London, Spring 1816
“Oh Allegra, why must you always have your own way,” Imogen exclaimed. The sleek blue-grey cat cocked her head to one side and gazed impassively at her mistress. Mirroring Imogen’s own mood, she had been restless all evening, padding about the bedchamber, scratching at the door, wrestling her way under the heavy drapes to mew at the window, before finally jumping onto the four poster bed and swiping her soft velvet paw at Imogen’s hair on the pillow.
“Come on then.” Wearily conceding defeat, Imogen pushed back the sheets and stumbled over to the window, pulling back the curtains to open the sash and allow the cat out. The pitch dark night was illuminated by the pale glow of a full moon. Below, in Berkeley Square, the few lanterns still alight cast dim shadows onto the cobblestones. She could hear the faint clatter of a carriage in nearby Bruton Street, no doubt bringing some weary rake home from a late session at his club.
Wrapping her arms around her knees and tucking her feet under the flounce of her nightgown, Imogen settled on the window seat and watched as Allegra leapt fluidly from the little wrought iron balcony down onto the wall which formed the border with the extensive gardens of Lansdowne House next door, into which she disappeared. In the distance, the new gas lights on Piccadilly cast a faint glow. The moon hung low in the sky, fat and buttery. It was said to be at its most potent when full like this, Imogen recalled, the most auspicious time for making wishes.
Long hours of reading to Alfred in an effort to take his mind off his suffering had cluttered her brain with such pieces of useless information, a bit like the attics here in Strathfyne house, stuffed full of broken chairs and mouldy hangings and dusty portraits of ancestors no-one could recall. Imogen’s own portrait would no doubt end up there too some day. She and Alfred had been married less than four years. There would be no cause to remember a duchess of such short duration, one moreover who had been unable to produce an heir before her husband tragically succumbed to the consumption which had been the reason for their very unequal match having been made in the first place.
The melancholy which Imogen had been striving to keep at bay all day settled on her like a lowering November sky. Poor Alfred, his suffering had led him to embrace death when it finally came. She’d loved and pitied her gentle husband in equal measure, though more in the manner of a sister than a wife. It was almost exactly six months since he had died. Time to put off her blacks and emerge from the cocoon of her mourning.
Imogen twined a long strand of her hair round her finger. While Alfred’s death had been a welcome release for him, it had becalmed her. Try as she might to look to the future, she seemed quite unable to shake off this sense of walking on sand, of being enveloped in treacle. It was as if the energy she had put into looking after Alfred had been buried with him. What she needed was something to jolt her out of this all-encompassing lethargy. Feeling slightly foolish, she screwed shut her eyes and wished. Yearning shuddered through her like a summer wind over a barley field, ruffling the tiny hairs on her skin. A violent shudder made her shoulders bunch. Someone walking over her grave. Or something waking from it.
Imogen opened her eyes. The moon’s glow was temporarily obscured by a black cloud, creeping ominously across the sky. She shivered again. Apprehension rather than cold it was, which made her skin prickle, forcing the soft hairs on her arms to stand on end. A fleeting spark of fear flamed in her, like a taper lit in a draught and instantly extinguished, but it was enough to send her scampering back to bed, pulling the monogrammed sheets up tight to her chin.
In her haste to get back into bed she’d left the window open, the drapes pulled wide. As the black cloud slithered and crept across the moon, ghostly fingers of light penetrated the gloom of her bed chamber, casting long jagged shadows across the floorboards, glancing off the mirror which hung over the mantel, creeping up the Chinese hand-painted paper on the opposite wall. Telling herself that there was nothing in the world to be scared of, she nevertheless huddled down under the sheet, pulling it up over her face. She began to count, an old trick from childhood taught her by her mother. She reached eighty or so before she fell asleep, sinking into the most extraordinarily vivid dreamm.
She dreamt she heard the curtains ruffle. The brass hoops jangled on the pole, followed by a soft footfall on the uncarpeted boards. Then came a lithe, padding step muffled by the Turkish rugs. The cat, she thought.
Then her skin prickled. A premonition. Whatever it was, it wasn’t the cat. There was someone, or something in the room. A dark, brooding presence which was watching her. She could feel its eyes upon her. She sat up, pushing her long fall of black hair back from her brow.
He was standing at the foot of the bed. A man. A very tall man, strikingly handsome, gazing at her intently. She opened her mouth to scream, but as ever in a nightmare, no sound came out. She tried again, fighting panic. She couldn’t move. The cool night air whispered over her skin, making it clammy.
Be careful what you wish for.
“I didn’t wish for this.” The words shaped but did not form. She made herself look straight at him, as if looking would force him back to where he had came from, somewhere in the depths of her imagination. As if looking would waken her, unfreeze her limbs, give her voice.
He had grey-green eyes, the colour of a stormy sea. Strange, but she could see them so clearly, though there were no candles lit and the heavy damask drapes were drawn across the other two of the three tall windows. Coal-black hair, worn longer than was the custom now, falling sleekly back over his head, a stray strand flopping over his brow.
She was cold, an icy cold which seemed to emanate from the man at the end of her bed. He had a pale face, with prominent cheek bones. A memorable face. Handsome but too austere for beauty, too – too – she couldn’t find the right word.
Autocratic? Aristocratic? Intimidating?
All of those. Other-worldly. A Roman emperor or an Egyptian pharaoh. A man accustomed to command.
He looked so real.
Too real. All of her senses felt stretched taut. Acute. Attenuated. The paralysis of her body that his appearance had cast eased the tiniest fraction. Enough for her to lick her lips, which felt dry and parched. Enough for her to grip the sheet, her knuckles white with the effort. She cleared her throat.
“Who are you?” To her relief, the words emerged, sounding hoarse.
“Vaelen. I am Vaelen.”
His voice was husky, smoky, like the remnants of a wood fire. Imogen found she could move. She shuffled up against the pillows, putting a few vital inches between them. His brow raised just a fraction, the corner of his mouth twitching into the ghost of a smile. She didn’t ask herself how it was that she could see every detail of his face when the gilded ormolu clock on her nightstand was a block of grey.
She thought it must be the moon, shining directly on him. Or maybe it was the luminescence of his skin.
“Vaelen.” She had never heard of such a name. “What are you doing here ?” Her voice was breathless, tinged with strangeness and a presentment of something she did not know whether to run from, or towards.
“You summoned me.”
“I summoned you?” She was still frightened, but her fear was mingled with recklessness. She dreamt and knew she was dreaming. She’d wished on the moon and this – he – Vaelen – was the result. Is that what he meant? Longing washed seductively over her like warm honey. She wanted it to be true. That she had conjured him. Vaelen. The product of the moon’s magic and her own desires.
As if released by her understanding, he moved towards her. She could see the perfection of his skin now, pale as the moonlight, oddly smooth like marble, his eyes which gleamed not bright but darkly, like strength or power would, if it could manifest itself. It sapped her will that look, drew it from her like a blotting sheet, leaving her pliant when she should have been resistant. Oddly, satisfyingly helpless.
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