Corbridge, England, 1813
Andalin stared at the sketch of the Dark Rider. Papa had bought it for
five pence on one of his trips and pinned it to the shelf of their small lending
library. All those who frequented their shop stopped and commented on
the crude image of the infamous baron turned highwayman. Andalin
memorized all the tidbits they shared. Then the customers left like always,
on to exciting places Andalin could only dream about.
She picked up her duster, knowing work still needed to be done, and
trailed it along the few ribbons and things purchased from a haberdashery
at the nearby market town only to be resold here. Various sizes of saltglazed
vases lined one wall, opposite the odds and ends. Instead of giving
her pride in Papa’s trade, they seemed to press against her, trapping her in
the small room for yet another day.
Andalin’s senses dulled, and her mind wandered to the stories of the Dark
Rider. The man terrorized the villages of Northumberland, so she should
certainly be grateful Corbridge had been spared thus far. She imagined the
Dark Rider storming Papa’s shop and stealing her away, only for a rich duke
to swoop in and rescue her. Of course, love would spiral from the heroic act,
but the greater good would surely be in saving Papa from insolvency.
A heavy sigh escaped her lungs, only to catch on her lips when a shadow
passed outside the door. It was silly for her to jump to conclusions, but
suddenly she wished Mr. Young, Papa’s elderly assistant, was not absent--
especially with Papa out peddling his wares in a nearby town.
The door swung open, and Mr. Crow sauntered in. He was not as
intimidating as the Dark Rider was presumed to be, but Mr. Crow carried
an air of domineering importance. Andalin was never easy in his presence.
“Good afternoon,” Mr. Crow said, dipping his head as if she were some
great lady. He wore his new suit, she noticed—one of several he’d gone all the
way to London to have made and fitted. He looked the part of a real gentleman,
and despite what others whispered about him, he acted the part too.
She released her pent-up breath, but her muscles remained tense. “Is
there anything in particular you came to purchase, sir?”
“I’m here for a pleasure call,” Mr. Crow said, oblivious to Andalin’s
In the back of her mind she heard the voices of her neighbors contradicting
Papa’s opinions and urging her to encourage Mr. Crow’s attentions.
“You must have heard I’ve a second carriage now, Miss Durante. My
pub here and my new inn in Tyndale are thriving.”
“Yes, I heard.” Andalin busied herself with dusting again, intrigued
despite her better judgment. Mr. Crow was tall, broad, and generally
considered handsome. He wore his wavy curls combed forward, with long
sideburns, in the Titus fashion he said was all the rage amongst high Society.
Mr. Crow cleared his throat and checked the door again to ensure they
were alone. “I’m looking to buy an estate, and I need a wife to help me
maneuver through the social circles. I could have anyone, anyone at all. Do
you take my meaning?”
Andalin’s heart pounded both from nerves and disbelief, but she kept
her face impassive. “You require a wife.”
“Yes.” Mr. Crow’s lips curled with pleasure. “I am a generous man,
willing to condescend for the right woman. Miss Durante, I’d like to offer
for your hand.”
Andalin lowered her gaze and fingered the handle on her feather duster.
She did not love Mr. Crow, but he was the most important man she knew,
and he flattered her vanity. Marrying him meant a life outside the store
and a new world of possibilities. If she wanted to leave the store, marriage
seemed the only solution. “My father would not like it.”
“Your father is an imbecile.”
Andalin could not hold back her annoyance. “My father is nothing
of the sort.” Papa always cautioned her to hold her tongue, but surely she
must defend his name. “He doesn’t care for you, and that is all.”
“Forget him. I will speak to him. I only wanted you to adjust to the
idea before our wedding.”
She did not like how he assumed there would be a wedding. At the same
time, she could hardly believe he would choose her for his wife. Indeed, if
the thought did not turn her stomach, she might consider it. “You don’t
want me. I am a lowly tradesman’s daughter, a nothing in this world.”
“That may be true now, but I shall have you.” His tone changed from
persuasive to forceful. “You are too refined for this life, and I shall show you
off as the prize you were meant to be. I will buy you gowns and jewels, and
every man will look at me with envy.”
Andalin took a step back against several bolts of cloth. Mr. Crow’s eyes
gleamed with insatiable hunger. Entertaining any thought of accepting
such a proposal now seemed ludicrous. She remembered Mr. Young saying
he would return from his deliveries before dinner, but that was a few hours
away yet. Mrs. Young usually looked in on Andalin, but the woman was
feeling poorly today. To be alone with Mr. Crow now seemed as formidable
as any highwayman.
Mr. Crow closed the gap between them and then lifted his large hand
to her face. She held her breath as he ran his thick fingers against her cheek.
“Soon, my little dove, I will take you away from all of this.”
Greenhead Village, Northumberland, England
Ellison watched from his place on the main floor through an open window
smeared with dust as Hezekiah Durante rode up to Thirlwall Castle.
The middle-aged man wore plain clothes rumpled from travel, and the hair
beneath his hat was peppered with gray. He tied up his horse and lifted his
hand to knock when the rotting door of Thirlwall swung in on its own.
Ellison’s lips twitched in humor.
Lord Kerrigan’s generosity in temporarily extending the use of his castle
did not include the upkeep of the place. Apparently, his friend possessed too
many holdings to oversee all of them with equal attention. Traces of vermin
and decaying masonry testified that a vacant house never fared well. Even
Ellison’s own neglected home, Braitwood Hall, had not fallen into such
extensive disrepair. However, he would not complain about the conditions
of Thirlwall Castle when it provided the ideal secluded meeting place.
Ellison closed the glass pane and made his way to his guest. He’d spent
many years tracking down Mr. Durante, and finally he would have answers.
He noiselessly stepped into the foyer, startling the poor tradesman when he
turned and saw Ellison.
Mr. Durante’s eyes widened. “The Dark Rider,” he said breathlessly.
Ellison smiled menacingly. He hated that name. “One and the same.
And I am to assume you are Mr. Durante?”
The man removed his hat and gave a curt bow. Oddly enough, his face
did not register fear—just wariness. Everyone in England believed Ellison
to be the baron-turned-villain. “I am surprised, even impressed, you came.”
