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It had been no marriage at all.
Mariah crossed the well-groomed park as she had done every day for the past few months, her walking boots leaving a damp trail in the grass. Tall trees stood alone or in small clusters, strewn about the park in a seemingly random pattern that belied the perfect organization of the estate.
Donbridge. It was hers now. Or should have been.
No one will ever know what happened that night.
The maids had blushed and giggled behind their hands the next morning when she had descended from her room into the grim, dark hall with its mounted animal heads and pelts on display. She had run the gauntlet of glassy, staring eyes, letting nothing show on her face.
They didn't know. Neither did Vivian, the dowager Lady Donnington, for all her barely veiled barbs. Giles had left too soon suspiciously soon. But no one would believe that the lord of Donbridge had failed to claim his husbandly rights.
Was it me? Did he sense something wrong?
She broke off the familiar thought and walked more quickly, lifting her skirts above the dew-soaked lawn. She was the Countess of Donnington, whether or not she had a right to be. And she would play the part. It was all she had, now that Mama was gone and Papa believed her safely disposed in a highly advantageous marriage.
Lady Donnington. In name only.
A bird called tentatively from a nearby tree. Mariah turned abruptly and set off toward the small mere, neatly oblong and graced by a spurting marble fountain. One of the several follies, vaguely Georgian in striking contrast to the Old English manor house, stood to one side of the mere. It had been built in the rotunda style, patterned after a Greek temple, with white fluted columns, a domed roof and an open portico, welcoming anyone who might chance by.
A man stood near the folly a shadowy, bent figure she could not remember ever having seen before. One of the groundskeepers, she thought.
But there was something very odd about him, about the way he started when he saw her and went loping off like a three-legged dog. A poacher. A gypsy. Either way, someone who ought not to be on the estate.
Mariah hesitated and then continued toward the folly. The man scuttled into the shrubbery and disappeared. Mariah paused beside the folly, considered her lack of defenses and thought better of further pursuit.
As she debated returning to the manor, a large flock of birds flew up from the lakeshore in a swirl of wings. She shaded her eyes with one hand to watch them fly, though they didn't go far. What seemed peculiar to her was that the birds were not all of one type, but a mixture of what the English called robins, blackbirds and thrushes.
She noticed at once that the folly seemed to have attracted an unusual variety of wildlife. She caught sight of a pair of foxes, several rabbits and a doughty badger. The fact that the rabbits had apparently remained safe from the foxes was remarkable in itself, but that all should be congregating so near the folly aroused an interest in Mariah that she had not felt since Giles had left.
Kneeling at the foot of the marble steps, she held out her hands. The rabbits came close enough to sniff her fingers. The badger snuffled and grunted, but didn't run away. The foxes merely watched, half-hidden in the foliage. Mariah heard a faint sound and glanced up at the folly. The animals melted into the grass as she stood, shook out the hem of her walking skirt and mounted the steps.
The sound did not come again, but Mariah felt something pulling her, tugging at her body, whispering in her soul. Not a voice, precisely, but
Her heart stopped, and so did her feet. You're imagining things. That's all it is.
Perhaps it would be best to go back. At least she could find solace in the old favorite books she'd begun to read again, and the servants would leave her alone.
But then she would have to endure her mother-in-law's sour, suspicious glances. You drove him away, the dowager's eyes accused. What is wrong with you?
She dismissed the thought and continued up to the portico. There were no more unexpected animal visitors. The area was utterly silent. Even the birds across the mere seemed to stand still and watch her.
The nape of her neck prickling, Mariah walked between the columns and listened. It wasn't only her imagination; she could hear something. Something inside the small, round building, beyond the door that led to the interior.
She tested the door. It wouldn't budge. She walked completely around the rotunda, finding not a single window or additional door. Air, she supposed, must enter the building from the cupola above, but the place was so inaccessible that she might almost have guessed that it had been built to hide a secret a secret somebody didn't want anyone else to find.
Perhaps this was where her prodigal husband stored the vast quantity of guns he must need to shoot the plethora of game he so proudly displayed on every available wall of the house.
But why should he hide them? He was certainly not ashamed of his bloody pastime, of which she'd been so ignorant when she'd accompanied him to England.
