Lord of the Darkness – Arietta Richmond

In the long twilight of summer, a well-dressed girl hurried up the hill towards the tree which spread its branches over the small cliff above the Darkmire River. The ravine below was short, soon ended where the river moved from between its sides to flow through gentler country the other side of the ford, but the view from beneath that tree was the best for miles around. She frowned as she approached, seeing no sign of anyone waiting for her, touched in that moment by a sense of deep foreboding. Well back from the path, in the shadows of the dense copse of trees to one side, a man stood, watching her, his expression expectant, and oddly gleeful. She reached the top, and looked around, obviously puzzled, then stepped closer to the edge of the cliff, looking down, cautiously. Her half scream echoed back to her from the ravine, and she lifted her hand to her mouth. She stayed there, frozen in place, for long moments, then turned and ran back down the path, and along towards the ford. Caught on the rocks there, she saw what at first seemed a bundle of old clothing – but was not, she knew, for she recognised those garments, instantly – and the dark hair of the man who still wore them, even as he lay, half in the water, his face down, with the current pulling his hair about him. He did not move, and she knew then that her worst fears had been realised, that all of her remaining hopes had been snuffed out, as had his life. How could he have fallen? Had he knocked his head, becoming insensible, and drowned before he had recovered his awareness? She could not know – as she could not know if she might have prevented this, had she arrived sooner, as she had been meant to do. Guilt assailed her as she reached out a shaking hand to touch him, the chill of his unbreathing body seeping into her heart and soul, leaving her with only loneliness and despair for company. Sobs racked her then, deep, body shaking sobs, and she let herself mourn, knowing that, once she went back and informed her father of this misadventure, he would refuse to allow her to express her grief, as he had refused to allow them their love. But she would mourn inside, she would turn from all other men, as she already had started to, and live on memory alone. In the copse of trees, light blue eyes caught the last of the setting sun, a flash of colour echoed by something just below them, something held in a pale hand, and whispered words drifted on the breeze. “If I may not have you, then none shall – by your choice or your father’s.

” Chapter One 1817 “I do not wish to marry, Father. The only man I ever loved is beyond my reach – you forbade our love, as you have forbidden most things that I desire. I would choose to stay a spinster, rather than marry a man I have seen but twice, in passing.” Lady Ariana Torryngton sniffed, angrily dashing the tears from her cheeks. She knew that her protests would be in vain, if her father had made up his mind. It wasn’t that the Earl of Hazelworth did not care for his daughter, or that he was by nature cruel – it was simply that he would be dead within a few months and his mind was burdened with weightier matters than whether or not his daughter approved of the husband he had selected for her. The Earl was a rather old school disciplinarian, and expected absolute obedience from his wife and daughter – that she might not do as he wished never occurred to him. He looked at her as if she had gone mad, and repeated his earlier statements, in a tone full of irritation. “Ariana, you will be married. Next week.

You should be grateful – you will wed the Duke of Darkmire – you will be a Duchess, which is far better than the status you might have arranged for yourself, left to your own devices. Better than that Baron you were foolishly taken with, or that annoying Lord Jasper you allowed to treat you with too much familiarity. You are twenty – it is past time that you married, and I will see it before I die. I would know that you are well set up, and that this estate – which will devolve to you when all of my other properties go to Cousin Harold – will be in the care of a decent man, who won’t eject your mother from the Dower House either.” “But Father….” “Enough, Ariana. You will do as I’ve said. The special license has been arranged, the vicar has been told to prepare, and I’ve signed the contracts with Darkmire.” “But Father…. the Duke of Darkmire… his reputation… the family history….

” “All faradiddle and fustian, perpetuated by the gossips who have nothing better to do. You will ignore it, and do your duty.” Ariana swallowed, more tears slipping down her cheeks. She would be given no choice, she knew. Without another word, she turned and ran from the room, hearing her father’s annoyed muttering behind her. *** Benedict Blackshaw, the Duke of Darkmire, regarded himself in the mirror as his valet tweaked the last fold of his cravat into place. He looked, he thought, rather alarmingly like his father, as he remembered his father being when Benedict had been a small child. It was not, entirely, the appearance he wished to present, but there was no avoiding it. The lines of his face were near identical to his father’s. The room behind him only added to the resemblance, for though these chambers had been his for more than three years now, before that they had been his father’s for decades.