Mr. Durante’s grim expression did not falter. “Your business proposal
“As it should, if you have any love for money. Follow me, and we
shall discuss the details.” Ellison led the way to the earl’s table, where he’d
brought fare from the local inn for them to dine on. “Please, you’ve had a
hard ride. Eat while we talk.”
Mr. Durante’s eyes gave him away—he couldn’t believe Ellison did not
just strike him a blow and rob him for all he had, which wasn’t much,
based on Ellison’s inquiries. He could have laughed, but he needed to lure
Mr. Durante into a feeling of security. The man watched Ellison sit before
taking a seat himself. Ellison pushed over the plate of battered chicken legs
and a bottle of Madeira brandy-wine.
“I am serious about wanting to invest in your salt-glazed stoneware. Your
designs are unique and beautiful. I heard the Duke of Northumberland has
several of your vases on display at his home in Alnwick.”
“A craftsman must know his market.”
“And a good craftsman knows that in a rural location with little
resources, a deal with me could set him up for the rest of his life.”
Mr. Durante picked at the food, clearly wanting to expedite his business. “I don’t have a love for money like you’ve suggested. It’s a necessity.”
“Oh? Beyond just bread and a roof overhead?”
“Oh yes, your daughter is quite the beauty, I hear.”
Mr. Durante’s calm demeanor faltered, and he clenched his jaw. “How
did you hear of my daughter?”
Ellison’s patience waned, and he yearned to pelt the man with all the
questions he’d collected for the last decade. He pulled out his knife and
sharpener from his boot and began pushing the blade against the stone.
He’d found this activity aided him when bargaining. And while he did not
want to overly intimidate Mr. Durante, he did want the man to respect the
power that came from Ellison’s position.
“I didn’t plan to share all my cards, Mr. Durante, but you must
understand I know everything there is to know about you. I know your
circumstances are drastically reduced from the inheritance you would have
received had you not abandoned your family.” The color drained from Mr.
Durante’s face, but Ellison pressed on. “I know your daughter is all you
have left and you would do anything to give her the life you once had.
Oh, you’ve tried well enough. She’s as well-read as a Cambridge graduate,
and her speech is as refined as that of the gentry, but she’s still a poor little
tradesman’s daughter without a dowry or a future.”
“What do you want from me?” Mr. Durante asked, pushing to his feet.
Ellison touched the blade of his knife gently with his hand, testing its
sharpness. A trickle of blood was enough to satisfy him. “Believe it or not,
I am the kind of man you want on your side. This”—Ellison held up the
knife—“is a harmless tactic to uphold my reputation and no more. If you
are capable of trusting me, we can help each other.” He flipped the knife
around so the handle faced Mr. Durante. “Here. If you agree to work with
me, you must be on your guard.”
Mr. Durante stared at him for a long moment, not moving to accept
the proffered gift. “You are not the only one who did his research before
this meeting. Your knowledge of Andalin surprised me, but only that. I
could share a few secrets of yours, if I was so inclined.”
Ellison raised his brow with impressed wonder. “Excellent. I think this
equal footing will serve us well.”
Mr. Durante’s lips turned up into a half smile, and he finally accepted
the knife. “What are your terms?”
On the road northwest of Corbridge
Papa had returned from his trip only to tell Andalin he was leaving once
more—this time with her. There had been no explanation, no questions
asked—only time enough to pack her few possessions and absolutely no
books. Their destination was Braitwood Hall, the lair of the infamous Dark
Rider. Something awful must have happened to cause Papa to act so out of
They fled like wanted criminals in the dim light of the late evening in
a wagon rattling from their hurried pace.
The small village of Corbridge, which functioned as a simple midpoint
on the map for travelers, was the only home Andalin had ever known. All
the memories of her mother pulled her back, while the dream of setting
course to a new, exciting place beckoned her forward. Never had she been
invited on a single trip. Never had she left Corbridge.
She had no reason to fear she would not return. Papa traveled a great
deal, usually leaving her in the care of Mr. and Mrs. Young. However, Papa’s
odd behavior told Andalin this trip would be different than she imagined.
This was likely not the best time to bring up the proposal she’d received
from Mr. Crow.
“Oh, look. The ocean. I have always wanted to see it,” Andalin said
in jest, pointing to the River Tyne flowing near the section of road they
traveled. Papa’s mouth did not so much as twitch in humor. He radiated
tension, which pained her more than the jolts in the road. Only after many
hours spent bouncing along in their wagon did Papa begin to relax and desire
“Would you like to be a lady, Andalin?” Papa took in her profile and
then turned his attention back to driving the horses.
The question seemed rather peculiar. Andalin wrinkled her nose at the
image her mind conjured. “A lady would not appreciate the finer points of
travel by wagon.”
Still no smile.
“Very well,” Andalin said. “I will admit I sometimes dream of being a
fine lady with fancy dresses and food I do not prepare myself.”
Papa was a hard worker and was ambitious. She was proud of the way
he provided for her and for Mama, when she was alive.
“I have always wanted more for my girl.” He finally smiled at her,
softening the worry lines on his tanned face for a moment.
She smiled back, hoping to warm his mood. “Lest you think I am
unhappy, let me assure you that as a shopkeeper’s daughter, I have plenty
of prospects. I am a bookkeeper, maid, cook, and a well-read student of
history, geography, and”—Andalin gave a laugh—“gothic novels. A lady
could never have the diverse opportunities I do.” She gave Papa a sidelong
glance. “Why would you ask such a silly question?”
“Oh, no matter. I started thinking on it when I arranged my meeting
with Lord Cadogen.”
Andalin shivered. “The highwayman, you mean. I hardly think he
should be our destination.”
Papa seemed vexed. “He is hardly a criminal.”
“Do not pretend you are unaware of the rumors,” Andalin argued. “It’s
enough to cause Marybeth’s father to hide their valuables in a different
place every night. And Edith’s parents refuse to travel the main road out of
town. Why, even children like Saber and Lily know the stories of the Dark
Rider.” Andalin had often been amused by the little ones who shadowed
her around the store, talking of the Dark Rider and playacting the stories
“We talked about that name.” Papa shook his head. “It is not proper.
