his shoulders. He was one of Sinjin’s best friends, though not a member of the confirmed bachelor set of which Sinjin was undisputed leader. Erskine was constitutionally incapable of being a rake; he actually liked women as friends, poor sod.
“Quite a beauty, isn’t she?” Leo commented, squinting his eyes.
Sinjin chuckled. “How can you tell? All I see is the back of her. And you’ve left off your spectacles.”
“It was you who advised me not to wear them. ‘Too bookish,’ you said.”
“So I did.” He slapped Leo’s back. “Someone must look after you, Erskine. You’re a little lost lamb. You ought to join one of our gatherings … you might even enjoy it.”
“Not I. I should rather read in my library.”
“Of course. How foolish of me to suggest it.”
Leo began to speak again, but Sinjin’s attention had already wandered back to the fire maiden. She had turned slightly, but her face was still not visible. Yet there was a lightness and grace about her movements as she bent to listen to one of the women standing beside her … a tall, dark-haired woman Sinjin was certain he recognized.
“Is the lady one of those widows I’ve been hearing about?” Sinjin asked.
“Those widows. The untouchables.”
“Ah, yes. I believe they call themselves the ‘Widows’Club.'”
“‘The Witches’ Club,’ or so some apparently liked to call them, A half-dozen wealthy, well-bred and eccentric ladies who had vowed never to marry again. Sinjin felt a flicker of disappointment.
“Are you acquainted with them?” he asked.
“I have met the Duchess of Vardon. A most fascinating woman.”
The Duchess of Vardon. Sinjin glanced toward the fire maiden’s tall, slender companion, wondering why he hadn’t recognized her at once. She wouldn’t have been out of place in one of Alma-Tadema’s paintings.
“I’ve heard that she thinks she’s some sort of ancient princess,” Sinjin remarked.
Erskine pinched the bridge of his nose as if he were pushing up invisible spectacles. “You might reconsider your scorn, my friend. She had become one of the most popular hostesses in London, in spite of her eccentricities of dress and behavior. It wouldn’t do to earn her bad opinion.”
“I won’t kowtow to any woman, not even a duchess. And why should you care for the good opinion of Society, Erskine?”
Erskine merely shrugged. With increased interest, Sinjin let his gaze wander over the other women standing near the fire maiden. They clustered like a bevy of quails, fluttering and cooing. There was another ginger-haired girl pressed so close to the painting that her nose almost touched it; she wore one of those odd Aesthetic dresses without bustle or stays. It would, he reflected, be a good deal easier to get a woman out of such a garment, especially if one were in a hurry.
But his gaze passed over her, pausing only briefly on the stiffly upright young woman in the severe gray suit, the plump blond, the brown-haired girl in an unbecoming and out-of-fashion dress, and the older woman with a good figure and what might accurately be called a “handsome” face. He lingered a moment on the very young girl with the black hair and dull gray dress: she must be still in half-mourning. Too young, in any case.
And that brought him back to the fire maiden. If she didn’t have a horse’s face or spots, she would be nearly perfect.
You may have vowed not to marry again, my dear, he thought. But that does not preclude a little entertainment on the side.
“What do you know of her, Leo?”
Erskine guessed immediately to whom Sinjin referred. “She is Lady Charles, wife of the late Lord Charles Parkhill.”
“Parkhill? Charles is dead?”
“Two years ago, of a longstanding illness.”
Sinjin shook his head. “I’m very sorry to hear it. I knew him at Eton … even then he was often in ill health.”
“Yes. Poor fellow; after so many years of isolation at his estate, he had few friends but his family to mourn him when he passed on.”
“I didn’t know he had married.”
“Only six months before his passing. Lady Charles cared for him until the end. She was completely devoted to him and never left his side. Even after she was widowed, she remained in the country until this Season.”
“She is newly come to London?”
“Yes. The duchess and Lady Oxenham have been introducing her around town, but I understand that she has remained somewhat reclusive.”
“Parkhill was …” He let the sentence trail off. Sinjin understood.
“Who are her family?” he asked.
“That, I have not heard.” Erskine frowned. “Are you thinking of pursuing her?”
“I might have done, if not for Charles. I owe him a certain respect in light of our time together at Eton.”
“You owe him respect, but not his widow.”
“She does not seem particularly stricken.”
“You know nothing about her except what little I have told you.”
“Have you an interest, Erskine?”
“I need not be a member of your set to decline the pleasure of marriage,” Erskine said.
“And you would consider nothing less.”
