Authors: Elizabeth Hoyt
Tags: #Fiction / Romance / Historical / General, #Fiction / Romance / Erotica, #Fiction / Historical, #Fiction / Erotica, #Fiction / Fairy Tales, #Folk Tales, #Legends &, #Mythology, #Fiction / Gothic, #Fiction / Romance / Historical / Regency
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For my lovely agent, Robin Rue, who got me the contract so I could write
To Susannah Taylor, who took time out of an around-the-world, once-in-a-lifetime cruise to read the first draft of
To Cindy Dees, who helped untangle the end of a rather convoluted plot and found a motivation for Valentine to boot.
To Jennifer Green, who came up with Daffodil’s fabulous name.
To Grand Champion Gioia Mia’s Femme Fatale, affectionately called Sienna by her owner, Elissa Dominici, for being the inspiration for Daffodil.
To S. B. Kleinman, who did a wonderfully thorough job of copyediting this book.
And to Leah Hultenschmidt and all the fabulous people at Grand Central for once again producing such a gorgeous book.
Now once there was a king who lived to wage war. His clothes were chain mail and boiled leather, his thoughts were strategy and conflict, and at night he dreamed of the screams of his enemies and in his sleep he smiled…
As the mother of a seven-year-old boy, Lily Stump was used to odd topics of conversation. There was the debate on whether fish wore clothes. The deep and insightful discussion over where sugared plums came from and the subsequent lecture on why little boys were not allowed to break their fast with them every day. And, of course, the infamous controversy of Why Dogs Bark But Cats Do Not.
So truly it wasn’t Lily’s fault that she did not pay heed to her son’s announcement at luncheon that there was a monster in the garden.
“Indio,” Lily said with only a tiny bit of exasperation, “must you wipe your jammy fingers on Daffodil? I can’t think she likes it.”
Sadly, this was a blatant lie. Daffodil, a very young and very silly red Italian greyhound with a white blaze on her chest, was already happily twisting her slim body in a circle in order to lick the sticky patch on her back.
“Mama,” Indio said with great patience as he put down his bread and jam, “didn’t you hear me? There’s a
.” He was kneeling on his chair and now he leaned forward over the table to emphasize his words, a lock of his dark, curly hair falling into his right, blue, eye. Indio’s other eye was green, which some found disconcerting, although Lily had long ago grown used to the disparity.
“Did he have horns?” the third member of their little family asked very seriously.
“Maude!” Lily hissed.
Maude Ellis plonked a plate of cheese down on their only-slightly-singed table and set her hands on her skinny hips. Maude had seen five decades and despite her tiny stature—she only just came to Lily’s shoulder—she never shied away from speaking her mind. “Well, and mightn’t it be the Devil he saw?”
Lily narrowed her eyes in warning—Indio was prone to rather alarming nightmares and this conversation didn’t seem the best idea. “Indio did not see the Devil—or a monster, for that matter.”
,” Indio said. “But he hasn’t horns. He has shoulders as big as
.” And he demonstrated by throwing his arms as far apart as he could, nearly knocking his bowl of carrot soup to the floor in the process.
Lily caught the bowl deftly—much to the disappointment of Daffodil. “Do eat your soup, please, Indio, before it ends on the floor.”
“ ’Tisn’t a dunnie, then,” Maude said decisively as she took her own chair. “Quite small they are, ’cepting when they turn to a horse. Did it turn to a horse, deary?”
“No, Maude.” Indio shoved a big spoonful of soup into his mouth and then regrettably continued talking. “He looks like a man, but bigger and scarier. His hands are as big as… as…” Indio’s little brows drew together as he tried to think of an appropriate simile.
“Your head,” Lily supplied helpfully. “A tricorn hat. A leg of lamb. Daffodil.”
Daffodil barked at her name and spun in a happy circle.
“Was he dripping wet or all over green?” Maude demanded.
Lily sighed and watched as Indio attempted to describe his monster and Maude attempted to identify it from her long list of fairies, hobgoblins, and imaginary beasts. Maude had grown up in the north of England and apparently spent her formative years memorizing the most ghastly folktales. Lily herself had heard these stories from Maude when she was young—resulting in quite a few torturous nights. She was endeavoring—mostly without success—to keep Maude from imparting the same stories to Indio.
