Corinne opened her sleep heavy eyes and gave a start at the figure looming over her bed. In the weak, sallow light of the tallow dip by her bedside, the shadowed form had harsh angular features with massive white horns protruding from the top of its skull.
“Do not look upon me slack-jawed, child. Arise. I tell you, he is here!” the shadowed form sharply reprimanded her.
Tossing off the last vestiges of sleep as she pushed aside her thin wool blanket, Corinne arose as commanded. She sucked in a sharp breath as her toes touched the ice cold flagstone floor, sending a chill up her spine. Clutching her arms about her middle in a feeble attempt to stop her trembling, Corinne stood. Her worn, rough linen nightgown offered no comfort in the frigid chamber.
“Yes, Mother Superior,” Corinne’s response was soft and low, a mere icy whisper of smoke.
The indistinct form had taken shape. It was the Abbess of L’etoile du Matin Abbey. She oversaw the cloister of French nuns at the abbey located deep in the Welsh countryside along the Irish Sea, an odd relic of the last invasion of Britain by the French in the 18th century. By this time, the crumbling abbey had been in existence for close to one hundred years.
Despite the late hour, Mother Superior was dressed in her finest habit, usually reserved for rare visits from exalted guests of the faith and the aristocracy. Her habit of black serge was secured with a cincher of corded silk as opposed to the usual wool. Her linen coif and veil eschewed for the more elaborate cornette. The large wimple of starched white linen rose high above her head and was folded as if to suggest two massive horns. A bright silver cross about her neck replaced her humble wooden one.
“We must get you ready,” said Mother Superior perfunctorily. With a slight wave of her hand, two novitiates dressed in simple, gray wool habits entered the small cell which served as Corinne’s bed chamber.
As with the nuns, Corinne’s cell was a modest room containing only a bed, a small bedside table whereupon rested a tarnished pewter dish filled with animal tallow in which a twisted cloth was dipped then lit for meager light, and a tiny trunk where she kept her meager belongings. Still confused but knowing better than to question Mother Superior, Corinne stepped toward the trunk.
“No. Nothing of your own. He was most clear. You are to wear this and this only,” said Mother Superior crisply as she gestured to an article of clothing draped across one of the novitiate’s arms. It was ivory and seemed to shimmer even in the sparse, yellow light.
“Yes, Mother Superior. May I have some privacy to disrobe?” Corinne requested.
“I am afraid there is no time.” With a clap of her hands, the novitiates silently jumped to do her bidding. One reached for the hem of Corinne’s nightgown, pulling it over her head while the other prepared to drape her in the shimmering fabric.
Corinne’s petite form was only momentarily bared to their disinterested eyes. High, full breasts, a tapered middle which ended with the soft swell of her hips were revealed. A sinful body which must be shielded from God’s eye, as Mother Superior had once put it.
Corinne had lived at the abbey since the sudden death of her parents through a sickness which had swept her village when she was only six years of age. Thirteen long years. It was not so much a cruel place as it lacked warmth or any form of society. The nuns were kind but distant. She had grown up surrounded by unfeeling stone and silence. Each room of the abbey resembled the next, sparse and utilitarian, devoid of the trinkets and small possessions which gave a home character or sense of family. Corinne herself owned nothing beyond the two simple serge gowns bestowed upon her by the abbey and a small book of spiritual poems given to her by Mother Superior on her seventeenth birthday. She still looked upon that birthday with a mixture of terror and elation. The cherished book had been given to her more in parting than celebration. Mother Superior had informed her that she was far past old enough to make it on her own in the world. She was going to be moved from the solitude of the abbey to the bustling city of Bath where she would be apprenticed to a seamstress. Corinne was not so sheltered as to have no knowledge of the wretched existence which awaited her. Long hours of toiling over small stitches in low light was to be her fate. Most seamstresses crippled their hands and went blind before they achieved marrying age. The very idea terrified Corinne. As apathetic as the nuns were, she still preferred the calming shelter of the abbey and her beloved walks on the moors to a stifling existence of toil and servitude in a filthy city.
Then he had arrived.
Still young and having no premonition of the portent of the meeting, Corinne could barely recall his features. More so, she remembered the overwhelming feeling of power and privilege which emanated from him. He paid the abbey coin for her upkeep and continued education with the understanding he would someday return and claim her as his bride. Had she been permitted to read fairy tales, Corinne may have regarded him as her prince. Since she had no imagination for such things, her more rigid understanding chose to believe the idea was a figment never to be realized. No rich and powerful man would make a penniless orphan with no name or family connections his wife!
Now the impossible seemed to have occurred.
