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London Fairy Tales

From New York Times and USA Today best-selling author Rachel Van Dyken comes her epic regency saga the London Fairy Tales Series.

Age Rating: 18+

Note: This story is the author’s original version and does not have sound.

 

London Fairy Tales by Rachel Van Dyken is now available to read on the Galatea app! Read the first two chapters below, or download Galatea for the full experience.

 


 

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1

SUMMARY

A regency retelling of Sleeping Beauty…”I release you…” were the last words Rosalind remembered before her world went black. Stefan, the future duke of Montmouth, no doubt thought his words were welcomed but he couldn't have been more wrong.With less than six weeks left, Rosalind has stopped believing in the fairy tale, and the stolen kiss that would awaken her from her worst nightmares. Resigned to her fate, she waits for the curse to run its course.Stefan, a man as handsome as a pagan Norse god, expects to marry her, but he was sorely mistaken. Rosalind was no docile female. With the fortitude of a sailor shipwrecked, Stefan decides to lay siege to the greatest prize, Rosalind's heart.

That, if then I had waked after a long sleep, will make me sleep again;

and then, in dreaming, the clouds me thought would open and show riches ready to drop upon me;

that, when I waked I cried to dream again.

– William Shakespeare

STEFAN

London, England

He made the grave mistake of looking into her chocolate brown eyes and cursed himself all over again for having such fanciful feelings. She wasn't his to fawn over, but someone else's entirely.

Despite the obvious, he was in love or at least it had felt that way ever since he first set eyes on the girl the year before. But what good was his love when her heart fully belonged to someone else?

She was betrothed to his brother, and Stefan hated himself for it, because it meant that for the rest of his eternity he had to watch them laugh and smile together.

And all the while, a part of him would die each time her eyes gazed at his little brother instead of him.

There were three of them. Three brothers in all, and their father, The King, as they always referred to him, spoiled them greatly.

His youngest brother had set eyes on Elaina at a dinner party and fallen madly in love. Just as the rest of the family had. With long golden hair and deep brown eyes, she was every man's dream.

And the youngest son — the one without the title, the one who was to be a vicar — had won the ultimate prize. The one thing that money and a title could not buy — love.

Stefan looked away. How much pain could a heart take before it was ripped in two? Could unrequited love kill a person's soul with one breath?

His body tensed when she breathed; his breath hitched when she spoke, and his passion ignited when she laughed.

Curse her, and curse his brother Fitz.

It was in moments like this he wished he were more like the second son, James Gregory, without a care in the world. But no, Stefan was too blasted serious for that.

He was the heir — the Marquess, living in his own version of Purgatory.

“I will be touring India,” Stefan suddenly announced knowing it was poor timing but needing it to be said, nonetheless. His father had made arrangements after seeing Stefan mope around for the last year.

It was easily decided upon that a tour of India was just the thing — though at times, Stefan wondered if his father hoped to be rid of him if only to push away the heartache at seeing his eldest son so depressed.

The room went dead silent; his father turned a knowing eye to him. Always perceptive, his brother Fitz gave a brief nod. “Is that what you think is best considering your position, Stefan?”

“I do.” Short, clipped tones fell out of his mouth.

Elaina tilted her head and smiled. “What are you about Stefan? You aren't the type to go around seeking adventure. Wouldn't you be much happier here? Where it is safe? And you can live a quiet happy life?”

If he hadn't already made up his mind, her insulting assessment of his character would have done it for him. “I've made arrangements.”

His brother Fitz squinted through his looking glass. “Stefan, this isn't like you. By Jove,” he laughed, “you're afraid of your own shadow!”

The room erupted into laughter. All save, his brother James, who with a gleam in his eye said, “I hope you find what you're looking for, brother. And do try to make it back in one piece. You wouldn't want the title passed down to someone such as I.”

Stefan Hudson, Marquess of Whitmore and future Duke of Montmouth left that following week and never looked back.

ROSALIND

Rosalind Hartwell felt like she was up for auction to the highest bidder.

