Masked Desires – Diana Bold

“You look ridiculous.” Fourteen-year-old Morgan Strathmore froze, familiar rage rising within him at the sound of his stepfather’s voice. He slowly turned, the chilly breeze atop the castle’s battlements ruffling the mask and cape he wore. The Earl of Winters stood a dozen feet away, an infuriating smirk on his handsome features. He shook his dark head as he took a few steps closer. “What in God’s name are you wearing?” Morgan and his brothers, Lucien and Adrian, had been tormented and abused by Winters since their mother had married him two years ago. Recently, after the earl had given Lucien a particularly bad beating, they’d come up with a plan to fight back. They’d envisioned a masked avenger, whom they’d decided to name Prometheus. Lucien, who was the oldest, would don the mask and, with his height, they’d thought perhaps they could scare the earl into leaving them alone. That had been the plan anyway. Morgan’s only role had been to make the costume. He’d always had an artistic streak, and he’d put all his time and energy into the endeavor. It had helped to have a plan, to imagine an end to their suffering. He’d come up here to test out the costume to ensure that one could run and jump in it, unhindered. He had been enjoying the way the heavy satin cape swirled around him in the wind, but now, he felt as ridiculous as Winters had claimed.

He was far too slim and short to scare the man, and by allowing himself to get caught wearing it, he’d ruined their plans. Bitter tears stung his eyes as he longed for his real father, who had heroically died saving him and his twin, Adrian, when a fire had swept through their home when they were ten. Adrian had been badly burned, and Winters was especially cruel to him, which hurt Morgan even more than if he had been the one to bear the brunt of it. Winters closed the distance between them and gripped his shoulder painfully. “I’m talking to you, boy. What are you doing up here?” Morgan shook his head and tried to pull away, but the earl held him too tightly. “Is this what it’s come to? You’ve taken to wearing a mask to hide that ugly face of yours?” Winters laughed darkly. “It won’t work. No one will ever love you, looking as you do.” Realizing that his stepfather had mistaken him for Adrian, Morgan’s fury grew.

“How can you say such things? It isn’t Adrian’s fault he was burned. It’s hard enough for him! You don’t have to make it worse!” Winters’ eyes widened, and he snatched off the mask. An evil grin twisted his lips. “Coming to the little monster’s defense, eh? I suppose that’s commendable. But he’s an embarrassment to me. You all are.” Red filled Morgan’s vision and, before he could think better of it, he pulled his fist back and swung at his stepfather’s face with every ounce of strength in his body. Pain radiated up his arm as he connected with the earl’s jaw, but the satisfaction was short-lived as he realized the futility of what he’d done. Luckily, Winters released him, pressing his hand to his face in shock. Morgan took the opportunity to whirl away and sprint toward the opposite end of the roof, toward the door that led back inside the tower.

M For a few moments, he thought he was going to make it. He was within a yard of the door when Winters grabbed him from behind. He spun Morgan toward him and punched him in the stomach with a force that stole Morgan’s breath. While Morgan was still trying to regain some air in his lungs, the earl swung him over his shoulder, knocking him breathless again, and strode to the ramparts, standing precariously close to the edge. Morgan felt a fear unlike anything he’d ever known as he stared at the dizzying drop beneath him. He had no doubt that Winters would pitch him over. “I could throw you off,” the earl snarled. “Only your brothers would miss you.” And my mother. But even as Morgan thought it, he wasn’t certain it was true.

If his mother had truly loved him, loved any of them, she wouldn’t stand by and let this man hurt them. He closed his eyes, sudden calm coming over him. He could not remain passive. He had to fight. If he died tonight, he was taking this bastard with him. At least then, his brothers would be safe. Taking a deep breath, he thrust with all his might against Winters’ back, breaking the hold the man had on his legs. Morgan came off the earl’s shoulder with such momentum that when he landed facefirst on the roof, his ribs seemed to snap, shooting incredible pain through his chest. Before he could scramble away, the cape around his shoulders yanked at his neck so hard that he thought his head would come off, pulling him across the roof until the parapets stopped him. He lifted his head to find that when he’d kicked away from the earl, the man must have lost his balance.