He turned away from the mirror with a slight shiver. What would she think of the place, when he brought her here? Would the darkness and the history of the place frighten her? Was he making a mistake? He didn’t know – sometimes even he felt as if his mother’s ghost haunted Darkmire Abbey – no doubt keeping company with ghosts from centuries past, if all of the old tales held even a grain of truth. Truth. That was something which he had come to realise had rarely been connected with Darkmire Abbey, although he did cling to the – possibly foolish – belief that his father had told him the truth of the things which had happened when Benedict was too young to really understand. He had resolved to change things where he could, to lift the darkness from the place somehow. It was a resolution in which he had, in his three years as Duke so far, singularly failed. If anything, rumour had painted it darker in that time. And now, he was going to marry, to bring an innocent young woman into the darkness. He needed a wife. Had longed for a wife to lighten his days, but had near given up hope of marrying – the long shadow of the reputation of Darkmire Abbey had frightened off all but the most painfully undesirable young women of the ton.

Then Hazelworth had written to him, and Benedict had rather precipitately agreed to what the man proposed. Hazelworth was a neighbour, although a relatively distant one, and had been one of his father’s few friends. Benedict had almost forgotten that the man had a daughter, until last year, when she had been visible in London for precisely a month, before fleeing back to the country in the face of the disdain of the ton. There had been rumours about her being ill mannered, and directly rebuffing the approaches of any and all gentlemen, but he had considered those with the same degree of dubiousness as he regarded the rumours about himself. Surely, she could not be that bad, he had told himself. She was certainly visibly attractive enough, and Hazelworth’s promise that Hazelworth Hall would go to her made her appealing in more ways than the physical. Last week, when he had gone to Hazelworth Hall to spend some time with Lady Ariana, he had been a little shocked, for she had looked sullen and puffy-eyed, as if she had just been crying. The air had crackled with tension and Benedict had felt the odd sensation that a fight had just taken place. But she had been polite, if distant, and simply agreed with everything he said, as if she did not care at all, about anything. He had pushed his uncertainty aside – the marriage contracts were signed, and he would do as he had agreed to do.

Hazelworth, it seemed, was dying – his racking cough and pale complexion had been evidence enough that he was ailing, and although Lady Hazelworth had not said anything, Benedict had been aware of her watching her husband carefully. That imminence of his own mortality had apparently driven the man to arrange a match for his daughter. Hazelworth had led Benedict away into an adjoining room, out of sight of the woman he would soon be marrying, and spoken quietly. “I wanted to thank you again for making this arrangement on such short notice. The property will become my daughter’s – and therefore yours – on my death, so within a few months you’ll be the master of Hazelworth Hall. I just ask that you get married soon, so that I can attend the wedding.” “How soon were you thinking?” Benedict had asked, for the contracts had dealt with conditions, and money, not dates. “Within the next week or two. If it’s quite convenient, of course – I have already sent to arrange a special license.” “I don’t see any reason to put it off.

” In a lower voice Benedict added, “And you’re sure that Lady Ariana has no objections?” “No, none at all, Your Grace” Hazelworth had said, a little too quickly, now that Benedict considered it in hindsight. “Ariana likes to think of herself as unique and special, but she’s no different from any other girl in this respect: she dreams of marrying a handsome young Lord such as yourself. She always has.” Benedict had nodded, accepting the man’s word – but now, as the moment of marriage approached, he asked himself if he should have. That Benedict had only actually spoken to Lady Ariana for the first time after the marriage contracts had been signed had not seemed out of place – in the ton, arranged marriages were most common. But now, as he made his way downstairs to take the short carriage journey to Hazelworth Hall, he wondered again if he was making a mistake. What if the marriage made her miserable? What would he do?

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