One minute she was engaged to the most ridiculous dandy she had ever laid eyes on and the next thing she knew, a man with darkened skin and sandy blonde hair announced he was the rightful Marquess of Whitmore.

Her head was spinning as she grabbed for champagne and winced when she saw the display of male beauty standing before her.

Whoever this stranger was, he made every other male specimen in the room appear gaunt and sick. His skin was dark, his teeth fairly glowing against the set of his square jaw.

How had her life come to this?

She looked from side to side; surely someone would step forward and help her? The ton, it seemed, had lost their tongues at a very inappropriate time for Rosalind.

The only help came from the infamous Lord Rawlings who only moments before had nearly punched the younger brother — James, her former fiancé — square in the face.

Abby, her dearest friend and now Lady Rawlings, looked in her direction. Rosalind shook her head. No, she would stay put. Let the man get his bearings before he realizes he's betrothed.

Saints alive! He just came back from the dead. The last thing any shipwrecked man would appreciate had to be the thought of being chained to a woman not of his choosing.

Heavens! He probably hadn't a clue as to his bleak future!

Rosalind adjusted her gloves and waited. The man laughed; the music started. And she continued to wait.

That is until the Dowager Duchess of Barlowe looked in her direction, even though Rosalind could have sworn the plant had hidden her.

The bronze man walked towards her. She gulped, and for the life of her, was not able to put anything close to a smile on her face, so stunned was she.

“Lady Rosalind?” He reached for her hand and planted a kiss on her knuckles. Shivers ran down her spine. Fear. That was it. She was afraid. Surely she wasn't attracted to this barbarian!

His next words — though there was no way for her to know it — sealed her fate, her eternity, with that man. “I release you.”

Stunned, she closed her eyes to gather herself. “Pardon? Am I some sort of wild creature that begs to be released?”

Something flashed in his eyes before he regained his composure and answered, “Surely, you don't wish to be betrothed to a man you hardly know?”

Rosalind scoffed.

“And surely you haven't been away so long as to forget the way that betrothals work. I would shame my family if I broke off our engagement. But your words tell me you are doing this for me, is that right?”

“Yes,” he said.

Rosalind clenched her fist, for her arms suddenly felt heavy, as did her eyes and her legs.

Oh no. It was happening again.

It could not be happening in the middle of the ballroom! Her tongue became heavy inside her mouth, and swaying on her feet, she managed only to ground out, “As you wi—” before she fell into his arms.

STEFAN

Stefan was at a total loss. A complete and utter state of awe. For never had a women ever fallen asleep while he was talking.

Ever.

And that included the ninety-seven year old Indian woman who smoked that devil's herb all hours of the night.

She managed to stay awake.

His fiancée, however, could not.

“Lady Rosalind?” he asked quietly, though he wasn't sure why.

Not only had he caused the greatest scandal known to the ton by showing up alive and breathing at the Season's end, but then his fiancée had promptly fainted in his arms.

“Good heavens! Is she dead?” The Dowager Barlowe fanned herself vigorously as she motioned for help.

Several people began whispering behind their fans as they watched the scandal worsen. Lady Rosalind moaned in his arms.

The girl looked slightly foxed, though he knew she was nothing of the sort. Merely sleeping.

Just what he needed. More attention. By all means, gather “round! Seems I've single-handedly killed the woman I'm supposed to marry. Please, feast your eyes.

“Have you a place I can bring her?” Without waiting for the affirmative he scooped the tall girl into his arms and strode through the crush to the nearest room he could find.

Not wanting to ruin her reputation, but unable to think of any other option, he pushed into the first room the dowager pointed to and promptly dropped the girl onto the leather settee.

“Well, we cannot just leave her in here alone. It isn't to be done!” The dowager continued her incessant fanning, just as the object of their discussion let out a very unladylike snore.

“Is she…” He looked down at the beautiful face. Impossible. He didn't trust his own ears. And then her bow shaped mouth opened, just slightly, and let out a puff of air. “Snoring?” he finished, completely astonished.