He is a baron and deserves to be called by his title. You are not like the
other girls from Corbridge. You were raised with better manners.”
She knew she was different only because her mother had been a fine
lady before marrying Papa. Her mama had insisted against the slang of
the lower class and encouraged Andalin’s studies. “I promise I will use the
utmost deference when we are in his presence. I only seek to caution you
and beg you reconsider selling your wares to a man who feels he is above
the law. It is not safe.”
Papa paused before finally admitting, “When I met Lord Cadogen,
he offered me an arrangement I cannot ignore.” He turned and glanced
behind him as if he could see some evil force all the way back in Corbridge.
“Now, more than ever, it’s important I take him up on it.”
She waited for him to explain their hurried escape, but when he didn’t,
her mind conjured up several plausible reasons—their lack of money the
most likely motivator.
A rock in the road caused her to bounce and come down hard. She
wondered what it would be like to travel in a comfortable closed carriage.
Her underside was sore, and each dip in the road jarred her bones. She
shoved her loose black curls back inside her mobcap and tied her bonnet
Papa took his eyes off the dirt road to see how she managed. “We’ll be
there soon enough.”
Squinting at the endless path, Andalin shook her head. “You must be
mistaken. Thornton Way is a full day ahead of us. Did you not see the sign
for the town?”
Papa wiped his sweaty brow beneath his cap with a handkerchief before
returning it to his pocket. “We’re taking the shortcut through the Black
Fear broke her composure. “It’ll be dark soon! There are thieves and
murderers who lurk in the trees. You cannot be serious!” A quick nod of his
head doubled the panic she felt. It was the final straw. “You drag me from
my home with nary a word, you insist on meeting the Dark Rider, and now
we must endanger ourselves in the forest. What is going on?”
Papa gave her a stern look. “I told you not to ask.”
Andalin tried to swallow, but the dirt the wheels kicked up made her
throat feel dry and scratchy. “I’m afraid, Papa. I hoped you were running
toward something, but now I know you must be running away.”
Papa surprised her by pulling the reins back, slowly bringing them to a stop.
He turned to face her. “Not from something—from someone.”
Shivers ran down her back. “Who?”
“I dare not tell you until after I speak with Lord Cadogen. Please do
not keep asking. I know how uncommonly curious you are, but I must insist on this.”
A million questions froze on her lips. If it was hard to remain silent on
the subject before, now it was nearly impossible.
Time seemed to crawl, though Papa kept a brisk pace. A subtle fork
in the road loomed ahead. As they drew closer, she saw the right was
undoubtedly the preferred route. It was wider, smoother, and strangely brighter.
The left choice resembled more of a path carved through the forest with a blunt knife. Papa hesitated for only a moment before pulling his wagon hard to the left and into the thick trees.
Andalin gave her papa another sideways glance. “Papa, the sign said
Papa’s face told her he wasn’t ignorant to the possibility of danger. “I
thought my Andalin wanted adventure.”
She knew the choice of direction had nothing to do with her whims.
Though, she could not deny the stories she often read fed her desire to see
the world and experience new things. Perhaps she should clarify that she
wanted a safe adventure.
As they traveled deeper into the Black Forest, the road became
treacherous with tree roots snaking near the surface and ruts that caused
their wagon to pitch this way and that. She held tightly to her seat, her
knuckles white from her fierce grip. She worried for their precious glassware
in the wagon bed, protected only by straw and the thin wood of the crates.
The shades of dusk seemed to melt into the trees. “How much
Papa didn’t take his eyes from the road. “Don’t know, exactly.”
“Have you never been this way, then?”
Papa adjusted his hat. “I’m not one to believe old wives’ tales, but the
Black Forest is thick enough for all sorts of mischief. I’ve avoided it until
now. But it’s the quickest way, and that is necessary for this trip. I wouldn’t
chance the safety of my daughter or my wares otherwise.”
Andalin laughed and then choked on the dust the horses kicked up.
“Thank you for putting me before your wares when you listed us together.
Corbridge will never question our bravery or adventurous spirit after this!”
“Never mind,” Papa replied. “It’s a risk, plain and simple.”
“Indeed. The shadows are certainly eerie, aren’t they?” There was
nothing between the thick trees but the last glimpse of daylight.
“Tell me one of your stories,” Papa urged. “The children seem to gather
like hens to hear you spin a tale.”
“These days they’re all stories about the Dark Rider. I’ve collected quite
a few from travelers. Everyone coming from Thornton Way, or near to it,
seems to have heard this or that about the man.”
“Lies and gossip,” Papa said.
Andalin pursed her lips. “Maybe, but you must agree they’re fascinating.
Did you hear the latest about Sir John Peltier, who was found unconscious
on the ground with the Dark Rider standing over him? He was just about
to finish Sir Peltier off when the men at the local tavern rode by, causing
him to flee.”
“Sir John Peltier?” Papa chuckled. “You speak of him as if you know
him. I’d wager you’ve never even heard his name before nor since.”
Andalin furrowed her brow. “No, but that really is not the point. I know
you have an agreement with Lord Cadogen, but there are obvious reasons to
avoid him. They say he killed his own family. He’s known far and wide to
be the most skilled swordsman in all of England, and his skill is not just for
sport like a true gentleman’s is. He carries a short sword with him everywhere,
though he is no soldier. Truly, I’m surprised his peers haven’t revoked his title
and shipped him off to New South Wales with the rest of the criminals.”
“If you think the working class is entertained by such stories, then I
imagine the upper crust is too.”
“His stories are exciting. Most of the intrigue is about what’s under
his mask. People speculate whether he’s hiding scars or burns or some
deformation. I’ve even heard tell he’s part animal.”
“Enough.” Papa shook his head. “I agree there is something very strange
about him, but he’s only a man.”
“All right, but the stories I tell are even more fantastical, so you had
best think of another topic of conversation.”
“Very well,” Papa said. “I’ve been meaning to discuss your future. It’s
time you found a husband.”
Andalin shook her head and whispered, feeling like the trees had ears.
