Actress Sarah Hayes has never forgotten her steamy night with London’s most eligible bachelor, Sebastian Commin, Earl of Deane. But she has to be content with her memories since their very different social statuses make being together impossible. Sarah’s only luxury is being able to admire Sebastian from afar when they are both guests at a dinner party. But soon the two lovers find themselves mixed up in trying to solve and explain a mystery involving an Imnada shape-shifter. Can these two focus on the mystery or will they get caught up in their own romantic scandal? Read the excerpt below to dive into the connection between Sarah and Sebastian.
Sharrow House, Yorkshire, February 1816
Two weeks to herself. Two weeks to spend in blissful relaxation amid the luxury of a sprawling country estate. Far away from noisy crowds, clogged streets, choking fogs, and snippy backstage gossip. Two weeks to decide the rest of her life.
Sighing, Sarah pulled the gaudy bracelet from her reticule. The charms clicked against one another as she turned it this way and that, the gemstones catching and refracting the afternoon light across the carriage walls. Everything about the ornament screamed priceless antiquity, from the intricate links of heavy gold to the ornate silver clasp. It was a treasure fit for a Roman empress or a Byzantine courtesan. Perhaps it harkened further back to the earliest age when the true Fey still walked freely within the mortal realm and craftsmen learned their art from the gods themselves. Could it have graced the wrist of a faery queen? Or been given to a mortal bride by her handsome Fey lover? The possibilities staggered the imagination—and hers required much to knock off-kilter.
Dismissing the sudden churn of her stomach as last minute excitement, she grimaced. Not exactly normal everyday wear for a Billingsgate fishmonger’s daughter…though for an Italian princess, it would be perfection itself.
Princess Sarah Orsini.
It definitely had a regal ring to it.
Still, she shouldn’t have accepted the gift. It spoke of a relationship bordering on sordid, and she’d spent the years since her debut on Covent Garden’s stage making very sure none could ever accuse her of even the hint of an impropriety. Sarah Haye was no barque of frailty to be passed from man to man like a prize. She might be an actress—she’d never be a whore.
But Christophe had pressed the bracelet upon her when she’d told him about her trip to Yorkshire as a token of their soon-to-be-announced betrothal. A presumption on his part since she hadn’t actually agreed, but after a month, she knew to smile blandly and accept. It was easier than fighting through the pouting and the pressure. But accepting it and flaunting it were far different. Until she made up her mind, she’d keep the bracelet tucked away out of sight. None would ever know. The proprieties would be met.
“How the girls in Thames Street with their crates of cod and herring would laugh if they knew I was being courted by royalty,” she commented with a wry smile.
Her lady’s maid eyed the bauble with a disdainful sniff. “It’s a queer ugly thing, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
Hester’s dour fustiness was almost as fine an acting job as any role Sarah performed. The prim, black-garbed gargoyle had been an accomplished actress once upon a time. Retired now, she offered her employer an air of Quakerish respectability as maid, companion, and, more often than not, interfering mother hen.
“Gives me the collywobbles just looking at it,” she added with a shudder.
“It is a bit…ostentatious.” The bracelet slithered off Sarah’s wrist and into her lap with a heavy thunk. “And the clasp is loose. I’ll have to have it repaired when we return to the city.”
“Leave it to a havey-cavey garlic eater to give broken bits of jewelry as a gift. Why not a pair of dirty socks or a used handkerchief and be done with it?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Sarah slipped it back into her bag as the carriage drew to a stop and the door opened.
“Watch yer step, ma’am,” a footman advised as he assisted her out. A good thing or she might have fallen flat on her face. This was her splendid country estate? This was her pampered cosseted two weeks of pleasure?
Mud holes and wheel ruts pocked the gravel sweep in front of a rambling house which loomed stark and gloomy over the overgrown laws. Vines grew up the pale bricks and twined round two of the pepper pot chimneys. In summer, the upper windows would be curtained in leafy green. But in the dead of February, there was naught to see but a tangled lattice of spindly brown sticks with a few dead leaves rattling in the wind sweeping down off the moors. And what on earth was going on with the round tower at the western corner of the building? Piles of broken lumber, bricks, and dirt crushed the shrubs while glassless windows gaped to the weather and crows perched on the edge of a hole in the roof.