Stefan felt around him for a chair, because he dare not take his eyes off the sleeping beauty before him. He finally managed to grab at something and sat.

Directly onto his grandmother.

“Do you mind?” the dowager hissed.

“Apologies,” he said, leaping away from his grandmother's' lap. He raked his hands through his long unfashionable hair.

Make that three impossibilities in one night — the last and final blow to his pride being that he was so focused on Lady Rosalind, and consequently unable to think straight, that he landed in his grandmother's lap.

Something that hadn't happened to him since he was a lad of eight.

“Well, I'm off then, have a brilliant time, Stefan. It is so good to see you back. I'll be expecting you in the morning, and sorry about all that hoopla out there.

“After all, I had to play my part. Couldn't let on that I knew you were back before everyone else. Think of what your father would say!”

“You did admirably.”

The dowager smiled. “Yes, well, I once tried for the theatre, many years ago, but did you know they don't take to women with opinions?”

“I'm sure they don't.”

“It is of no consequence. I shall leave you with—” She pointed, but words ceased. Instead, she shook her head and tsked out loud before closing the door behind her.

Stefan's eyes were glued to the door his grandmother had exited, waiting for the inevitable.

The door jerked open once more. “Oh my heavens! I nearly forgot myself. You cannot be alone with her!”

Wonder of all wonders, he's gone for six years and his grandmother, bless her soul, is ever so much the same as before. Why, even birds flying about drove her to distraction.

And he loved her to a fault. “Well, Grandmother, I can promise you that I'll be the perfect gentleman. Now, why don't you scurry off and have some sherry, hmm?”

“Yes, yes, only if you think it best, Stefan. After all, you are betrothed.”

What she didn't know wouldn't kill her. With a satisfied huff, she patted his head — quite a feat considering the little woman had to nearly jump up to reach it — and closed the door for a second time.

Alone, completely alone with a woman.

Not that she was a relative stranger, but then again he had managed to shock her into sleep. How exactly he had managed to accomplish such a feat was beyond his comprehension.

Without much to do other than watch her, he took a seat on the sofa across from her and waited.

Time passed so slowly when there was nothing to do but wait. Looking away from her peaceful face, he did the only thing he could think of doing.

First he hummed.

Then he tired of his own voice, so he began counting.

But he was never one for mathematics.

So he braved another glance at the beauty before him.

And cursed.

How was it possible that he was betrothed? And to such a woman as this? Rosalind Hartwell! Was his father daft?

Stefan was unable to comprehend the turn of events since his so-called death. It pained him to think that his family hadn't even tried to search for him!

They simply took a sailor's word for it that the ship their son was on had wrecked, taking the cargo and all its passengers, save one measly sailor and himself, to the bottom of the cold blue sea.

And to return months later only to see that his brother had gone quite mad, and his father had lost complete control of the family.

The only semblance of control it seemed he had was to pawn off the Marquess to the Hartwell family in hopes of an alliance.

The Hartwells and Hudsons went back over a hundred years. It was said that an heir must always marry into the Hartwell family, or some dreadful sort of curse would befall them.

Stefan hadn't been a good listener when his father spouted off about the odd family traditions.

After all, he had been too busy falling in love with his brother's wife.

He cursed again and shook his head. Maybe he should have stayed on the little island he shipwrecked on. Surely that would have been a more welcome environment.

He had food, if one could call fish every day food. He had clothing, at least a ripped shirt and useless cravat. Oh, and he had companionship — that of a tiny squirrel who often fought with him over nuts and wild berries.

Woodland creatures. Yes, that's what he had when he was shipwrecked.

Could it be that he was actually jealous of the woodland creatures and their easy life now that he was stuck in that blasted room with Rosalind Hartwell?

And why in the blazes did he continue to use her full name in his mind?

“Rosalind Hartwell,” he tried it on his lips. Well dash it if it didn't feel good. But of course it would.

One more tiny glance, his brain told him. After all, for some cursed reason, she was still sleeping.

He obliged himself.

