Masked Intentions – Diana Bold

Adrian Strathmore sat upon the hard stone floor, his knees drawn to his thin chest. Lightning flashed through the tower windows of the oldest part of the Earl of Winters’s ancient manor house, illuminating the pale, terrified faces of his two brothers. He hated that they were there. Their mother had remarried nearly two years ago, but Morgan and Lucien had been away at school except for the holidays. Tonight was the first time their stepfather, Nigel Croft, the Earl of Winters, had tried to hurt Adrian when they’d been home. Lucien, who was only fifteen, but had become the Earl of Hawkesmere after their real father’s death, had tried to protect Adrian, only to be brutally debased and humiliated himself instead. Adrian wanted to hide himself away somewhere and weep with shame. “Are you all right, Luke?” Thirteen-year-old Morgan, Adrian’s twin, broke the silence, his voice tentative. “Do you need a doctor?” Lucien shook his head, obviously horrified at the thought of anyone else, even a doctor, knowing what his stepfather had done to him. “I’m fine,” he muttered. “In a few days… I’m sure I’ll be fine.” “We should tell Mother,” Morgan persisted. “She won’t let this happen again. She’ll take us back to Hawkesmere. She’ll never let that bastard touch you again.

” “She can’t leave,” Lucien said. “He’s her husband. And she’d never believe us anyway. She’s in love with him.” Adrian remained silent, shrinking farther into himself with each word Lucien said. He’d been badly burned in the fire that had taken their father’s life three years ago. Terrible scars covered the left side of his face, as well as his chest and left shoulder. For many months after the accident, he’d clung to the precipice between life and death. The experience had changed him. He’d become a creature of shadows, observing but never participating.

He hadn’t spoken a single word since his father’s death. When the twins had turned twelve and were old enough to go to boarding school with Lucien at Abingdon, Winters had gently reminded their mother that the school was reserved for Britain’s best and brightest. He’d assured her that Adrian, with his burns and silence, wouldn’t fit in. Their mother had agreed, and Adrian had been forced to remain in the nursery, with baby Allison, which was humiliating for a boy his age. Adrian’s silence had triggered their stepfather’s latest attack. Earl Winters made no secret of his hatred for his stepchildren, except when their mother was around, but he saved most of his anger for Adrian. Tonight he’d dragged all three boys, and his own son, seventeen-year-old Roger, to this tower in the oldest wing of his ancient house, where no one could hear their cries. Then he and Roger had set about breaking Adrian—demanding that he speak, calling him horrible names. When their nasty insults had failed to elicit a response, the earl had proceeded to beat him, as he so often did, while Roger looked on with barely disguised glee. Unable to bear it, Lucien had gathered his courage and dared to step between them, only to have the earl turn that fury against him.

“How can she love him?” Morgan asked, his voice laced with bitterness. “He’s nothing like Father.” Adrian didn’t want to think about their father. Even after all this time, the pain of losing him was fresh. And he didn’t see the need to point out the obvious. Their mother was a weak-willed, foolish D woman who needed a man—any man—to be happy. “Adrian,” Lucien whispered, his voice raw with suspicion. “What happened to me tonight—does he do that to you all the time?” Adrian squeezed his eyes tightly shut, then nodded and buried his ruined face in the crook of his arm. His slim body shook, buffeted by an icy wind drifting in through one of the windows. Another round of thunder split the air around them as the storm continued to rage outside.

Morgan made a wordless sound of denial and moved to Adrian’s side, wrapping him in a fierce embrace, murmuring to him in the strange, made-up language the two of them had spoken as toddlers. This comfort, after so many months of loneliness and despair, finally spurred Adrian to speak. He had to tell them. He couldn’t keep it all locked inside any longer. “There’s a Greek story I read once…” At the sound of Adrian’s rough, stuttering voice, Morgan pulled away. He and Lucien stared at their usually silent brother as though they’d seen a ghost. “About Prometheus,” Adrian continued. “Do you know it?” After a long moment of stunned surprise, Lucien gave a jerky nod. “Isn’t he the fellow who stole the fire from the gods?” Adrian lifted his head and wiped the tears from his cheeks with a shaking hand. “I was thinking more about how he was chained to a rock and got his liver eaten out every day by an eagle.

” “Is that what it’s been like?” Morgan put his arm around Adrian’s thin shoulders again, his face filled with anguish. “Why didn’t you tell us?” “What good would that have done?” Adrian shrugged away, embarrassed and ashamed. “He’s just going to keep hurting us. There’s nothing we can do.” “Alone, none of us can do anything,” Lucien said slowly. “But there are three of us. Together, we could do anything.” The twins listened attentively as Lucien outlined a plan that would free them from their stepfather’s tyranny, yet allow them to remain anonymous if things should go wrong. Together they would create a masked crusader, a powerful facade they could don at will. Quiet intensity vibrated in Adrian’s voice as he volunteered to contribute his rather stunning scientific knowledge to the endeavor.