“Might we continue to discuss the Dark Rider instead?” She’d rather speak
of him in the growing dark in the middle of a thief-infested forest than of
marriage. Thoughts of Mr. Crow’s vile touch haunted her memory. No, she
was not prepared for such a commitment.
“You’re of age now.”
Andalin turned her head away from her father. “Yes, but you need me in the store.” She reached for her garnet necklace, gifted to her by her mama, and covered the gem with her hand. Holding it usually comforted her, but the last thing she wanted was to be parted from Papa.
Papa patted his daughter’s knee. “You’re a beautiful woman now. I have
done my best to protect you, but I am getting on in years—”
“You don’t have enough years under your belt to consider yourself old,
so that won’t convince me in the slightest.”
At five and forty, her Papa was as spry as any younger man. She could
not bear to think of him coming home from work to an empty house
and a cold hearth. The loneliness would age him faster than the years
“This might not be the place to speak of it, but I feel the time will
approach faster than you are ready. You’ll have to do your best to prepare
yourself.” Papa’s words drifted on the breeze and seemed to be carried away
into the thick darkness that surrounded the trees. Andalin wanted to call
them back and wish them unsaid. Papa was right; whenever the time came
for her to marry, it would be too soon.
Any desire Andalin had for travel quickly waned as the woods seemed
to enclose upon them. The forest’s name seemed fitting yesterday, but today
it felt even more foreboding to her imagination. Andalin thought she saw
someone’s face between two trees, but when she looked again, there was
She had the sensation of being watched, and her breathing quickened.
She searched the tree line and saw no proof of anyone else on the road. But
no matter how she tried to push it from her mind, the feeling that they
were not alone remained.
After a few minutes she sensed her papa’s discomfort as well. Her nerves
were taut, so she attempted to tell Papa another story. This one was about
the Dark Rider and a pirate. But for once, talking did not distract her from
When a soft sprinkle of stars appeared between the trees, Papa stopped
to light a lantern and attach it to their wagon. It put off enough light for
them to continue traveling, but at a much slower pace. Soon Andalin’s
arms became tired of their fierce grip on her seat, but the fear of falling
overcame her desire to rest her arms. An owl hooted, startling her.
“Andalin,” Papa said, barely loud enough to be heard over the horses.
“If anything happens, I have an extra knife under the seat.”
“You think we will be attacked, then?” she whispered back.
Papa’s eyes did not leave their diligent watch on the path. “The cover of
darkness and a generally empty road make us a vulnerable target. But fear
can play all sorts of tricks on the mind. It could be nothing.” He rolled his
shoulders as if shaking the tension from his body.
She wanted to believe Papa could protect them, but she sent up a silent
plea to heaven anyway. One of her hands reached for her necklace again
out of habit, and she tried to remember her earliest memories of her mama
to keep her mind clear.
The first howl of a wolf was not as alarming as the several that chimed
in afterward. The howls seemed to last a full minute, and then suddenly
there was silence. Papa brought the reins down hard and hollered at the
horses, causing them to bolt down the road. Andalin’s bonnet flew off, and
she held on with all the strength she possessed. The path took a wide turn,
but at the speed they were going in the dark, neither of them saw the tree
down over the path until they were nearly upon it.
Papa pulled back hard on the reins, but the wagon tilted severely, and
he slid right off and tumbled onto the forest floor. Andalin’s body flew in
the same direction, but her hold on her seat kept her from falling too. She
grabbed at the reins just before they slipped out of her reach as the wagon
righted itself. She pulled back with all her might, and before they hit the
fallen tree, the wagon miraculously stopped.
Andalin’s panic did not, however. Several musket blasts, men’s voices,
and a commotion she could not see commenced behind them in the near
“Papa!” Andalin yelled.
“I’m just here. Stay where you are; I will come to you.”
Their lantern had been extinguished but still hung from the hook,
despite their wild ride. Thinking quickly, Andalin lifted the wagon seat
and fumbled around for the flint box. It took a few hurried attempts, but
she finally managed to light the lantern again.
When she held the lantern up to find Papa, the sight before her drew
an unnatural scream from her mouth. A large black stallion reared up on
its back legs; the rider, clad in black, with a mask covering the top half of
his face, held on and fought for control of his beast.
“The reins!” Papa called, his voice now close as he reached the side
of the wagon. Their team lurched, but Papa raced forward and grabbed
the harness of the horse nearest him. Andalin frantically reached for the reins with the hand not holding the lantern. As fast as it happened, it was over. The log blocking their path now aided in keeping their horses contained.
The Dark Rider—it had to be him, for he fit the description perfectly--
sat astride his grand horse, looming over them.
Flustered and trembling, Andalin turned away from his intimidating
form and called out to Papa, “Are you hurt?”
“Knocked around a bit, but I am well enough.”
The Dark Rider directed his horse closer to her. “Do you need assistance,
miss?” His kind voice belied his frightening appearance.
Andalin found she could not speak.
Papa limped forward, his words soothing Andalin’s shock and fear. “We
are safe now, dear. You can come down.”
Andalin let out her breath. She was not a coward. She ungracefully
swung herself down from the wagon seat, causing her thick curly hair to
cover her face in a tangled web. She batted the hair away from her eyes
and pulled the hood of her cloak over her head, wondering if she’d lost her
mobcap with her bonnet and whether it was worth looking for in the dark.
She moved to stand beside her papa.
“How can we repay your kindness?” Papa asked with a solemn bow to
Andalin grimaced at her papa’s gratitude toward a man who had done
nothing but frighten them.
“It was not hard to chase them away,” the Dark Rider said, his voice
absent of any hostility.
Andalin’s eyebrows lifted, and she was curious as to what exactly he’d
protected them from. “Wolves?”
“Men,” he said, turning to answer her, “with wolves.” He dismounted
then and, with Papa’s help, easily cleared the fallen tree from the path.
She shivered thinking of what could have transpired without the Dark
Rider’s surprise arrival, though that wasn’t to say they were any safer with
his company than without. She moved to climb back into the wagon but
gasped when a strong arm lifted her up from behind. The masked man
stood near enough to the hanging lantern that when she turned, she met
his unnerving gaze. She sat down hard in her seat, her heart racing.
