Released from Ottevar Asylum after eight hard years, Lady Emmeline returns to Nachtholm Manor to reclaim her birthright. But she has a battle on her hands—Rainart Eckhard refuses to give up his position as lord of manor, and whilst his cold attitude enrages Emmeline, his smouldering kisses leave her weak at the knees.
Who is this dangerous, enticing stranger, and what secrets does he hide? Caught in a web of desire, curses, and self-doubt, Emmeline is not only fighting Rainart for Nachtholm Manor, but for her own heart as well.
Her bed was too soft.
She’d grown used to the hard, unyielding beds of Ottevar and she couldn’t sleep in what was once her own bed. The grandfather clock in the hall had struck midnight some time ago and as tired as Emmeline was, all she could do was lie, tossing and turning and cursing Rainart for making her lose her temper, for making her feel small and young and stupid.
And the Manor was too quiet. Ottevar was never quiet. The other inmates, the truly mad ones, bayed at the moon and rattled the bars of their windows all night long, weeping and screaming in the dark whilst Emmeline cowered under her coarse blanket and sobbed into her pillow. In stark contrast, Nachtholm Manor was as silent as a grave. Every so often she’d hear the haunting cry of an owl outside her window, or the soft flutter of bats sweeping past, but rather than being comforting, the silence itched at Emmeline, making rest impossible.
Where did Rainart sleep she wondered. In her parents’ old room? In the tower of the west wing? Perhaps he didn’t sleep at all. The villagers of Nachtholm loved their fairy tales of specters and vampires; Emmeline herself had no trouble believing in phantoms. It was too easy to imagine sharp-eyed, pale-skinned Rainart Ekhard as a creature of the night, a monster from a folk tale.
“Stop it,” she whispered to herself, pushing her heavy covers aside. She’d sworn to herself never to be afraid of anything again. Not the dark, not any man, and not her own imagination.
She walked to her mirror and lit the candle in the wall sconce, staring at her reflection. Her golden curls were tousled and tangled, her blue eyes wide. She looked terribly young, she realized. No wonder Rainart had been so dismissive of her. She scowled at herself. Surely her time in Ottevar should have tempered her. It should have shown in her face that she'd survived and endured horrors and torments most people would never know.
Instinctively, she slid her hand under her thin nightgown to brush the puckered scars on her belly and thighs. She’d endured terrible pain, survived cruel torments. If Rainart saw those scars, he’d know she was no child. He’d know she was capable of anything.
A sound broke her reverie, so low she thought she was imagining it at first. Musical notes, she realized. They sounded so alien; there'd never been music in Ottevar, and she was sure her mind conjured it to relieve her of the oppressive silence of the Manor. But as she stood before the mirror, head cocked birdlike to listen, she realized it was real. Faint, but real. Someone was playing a violin somewhere.
A dreamlike sensation swept over Emmeline and she drifted to her door, opening it to reveal the darkened hallway. Memories of her mother playing the piano in the parlour stirred in her mind. Oh, it had been years since she heard music. The violin sounded louder in the hall, echoing off the stone walls, and she followed the wild, wailing music down the hall towards the west wing. Not the tower, she thought. She wouldn’t be able to hear it if the violinist was in the tower. The west wing had always scared her as a child. It was disused back then, dusty and full of skittering insects and strange creaks and moans. Her parents always laughed when she asked if it was haunted. But now, with midnight fallen around Nachtholm Manor and that weird, mournful dirge echoing down the halls, Emmeline could believe ghosts lurked here.
Treading lightly for fear for alerting the violinist to her approach, Emmeline reached the room her mother always called the rose room. The wallpaper was a dusky pink, the carpets the deep red of crushed berries. The walls were lined with botanical sketches by the hand of some long-dead tenant of Nachtholm. Why it was disused, Emmeline had never understood. It was a beautiful room. Perhaps if her parents had had more children it might have been a nursery or a playroom. But they’d only had her, and she’d been a disappointment, a torment.
She opened the door slowly, inching it just a crack, enough to let the music flood out and swamp her with its beautiful misery. She closed her eyes, happy to drown.
And then it stopped.
The door flew open violently, knocking her to the floor. She landed with a cry, the breath jolted from her. A shadow fell across her and she raised her head to see Rainart standing over her, his violin clutched in his hands as if he wanted to break it.
“Did I hurt you?” he asked. There was just a touch of tenderness in his voice, the mere suggestion of concern. She shook her head. Even if he had hurt her, she'd never admit it. “I apologise, but I don’t like being spied on,” he said.
Emmeline flushed and scrambled to her feet. “I was not spying! I heard the music...I...this is my house! I don’t have to explain myself to you!”
He growled deep in his throat, an animal noise that both thrilled and terrified her. He backed her up against the wall, bracing his free hand next to her head and leaning over her, trapping her. “I am the master in this house, Emmeline. If you think otherwise, you’re sadly mistaken.”
His closeness was breathtaking. Her heart raced, her blood burnt. She’d never been so close to a man before and she’d never even seen a man like Rainart, a man brimming with a power and authority that made her want to fall to her knees again. His eyes flashed with fury, his lips were tight with it. The heat of his anger blazed against her body, and all Emmeline could think was that if he touched her—if he kissed her—she would faint.
When she found her voice, it was hoarse and fragile. "I'm not afraid of you."
He moved back then with a bitter laugh, and she felt his sudden absence keenly, like a thorn in her side pulled out too fast. He lifted his hand as if to touch her cheek, then snatched it back again. "Oh child," he said, that flash of pain back in his eyes. "I wish you were."