“I am hopelessly (old-fashioned, as you have so often reminded me.”
Sinjin snorted. “Someday your virtue will take a tumble, my friend.”
“And one of these days, old chap, you may find a woman who is your equal.”
“If such a creature existed, I would marry her on the spot.”
“May I take you at your word, Sin? Shall we make a friendly wager of it?”
Startled, Sinjin turned to face Erskine. “You aren’t a gambling man.”
“I am merely curious. The study of human nature is one of my favorite occupations.”
“I don’t know that I wish to be an object of study.”
Leo produced his wallet and counted out twenty pounds. “Surely you can afford this much. But if you are afraid …”
“Afraid of a woman?” Sinjin thrust out his hand. “Done.”
“Then I shall leave you to it,” Erskine said, smiling with an artless warmth that made Sinjin remember why they were friends. The tall man stalked away like an amiable giraffe and was lost on the crowd.
Throwing off a peculiar chill of unease, Sinjin returned his attention to the fire maiden. She was gone. He moved closer to the line of people observing the works of art.
There. She had stopped again and was examining a painting with her head slightly cocked and her profile clearly visible.
No horse’s face, and no spots. Sinjin didn’t need to see the rest of her features to know she was lovely. He realized that her profile was familiar; he must have met her before he went to India, but he couldn’t remember the place or time. How could he not have noticed her then?
He began to move in her direction, walking parallel to the queue of observers. The second ginger-haired girl was expounding on some aspect of the painting, her hands animated. The plump blond nodded. And the fire-maiden suddenly turned around to face in Sinjin’s direction, exactly as if she had felt his stare.
Summer lightning broke through the ceiling and pierced the center of Sinjin’s chest. He ducked behind a pair of amply-bustled women and waited until she had turned back to her friends.
That had been the name she’d called herself at Donbridge. He had never learned her surname, or if she had ever been acquainted with polite society. He had never ascertained how she had been able to pose as an ordinary chambermaid, barely out of childhood, only to become this mysterious beauty before him.
But she had introduced him to a world most men didn’t know existed: the world of the unicorn Arion, who in mortal form had come to love Mariah, Sinjin’s former sister-in-law– Tir-na-Nog, a mystical plane ruled by the Fane, a race of magical beings who were prone to interfering in mortal affairs.
Just as she had interfered.
Sinjin locked his hands behind his back, calming himself with a few long breaths. Where had she gone when she’d left Donbridge four years ago? Why was she here? How had she managed to snag the son of a marquess?
He laughed under his breath. She could do anything she chose, couldn’t she? If she could change her very face, disarm a man with a flick of her fingers, and deceive those she claimed she wanted to “help,” she could certainly trick a dying man into marrying her. Her professions of “fading powers” had never rung true; she had certainly lied to Sinjin when she’d asked for his cooperation in saving Ash and Mariah from the former earl and his evil Fane ally. Lied until she had been compelled to reveal her true nature.
A witch. Not a crooked-nosed, hump-backed crone, but this. This female any man might desire. A creature neither Fane nor human, but not entirely of this earth. A woman whose motives were not to be trusted for a moment.
If he were possessed of less discipline, Sinjin might have confronted her then and there. But he would have been walking into a situation he knew nothing about. She almost certainly would have heard he was in town; she obviously didn’t fear him.
And why should she? She’d left Donbridge as if everything had been resolved, as if her responsibilities were over. Yes, Mariah and Ash had found their happiness, but Giles was dead. And Pamela …
“Have you seen that girl?”
Wiping the scowl from his face, Sinjin turned. Felix Melbyrne was grinning like the fool cub he was, his gaze fixed on the very point where Nuala had been standing. Sinjin’s hackles began to rise.
“Which girl?” he demanded.
“Which girl? Are you as blind as Erskine?”
Sinjin began to wonder how many of his friends were going to turn up to disturb his thoughts. “Enlighten me,” he said.
“That girl, right there, beside the ginger-haired one.”
His aching lungs reminded Sinjin to breathe again. “The dark one?”
“Who else?” Melbyrne’s blue eyes glittered. “I’ve already asked around. She’s a widow, Donnington, and out of mourning.”
“She looks it.”
The boy frowned as if he’d noticed the girl’s drab gray dress for the first time. “Poor child. It isn’t right for such a lovely girl to suffer so.”
Sinjin passed over Melbyrne’s amusing reference to the young woman as a child when he was scarcely out of leading strings himself. “What is her name?” Sinjin asked.
“Oh. I suppose you wouldn’t know … she’s been in seclusion for the past year, and before that she—-”
“Deborah, Lady Orwell.”