The Dark Rider remounted. “These woods hold dangers greater than
those we’ve witnessed tonight. You had best get a move on.”
Andalin finally found her voice. “We thought we were being followed.”
Though, as she said it, she wondered if it were the highwayman himself
after them. “How much farther until we leave the forest?”
“It’s a good hour’s ride, and then the road will fork again. Hold to the
left, and another mile will bring you to my home, where someone can tend
to your wounds and you can have lodging for the night. I will make sure
no one else passes this way.”
By the way her papa held himself as he climbed into the carriage, she
could sense his pain. But he graciously bowed his head and said, “Thank
you, your lordship. We will gladly sleep indoors after such a night.”
The strange man urged his horse back into the woods and disappeared,
gone as suddenly as he had arrived.
Andalin pulled a blanket from under the canvas of the wagon and
placed the folded mass behind the small of Papa’s back. She cringed when
she noticed the tear on his sleeve and saw the torn flesh, some parts clear
to the bone. She swallowed back the bile rising in her throat. She reached
across and took the reins from his fingers. He groaned but did not resist.
She drove the team the rest of the way, growing more tired than she had
ever been in her life.
A superbly crafted and fully entertaining novel that combines elements of romance and suspense, "The Masked Baron" by Anneka R. Walker will prove to be an enduringly popular and appreciated addition to community library General Fiction collections. It should note for personal reading lists that "The Masked Baron" is also readily available in a digital book format (Kindle, $5.99) and as a complete and unabridged audio book.
With questions neither asked nor answered, Andalin Durante’s father whisks her away during the night to Braitwood Hall, the home of Ellison, Baron Cadogen, aka the masked Dark Rider of local myth. There she is to become the Baron’s ward—taught dancing and social etiquette and be presented in Society as a lady in search of a suitable husband. At first, the masked Ellison is intimidating, brooding, and secretive, but as time goes on Andalin sees a softer side and craves his company as he comes to need hers. One night she follows him on one of his midnight sojourns into the Black Forest and learns more than she would wish to know.
The sinister forest backdrop is atmospheric and the mystery surrounding the Baron and his lost family creates a diverting, gothic read with supernatural elements. The romance arcs towards a natural conclusion, but the author’s techniques add tension which makes the inevitable very beguiling. The manor house staff members are all integral to the story. Themes of self-forgiveness and trust are dealt with compassionately, integrated into a very well-thought-out tale. Recommended for readers who love a clean romance with a difference.
Romance, suspense, and the supernatural effectively intertwine in this captivating Regency from Walker (Love in Disguise), which pairs an inquisitive beauty with a reclusive baron. Andalin Durante’s life is turned upside down when her poor tradesman father sends her to live with the Dark Rider, an infamous baron-turned-highwayman. Heirless, the Dark Rider, Lord Ellison (“Ellis”) Cadogen, intends to make Andalin his ward, planning for her to eventually inherit his manor, but is taken by her unexpected beauty. For her part, Andalin’s initial fear of Ellis is soon allayed as she finds him surprisingly kind and frequently absent on nightly rides through the Black Forest in Corbridge, England. Ellis piques Andalin’s curiosity and she spends her time alone in the manor searching for clues to his past, discovering that Ellis is on a quest to avenge the death of his parents and the disappearance of his twin sister 10 years earlier, both of which are somehow connected to a woman called Sephira, the witch of Baltar. The engrossing central mystery and electric chemistry between the spirited characters keep the pages turning. This rousing romance is sure to win Walker new readers.
Marion’s fingers trembled with anticipation. A positive outcome at tonight’s musicale would set the tone for her first Season in London.
“There, there, Mary Berry, it will be over soon enough,” her father whispered. “Remember, it does not matter what anyone here thinks.” He gave her tightly clasped hands a comforting pat.
The assembly hall continued to fill to its capacity. It was overheated, and Marion felt the pull to find a dark corner in which to hide.
Her mother, Lady Gwen Watt, held up her oriental fan to mute her voice. “Don’t be naive. What they think is everything.”
The slight motion of her mother’s head and pointed eyebrows drew Marion’s attention to the distinguished Lady Mowen seated on the row behind them. The woman managed to make even her mother nervous, though Marion knew her by reputation only. Several other persons of affluence and rank were in attendance as well. By the end of the night, she was supposed to know whom to avoid and whom to impress.
“Miss Marion Watt will now play ‘Piano Concerto no. 24 in C Minor’ by Mozart on the pianoforte.” The announcer made her name sound very droll and unimportant. Marion made her way to the large ebony instrument in the front of the room, only too aware of the many eyes following her.
She took her seat and poised her fingers expertly atop the ivory keys. This was her comfort—what she lived for. It was the people who unnerved her. The music hall wasn’t a courtroom, but she was on trial. Her jury was exceptionally well-dressed, without a straight face among them. Her talents would be measured, analyzed, and compared to those of the other eligible ladies of the ton. The verdict: unknown.
Marion’s gaze momentarily flitted from face to face, where it unconsciously settled on the strikingly handsome Lord Everton. This was bad luck indeed. It seemed even he, as unacquainted with her as the rest of them, intended to scare her with his brooding eyes and popular opinions.
Was it her imagination, or did his expression dare her to give him a reason not to leave? Lord Everton was notorious for never staying longer than necessary at any social function. Gluing her eyes to the glossy wood of the instrument before her, she almost laughed. Even the best of musicians could not keep his attention. It was unlikely his sensibilities inclined toward music at all. She wouldn’t dream herself capable of impressing the Season’s most sought-after bachelor. But just the same, it was a challenge she accepted. If Lord Everton did appreciate her performance, then she would know the depth of her talent.
She plucked the first notes softly, with practiced grace. After several measures, the melody erupted, and Marion lost herself in the beauty the composer intended. Years of training and devotion poured through her. Her hands danced in symphony to the music they created. The song progressed toward a difficult passage.
Generally, Marion’s steady fingers never faltered, but her concentration broke when suddenly a tall figure stood to leave. Out of the corner of her eyes she connected the identity with Lord Everton. Every head turned to follow the infamous bachelor as he left the room.