Her gaze drifted around the rather decrepit room they’d moved into just yesterday afternoon. A small fireplace was on one charred wall. Maude’s bed and her chest were pushed against another. Their table and four chairs were in the middle of the room. A tiny writing table and a rickety dark-plum settee were near the hearth. To the side, a door led into a small room—a former dressing room—where Lily had her own bed and Indio his cot. These two rooms were all that remained of the backstage in what had
once been a grand theater at Harte’s Folly. The theater—and indeed the entire pleasure garden—had burned down the autumn before. The stink of smoke still lingered about the place like a ghost, though the majority of the wreckage had been hauled away.
Lily shivered. Perhaps the gloominess of the place was making Indio imagine monsters.
Indio swallowed a big bite of his bread and jam. “He has shaggy hair and he lives in the garden. Daff’s seen him, too.”
Both Lily and Maude glanced at the little greyhound. Daffodil was sitting by Indio’s chair, chewing on a back paw. As they watched she overbalanced and rolled onto her back.
“Perhaps Daffodil ate something that disagreed with her tummy,” Lily said diplomatically, “and the tummy ache made her
she’d seen a monster. I haven’t seen a monster in the garden and neither has Maude.”
“Well, there were that wherryman with the big nose, hanging about the dock suspicious-like yesterday,” Maude muttered. Lily shot her a look and Maude hastily added, “Er, but no, never seen a real monster. Just wherrymen with big noses.”
Indio considered that bit of information. “
monster has a big nose.” His mismatched eyes widened as he looked up excitedly. “And a
. Per’aps he cuts children into little bits with his hook and
“Indio!” Lily exclaimed. “That’s quite enough.”
“No. Now why don’t we discuss fish clothing or… or how to teach Daffodil to sit up and beg?”
Indio sighed gustily. “Yes, Mama.” He slumped, the
very picture of dejection, and Lily couldn’t help but think that he’d someday make a fine dramatic actor. She darted a pleading glance at Maude.
But Maude only shook her head and bent to her own soup.
Lily cleared her throat. “I’m sure Daffodil would benefit from training,” she said a little desperately.
“I suppose.” Indio swallowed the last spoonful of his soup and clutched his bread in his hand. He looked at Lily with big eyes. “May I leave the table, please, Mama?”
“Oh, very well.”
In a flurry he tumbled from his chair and ran toward the door. Daffodil scampered behind him, barking.
“Don’t go near the pond!” Lily called.
The door to the garden banged shut.
Lily winced and looked at the older woman. “That didn’t go well, did it?”
Maude shrugged. “Mayhap could’ve been better, but the lad is a sensitive one, he is. So were you at that age.”
Maude had been her nursemaid—and rather more, truth be told. She might be superstitious, but Lily trusted Maude implicitly when it came to the rearing of children. And a good thing, too, since she’d been left to raise Indio alone. “Should I go after him, do you think?”
“Aye, in a bit. No point now. Give him a fair while to calm himself.” Maude jerked her pointed chin at Lily’s bowl. “Best get that inside you, hinney.”
The corner of Lily’s mouth curled at the old endearment. “I wish I could’ve found us somewhere else to stay. Somewhere not so…” She hesitated, loath to give the ruined pleasure garden’s atmosphere a name.
“Uncanny,” Maude said promptly, having no such trouble herself. “All them burnt trees and falling-down buildings and not a soul about for miles in the nights. I place a wee bag of garlic and sage under my pillow every evening, I do, and you ought as well.”
“Mmm,” Lily murmured noncommittally. She wasn’t sure she wanted to wake up to the reek of garlic and sage. “At least the workmen are about during the day.”
“And a right scruffy bunch, the lot of them,” Maude said stoutly. “Don’t know where Mr. Harte got these so-called gardeners, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he found them in the street. Or worse”—she leaned forward to whisper hoarsely—“got them off a ship from Ireland.”
“Oh, Maude,” Lily chided gently. “I don’t know why you have this dislike of the Irish—they’re just looking for work like anyone else.”
Maude snorted as she vigorously buttered a slice of bread.