“As in the Viscounts Orwell?”
“Precisely. Hardly anyone knew anything about his bride, since he had been living in Paris for a number of years and seldom crossed the Channel.”
“I never met the man.”
“Most knew him only by reputation. How that old curmudgeon could catch a beauty like this one …”
“Orwell was deuced rich, wasn’t he? Who are her parents?”
But Melbyrne wasn’t listening. “Isn’t she stunning? All that black hair. A man could drown in it.”
It was ginger hair, not black, that Sinjin was envisioning.
“I should say,” Sinjin said, “that she would not be the easiest lady to conquer.”
Melbyrne shifted uncomfortably. “Well … just because she’s still in grays doesn’t mean— If the right man were to come along–”
“She is with a party of widows who have vowed never to marry again.”
Felix blinked. “That girl? Preposterous. And who said anything about marriage?”
Sinjin smiled cynically. The boy was still green enough to think of binding himself to a female before he reached the the age of forty. One misstep, and he might fall.
“Perhaps you ought to set your sights a little lower,” Sinjin suggested. “The younger they are, the less likely that they will be able to conceal any indiscretion. There are any number of experienced women who would be happy to accept your attentions.”
“But where is the challenge in that? You always say a good challenge makes it all the more satisfying when one is victorious.”
So he had. But Melbyrne might easily bite off more than he could chew … especially since Nuala had laid a possessive hand on Lady Orwell’s shoulder. The girl was near Mariah’s age, and, to judge by her eager reception of Nuala’s speech, just as trusting
Don’t get tangled up with her, boy. No pretty young widow is worth the trouble.
But how could he tender such an opinion without explaining what Nuala was? The real events at Donbridge remained a secret, and would never come to light.
Best if he simply distracted the boy, pointed him toward a less perilous partner who would teach him what he needed to learn.
“Come, Melbyrne,” he said, gripping the young man’s arm. “Don’t make any sudden judgments. There are many other pretty pictures to see.”
Felix sighed. “If you insist, Donnington.”
Sinjin didn’t look behind him as he led his protégé away from immediate danger. He pointed out several suitable partners, at least one of whom returned Melbyrne’s polite smile with a coquettish one of her own.
“Mrs. Tissier is an excellent prospect,” Sinjin said quietly. “She is still young, a courtesan of the first water.”
“A courtesan? What is she doing here?”
“The prince has occasionally been known to favor ladies whom society might choose to ignore.”
“Have you had her, Donnington? Is that why you consider her such a prize?” Felix snorted. “Of course you have. You’ve had all of them at one time or another.”
The implied insult missed its mark. “You aren’t likely to find a married woman in our set who hasn’t had at least one lover,” Sinjin said. “That is the way of our Society. If a married woman has borne the necessary offspring, she can always pass an additional child off as her husband’s. His own infidelity makes it unlikely that he would raise a protest even if he suspected the truth.”
“I know all that, Sinjin, but—-”
“Of course your prospect need not be married at all. Mature widows are generally intelligent enough to recognize the danger of having their amours confirmed by an unexpected birth.”
“I know how to take precautions,” Felix said sullenly. “You taught me yourself.”
“Precautions or no, there is always a risk.”
“And I’m still too inexperienced to avoid such risks.”
“You must convince the lady that you have such matters under control, and then keep your word.”
“Which you always manage to do.”
“I have produced no children, to my knowledge,” Sinjin said mildly. “I avoid naïve young widows just as I do girls who have yet to take their marriage vows. I urge you to follow my example.”
“I’m not so certain I belong in your dashed club.”
Sinjin yawned. “That is entirely up to you. But if you make a mistake and find yourself forced to marry the chit, don’t come running to me.”
Frowning, Melbyrne gave Mrs. Tissier a second look. “If you wouldn’t mind, Donnington, I’d like to do my hunting in peace.”
“As you wish.” Certain that he’d made his point, Sinjin walked out of the Academy and breathed in London’s not-so-fresh air. At least here, away from the crowd, he was able to think.
He’d told Melbyrne that a challenge was always most satisfying, and he’d faced more than a few himself. But he’d also been telling the truth when he’d claimed that he’d sired no unwanted children. He was careful, but even so, his pursuit of widows was always most judicious.
But there was one woman in the world he wouldn’t pursue … except to make her explain … confess …
He didn’t know what he wanted of her. He only knew that he couldn’t let her go until he finally understood who and what she was. Until she knew what it was like to be the one truly without power.