She had not been good enough. A tremble of embarrassment caused her to miss a note and then another. Horrified, she tried to regain the flow of the music, but her nerves stole away every ounce of her confidence. It was all she could do to finish her selection and fumble back to her seat beside her parents.
Despite her father’s whispered attempts to placate her with his compliments, her mother’s frenzied fanning made Marion squirm in her chair. She was relieved when the last piece concluded, and her father escorted her mother to retrieve some light refreshments. Marion thought about joining them but froze in place when she found herself within earshot of Lady Mowen and her companion. It was pointless to ignore their conversation, as the two made little attempt to subdue their voices.
“Because her mother married outside the peerage and reduced her circumstances, Miss Marion’s only hope for a successful marriage of means falls on her own shoulders. And with a face so shy and unremarkable, her abilities to impress a gentleman at all are brought into question.”
Marion saw Lady Mowen’s thick cheeks bounce with the nod of her head. “I daresay her sad performance tonight demonstrates a lack of poise and skill that comes rather naturally to most young ladies these days. I’m surprised her mother, as sister to the Duke of Bellcrest, did not see properly to such things.”
“I quite agree,” the first woman said in a voice loud enough for half the room to overhear. “I predict Miss Watt’s first Season will prove fruitless. It’s very unfortunate for the entire family.”
Marion’s heart plummeted in her chest. In one night, her hopes of a good marital match had evaporated. She’d not only embarrassed herself but her mother, who had painstakingly poured years of time and money into preparing Marion for her entrance into society.
She blinked back moisture from her eyes and committed to never play her music in public again. Burying her talent hurt more than the reality that she was unqualified to marry well. She’d grow to be an old maid if it meant avoiding a cut from a respected gentleman like she’d experienced tonight. She did not need love. But she did need her music. Now she had neither.
“Don’t listen to a word they say.” Marion turned to see Lady Clara Hampton, Lord Everton’s very own sister, take the seat beside her, a small plate of refreshment in her hand. Clara gave her a timid but encouraging smile. “They always critique the newest out in Season, and their reports are rarely positive or entirely accurate.”
Like her brother, Clara was often the subject of drawing-room conversation. It was common knowledge her dowry was unmatched, but her reserved nature prevented her from speaking to almost anyone. Marion could relate to her struggle with shyness and had often wished to know her better. But she could not think of a reason Clara would suddenly approach her. They had been introduced but once.
“Thank you,” Marion said, suppressing her surprise, “but I fear they are accurate in their summation of me.”
“Then we are alike and perhaps destined to be good friends. I cried myself to sleep for an entire week after I took my bows. But let my tears have been for the both of us, and pray, forget tonight.”
Clara was a tall, petite, and feminine version of her brother, though her fair features weren’t as striking. But surely Clara’s resemblance to her brother did not make them the same in character. There was a kindred look in her eyes, and Marion sensed the making of a wonderful friendship.
If only Clara wasn’t the daughter of an earl. Their circles crossed only occasionally with her own mother’s family connections.
“My cheeks feel permanently stained with embarrassment,” Marion admitted, ducking her head. “Perhaps it will improve my unremarkable face.” Her attempt at joviality made Clara giggle.
“Yes,” Clara said, inspecting Marion’s features, “I believe your blush is very becoming. I have the mind to pinch my own cheeks for want of color.” Tension slowly slipped from Marion’s shoulders. At least someone found her acquaintance worth having.
“Are you sure you ought to sit here?” Marion blurted without forethought. Her cheeks burned with shame.
“I find myself very happily situated, thank you,” Clara said, her voice sounding oddly confident.
The significance of Clara’s friendship and affluence did not escape Marion. It was a merciful gesture at a timely moment. She thought she might salvage some of her evening after all, but then Clara brought up her brother.
“I wish my brother would have stayed longer. He’s been terribly restless since returning from the West Coast of Africa.”
“Africa?” Marion asked. It was the polite thing to do. “William spent the last year assisting in the clearance of ships.” When Marion’s expression remained blank, Clara elucidated. “To suppress the slave trade. It’s all very noble. We thought he’d miss Christmas, but now that he’s home, it’s like he’s still absent.”
Marion’s mother didn’t like her discussing matters of state, but she devoured any tidbits she happened to overhear. “Travelling aboard a warship sounds rather fearsome.”
Clara nibbled on a bite of cake and then swallowed before saying, “I don’t much care for politics, and William calls me ignorant for it. It’s my father who holds the family seat in parliament, but my brother campaigns where and when he can.” She leaned forward to whisper, “He’s a Whig. His forward-thinking can be quite unsettling, which is exactly why he needs to spend more time at little functions such as this.”
“To distract him?” Marion suggested weakly. Clara’s head bobbed up and down. It was strange the way Clara confided in her as if they had known each other for years. Indeed, it felt as if they had.
“My parents are convinced marriage will settle him as he prepares to accept his future role as earl,” Clara said. “Only, it seems not a soul tonight came close to tempting him.”
Her words were not meant as a personal attack, but Marion’s heart was in a vulnerable state. The sting in her chest buried deep inside her. Why she should feel such contempt toward a man she’d never spoken to, nor aimed to make as a personal acquaintance, confused her greatly. It was a hard truth to realize she was not enough to even tempt a man.
One year later
The doctor left the Watts’ London townhome with a solemn expression. Marion had been strictly prohibited from hearing the final prognosis. She knew her parents wanted to protect her, but if she was old enough to spend another year in a futile search for a husband, then she was old enough to know the truth about her mother’s health. Marion tucked her chocolate- brown hair behind her shoulder and, in an act of defiance, pressed her ear against the crack in the door of her parents’ room.
“But she’s my only child. I want to give her everything.” Marion recognized her mother’s voice coming from her bed.
Mr. Watt’s footfalls were audible as he moved to his wife’s side. “Oh, my love, you must take your health seriously. The fact of the matter is, the late nights of the London Season are too taxing for you.” “I assure you, I will be well. This is only a spell.” “You and I both heard the doctor,” her father argued. “Your heart is weak, and your body needs periodic rest. I’m not saying we need to return home just yet. We’ll reduce the number of invitations we accept. Only, unless we find someone to act as companion to Marion, I fear this will be her final Season.”
