Lord of the Beasts
Harlequin (October 2006)
ISBN-13: 9780373771394 ♦ ISBN-10: 0373771398
Inherited from an otherworldly father, enchanted blood flows through Donal Fleming’s veins. Yet, though his empathic ability for all creatures gives purpose to his calling as a veterinarian, life among his mother’s mortal kind has left him wary, and he secretly hungers for the freedom to live unrestrained by civilized society. Until Cordelia…
Cordelia Hardcastle has always played by society’s rules, confined in a gilded cage of propriety and convention. Until Donal Fleming introduces her to a passion she’s never dreamed of, and a world she’s never imagined.
But Donal’s attraction to the remarkable Cordelia has unleashed his most primal instincts. The time has come for him to challenge his destiny and face the consequences of his impossible choice – between human love and the powers that, to him, are life itself…
Read an Excerpt
“It is quite beyond anything I had imagined,” Theodora said, brown eyes sparkling in her plain and honest face.
Cordelia Hardcastle squeezed her cousin’s arm and smiled, though she could not entirely share Theodora’s fascination with the many diversions available to the privileged visitors of the Zoological Gardens in Regent’s Park. She, Theodora and Bennett Wintour, Viscount Inglesham–who had so amiably escorted the ladies on this sojourn to London–-had already viewed the museum with its collection of stuffed birds, exotic skins and every conceivable sort of animal horn and tusk; admired the pleasingly arranged gardens and buildings; delighted in the antics of the beavers in their ponds and marveled at the Australian kangaroos, African zebras and South American llamas.
But perhaps Cordelia had not marveled quite so much as Theodora and the other men and women who strolled about the grounds on this bright spring morning. For she, like a few of the Zoological Society Fellows who had established this impressive display in the very heart of the world’s greatest city, had actually seen many of these beasts in their natural habitats. And the sight of such creatures displayed for the general amusement of the Fellows’ guests filled her with a certain discomfort.
“You can’t expect Cordelia to be impressed, Theodora,” Inglesham said, flashing his easy smile. “She has been twice around the world with Sir Geoffrey and has a menagerie of her own. I fear she may be finding this excursion rather tedious.”
Theodora searched Cordelia’s face. “Is it all frightfully dull for you, my dear? Shall we return to the house?”
“Certainly not.” Cordelia cast Inglesham a reproving glance and tucked her cousin’s arm through her own. “It was I who suggested this visit, after all.”
“And have you found the answers you sought?” Inglesham asked.
Cordelia suppressed a sigh and steered Theodora toward a bench under the spreading shade of an elm. “Lord Pettigrew was most generous with his time and advice,” she said. “But even he cannot suggest a reason for my animals’ malaise.”
“I do not see why they are unhappy,” Theodora offered shyly. “Edgecott is a most beautiful estate, and they have pens of ample size. No one could care for them more conscientiously than you, Cordelia.”
“One might even say that you devote far more attention to those beasts than you do your friends,” Inglesham said with a teasing grin. “A husband might object to such neglect.”
“Then it is fortunate that I have never remarried,” Cordelia said, folding her parasol with a snap. It was an old game between them, this sparring over his lazy but persistent courtship and her polite but firm rejections. They had been friends since childhood, and in spite of the game there had always been an unspoken understanding that one day the refusals might become acceptance. They got on tolerably well together, the viscount would never think of forbidding his prospective wife to make use of her fortune as she saw fit, and Sir Geoffrey thoroughly approved of the match.
But Cordelia wasn’t ready to assume the duties of wedlock, however light they might be. She had loved James with a young woman’s passion in the few brief months of their marriage. Such passion was no longer a part of her plans for the future, and she would have to accept the conjugal responsibilities of marriage even if Inglesham demanded little else of her.
She would know when the time was right. Until then, she had more than enough interests and responsibilities to keep her heart and mind thoroughly occupied.
“We have not yet seen the elephants,” she said briskly. “Unless you would prefer to rest a little longer, Theo?”
“I am quite ready,” Theodora said, adjusting her bonnet. “If it is not too inconvenient, perhaps we might also see the chimpanzee? I have heard … Oh!”
Theodora’s faint gasp called Cordelia’s attention to the broad avenue that ran through the center of the gardens. Top-hatted gentlemen and ladies in bell-shaped skirts suddenly scattered away from a high wrought-iron gate, abandoning parcels and parasols, and the breeze carried faint cries of alarm and shouts of warning.