Soft red hair crowned her head. Pale milky skin and a body that would make Isis green with envy. One thing was for certain, Rosalind Hartwell was a sight.

And as much as it irked him, even when she snored, her lips looked beautiful, untouched, and begging to be bitten.

Bitten?

Perhaps he had malaria. Yes, that was it. He was ill. This was why he was thinking about biting, nay, attacking a sleeping woman.

Or maybe it was just because he hadn't been with a woman in…

Well, as previously noted, mathematics were not his strong suit.

“Mmmm.” The beauty stirred. As did his blood.

Exactly what he needed at that point. Another reason to follow his more primal instincts.

“Mmmm,” she moaned again, but her eyes were still closed, though now he noted that they seemed to move back and forth rapidly as if she was trying to blink, but her eye lids were too heavy to put forth the effort.

“Mmmm!” Louder this time.

Clenching his teeth, he managed not to choke, or swear, or think too many ungodly thoughts when the wench stretched her arms high above her head and yawned.

Beautiful curves strained against the confines of her dress until the devil in him hoped they would pour over the dress, giving him adequate reason to be lusting after her as much as he already was.

“Where…” her deep voice spoke, eyes still closed.

He waited.

“Where am I?” She blinked several times, then looked directly at him and let out a scream so blood-curdling loud that he was sure his ears were bleeding with agony.

“Shhhh!” he put his hand over her mouth, which in hindsight probably wasn't the best of ideas considering she had just met him.

But her fear moved her. With a deft motion the chit sunk her teeth into his vulnerable hand. When he drew back in alarm, she elbowed him in the ribs and made an effort to elude him.

He caught her around the waist and heaved her back into his lap in one smooth motion, holding her tight until she finally stopped struggling against him.

“Hello,” he said, knowing it was the worst possible way to wake a well-bred lady — stare at her while she slept, scare her senseless, haul her into his lap, and offer an awkward greeting.

Savages, shipwrecks, and squirrels were looking better by the minute.

“Release me, you beast!”

“Promise not to bite, elbow, or scream? I'm not sure my ears can take another one of your screams. Perhaps we can come up with some sort of signal next time you feel the need to open your mouth?”

She began to squirm anew, making things all the more difficult for him, given his current state of… fascination with her body.

“My lady, cease your movements before I give you a true reason to scream.”

Stefan tightened his grip on her waist and slowly, effortlessly, bestowed a kiss on the exposed side of her neck. He told himself it was to scare her, and it was. Sort of.

The instant his lips touched her neck, she froze. He relinquished his hold and ever so deliberately planted her next to him on the sofa.

“I must say,” Stefan adjusted his cravat. “That was a first for me. I imagine it isn't common for a woman to swoon into your arms so willingly.”

Rosalind snorted and turned her brilliant green eyes onto him. “Surely you don't think it was your presence that caused my swooning? I was merely hot.

She fanned her face with her hand as if needing to show him how sweltering it had been.

“Right,” he said smugly. “And that explains how your body went completely rigid when you fell?”

Did she think him an idiot?

Turning away she shrugged. “Are we going to discuss my swooning all night, or did you have other business with me?”

“Business?” He laughed. “I was in the middle of releasing you from the betrothal contract. So, yes. Let us call it business.”

“And I believe I said, “As you wish”

“No, actually you said, “As you wi”—and then promptly fell, quite wantonly into my arms. Since I am a gentleman, I've decided not to hold it against you.”

Rosalind scooted away. “Are we finished here?”

Trying to mask the concern he felt, he replied, “Only if you assure me that you are in perfect health.”

“Of course. I can't say I've ever swooned before. But I assure you I'm in perfect health! Good night, my lord.” With a huff she pushed from the sofa, took two steps and began to fall once more.

Stefan cursed and caught her just before she hit the floor. “You do realize this is twice in one night. If I were one for happy endings, I'd say you just marked me as your long lost prince.”

ROSALIND

Rosalind glared, but was still somewhat paralyzed. She wished, in vain, that she could somehow communicate the scolding thoughts she was entertaining in that moment as she turned her glower onto his handsome face.