He had returned to claim her.
The delicate house slippers the novitiates had slipped on her feet were no more than pieces of satin stretched over a thin, strip of calfskin for a sole. They did nothing to protect Corinne’s feet from the bitter cold of the flagstone floor as she tripped along the dark corridor following the dim, flickering flame held by Mother Superior. The gown covering her shivering body was made of silk. Never before had such a luxurious fabric caressed her skin. The cool silk felt like water gently moving and rippling over her body. The sensation caused her nipples to harden, showing through the thin fabric as two impertinent nubs. Mortified, Corinne crossed her arms over her generous curves, willing her body to settle, praying Mother Superior did not notice.
Presently, they entered the small chapel reserved for morning prayers. Usually the whitewashed stone was flooded with splashes of amber, cobalt blue and ruby from the bright sunlight shining through arched stained-glass windows which flanked each wall, giving the chapel an ethereal feel. In the dark of the night, the jagged iron framework of the stained-glass twisted and distorted the features of the long dead saints. The long wooden pews were in shadow. The only light in the room shone from two standing candelabras flanking the altar.
There, waiting, were two men.
The first man was dressed in the sumptuous red robes of a cardinal, but it was the second who caught Corinne’s full attention.
A tall, imposing man, he was at least two heads taller than the cardinal. Impossibly broad shoulders were cloaked in an expertly tailored black frock coat. An intricately tied cravat at his throat tapered to a deep purple brocade waistcoat, emphasizing his narrow hips and long legs. As she followed Mother Superior up the aisle, his features came into focus. Thick, ink black hair, swept back from a widow’s peak, framed a handsome yet rigid face consisting of a lowered brow, aristocratic nose, and angular jaw. The only softness were his lips which showed just the hint of a knowing smile.
Corinne gasped as the man turned his attention to her. The impact of his gaze felt like a physical hand squeezing the breath from her body. His eyes! His eyes bore into her. They shone black as polished onyx. Their expression filled with the dark promise of destiny.
Stunned, Corinne tripped over the white marble step leading to the altar.
Large, warm hands spanned her ribcage, saving her from a fall. Lifting her high till the toes of her slippers skimmed the smooth floor, the man placed her before him. Craning her neck back, Corinne dared a glance at his eyes. Frightened of being pulled into their black depths, she quickly averted her own. Desperately she tried to pull air into her body, but the feel of his hands, the warmth radiating through the thin silk, prevented anything but a feeble gasp. His touch. The sensation of it. Her limited experience did not give her words to describe, could not prepare her, for such a soul baring emotion.
“Your Grace, may I present Corinne,” intoned Mother Superior with reverence.
Lord Lucian Talon, Duke of Ebonhurst. He was a wealthy peer with extensive landholdings throughout the British Isles in Northumberland, Devon, Somerset and Cumbria. His ancestral home was in the harsh, unforgiving lands of Cornwall. The ruthless rocky terrain and brackish winds forged a commanding lineage of powerful, influential men who never quite shook off the primal impulses of their conquering ancestors. Like his father before him and his father’s father, Lord Lucian took what he wanted without apology, did what he wanted without hesitation and demanded complete subservience without penitence.
Corinne felt a harsh pinch on her exposed upper arm. Jerking her head to the side, she saw Mother Superior’s angry glare as she gestured with a nod of her head.
Belatedly remembering her etiquette lessons, Corinne clumsily lowered her already weak knees into an awkward curtsy.
“Your Gra…” The rest of her greeting locked in her tightening throat.
His hands still loosely cupped her ribcage, and with Corinne’s movement downward, they had skimmed upwards to rest against the tender curve of each unfettered breast. Her cheeks flamed with mortification. Mother Superior had provided no underpinnings with her outfit. As it was the middle of the night and she had been provided with a nightgown not a proper dress, Corinne could never have known she would be the in presence of two men, so she had not dared to question the lack of a proper corset. Lowering her head in shame, she hid behind a curtain of luxurious, flaxen hair which shielded her cheeks, but she could not suppress a whimper of distress when she saw her nipples peeking through the delicate nightgown fabric and softly falling curls. Startled, her gaze swept to the duke’s own to see if he too had noticed her body’s disgraceful reaction.
One black wing eyebrow had raised over darkly amused eyes. His mouth was quirked up slightly at one corner. Refusing to release her gaze, Lucian slowly swept each long thumb over the highly sensitive nubs.
Corinne’s full pink lips opened on a gasp as her eyes widened. Her head swam, and she greatly feared she would faint dead away on the spot. Whether it was from his touch or her own humiliation, she could not say.