Marion clutched the collar of her nightgown. A weak heart? A few months before, a terrible fever had nearly claimed her mother’s life. Surely they would not lose her now. Marion had barely endured the first crisis, and now her own heart thudded with fear.
“No,” her mother said. Her voice was strained with emotion, but resolute. “I will die first. We will come again and again until I see her married and comfortably situated.”
Stepping away from the door, Marion tiptoed back to her room, where she slipped inside. Emotion from the news dragged a choking sob from her throat. She was sure her mother would deny herself rest until Marion was married. After a fruitless first Season, there wasn’t any guarantee this one would be different. It was already early March. She was risking her mother’s heart with every delay.
The only solution lay in securing a match as soon as possible. Marion reviewed her few prospects in her mind. Two gentlemen called regularly, but, in all honesty, she wasn’t exactly encouraging them. At nineteen, she should be ready for any marriage, but she still hoped for the more uncommon love match like her parents’. She had promised herself as a youth to marry only for love or to grow old searching. But connection or not, she would try harder for her mother’s sake.
She took a fortifying breath and marched to the small writing desk by her bedroom window. She pulled out her journal and made a succinct list. She would no longer hide in the shadows at the dances. She would engage in conversation when spoken to by a gentleman. And she would finally let her mother have full rein with her wardrobe. She blew on the wet ink and sat back with a sigh. It was not going to be easy to secure a husband. What were the chances someone else would be in as great a hurry as she now was?
Nothing was more enjoyable to a young lady of society than a ball. Even Marion anticipated the rush of being spun around in a dance, if the music was adequately performed. Unfortunately, Harriet Barnsworth’s coming- out yielded more of a crush than a dance. Marion’s perfect opportunity to enact the first stage of her plans now seemed rather pathetic, considering her goals were to not hide and to dance more.
Marion found herself pushed closer to her mother, who was listening to an acquaintance’s opinion of the evening.
“Did you see the color of Miss Barnsworth’s dress? Soft pink, and what a daring neckline for a family in mourning.” Marion had forgotten the gossipmonger’s name. But she too had noticed the way every gentleman’s head turned toward the lovely lady.
“If not for the circumstances, the mourning period would surely have seen its full fruition,” her mother said. “Being that the death of Miss Barnsworth’s brother forced the family to delay her debut until so late in the Season, it is understandable that every expense be taken to make up for it.” Leave it to Marion’s mother to diplomatically address the woman’s attack.
Marion tired quickly of the discussion of the Barnsworths and absently searched for Clara before remembering she’d not come to London this year. Marion drifted from her mother’s company in search of another dear friend, Agatha Grimes. The swarm of people forced her to stand alone like a wallflower whilst she waited for a path to open. A wave of body odor drifted her way, and she wrinkled her nose.
While desperately fanning herself with her nearly empty dance card, Marion scanned the room again. She had danced twice already, but not many gentlemen gave her a second glance. She hoped Mr. Mason would be in attendance, but it seemed her favorite escort hadn’t been invited.
She was lucky to be there herself. Marion’s father was a respectable gentleman, but it was her mother’s connection as sister to the Duke of Bellcrest that had earned their invitation tonight. Having an untitled father and a smaller dowry to her name put Marion at the disadvantage in settings such as these.
The crowd opened, and Marion made a beeline for Agatha. She was sitting exactly where Marion had seen her last at a small table, having refreshments with another friend, Beatrice Garner.
“Marion! Your peach gown becomes you very well. Come and sit with me.” Agatha took Marion’s hand and pulled her toward the open seat beside her.
“Only for a moment, Agatha. My mother will be upset if she sees me avoiding the dancing for long.” Truly, she yearned to just sit and visit, but more than ever she felt a fervent urgency to meet as many gentlemen as possible.
“Nonsense. Beatrice and I are avoiding the dancing, too, and aren’t we a happy pair?”
Agatha was a sweet and pretty thing but despised large parties. And Beatrice was six and twenty with a quiet elegance but was often neglected by the gentlemen simply because of her age. Yet, Marion’s friends did seem happy, which only encouraged her to take the seat by them.
“Are you unwell?” Beatrice addressed her with a nurturing eye. Marion’s shoulders were tight with worry for her mother’s health and her own resolution to secure a husband. Mr. Mason’s absence only added to those unsettled feelings. If news of her desperation got out, she would risk ostracizing herself from eligible gentlemen. She required her friends’
good-natured conversation to change the tone of the evening for her. “A little overheated to be sure, but I am perfectly well.”
“It is good you are in health, or you would have missed the social engagement of the Season,” Agatha said. “Miss Barnsworth’s turnout will go on the record, and we’ll hear of nothing else for weeks.”
Beatrice agreed. “The Barnsworth family will be quite pleased with tonight’s success.”
Agatha rolled her eyes. “They thrive off attention. It’s a good job they live here, or we’d have to force their swollen heads through the doors at the end . . .” Agatha’s voice faded as she caught sight of the new arrivals entering the ballroom.
Marion followed Agatha’s line of vision. The Earl of Morley, his wife, and his son, the Viscount Everton, were announced. Marion wished Clara was on the arm of her distinguished brother. But it wasn’t the absence of Clara that stole the crowd’s eye. It was the blond dandy. Through Clara, Marion had learned much of their family. The earl held many estates and a small fortune. He was also deemed a significant personage in parliament. But his son commanded his own attention.
Since last Season, his title and wealth had become a secondary topic of conversation to the subject of his shockingly colorful attire and charming looks. More and more gentlemen attempted to mimic his fashion. Lord Everton captivated people wherever he went. Unfortunately, society hadn’t the same effect for him.
“I’ll wager he’ll stay no more than half an hour,” Agatha said. Beatrice’s back remained ramrod straight, even though she shook her head emphatically. “He’ll stay at least two hours if he has any manners at all. It is one thing for a man of his station to choose to make an appearance, but if he does, he must set a prudent example. It’s his responsibility to society.”
Agatha shrugged. “He doesn’t care for rules. He’s the most sought-after man in the marriage mart, and yet no one really knows anything about him. It’s clear he feels no responsibility to anyone but himself. He might be devastatingly handsome, but a man who’s turned down as many well- connected girls as he must not have a wit of sense.”