And, saints alive, he was handsome! Truly, it was unfair to have only been betrothed to him for a measly few hours.

Was it so terrible to hope for a kiss from a man such as this? At least once before she died from this dreadful disease?

“Rosalind?” He brought his monstrous hand to her cheek, “I shall send for your carriage, you need to be put to bed.”

“Yes, more sleep, why hadn't I thought of that?” she retorted, her voice thick with sarcasm. Her blasted legs were still unable to move, for they too had fallen asleep.

“Shall I carry you again?”

Why did she have to have so much pride? Begging her legs to work, she waited before finally responding with, “If you would be so kind.”

His carrying her seemed effortless. And it was quite nice being in his arms, if only for just a few steps. At this angle, she could appreciate his strong jaw line, that of a Nordic god or a Roman gladiator.

He seemed fit to kill first and ask questions later.

Unable to hold up her head any longer, she gave in to the temptation to lay it against his broad shoulder. He smelled of warm cinnamon spice and soap.

Rosalind closed her eyes and took her fill of his smell, for it was unlike anything she had ever experienced.

It was then she noticed he had stopped walking.

“Why have we stopped?”

Chuckling, he looked down at her. “I wanted to give you a chance to take your fill before we went out into the night. There's no telling how much the putrid night air could take away my scent, you know.”

Feeling the blood pound into her face, Rosalind hid deeper in the crook of his shoulder. “I was doing nothing of the sort.”

He laughed. “So you say, Rose, so you say.”

Snapping her attention in his direction, she controlled the urge to comment on his use of her nickname, one that only family used. The nerve.

The heaviness in her limbs began to lessen as he led her out the servants' entrance into the cool night air. Never had a spell come upon her so suddenly, and in the middle of a ball nonetheless!

At least she could be thankful that people were focused on Lord and Lady Rawlings as much as they were her — well, that and the sudden resurrection of the true Marquess of Whitmore.

Curse him! Did that mean she had to call him that loathsome name? It left a terrible taste in her mouth, the thought of calling him Whitmore, as if he was even close to being as slimy as his younger brother.

Her fingers and toes tingled, the sensation gradually spreading to her arms and legs. Good. This was good.

She could walk and wouldn't have to continue to be carried by the Nordic god who found nothing wrong with carrying her and touching her in the manner he was.

Goodness. She could feel… him.

They stopped.

And how she hated to admit that the thought of getting into her carriage without the warmth of his body next to her made her a trifle sad and irritated that within their short knowledge of one another, he could make her feel such ridiculous emotions.

Well, he had released her from the contract, and now she was free to go to her estate in Sussex to suffer the fall and winter months without the city air threatening to burn her lungs.

“Rose?” He put her gently onto her feet, and only then did she notice that her skirts were billowed and wrinkled, giving him quite a scandalous view of her ankles.

Curse her body for experiencing a small thrill when his eyes lingered longer than was appropriate. Take your fill — for this is the last you will see.

“And here, I bid you goodnight.” He steadied her on her feet, then bowed gallantly in front of her before turning on his heel and leaving.

“Good night,” Rosalind clenched her teeth as her eyes followed his disappearing form. The man was going back to the ball? Surely, he wanted to see to her safety? And make sure she made it home?

Was he whistling?

The shrill melody pierced the night sky.

Apparently, he had much to be thrilled about. His betrothed hadn't held him to his contract, and he was back from the dead, ready to claim his throne and every other swooning woman in the London vicinity.

Gathering up her skirts, she launched herself into the carriage. Really, he was doing her a favor. Now she was free to seek out a man of her own choosing.

A man who was tall, muscular, with beautiful eyes and—

“Drat!” Just because she had successfully described his every characteristic did not mean she wanted him.

He was simply fresh in her memory. That was all! It had nothing to do with her desire, or anything else for that matter.

What she needed, she thought as the carriage jolted, starting its short journey towards Mayfair, was to get away from London. Her best friend's marriage had done something to her; surely that was it.