The cause of the disturbance was not far to seek. Through the open gate charged a great gray behemoth, an ivory-tusked colossus flapping large ears like wings and moving with amazing rapidity as it bore down on the crowd.
Theodora clapped her hands to her mouth. “What is it?” she whispered.
“That, my dear, is your elephant,” Inglesham said, shading his eyes for a better look. “Gone rogue, from the look of it. And coming this direction.”
“Of the African species,” Cordelia added, her mind crystal clear in spite of the danger. “They are said to be far more aggressive than the Indian.”
Even as she spoke, the elephant paused, swung toward a nearby bench and upended it with a flip of its powerful trunk. A woman shrieked in terror.
“Perhaps it’s best if we move out of its way,” Inglesham said. He took Theodora’s elbow in one hand and Cordelia’s in the other. “If you’ll permit me, ladies …”
Cordelia planted her feet. “The animal has obviously been mistreated,” she said, “or it would not behave in this fashion. No matter its origin, any creature, when handled with firmness and compassion, must ultimately respond to–-”
“Your theories are all very well, Delia, but now is not the time–-”
Cordelia gently worked her arm free of Inglesham’s grip, set down her parasol, and started up the avenue.
“Delia!” Inglesham shouted. Theodora echoed his cry. Cordelia continued forward, her eyes fixed on the elephant. The beast was still moving at a fast pace, but she was not afraid. Enraged the animal might be, but even it was not beyond the reach of sympathy, kindliness and reason.
The pleas of her companions faded to a rush of incomprehensible sound. Cordelia was vaguely aware of white, staring faces to either side of the lane, but they held no reality for her. The elephant barreled toward her, broke stride as it noticed the obstacle in its path, and began to slow.
Cordelia smiled. That’s it, my friend, she thought. You need have no fear of me.
The elephant shook its head from side to side and blew gusts of air from its trunk. The small, intelligent eyes seemed to blink in understanding. The space between beast and woman shrank from yards to mere feet, and Cordelia drew in a deep breath.
She had scarcely let it out again when a blurred shape passed in front of her and set itself almost under the pachyderm’s broad feet. Cordelia came to a startled halt, and the elephant did likewise. The shape resolved into a man, hatless and slightly above average height. He placed one hand on the elephant’s trunk and stood absolutely still.
Cordelia’s heart descended from her mouth and settled into a quick, angry drumming. “I beg your pardon,” she said, “but I believe it is generally considered dangerous to step in front of a charging elephant.”
Still maintaining his light hold on the pachyderm, the man half turned. She caught a glimpse of raised brows and vivid green eyes in the instant before he spoke.
“And yet you apparently believed you could stop her, madame,” he said, his accent crisp and patrician in spite of his slightly shabby coat and scuffed boots. “Did you perhaps believe that the thickness of your petticoats would protect you?”
Cordelia found that her mouth hung open in a most vulgar fashion. She closed it with a snap and looked the fellow up and down with a cool, imperious gaze.
“Were you under the impression, sir, that you were protecting me?”
A mischievous glint flared in his emerald eyes. “I have no doubt that you could bring an entire army to a halt, madame, but this lady”–-he scratched the wide, leathery skin between the elephant’s eyes–-” requires rather more delicate handling.”
Turning his back on Cordelia, the ill-mannered rogue rested his cheek against the elephant’s and whispered into the furled sail of its ear. The beast curled its trunk around his neck in something very like an embrace and gave a low, pitiful squeak.
Cordelia took firm hold of her patience and carefully moved closer. “You seem to be familiar with this animal,” she said.
“We have never met before today.”
“Yet she trusts you.”
He didn’t answer but continued to stroke the pachyderm’s trunk as delicately as he might caress a newborn baby’s skin. Cordelia took another step. “Is she hurt?” she asked.
Once more the man glanced over his shoulder, as if he found her question remarkable. “You seem more concerned for Sheba than any men she might have injured.”
“She would not have acted so without reason.” Cordelia frowned. “If you have never seen her before, how do you know her name?”
“She told me.”
“Indeed. And what else has she confided to you, pray tell?”
He turned fully and stood tucked beneath Sheba’s head, careless of her sheer weight and impressive tusks. “She has been mistreated in the past,” he said with perfect seriousness. “She was taken from her home as a child, and the men who bought her believed that only force and cruelty could compel her to obey.”
A look of black and bitter rage crossed his face, so intense that Cordelia almost retreated before the menace so thinly held in check. But then he smiled, and it was as if the sun had burst gloriously through the clouds.
“Sheba knows you mean well,” he said. “She would not have hurt you, and thanks you for your kindness.”