“Besides,” Lily said hastily, “we’re only here until Mr. Harte produces a new play with a part for me.”
“And where would he be doing that?” Maude asked, glancing at the charred beams over their heads. “He’ll need a new theater first, and a garden to put it in afore that. It’ll be at least a year—more, most like.”
Lily winced and opened her mouth, but Maude had gotten the bit between her teeth. She shook her piece of bread at Lily, showering crumbs on the table. “Never trusted that man, not me. Too charming and chatty by half. Mr. Harte could sweet-talk a bird down from a tree, into the palm of his hand, and right into the oven, he could. Or”—she slapped a last daub of butter on the bread—“talk an
actress with all of London at her feet to come play in his theater—and
“Well, to be fair, Mr. Harte wasn’t to know his pleasure garden and the theater would burn to the ground at the time.”
“Nay, but he
know it’d put Mr. Sherwood’s back up.” Maude bit into her bread for emphasis.
Lily wrinkled her nose at the memory. Mr. Sherwood, the proprietor of the King’s Theatre and her former employer, was a rather vindictive man. He’d promised Lily that he’d make sure she’d not find work anywhere else in London if she went with Mr. Harte and his offer of twice the salary Mr. Sherwood had been paying her.
That hadn’t been a problem until Harte’s Folly had burned, at which point Lily had found that Mr. Sherwood had made good on his promise: all the other theaters in London refused to let her play for them.
Now, after being out of work for over six months, she’d gone through what few savings she’d had, forcing her little family to vacate their stylish rented rooms.
“At least Mr. Harte let us stay here free of charge?” Lily offered rather feebly.
Fortunately, Maude’s reply was nonverbal since she’d just taken a bite of the soup.
“Yes, well, I really ought to go after Indio,” Lily said, rising.
“And what of your luncheon, then?” Maude demanded, nodding at Lily’s half-finished soup.
“I’ll have it later.” Lily bit her lip. “I hate it when he’s upset.”
“You coddle the boy,” Maude sniffed, but Lily noticed the older woman didn’t make any further protest.
Lily hid a smile. If anyone coddled Indio it was Maude herself. “I’ll be back in a bit.”
Maude waved a hand as Lily turned to the door to the outside. The door screeched horribly as she pulled it open. One of the hinges was cracked from the heat of the fire and it hung askew. Outside, the day was overcast. Deep-gray clouds promised more rain and the wind whipped across the blackened ground. Lily shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. She should’ve brought her shawl.
“Indio!” Her shout was thinned by the wind.
Helplessly she looked around. What had once been an elegant pleasure garden had been reduced to sooty mud by the fire and the spring rains. The hedges that had outlined graveled walks were burnt and mostly dead, meandering away into the distance. To the left were the remains of the stone courtyard and boxes where musicians had played for guests: a line of broken pillars, supporting nothing but sky. To the right a copse of straggling trees stood with a bit of mirrored water peeking out from behind—what was left of an ornamental pond, now clogged with silt. Here and there green poked out among the gray and black, but she had to admit that, especially on an overcast day like this one, with wisps of fog slinking along the ground, the garden was ominous and rather frightening.
Lily grimaced. She should’ve never let Indio out to play by himself, but it was hard to keep an active young boy inside. She started down one of the paths, slipping a bit in the mud, wishing she’d stopped to put on her pattens before coming outside. If she didn’t see her son soon, she’d ruin the frivolous embroidered slippers on her feet.
She rounded what once had been a small thicket of
trimmed trees. Now the blackened branches rattled in the wind. “Indio!”
A grunt came from the thicket.
Lily stopped dead.
There it was again—almost an explosive snort. The noise was too loud, too deep for Indio. It almost sounded like… a big
She glanced quickly around, but she was completely alone. Should she return to the ruined theater for Maude? But Indio was out here!
Another grunt, this one louder. A rustle.
Something was breathing heavily in the bushes.
Good Lord. Lily bunched her skirts in her fists in case she had to leg it, and crept forward.
A groan and a low, rumbling sound.
She gulped and peeked around a burned trunk.
At first what she saw looked like an enormous, moving, mud-covered
, and then it straightened, revealing an endlessly broad back, huge shoulders, and a shaggy head.