And the shock of not having to marry.

And, well, her disease didn't help matters.

She had forgotten about that. How was she to explain that away to anyone who asked? For she was hardly the type of woman to swoon into a man's arms. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Part of her brain, the sane and logical part, told her she should call on the doctor to see if it was worsening.

The girlish fantastical side of her brain said everything was fine, and it was just a one-time incident.

As the carriage pulled up to her parents' home, she let out a sigh. Now that sleep was impossible for the next few hours, she might as well notify her father of the broken contract.

Rosalind steadied herself on the edge of the carriage and slowly put weight on one foot, and then the other.

Careful not to take a misstep, she made her way to the front door and opened it, utterly exhausted by such effort for something so simple.

It seemed after every episode she was sluggish, her limbs unable to work properly.

With a sigh she looked up at the large mansion. Correction, the second largest mansion on Mayfair, for the first had always belonged to the Whitmore dynasty.

Taking a much needed calming breath, she opened the door and walked in.

Her father, recluse that he was, was most likely in his study drinking tea — he had long since sworn off brandy — watching the flames dance in the fireplace for no other reason than he was slowly going mad with age.

Or so he claimed whenever he was nagged by his wife, the current countess.

“Father?” She pushed the large oak door open.

As expected he was sitting in his favorite chair facing the fireplace, but it was brandy swirling in his glass, not tea.

Odd, she hadn't seen him drink in ages. He simply found it unnecessary in favor of a warm cup of tea.

“Ah, Rose,” he said without turning around. “What brings you in to my study this time of night?”

“Boredom?” she offered, taking her favorite spot on the sofa across from him.

Her father, the Earl of Hariss, laughed. “You think me old enough not to notice the tone of your voice when you're jesting my girl? Now, tell me what has you returning so early from the Season's final ball?”

Truly, she didn't want to worry him, so she lied. “I swooned. It was quite hot after all.”

“Swooned, you say? Rose, let us speak plainly, for I know better than anyone that you do not swoon, heat or no heat. That is rubbish, and you know it. I'm more likely to swoon than you!”

He had a point. Fumbling with her gloves she sighed. “I had an episode.”

Her father darted up from his chair, brandy sloshing out of his glass onto the Persian rug.

“An episode? At the ball? But I thought you were finally getting well — it's been weeks since the last one! The doctor said—”

“I know what the doctor said.” Rosalind tensed.

She hated doctors, for they could never figure out what was wrong with her. Instead they looked at her as some test subject to be pricked and prodded until she bled to death.

“But it appears that the disease has not yet left my body.”

“He assured me you were healed,” her father stated.

As if the mere pronouncement by the doctor that she was healed made it truth. In her opinion the doctor was a lunatic. For goodness sake, he used an incantation over her!

Not that she would ever reveal that particular piece of information to her father.

But the doctor, although he graduated at the top of his class and was known as the best in London, was quite odd. And at times he would stare at her when he thought she wasn't watching.

His last visit consisted of him speaking a spellbinding phrase over her body while she lay still on her bed.

He then proceeded to scatter different herbs about her person and without warning announced she was healed.

“Just like that?” she had asked, skeptical.

“Of course! Am I not your doctor? Do you not trust me to see to your needs?”

Arrogant man that he was, she had merely nodded her head and mumbled under her breath the word “mad” while he went and announced the good news to her father.

The odd thing was she hadn't experienced an episode until tonight, when she saw… him.

“There is something else.” She cleared her throat, waiting for her father to stop his fretting long enough to look her in the eyes.

“What is it, m'dear?”

Rosalind bit her lip in thought. Just how was she to announce the breach of contract? “It seems the Marquess of Whitmore is not dead.”

The earl said nothing. Instead he stared for quite a long time into the fire before answering, “Are you certain?”

“Quite. Why he even spoke to me, and I can assure you he was no ghost.” No, he was more firm and masculine than a mere ghost, with large muscles and a huge form, large enough to scare a man or woman.