Defying the doubts that had haunted her since Giles's departure, she searched the portico and then the general area around the folly. Impulse prompted her to look under several large, decoratively placed stones.
The key was under the smallest of them. She flourished it with an all-too-fleeting sense of triumph, walked back up the stairs and slipped the key in the lock.
The door opened with a groan. Directly inside was a small antechamber with a single chair and a second door. The room smelled of mice.
That was what you heard, she thought to herself. But she also detected the scent of stale food. Someone had eaten in here, sitting on that rickety chair. Perhaps even that man she'd seen loitering about the place with such a suspicious air.
She stood facing the inner door, wondering if the key would fit that lock, as well.
Leave well enough alone, she told herself. But she couldn't. She walked slowly to the door and tried the key.
It worked. Though the lock grated terribly and gave way only with the greatest effort on her part, the door opened.
The smell rolled over her like the heavy wetness of a New York summer afternoon. A body left unwashed, the stale-food odor and something else she couldn't quite define. She was already backing away when she saw the prisoner.
He crouched at the back of the cell, behind the heavy bars that crossed the semicircular room from one wall to the other.
The first thing Mariah noticed was his eyes black, as black as her husband's but twice as brilliant, like the darkest of diamonds. They were even more striking when contrasted with the prisoner's pale hair, true silver without a trace of gray. And the face
It didn't match the silver hair. Not in the least. In fact, it looked very much like Lord Donnington's. Too much.
She backed away another step. I'm seeing things. Just like Mama. I'm
With a movement too swift for her to follow, the prisoner leaped across the cell and crashed into the bars. His strong, white teeth were bared, his eyes crazed with rage and despair. He rattled his cage frantically, never taking his gaze from hers.
Mariah retreated no farther. She was not imagining this. Whoever this man might be, he was being held captive in a cell so small that no matter how he had begun, he must surely have been driven insane. A violent captive who, should he escape, might strangle her on the spot.
Her mouth too dry for speech, Mariah stood very still and forced herself to remain calm. The man's body was all whipcord muscle; the tendons stood out on his neck as he clutched the bars, and his broad shoulders strained with tension. He wore only a scrap of cloth around his hips, barely covering a part of him that must have been quite impressively large. Papa, for all his talk of her "starting a family," would have been shocked to learn that she knew about such matters, and had since she first visited Mama in the asylum at the age of fourteen.
The prisoner must have noticed the direction of her gaze, because his silent snarl turned into an expression she could only describe as "waiting."
"I beg your pardon," she said, knowing how ridiculous the words sounded even as she spoke them. "May I ask do you know who you are?"
Anyone else might have laughed at so foolish a question. But Mariah knew the mad often had no idea of their own identities. She had seen many examples of severe amnesia and far worse afflictions at the asylum.
The prisoner tossed back his wild, pale mane and closed his mouth. It was a fine mouth above a strong chin, identical to Donnington's in almost every way. Only his hair and his pale skin distinguished him from the Earl of Donnington.
Surely they are related. The prospect made the situation that much more horrible.
"My name," she said, summoning up her courage, "is Mariah."
He cocked his head as if he found something fascinating in her pronouncement. But when he opened his mouth as if to answer, only a faint moan escaped.
It was all Mariah could do not to run. Perhaps he's mute. Or worse.
"It's all right," she said, feeling she was speaking more to a beast than a man. "No one will hurt you."
His face suggested that he might have laughed had he been able. Instead, he continued to stare at her, and her heart began to pound uncomfortably.
"I want to help you," she said, the words out of her mouth before she could stop them.
The man's expression lost any suggestion of mirth. He touched his lips and shook his head.
He understands me, Mariah thought, relief rushing through her. He isn't a half-wit. He understands.
Self-consciousness froze her in place. He was looking at her with the same intent purpose as she had looked at him studying her clothing, her face, her figure.
She swallowed, walked back through the door, picke...
Entertaining - dark side of the fairy tales.
A bit too slow (some parts) but enjoyable nevertheless.
I was very interested in reading this book for two reasons: I had never read a fantasy romance where the hero was a unicorn and I had never read anything by this author. Read morePublished on May 3, 2009 by Cybercliper