He’d fallen off the edge, and the only thing keeping him from plunging to his death was his grip on Morgan’s cape. “Pull me up,” Winters growled, trying to reach high enough to grab the ledge without releasing his hold on the cape, which was slowly choking the life out of Morgan. Morgan tried to imagine a scenario where he could actually do as the earl asked. How could he pull up the much-heavier earl with the cape choking him? Was there really a choice to make? He had to save himself. Gasping, Morgan fought to unfasten the heavy satin from his throat so he could breathe. It came loose suddenly, and the earl cried out hoarsely as he fell. The sound of his stepfather hitting the ground far below reverberated in Morgan’s ears as he lay struggling for air. The realization of what had just happened washed over him, leaving him stunned and terrified. He hoisted himself up and looked over, a strange sort of elation filling him when he saw that the man who had made his and his brothers’ lives hell for the past few years would not do it anymore. The Earl of Winters was dead.

Then an icy fear swept through him as he realized that he was the one who had killed him. Chapter One pril 1897 Fiona Bohannan stood frozen behind a heavy satin drapery, dust tickling her nose as her heart pounded furiously in her chest. Beneath the heavy cape she wore, a little girl trembled in her arms. At any moment, Fiona knew the girl could make a sound, alerting the monster who’d just entered the room of their presence. She peered through a small gap in the curtains as the middle-aged man looked around in befuddlement. He was searching for the child in Fiona’s arms, the girl whose virginity he’d paid for at an auction downstairs not half an hour ago. The girl couldn’t have been more than seven. Fiona had sneaked into the brothel with the intention of stealing the girl away, but they hadn’t yet made it out the window when the man had opened the door. She’d just managed to hide them both behind the curtain when he’d come barreling into the room. “What the bloody hell…?” He strode closer, his bloodshot gaze on the open window, just feet away from where Fiona and the girl stood.

He poked his head out the window, then gave a strangled roar. “The wee bitch has gotten away!” Spinning on his heels, he charged for the door, bellowing all the way about how he’d been robbed. Taking advantage of the distraction, Fiona shoved the girl out the window onto the ledge outside, following her out as silently as possible. They didn’t have much time. Now that the alarm had been given, a half-dozen toughs employed by the madam would be searching for them in a matter of moments. The girl whimpered, clinging to the side of the building, her eyes wild. “I know you’re scared,” Fiona whispered. “But if you do as I say, I’ll get you to a safe place. A place where no one can ever hurt you.” Staring at the mask Fiona wore, the girl gave a jerky nod.

“You’re Prometheus, isn’t you? I heard of you. Didn’t know you was a woman, though.” “Well, tonight, I am. And we need to get moving.” Fiona inched her way along the ledge, heading for a place where she could easily jump less than three feet to the roof of the building next door. Once she’d gained the roof, she turned and reached out a hand. The girl’s eyes were huge, but she put her hand in Fiona’s and made the leap as well. Then they were running, dashing across the rooftops as though their lives depended on it, because they probably did. Fiona had known the dangers when she’d decided to take up the good work that her friend Adrian Strathmore had begun, but this was her first rescue, and she was absolutely terrified. She had no doubt about what would happen to her if she were caught.

Many years ago, Adrian had rescued her in the way she was rescuing this girl, and she would never go back to that life. She’d rather die. Shouts rang out behind them, and Fiona tightly gripped the girl’s hand, urging her toward a door that led from the roof down into a building full of rundown flats. She’d planned to use this as her escape route all along; she just hadn’t thought she’d be running when she got here. They made it through the door and then down four flights of stairs before spilling out onto the street. Fiona ripped off the mask and shoved it into her pocket, heading for the hired hack she’d paid to wait for her. She lifted the girl up onto the seat and jumped up beside her. A “Go,” she cried to the hack driver. “We’re being chased.” The man gave her a wide-eyed look but didn’t ask questions.