Perplexed, her father stuck his tongue out in thought before sitting with a brooding expression.

“And what did he say to you? I imagine he made quite a ruckus at the ball?”

Understatement of the Season. “You could say that, yes. However, I do have some good news. He has released me of the betrothal contract. However, I am not—”

Her speech stopped the minute her dad's face went pale with worry. His eyes closed, and he muttered a curse.

“Tell me he did not break the contract. Tell me you are lying or jesting as you were with the swooning.

“Please tell me that, m'dear, tell me!” He launched himself from the chair and grabbed her shoulders, sweat poured from his brow. “Tell me, tell me!”

Frightened, Rosalind's voice shook.

“Father, I thought you would be relieved, happy even! You owe that family nothing. Why, it's utter nonsense that we should hold true to that stupid rule about our families. There is no curse!”

Her father's head hung in defeat; his hands relaxed their hold on her shoulders. “What have you done?”

Those were the last words her father uttered before he died.

 

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2

Sleep hath its own world, A boundary between the things misnamed Death and existence:

Sleep hath its own world, And a wide realm of wild reality, And dreams in their development have breath, And tears and tortures, and the touch of joy.

Lord Byron

STEFAN

Six cursed months later

“I refuse to believe it,” Stefan muttered, keeping the tears from his eyes, though it was difficult considering the circumstances. But he needed to be strong for his family. At least what was left of it.

“It matters not what you choose to believe, it is a simple fact. Family members will continue to die unless you do something!” his mother yelled.

Frantically, he looked to his two brothers. The second oldest, James, utterly ruined for his stupidity, and the youngest Fitz, looking like he already had a foot in the grave. And all because of him.

His mother, the Dowager Duchess of Montmouth had tear-stained cheeks.

“Stefan, you are watching your entire family burn to the ground. Everything generations have built! Are you such a selfish ill-bred boy that you enjoy seeing the pain, my dear?

“For it will get worse. First your father, now Fitz. It is the curse, I tell you! And we won't be rid of it until you fix this!”

His mother spoke of the curse as if it was real.

Which it wasn't. They didn't live in some fairy tale book where broken betrothal contracts made it so that people started dropping dead within the family until the contract was mended.

His ancestors had been positively unhinged when they set about telling the family that they must always marry into the Hartwell line. Truthfully, he blamed his father's side of the family.

Somewhere along the way, one of his ancestors had slept with a gypsy and then abandoned her, alone and pregnant, she did what any desperate woman would do.

She cursed his great, great grandfather as well as the woman he married, saying if he was so happy with another woman, his family would never break ties with hers.

And so it was believed that if it happened, if either sides deterred from the chosen path, a curse so painful, so awful, would befall the family and take out all family lines and heirs.

It was ridiculous. But that didn't mean his father hadn't believed every word, nor his father before him. His family had promised he would look into the so called curse before Stefan left for India.

Obviously he had come to the conclusion that things should stay as they were, for when he returned, it was to see himself betrothed. And the second he broke the betrothal, well, things had gone to Hades.

His frustration mounting, all he could really do was explode with anger at his mother's refusal to listen.

“I do not believe in curses!” he yelled right back.

If circumstances hadn't recently lent themselves in support of the family curse in the days since his broken betrothal, he wouldn't be having this conversation. But the evidence was undeniable.

First, Rosalind's father had dropped dead for no reason other than his heart stopped, yet he had been perfectly healthy until then.

His own father, the late Duke of Montmouth, died two months later of pneumonia.

And now Fitz, his brother, had contracted a disease that would not allow him to eat lest he throw up his countenance every time.

His mother said it was a curse.

He wanted to explain it away. For there had to be a more plausible reason why his once solid family was now crumbling around him, but it seemed too connected.

Why hadn't he listened when his father spoke of such things?

Instead he had thought them the ramblings of an old man, and even worse, he had laughed in his father's face when he warned Stefan to hold true to his promise to wed the girl, saying it was a life or death choice.