“A horrid mess, isn’t it?” Hester commented as she alighted beside her charge.
While Sarah marveled, a man strode out from behind a scraggly yew hedge shielding the stables from the main house. He removed his hat to run a careless hand through his dark hair, his clothing dusty from travel.
Had Sarah been of a fainting nature, she might have swooned. Had she been of a timorous nature, she might have fled in humiliation. Instead, their eyes met, and she merely groaned inwardly and began counting down her two weeks of purgatory.
* * * *
Sebastian Commin, the Earl of Deane liked to think of himself as logical, even-tempered, and always in control. Qualities that had served him—and the entire Commin family going back centuries—very well. But right this moment, he felt anything but calm, cool and collected.
“What is she doing here?” he finally blurted.
James, Lord Duncallan looked up from the sheaf of papers lying spread upon the table. The two of them had slipped away from the other guests to convene in the study. Now, a half bottle of brandy later as the afternoon light faded, Sebastian could keep quiet no longer.
“Lady Melissa?” Duncallan asked. “She’s my cousin. I had to invite her. Family duty and all that rot.”
Sebastian gritted his teeth and tried not to murder his host as he paced, worrying at his signet ring in nervous agitation. “Not your bloody cousin. Miss Haye…the actress. Who invited her?”
Amusement hovered around Duncallan’s mouth. “My wife. They met at a literary salon. She’s far more interesting than the docile featherbrains Katherine’s normally stuck with over after dinner sherry and regurgitated gossip.”
Sebastian would agree. Sarah Haye was witty, charming, beautiful, and elegant. She was surprisingly well read and at times bluntly plain spoken. And he’d spent the past six months avoiding her like a case of the plague. “She’s an actress, James. She works on the stage.”
Duncallan’s amusement blossomed into a smug smile. “I’m aware of the definition of actress, Seb. But she’s hardly a rope dancer at Vauxhall. She’s been invited to half the houses in Mayfair. Yours among them as I recall.”
And hadn’t that invitation been the worst mistake of his life? He’d been intrigued by her performance on the stage. Dazzled by her when she swept into his drawing room afterward with the regal presence of a queen. And completely terrified when he woke naked beside her the next morning with a pounding head, a dry mouth, and a stolen heart.
“If the extremely respectable Lord Deane accepts Sarah Haye within the opulent halls of Deane House, surely none will care whether an impoverished baron invites her to the wilds of Yorkshire for a few weeks,” Duncallan continued. “Besides, our kind need to stick together in these uncertain times, whether we’re born to palace or hovel, don’t you think?” he asked with a mischievous gleam in his eyes.
Sarah was Other? Sebastian should have sensed the mage energy moving within her, but he’d been too busy experiencing a far baser urge; a mad insatiable passion that overwhelmed his good sense, and a longing that even all these months later still dragged him from his dreams sweating, breathless, and hard as a rock.
He’d accuse Sarah Haye of hunting for a wealthy protector, but she’d never once sought him out after that night. Never pressed her attentions further or looked to take advantage of the situation. In fact, she’d retreated into a glossy impervious distance. And, shocked by the almost visceral feelings she’d provoked in him after the span of a few short hours, he’d been relieved. Duty to his family prohibited marriage. His own honor, ragged as it was, excluded anything less. He’d known it then and hadn’t cared. He knew it now and it hurt like a bullet to the chest.
“If she’s Other, where do her gifts lie?” Sebastian asked, then immediately regretted it when Duncallan chuckled.
“For someone so averse to Miss Haye’s presence, you’re certainly curious about her.”
“Duncallan…” Seb warned through a clenched jaw.
The young baron put up a hand in appeasement, though his expression hinted at interrogations to come. “Calm down, I’ll say no more—for now. Actually, her powers are very similar to yours, though where you can mold perception and shape awareness in one person, she has the ability to reach an entire audience. It’s what makes her such a talented actress.”
“Is she a danger to our work? Gray would never forgive us if we compromised the safety of the group.”
“No. If she knows anything about the Imnada, it’s as bedtime stories. We’re safe enough.”
If only the same could be said about Sebastian.
Duncallan shuffled through his papers. “As I was saying, our contact in Dublin has alerted Gray to some alarming developments among the Other there. He’ll help as he can but it’s too early for the Imnada to reveal themselves. A premature confrontation between Fey-born and shapechanger could throw everything we’ve worked for into jeopardy. Gray has suggested he come forward only if there’s no other choice.”