Marion turned back in her seat to show she did not include herself as one of Lord Everton’s fans. She did, however, feel obligated to speak the truth. “He is intelligent, Agatha, whatever sources may tell you otherwise.”
Agatha’s eyes lit with a spark of curiosity. “Oh, but of course. You and his sister, Clara, were quite close last Season before she married. And what is your opinion of our popular guest?”
“No opinion. I’ve scarcely had more than one or two conversations with the man. Only, I know from Clara he did very well at university. He is not only well-read but speaks Latin, French, and Italian. He’s clearly not dimwitted, but that does not mean he is kind or generous.”
It was all true. Because of her time with Clara, Marion had almost forgiven the man for ruining her love for performing on the pianoforte and was beginning to think him almost decent. But, as he wasted no time at all in ignoring her at every turn, she agreed to do the same. Everyone else might find him the breath of perfection, but she had built up immunity to his class of gentlemen. She was searching for a respectable and grounded young man, not pompous charm.
“No, no it doesn’t.” Agatha said quite conclusively. “And I am inclined to be rather harsh on the subject of his character. He makes a scene with his striped waistcoat and gilded gold buttons, flirts shamelessly, and then leaves before anyone can condemn him of any wrongdoing. Any man who can be both elusive and crowd-stirring cannot be trusted.”
Beatrice smoothed out a wrinkle in the tablecloth. “He is an anomaly, but if you ask me, he’s acting a part. I’ve seen it many times amongst the aristocracy.”
The last thing Marion wanted to do was discuss more of Lord Everton. She had rested long enough, and it was time to rejoin the dancing. She didn’t wait for Beatrice to expound on her strange theory before excusing herself.
Following the edge of the wall, she made her way toward her mother again. It was easier to gain introductions with her mother by her side. She seemed to know absolutely everyone.
Marion stopped mid-step when she realized she was in the direct path of the notorious viscount himself. She would find a way around him. There was no way she would put herself in a position to be snubbed. She’d long known she was beneath him in station, but her connection to Clara made the continued rejection somehow personal.
She turned around only to discover she’d been boxed in by a tight group of young people. Their bodies, whose mouths were in a constant state of chatter, sealed off her escape route. With the wall to one side and the dancing on the other, the only course was the path to Lord Everton.
Agatha had been right to say he never stayed at a party long. It was his signature to leave his company wanting. While Marion was not quite the timid girl of last Season, she wasn’t about to make a fool of herself either. She would not move until he either moved along or left entirely.
Her gaze drifted warily to her mother across the room. The white plume in her mother’s hair waved above the heads in front of her. When the dancing shifted, she realized her mother was speaking with Mr. Mason. Anxiety poured through Marion’s veins. She didn’t love Mr. Mason. Not yet anyway. But she had put him off too many times, and she needed to secure him before he lost interest. He was an amiable man. She’d practically weighed on paper his many attributes and discovered they were compatible enough to be happy.
She saw her mother shake her head, and in return Mr. Mason nodded and walked away. Drat! Would he be able to find her in such a crush?
Lord Everton’s voice dripped rich like syrup, and those around him hungrily ate up every word. Marion fisted her hands at her sides and tried to tune him out. The longer she waited, the more distance Mr. Mason put between them.
“Excuse me, but I see a lady in need of rescuing. Miss Watt is doomed to continue as a wallflower if I don’t offer myself as partner to her.” Lord Everton’s voice could no longer be ignored. His words and her name somehow connected, and in the most rude and unflattering way. Her normally pale cheeks flamed with embarrassment.
Lord Everton’s green-striped jacket caught her eyes first as he placed himself in front of her. His flashy attire faded from her vision as she became arrested by his bright-blue eyes. Her breath almost left her, which was to be expected when faced by such a man. She stilled herself emotionally for further degradation. In referring to her as a wallflower, he had publicly humiliated her and could limit her partners for not only this night but potentially the rest of the Season. His opinion weighed more than gold.
“Miss Watt.” Lord Everton bowed. “You look rather lonely without my sister by your side. Perhaps a dance will cheer you up.”
She hesitated in responding to him. She felt Lord Everton’s friends staring her way, and now the group behind her turned to see who Lord Everton favored. Well, favor was too generous a description--pity fit better. “Come now,” Lord Everton said, closing the gap between them and lowering his voice. “One dance with me, and you will not lack a partner for the rest of the night.”
Considering the source, it was not the most attractive offer, nor was it humbly made. Ignoring the strange sensations in the rhythm of her heart, she pursed her lips tight and leaned toward him as he had done to her.
“One dance with you, and I might lose taste for it altogether.” Her eyes popped open wide at her own words. His eyes mirrored hers, in equal disbelief. A year of ill will toward this gentleman, and her thoughts had bounced out of her mouth without permission.
“Headache, you say?” Lord Everton announced loudly. “Well, we cannot have that. You must retire immediately and rest. It will only grow worse in this noisy chaos. Come, let me escort you to your dear mother.”
Reluctantly, Marion accepted Lord Everton’s arm. Now it seemed every path opened to her. People moved aside for Lord Everton like the parting of the red sea. Marion rather liked the rare feeling of importance, despite its connection to the man whose arm she now clung to.
“Are you not fond of dancing, Miss Watt?” Lord Everton asked as they walked.
“Oh, very much so. It is my choice of partner I am fickle about. Not that either matters now that you have ended my night prematurely.” She could feel his blue eyes on her, but she kept her gaze straight ahead.
“I think Clara would be disappointed you don’t care to stand up with her brother.”
“Clara would be disappointed that her brother publicly insulted her friend.” She locked eyes with her mother as they approached, and her mother beamed with pride. Marion hated to disappoint her. “Thank you for the use of your arm, Lord Everton. Good night.”
Her curt words did little to affect the poised smile on Lord Everton’s face. Apparently, one casualty was nothing to him. He bowed to her and her mother, and then, with an air of grace, turned and walked away.
Marion heaved a sigh. Good night, Lord Everton. And, Mr. Mason, wherever you are.
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