Apparently, he was spot on; Stefan just wasn't aware it was his own father's death that was held in the balance.

“What will you have me do?” He looked into his mother's tear-stained eyes.

Willing her to stop crying — to stop yelling — he needed a stiff drink and some blasted answers, but knew he would only hear the mad ramblings of a crazy woman.

“Marry her.”

A cynical laugh escaped before he could stop it.

Taking a seat across from Fitz, he let slip an oath.

“Just like that? You expect me to jump on my horse, tear after the girl in Sussex and convince her to marry me, all because of a run of bad luck which may or may not be the result of a curse?”

Straightening her back, his mother turned cold eyes on him.

“How easily you forget. For wasn't she part of this whole debacle in the first place? Although, the rumor mill has been rampant that it isn't necessarily another family member who's struggling with life or death, but the girl herself.”

“Rose is dying?” Stefan asked.

His chest began to hurt.

It felt that his mother had finally been able to reach him, for it seemed all the air in the once large room was sucked out and he now sat suffocating.

His breath came in short gasps as he tried to regain some semblance of control over his physical reaction to the news.

“Very much so,” his mother said.

“And I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this, but from the sound of it, the girl doesn't have much time left.”

“You swear it?” He had to ask it, for his mother was not above stretching the truth in order to get her way.

“Not that it matters, but yes. I swear it. Stefan, it was your father's last wish. His only wish, for us to continue aligning the families.”

Suddenly exhausted, he allowed his body to fall back into the confines of the chair. “There has to be another explanation.”

“But there isn't!” his mother snapped.

“She's right, Stefan.” Fitz spoke up, his voice sounded weak with fever, it was strained, absolutely void of any luster. “You must do something.”

Stefan looked into his brother's expressionless eyes, and his heart gave way again. How had things spiraled so far out of his control? And so fast?

“I'll leave as soon as I can,” he said, looking down at the cold slate floor.

It was, as he thought, a moment in time where he would always remember the look on everyone's face.

His mother, in mourning and thinking nobody noticed as she continued to drink more and more sherry until her features took on a rosy appearance.

And Fitz, silent as the grave, because even he knew he hadn't much time left.

The sunlight poured in through a crack in the drapes, tiny dust particles sprung to life all around Stefan's face, and it seemed the universe was frozen in place.

His family utterly broken, silent, and grieving in that tiny death trap of a room. And he, the savior of him all, had just agreed to marry a girl with one foot in the grave. It was madness.

But it was also love. True love for his father who had died before his time, and his mother who was slowly dying every day, and Fitz.

He owed it to Fitz for life had been the cruelest to him over the past few months.

Stefan had thought he was over Elaina. That hopefully through the passage of time, her beauty would cease to affect him.

Instead, he found it was worse. So when Fitz began his downward spiral into his sickness, Elaina had sought comfort elsewhere.

The thought alone made Stefan ill, for Elaina had gone to James, of all people, for that comfort.

“How long shall it take?” James asked, breaking his sulky silence from the corner of the room.

He was ruined more than anyone, for he had publicly announced a matron of the ton as his mistress, making him not only the laughingstock of the family, but also bitter for the woman who had denied him.

Which was why he took his solace where he could find it — Elaina's bed.

“I'll be as quick about it as I can,” Stefan said.

“Good,” James excused himself from the room, not quite sure on his feet, for he had consumed nearly as much whiskey as his mother had sherry.

“Stefan?” With tremulous hands, his mother held out a crumpled piece of parchment. “It must be done this year or else…” Her weak voice trailed off.

“Or else?” Stefan asked, not sure he wanted to know the end of her tragic tale.

“The curse will take us all, Stefan.”

Biting back another oath Stefan took the paper and stuffed it in his jacket pocket. “I'll return as soon as I am able.”

“You cannot fail, my son.”

His mother's last words haunted him as he quit the room. The only sounds in the depressed house were those of James' and Elaina's stolen laughter, Fitz and his coughing, and his mother weeping into her hands.

“I will not fail,” he vowed, and went in search of his horse.

 

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