To the mortal world who remained blissfully unaware of the otherworldly beings living among them, Gray de Coursy, known among the ton as the Ghost Earl, was the disgraced soldier grandson of the aging Duke of Morieux. To those closest to him, he was far more; dispossessed heir to the five clans of Imnada shapechangers, a hunted rebel leader seeking to bring peace between Imnada and Fey-born Other…and the victim of a dark and horrible curse.
Sebastian had known him as all of the above. From their introduction at Eton as fellow frightened nine year olds away from home for the first time, to the shocking day last year when Gray broke every vow of his people to trust Seb with his secrets and his sins.
In an out of the way coffeehouse in an out of the way corner of London, Sebastian had sat across from Gray, awestruck and half-disbelieving, as he revealed the existence of the Imnada, a race of shapechangers borne beyond the stars who’d hidden for thousands of years from a world who’d sought their destruction. Then Gray leaned closer and in a voice harsh with fury, he’d confessed to his own terrible secret. Beginning with a savage massacre on the eve of Waterloo and the black spell cast in retaliation by a dying sorcerer. Ending with Gray’s enslavement to the daily turn of the sun—a painful, involuntary shift to his animal aspect—and the exile that had cost de Coursy his family, his home, his clan, and his future.
Sebastian had been amazed, then appalled, then he’d agreed to assist Gray in any way he could. For the shy boy he’d known. For the haunted man he pitied.
I’ve been meaning to talk to you about a possible new recruit to the cause,” Duncallan commented. “He’s a bit out of the ordinary, but I know if Gray gave him a chance, Lucan would prove his worth a thousand times over.”
“Would he?” Only half-listening, Sebastian crossed to the study window, flicking back a curtain. A pair of women dressed in heavy fur-lined cloaks strolled in company among the overgrown hedges, but he didn’t recognize either of them. Sarah, on the other hand, he’d know anywhere and dressed in anything…or nothing.
Damn it. He should let it go. Move on. Quit thinking about her. Quit speaking before he said something stupid. “You never answered my question.” Shit. Too late.
“What question?” Duncallan asked.
“Why is Miss Haye here?”
“By the gods, Seb,” his host answered, exasperation sharpening his tone. “I’ve a houseful of guests. You never have to speak two words to the woman, I promise. What the hell does it matter to you why she’s here?”
Sebastian scrambled for purchase against a slippery slope of his own making. He dropped the curtain back in place. Collapsed into a nearby chair, suddenly tired as he’d never been and with a head that felt as if a mule had kicked it in. “It doesn’t. Merely curious.”
“Damned odd thing to be curious about.” Duncallan gazed on him with a speculative gleam in his eye and Sebastian could almost hear his wheels turning. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you suffer a tendre for the woman.”
“But you do know better, don’t you?” he said in a haughty tone designed to brook no further discussion.
Duncallan was not so easily thwarted. “Can you imagine your mother’s reaction if she discovered you took up with an actress? She’s been planning your wedding since you came out of leading strings. Who’s her latest pick for your wife? Lord Swathing’s? She comes with a handsome dowry, but she’s an awful flirt.”
Sebastian pulled himself together. James was right. The house was crawling with guests. There was no reason he couldn’t avoid Sarah. It had worked for six months. What was a few days?
The tight pang in his chest eased, and Sebastian relaxed enough to cross a booted foot over his knee, lean back in his chair, and smile as if he’d not a care in the world. He was the Earl of Deane. The end of a long line of respectable, responsible men from a well-connected, influential family. He owed it to all of them to marry well and, Fey-born gifts notwithstanding, there was no place in his life for a Covent Garden actress. Sooner or later, his dreams would fade, his ardor would cool, and she would be no more than a pleasant memory.
“Finding me a bride gives my mother something to do besides browbeat the servants and redecorate Coldham…again.”
“But is she finding you a woman you can marry or a woman you can love?” Duncallan said quietly.
The crushing, twisting wrench in Sebastian’s chest returned while his headache doubled in strength. How many times had that very question run through his brain in the past six months? How many times had he shoved it as far down as he could without retching? He gave a thin cool smile and consigned his so-called friend to the devil.
“She is finding me a countess.”