For a moment Cordelia was mute with consternation, torn between judging the fellow mad as a hatter or simply addled by some harmless delusion. Certainly he appeared sane in every other respect. His clothing, while worn and several years out of fashion, was clean and neat. His voice was cultured, his language educated, and his manner–-though it more than verged on the impertinent–-was that of a man raised in a respectable household.
As for his face … Cordelia’s gaze drifted over the shock of russet-brown hair, its waves barely contained and in need of cutting, followed the intelligent line of his brow, paused at those startling eyes and continued over a strong, aristocratic nose to mobile, masculine lips and a firm, slightly dimpled chin.
His was a face most would call handsome, even if he lacked the artful curls and long side-whiskers favored by the most stylish gentlemen. At first blush, she would have thought him the son of some hearty country squire, well accustomed to brisk rural air, a horse between his knees and the feel of good English earth sifting through his fingers.
She emerged from her study to find him regarding her with the same bold stare, noting her well-cut but sensible gown, her plain bonnet and simply-dressed hair. What he thought of her features it was impossible to discern.
“Can it be, sir,” she asked, “that in spite of your intimate acquaintance with elephants, you have never observed a female of the species homo sapiens?”
That imp of mischief snapped again in his eyes. “I have had occasion to examine a few in their natural habitats, but seldom have I had the privilege of beholding such an extraordinary specimen.”
“Extraordinary because I do not swoon at the first sight of danger?”
His face grew serious again. “Extraordinarily foolish,” he said. “If I had not–-” He broke off, his gaze focusing on something behind Cordelia. A moment later she heard the tread of boots and Inglesham’s familiar stride.
“Cordelia! Are you all right?” He stopped beside her and took her arm in a protective grip. “The brute didn’t touch you? I came as quickly as I could, but when I saw you had the beast under control, I thought it best …” He paused as if noticing the stranger for the first time, and Cordelia sensed his confusion.
“I fear I cannot take credit for calming Sheba,” she said a little stiffly. “This gentleman reached her before me.”
“Indeed.” Inglesham gave the other man a swift examination and assigned him to a station somewhat beneath his own. “In that case, my good fellow, I owe you a debt of gratitude. Are you an employee of the Zoological Society? I will see that your courage is properly rewarded. If you’ll remove the animal to a place where it can do no further harm …” He favored Cordelia with a look of somewhat overtaxed tolerance. “Miss Shipp is quite beside herself. She feared for your life.”
Cordelia suffered a pang of guilt and glanced down the avenue. “I’ll go to her as soon as I’ve had another word with–-”
She stopped with chagrin as she realized she had never learned her would-be savior’s name. When she turned to remedy the oversight, she found that man and elephant were already some distance away, about to be intercepted by a small herd of uniformed keepers who carried various prods and manacles designed to subdue and restrain.
Whatever they might have intended, the auburn-haired gentleman clearly had the upper hand. The keepers kept their distance, and Sheba continued on her majestic way unhindered.
Cordelia considered it beneath her dignity to run after a man who so clearly had no desire to further their acquaintance, so she accompanied Inglesham back to the bench and spent several minutes reassuring Theodora that she had never been in any real danger. But even after they returned to the townhouse and enjoyed a soothing cup of tea, Cordelia could not pry thoughts of the stranger from her mind.
It was true that he had not done anything she hadn’t been prepared to do herself. But the casual ease with which he approached and touched the elephant, the manner in which it responded to him … all suggested a man with considerable experience in the area of animal care and behavior.
Unlike Inglesham, however, she was not convinced that he was merely a Zoological Society employee. It had occurred to her that he might even be one of the Fellows, a scientist in his own right. Her father was a cogent example of a titled gentleman who often dressed and sometimes behaved with no more sophistication than a common farmer.
So the green-eyed stranger remained a mystery. In a brief moment of fanciful abandon, Cordelia christened him Lord Enkidu after the legendary companion of Gilgamesh, who had been raised by animals and could speak their language. Several times during their last few days in London, Cordelia considered writing to Lord Pettigrew and asking him if he knew Enkidu’s name and direction. Each time she remembered his hauteur, and how he had simply walked away without as much as a good-bye.
In the end she allowed Inglesham to distract her with a few more London entertainments and resolved to dispense with all further speculation about Lord Enkidu. But when she retired to her bed in the pleasant comfort of her father’s townhouse on Charles Street, she was troubled by the strangely stimulating notion that she and Lord Enkidu were destined to meet again.