It's that time of year and my annual Halloween time romance is nearly here!! Enjoy this excerpt from the book <3
"The Devil In Blue"
. . .
Both girls retreated, arm in arm, their chins raised high as they lost themselves in the mobs of attendees.
“There you are,” a familiar voice said, drawing my attention.
Lucien stood behind me, his complexion a bit paler than I recalled it being moments ago. And, I couldn’t be sure with his face half covered, but I swore that there was a slight sheen of sweat on his skin.
I prepared to endure a mild scolding for walking off with strangers without him, but he had nothing for me.
The music changed again, encouraging a new dance. Looking at the beginning stance for the dance, I realized it was the Peros. It was a beautifully provocative piece. Not too many people included it at their gatherings for the intimate nature of it, but the fact that the masquerade was featuring it excited me. I listened to the haunting violins and shuddered, feeling a wonderful heat on my skin.
When red silks were unrolled from the ceiling, I was hypnotized. Even more so when two women in black bodysuits skipped gracefully through the crowds like pixies, their suits studded with white gems that made them look like they were shrouded in the night sky. They took hold of the silks and began to climb, their legs and arms gracefully hooking the fabric as they ascended. The crowds began to clap and nod in approval at the beautiful dancers as they began a perfectly synchronized dance above the floor.
“What a strange dance to include,” Lucien commented. He looked around to see that many had left the dance area, opting out of the waltz. “Well,” he said. “If I know men, and I do, the count included this dance as a challenge to us modest folk of Cragborough.” He held out his hand to me, not even looking at my face. “Let us accept the challenge.”
I took his offer, but I wasn’t particularly keen on dancing the Peros with him. It was a long dance and I was still suspicious of his condition.
He escorted me onto the dance floor and we took position beside each other, shoulder to shoulder. When the music changed tempo, it was delightfully slow, setting the pace for something to be savored. I raised my hand up to meet Lucien’s palm and we walked carefully around each other before switching partners to do the same thing. My blood froze when I found myself palm-to-palm with Father Eli. He was masked now in his long-nosed visage lined in gold, but it did not help the bugs from crawling under my skin.
"What a gift to find you here, so adapted and obedient,” he said before I spun to partner with Lucien again.
As soon as Lucien’s hand met mine, that woman with the skull mask caught my eye as she walked the outer edge of the room, staring. Seeing her stole the chill from my blood that Father Eli had left behind simply because I was so curious. She was far away, but I just knew she was looking at me and it caused me to lose a step. When I met up with Lucien again, he was looking at my feet.
“Are you well?” he asked, more out of embarrassment than concern. I knew he wanted to make a good impression on the count, wherever he was.
“Yes, sir,” he said. “My toe caught my skirt is all.”
We continued through the dance when I saw Lucien shake his head as if to brush off a bout of dizziness. The beat of the music picked up, which included more twirls and spins and I was beginning to wonder if they were getting to him.
Halfway through the song, it was clear Lucien was not well. I kept on, unsure whether to tend to him or not and risk embarrassing him when he was so clearly invested in impressing the mysterious count.
But his condition only seemed to worsen. I leaned in as we spun across the length of the dance floor behind a long line of others.
“Are you alright, Lucien?” I whispered.
He didn’t like me to call him that, but at the moment, I doubted he would notice much.
“Do not speak,” he said. “Just da—“
He could not finish his sentence.
Lucien finally succumbed to whatever it was he was feeling and hunched, clutching his stomach. He shoved me back, slapping a hand over his mouth as he darted off the dance floor and shoved through the crowds.
He’d never left me like that. He’d never abandoned me to the mercy of a crowd of strangers and now he’d done it twice in one night. I would have been alright navigating the party alone for a while more if Father Eli’s white figure had not immediately caught my attention. He saw me alone and began to move in my direction, sewing threads of discomfort down my spine. I was so confused and caught off guard, standing without a partner in a sea of people when the dance had not finished.
Before I could think of a way to escape, a body moved up behind me, pressing lightly to my back. Father Eli immediately diverted to another partner, skipping into the steps of the waltz and away from me. Time slowed to let me feel the body behind me. His chest was hard and warm and when I whipped my head to the side, I could see dark fabric over broad shoulders. His hand slid down my arm, gloved in thin, black leather with those silver talons on the ends. His fingers coiled around mine, lifting my arm out to take a position in the dance where Lucien had left it empty.
“It seems your partner has abandoned you,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper.
The stranger spun me, rejoining the dance. His other hand slid around my waist, his palm pressing to the middle of my stomach. I slid my hand over the top, my fingers sinking between his. Stepping slightly to the side, I was able to see his elk mask, but his eyes were swallowed by shadows. I could see nothing of his real face.
“I know you saw me from across the room.” His whisper was a caress.
Staring into the crowded ballroom, I tried to call on every ounce of my practiced composure only to feel my control slipping through my fingers like fine sand. The stranger twirled me to face him as the music changed tempo again. Our palms pressed together as we waltzed in a careful circle in time with the others. Still, I could not see past the darkness veiling his stare. I wished to, though. Desperately.
This man made me feel small, but not in the same way Father Eli did. As we moved, I let my eyes roam the length of his form. He wore knee-high boots in dark leather. His pants conformed to his long legs, and the black material covering his body was littered with designs in a dark blue brocade. I could see no trace of his skin. All I could see of him was the long, smoke-blue braid of hair that slithered down his back when we both spun. But even that might not have been real. Everyone, including him, was in costume for a reason.