As they pulled away at a brisk trot, Fiona sank back against the stiff seat and shared a triumphant smile with the girl. “We did it.” The girl nodded, seeming a bit dazed. “What’s your name?” Fiona asked gently. “Molly,” she replied softly. “Well, Molly, soon we’ll be at Brookhaven, and you’ll be safe.” Brookhaven was the orphanage Adrian had founded years ago, specifically to care for children like Molly, girls and boys who’d been sold into prostitution. For years, Adrian had donned the mask of Prometheus and rescued children from places like the one she’d been at tonight. He’d brought them to Fiona, who ran the home and made sure the children were fed, cared for, and even educated. Unfortunately, Adrian had recently wed and started a family.

He’d retired the mask of Prometheus when he’d found out that his wife, Vanessa, was expecting a baby. While Fiona couldn’t blame her old friend for stopping his dangerous activities, she’d been haunted by the idea of all the children who were still suffering. A few weeks ago, it had suddenly occurred to her that although Adrian had stopped, there was no reason Prometheus had to. She’d made herself a mask and cape similar to Prometheus’s and had started prowling the streets at night, listening and watching, searching for children to rescue. A surge of purpose pulsed through her. She’d worried that, as a woman, she wouldn’t be able to do this, but so far, she’d had extraordinary luck. Molly threw herself into Fiona’s arms, hugging her tightly. “Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you so much.” Fiona hugged her back, absolutely certain that this was what she’d been meant to do.

“I THOUGHT YOU’D PUT the mask away,” Morgan Strathmore said as soon as he was shown into the Earl of Hawkesmere’s sitting room where his two brothers were engaged in a game of chess. His twin, Adrian, looked up at him in confusion. His face still bore a faint tracery of scars from the fire that had killed their father when they were children. “What are you talking about?” Morgan poured himself a drink and then took a seat near them. “Prometheus was apparently spotted in the East End last night. Which one of you was it?” Lucien, his older brother, who was also the earl, glanced up from the board. “Well, it wasn’t me.” He turned back to Adrian. “I thought you were done with all that.” Adrian shrugged.

“It wasn’t me either.” Morgan frowned at them both. “If it wasn’t either of you, then who the bloody hell was it?” Lucien sat back and shook his head. “The mask and cape are upstairs. Whoever’s doing this must have had their own made.” “For what purpose?” Adrian asked. Morgan sighed and rubbed his temple. “I don’t know. The person who told me about it didn’t know exactly what this faux-Prometheus was up to.” “I don’t like it,” said Lucien.

“Do you think that whoever he is has any idea that we’re involved?” “Everyone who knows that we came up with Prometheus is in this room,” said Adrian. “There’s no way anyone else could know.” For several years, Adrian had masqueraded as Prometheus, reimagining their childhood creation into a champion for those who were too small or weak to champion themselves. When he’d finally put the mask away, Lucien had briefly reprised the role to find out information about the child their mother and stepbrother had taken from him when he was young. Morgan was the only one of them who had never donned the mask himself. At least, not since the night Winters had died… Shaking himself out of those dangerous thoughts, he returned his attention to his brothers. “You’re forgetting about your wives. They both know.” Lucien glared at him. “Are you insinuating that Vanessa or Serenity would betray our confidence?” Morgan sighed.

“No, of course not. I just don’t know who else might know.” “I don’t think anyone knows that we’re linked to Prometheus,” Adrian cut in. “Someone must have decided to adopt the persona for their own purposes.” Lucien shook his head. “The last thing I want is for someone to draw attention to Prometheus. We’re lucky no one put two and two together when Adrian was burning down brothels from one end of the city to the other.” “No one knew it was me,” Adrian said. “I was careful.”



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