Lucian pressed the heel of his palms into her soft fullness as the pressure from his hands bade her to rise. Placing a bent finger under her chin, he forced her head back, seeming to peruse her more thoroughly in the candlelight.
Corinne wondered what he thought of her. She had always been told her eyes were much too large for what would be considered proper. Many a nun also objected to the moss green color, saying the hints of gold in their depths spoke to a defiant character. It was her mouth which had received the most criticism over the years. Soft and full, the color of crushed rose petals, the nuns whispered of its wantonness.
The handsome duke tilted her head from side to side, running the pad of his thumb over her full bottom lip. Corinne’s tongue instinctively flicked out to sweep where his thumb had been, tasting the slightly salty tang of his touch. His black eyes narrowed as he focused on her now glistening mouth. She watched in captive fascination as a muscle in his jaw clenched. His mouth formed a tight line, and he inhaled deeply through his nose…almost as if in anger.
His grace was obviously displeased with her gauche behavior and scandalous reaction to his presence. Tears pricked Corinne’s eyes. Mother Superior would never forgive her for embarrassing the abbey in front of such an exalted guest.
Lucian brushed the corner of her eye with the tip of his finger before raising his hand to his own lips, tasting her tears.
Then, he spoke.
Till the moment the rich, low timbre of his voice washed over her senses, Corinne had failed to notice he had not uttered a word since her entrance into the chapel. To captivate all around you with such enigmatic power and all without a word!
Ensnared by all that was him, listening only to his voice, not his words, Corinne did not understand. “Your Grace?”
“Your name, little one. It means beautiful maiden. A more appropriately named child I cannot imagine.”
Corinne could not summon the courage to respond.
“Your Grace,” interrupted the cardinal. “Would you like to proceed?”
“Yes. She will suit my needs nicely. I am pleased, Mother Superior.”
Astonished, Corinne watched as Mother Superior blushed as if still a young maid at his praise.
“Thank you, Your Grace. We did our best to follow your instructions. Since the moment of your beneficence, Corinne has been kept innocent of the outside world.”
“Excellent,” Lucian responded curtly.
Shifting confused eyes from one face to the other, Corinne tried to make sense of their words. Was he the reason why she had no longer been permitted to walk to the village after her seven and tenth birthday? Why she had been kept to only the abbey grounds and surrounding moors while the other girls housed under their protection had been allowed far more freedom?
The duke’s large, tanned hand covered her slight, pale one. She was led to stand before the altar. The cardinal’s words were only a murmur in the background of her mind. Corinne could only stare at their joined hands. His engulfed her own, dominated it. Only the tips of her fingertips could be seen past the strong sinew of his fist. On his ring finger there was a heavy, gold signet ring. It had a large, smooth black stone. Embedded in its hard depths was the image of a golden bird with its massive wings outstretched. Clutched in its vicious talons was a crushed rose. The family crest of Ebonhurst. An omen.
“In the presence of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are here this night to witness the marriage of Lord Lucian Talon, Duke of Ebonhurst to Corinne, orphan,” droned the cardinal.
Corinne’s mind snapped to attention. The horror of her situation crashed into her conscious mind. This could not possibly be happening. Upon her life! She couldn’t marry this man. He was too rich. Too powerful. Too frightening. There was a dark, seductiveness about him that would swallow her whole; body and soul. This was madness!
Shaking her head, her slippered feet slid backward.
His hand tightened on her own.
“Please! You cannot mean it. It cannot be me you want,” begged Corinne as her body leaned backward, foolishly trying to break his grasp.
Lucian turned hard eyes on her.
Only the sound of her own harsh breathing broke the silence in the small chapel as she waited. A trapped bird hoping for release.
His grip slackened. Corinne slipped from his grip and took a relieved step backward, pressing her hands to her pounding heart. Mother Superior would be furious, but she would rather face her wrath than a lifetime bound to this overwhelming man.
Lucian shrugged out of his frock coat, tossing it carelessly over the nearest pew. The thin lawn of his shirt stretched over heavily muscled arms. Nonchalantly releasing a cuff, Lucian began to slowly roll up one sleeve.
“Leave us,” he ordered through clenched teeth.
Both the cardinal and Mother Superior scurried out of the chapel without so much as a sympathetic glance toward Corinne. Lifting the long skirts of her nightgown, she moved to follow them.
“Not you,” he barked.
“Your Grace?” she asked timidly.
Lucian rolled up his other sleeve, exposing darkly tanned forearms touched with dark hair. “Your defiance merits a punishment.”
“Punishment?” Corinne choked out, more frightened than she had ever been in her entire young life.