The man canted his head. “What is your name, beautiful little bird?”
“Beautiful?” I said, finding my voice. “You cannot see my face.”
He leaned in. “I do not need to see your face.”
I smiled under my mask at the sultry tone of his words.
I pivoted again until my back was to his front, following the intricate steps of the dance. Dipping his head, the man continued to talk to me, his hot breath escaping through thin slits in his mask and tickling my neck.
“Tell me,” he said. “What drew your eyes to me when you spotted me by the hearth earlier?”
“Your mask,” I admitted. “It is terrifying.”
“You feel fear and your first instinct is to make eye contact with it?”
“Fear, my lord, has been my most constant company since I can remember.” I unconsciously rested my head back against the man’s firm chest. “When I can feel nothing else, fear is there to remind me I am still breathing. There have been times I thought I was incapable of feeling anything at all, but that dread always finds its way back to me.”
“It makes you feel alive.”
“It does. It reminds me I want to be alive. For fleeting moments, at least. I suppose it's a bit thrilling.”
His hands reached around to the front of me where I could see his gloved fingers uncoil a piece of jewelry. My eyes dropped to the pendant dangling on the ice-silver chain. Gems encased in molded metal the shape of a moth with a skull in the middle reflected the light in a rainbow of hues, taking my breath away.
The stranger first used one hand to unclasp the diamond necklace, letting it fall down my front into his waiting palm. Then he brought the new necklace up over my chest. It carried the warmth of his hands and as he clasped the chain around the back of my bare neck, my heart sighed with pleasure. Relief. Excitement. A million things ignited inside of me and as I reached up to touch the pendant hanging just below my throat with my fingertips, I remembered the emotions I’d felt in the dress shop when I found the necklace in the first place. It was the same way I was feeling now.
Slowly, I turned to face the man, forgetting the steps of the dance entirely. He was so close. I could smell the cloves and leather on him wafting toward me with his intoxicating heat. Even when I could not see his face, I could feel him and his presence rippling through the air around us. My fingers still clutched the pendant and, like a hawk watching a fish swim circles in a pond, he stared down at me with a hunger I should have feared.
And maybe part of me did fear it. But a bigger part of me believed he was a key to a lock that had kept me prisoner for so long. There were hooks in me. Gleaming, polished hooks that had pierced right through and were pulling me in. And this masked man was the lure. His coat seemed iridescent as he walked in a slow, calculated circle around me so his shadowed eyes could soak me in.
“You were in the market,” I said, recalling the figure outside the window.
“I am everywhere, Briar. But the only place that matters right now is here.”
I had not told him my name…
When he circled to my back where I could not see him again, I noticed the song in the ballroom had changed. String instruments took on a new melody that sang through the whole building like a choir of sirens. The stranger’s hand snaked around my waist, his palm pressing against my stomach once more to pull my back against his chest. His other hand wrapped around mine, pulling it to the side as we began to sway to the music.
I knew all of the dances. Lucien made sure of it. But I didn’t know this one. Still, he led me so perfectly that my feet never missed a step and our movements fell in line with the melody like the dance and song were one and the same.
When at last the stranger spun me around to face him, our bodies fit together like two links in a broken chain. With one hand in his and my other resting on his shoulder, we twirled, filling the space with our waltz like we were the only two there. The wind from the open doorways kissed my bare shoulders and neck and still, my skin was hot. My heart was racing. I could sense every bit of the stranger from his scent to the calm thud of his heart to every little twitch of his muscles under his clothes as we moved.
“Who are you?” I whispered.
“Everything you’ll ever need. Everything you’ll ever want, hate, and love.” He leaned in close, his breath caressing the shell of my ear. “I am your madness as much as you are mine. And you know it all too well.”
The music changed again, becoming slow and quiet like a whisper of what it had been all night. Someone near the stage where all of the musicians were arranged raised a glass with the reddest wine nearly overflowing from the rim. The woman with the straight, inky hair. When she stepped up, she lifted her skull mask up over her head, managing not to disturb a single strand of hair as she revealed her eerily beautiful face. High cheekbones sharper than blades held up large, almond-shaped eyes. Thin and elegant lips had a perfect, graceful curve to them and were painted such a dark shade of red they were almost black.
The stranger and I stopped and turned our attention to the woman. Oddly, he did not release my hand. I took a quick glance around the room in search of Lucien’s tailcoat but saw no sign of him.
If he were there, the sight of the man with the elk skull mask holding my hand would unravel him.
“Lords and ladies of Cragborough,” the woman spoke, her voice just as flawless as I imagined it would be. “I hope you are all having the most wonderful time on this Allhalloween night. Now, it is nearly midnight and we have more to give during this memorable time. But first, I am certain you’re all eager to meet the count himself. The one responsible for this lavish and darkly entertaining event.”
There was seductiveness to her tone that made everyone in the room go still as stone. Not one person could take their eyes off of her while she slowly paced from one side of the dais to the other on feet so nimble it was like she was floating.
“May I present,” the woman continued, raising her glass. “Count Gaelin Mortis.”
The stranger stepped away from me and I turned with a start. He lifted my hand as he moved back, inclining his head before he began to glide through the crowd toward the dais.
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