Read An Excerpt

EARL OF DARKNESS
by Alix Rickloff

Genre: Ireland, Paranormal, Historical Romance

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The library held little more than the desk, a sofa, a few comfortable chairs, and an avalanche of books. The combined remnants of the collections from Belfoyle and Kilronan House. Refugees from countless auctions and private sales. Those volumes too esoteric or too unimportant to entice the steady stream of buyers who’d passed through his doors since his father’s death. Selling them off had been painful, his father’s lifelong passion computed in pounds and pence. But it had been that very blinkered passion that had put the family’s finances in this predicament. There had been no choice. Anything unentailed became fair game.

Cat O’Connell’s intelligent gaze fell everywhere at once as she stepped lightly across the floor. Took in the blank walls where selected artwork had been sold off. The mantel cleared of its most expensive items, the spaces where prized family pieces once stood. The rest of Kilronan House was much the same. A sad witness to all that had been lost.

Aidan motioned to a chair near the fire. “Have a seat, Miss O’Connell.” 

“Cat works well enough.”

She was right. It did. She walked with a feline, sinuous grace only intensified by those damn trousers. He shook his head. Thank the gods women wore gowns. Men would be reduced to blabbering idiots if they spent every day subjected to the spectacle of women’s legs. The male species wasn’t up to that kind of continuous temptation.

First thing on his to-do list. Something to cover those long legs and that sweet, round ass. A solution? Doubtful. She’d need a damn sack to completely disguise that lissome allure. But it would definitely help.

“You don’t speak like any thief I’ve ever heard.”

She stiffened, her chin jerking up in a thin show of defiance. “And how many thieves are you in the habit of speaking to, Lord Kilronan?”   

“Fair enough, yet you haven’t answered my question.”

“You haven’t asked me one.”

He handed her the victory with a flick of his fingers. “Let me correct that at once then. Who are you, Miss O’Connell? And what were you doing in my library?”

Uncertainty flickered over her face before hardening to stubborn resolve. And from the porcelain elegance emerged the steely features of the thief who’d broken into his home and fought like a tigress. Two sides of a very interesting coin. “It’s not Miss O’Connell. Not anymore. It’s Cat now. And I’m whatever I have to be to survive.”

“No angry father beating the streets looking for you? No brother with a blunderbuss and priest in tow?”

Her lips compressed until white lines bit into the hollows of her cheeks. “No one.”

“Fair enough.” He shrugged, reluctantly letting his curiosity go.  A burglar who spoke and carried herself like a queen tantalized with possibilities, but he’d reached his quota of mysteries already. 

“As for your library,” she continued, “I was stealing.” She crossed her arms. “Now are you going to send for the Watch or not?”

He bit back the retort on the tip of his tongue. Settled for, “Not.”

She sat up, clearly confused, but also clearly relieved. “So if you don’t plan on sending me to Newgate, I can go?”

“Not quite.” 

She slumped back in her chair. 

The answers he sought were in the diary. They had to be. Why else would it have been hidden away and not with Father’s other personal papers? And not just hidden away but warded and written in a language every scholar he’d contacted had labeled gibberish? The diary contained the keys to finally understanding the truth about his father’s death. Perhaps even clues to his brother’s disappearance. 

And he sat across from the only person he’d found who could decipher it. Newgate would wait. Cat belonged to him now.

He drummed his fingers against his leg. Paced the rug in halting steps while he chose his words. “I’ve a deal to set before you.”

Her mouth remained pursed in a surly line. She was going to make him fight for every inch. Very well. He’d been fighting for the last six years. Had perfected the art of banging his head against a wall. “You’ve heard of the Other?” he asked.

She gave a jerk of her chin that could have signified anything.

He continued, undaunted by her lack of response. “Men and women who bear the blood of both Fey and human. They range in power from the mightiest Amhas-draoi warrior to the fisherman whose nets are always full or the artist whose ability seems almost . . . magical. Or should I say we range in power. You’re one of them.” He let fall a pregnant pause. “As am I.”

“So we’re both freaks,” she grumbled. “Good to know.”

“Some might call us that,” he replied smoothly. “Others label us witches or devils. Creatures of the dark.”

She gave a mocking bark of laughter. “Fools with straw for brains and those that wouldn’t know one of the Fey unless it tipped its hat to them and introduced itself.” 

He raised a brow. “So you do know what I’m talking about. Good. That makes things easier.” Leaning back, he plucked the diary from the desktop behind him. Opening it to a random page, he crossed to where she sat, hunched and waiting. Shoved the book into her hands. “Read it.”

She jumped; her eyes passing over the writing. “I told you, I can’t.” She tried handing it back, but he’d already walked around to the other side of the desk.

“And most people believe your story, don’t they?”

She shrugged, the diary lying open in her lap. 

“I’m not most people, Miss O’Connell. I think you can read it. In fact, I bet you can read just about anything I put in front of you.” He motioned to the surrounding shelves. “Any book in any language.” 

She bit her lip, her gaze and her hands moving over the page as if she could pull the words out by touch. Her arched brows drew into a frown of concentration, her mouth silently forming each sound. She looked up. “It’s just an old children’s story. A fable. I heard it often at—” she swallowed whatever she’d been about to say “—at home. Growing up, I mean.”

A rush of excitement cruised along his skin like a static charge. He exhaled slowly to calm the wild hope. “I’m prepared to forgive your crimes, and more than that, I’ll hire you. You’ll have a place to stay. Meals.”  He eyed her outfit, trying not to envision what lay beneath. Hard to do since he’d seen what lay beneath. “Proper clothes.”

She flushed. “And what would I have to do for this largesse? You’ve already said I’m not fit for your highbred self.” Her gaze remained fixed and unwavering.

Noting the trim athlete’s body and the delicate oval of her face, he’d have revised his opinion if he didn’t think that would scare her faster than anything else. If he needed talents of a carnal nature—and by his disturbing reactions tonight, he did—he’d join Jack on one of his nightly romps. His cousin had a knack for collecting women of a certain sort. A devil-may-care style women found irresistible and men sought to copy. 

He’d possessed that same self-confident bravado once. 

A lifetime ago.  

He ran a hand down his face, suddenly drained of energy. Frustrated. Despondent. 

“All you have to do is translate this one book. From beginning to end.”

“I do this—” she spoke slowly as if mulling the idea over “—and you’ll not turn me in to the Watch for thieving?”

“That’s right.”

She traced the cover’s faded design with the tip of one finger. Looked up, suddenly all business. “And what’s to keep me from leaving any time I choose? Are you going to chain me to a desk in my room?”

“No, you’ll be free to go where you will within the house or garden. I’ll trust to your honor to keep you here.”

She gave a derisive snort as if he’d just confirmed her opinion of his gullibility. But really what else could he do? He wasn’t a gaoler. He’d made the offer. Sweetened the deal. She’d either take him up on it. Or she wouldn’t. 

“Well, Cat?” He tried to keep the keenness from his voice. Best she not know his desperation. But since the idea had first struck, it had dug its roots deep into him. Her refusal would chop him off at the knees.   

She glanced down at the closed book and back up. Her gaze met him square-on and unflinching, jade green eyes slashed with shards of lightning. “I must be mad, but you’ve got yourself a deal, Kilronan.”