He spoke of designing weapons and other amazing gadgetry. The prospect of slaying his dragon had brought about a transformation. Gone was the frightened, silent little boy. His voice grew stronger with every word he spoke. Not to be outdone, Morgan found a piece of charcoal in the fireplace and sketched a remarkably detailed image of a masked man upon the crumbling wall. “What shall we call ourselves?” Lucien asked, the horror of the evening dissipating in the rush of excitement their planning had caused. Morgan and Adrian shared a look and came to complete agreement. “Prometheus,” Adrian answered. And so Prometheus was born… Chapter One arch 1896 For the third time in as many weeks, Adrian Strathmore sat in the shadowy corner of his family’s private box at the St. James’s Theatre on Duke Street, gazing at the dazzling, raven-haired actress who took her bow on the stage below.

Miss Vanessa Bourke had taken London by storm during the past few months, but Adrian doubted anyone had become quite as captivated by her as he. Since the first time he’d seen her play Celia in As You Like It, she’d become the object of both his admiration and desire. She acted the part with a noble purity of spirit that called to something deep inside him. She haunted his dreams and provided a brief respite from the carefully laid plans of destruction that filled his days. Not that a woman like her could ever be his, of course. Even his family’s wealth and power were not enough to camouflage his many flaws, both the obvious physical scars and the ones deep inside him. Eyes tracked him in the dark, those who were far more interested in catching a glimpse of the Earl of Hawkesmere’s disfigured little brother than watching the play. He sank deeper into his seat, despising their curiosity, wishing for anonymity. All he’d ever truly wanted was to be able to walk through a crowd without anyone staring. In stark comparison, the rushlights lit Miss Bourke’s face with an ethereal glow, and her dark, gypsy eyes flashed with pleasure as another round of applause shook the building.

She lived for this moment, relished the adoration of the crowd. Overwhelmed by loneliness, he brought a single yellow rose to his lips and then tossed it far below him, upon the stage at Miss Bourke’s feet. VANESSA BOURKE REACHED down and picked up the yellow rose, blinking against the glare of the rushlights as she searched the private box to stage right. There. In the corner. A flicker of movement. But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t see her latest admirer’s face. The box belonged to the Earl of Hawkesmere, but the theater gossips said the man who occupied it tonight was the earl’s younger brother, a man who’d been scarred by a fire when he was a child. As the curtain came down, Marcus Colby, the leading man, gave her a sardonic smile. “Another rose, darling? It appears your beauty has snared the beast.

” “Jealousy doesn’t become you,” she retorted, hurrying toward her dressing room to remove her greasy makeup. Exhaustion pulled at her like a heavy weight, and she wanted nothing more than to return to her tiny flat just a few blocks away and tumble into bed. “He seems quite taken with you,” Marcus continued, trailing behind her with languid grace. “They say he’s rich as Croesus but quite mad.” Vanessa pulled open her dressing room door and gestured to the dozens of flower arrangements filling every available surface. “He’s hardly the only one to give me flowers.” Marcus gave the display a dismissive glance. “He’s the only aristocrat.” Vanessa glared at her friend. In a moment of wine and weakness, she’d told him of her goal to find a rich husband.

He’d been playing matchmaker ever since. “He’s hardly in a position to be particular,” Marcus continued, lowering his voice. “With his money, you could have the security you want. You could leave all this and start a family, though it still makes no sense to me why you’d want to shackle yourself down that way.” M The mention of a family sent the usual pang of longing skittering through her veins. She’d grown up in abject poverty, and when her mother had died, she’d been sent to live with her father, a drunken struggling actor she’d never met. She’d spent the rest of her childhood dragged from theater to theater, constantly moving, going from feast to famine and back again. Much as she loved the stage, she’d long dreamt of a stable life, one that didn’t depend on the fickle love of the crowd. She was nearly twentyfive. Soon her beauty would fade, and she’d have a hard time finding roles.

If she didn’t find a man she could raise a family with before that happened, she feared she never would. She strode to the mirror and began the arduous process of removing the makeup, hoping Marcus would take the hint and go away. Instead, his elegant hand curled around her shoulder, squeezing lightly. “I just hate to see you so depressed, darling.” “I know.” She shut her eyes against a sudden rush of tears. “I appreciate it, Marc. I really do. But no knight in shining armor is going to save me. I have to save myself.

” He brushed a swift kiss to her temple. “Get some sleep. It’s a good thing the theater’s dark tomorrow. You’re looking a bit peaked.” When she glared at him again, he laughed and threw his hands up in surrender. “Good night, ’Nessa.” “Good night.” She gave him a grudging smile. For all his teasing, she knew he had her best interests at heart. As soon as he left the room, she picked up the yellow rose she’d tossed aside and placed it carefully in a cut-glass vase with two others from her mysterious admirer.

ADRIAN LEAPED FROM the roof of Hawley’s Gentlemen’s Club, wincing as a hail of gunfire erupted from the street below. He landed hard on a sloping overhang of the building next door, scrambling to gain his footing without dropping the small boy in his arms. He pressed his palm to the sharp prick of pain in his left thigh and felt the wetness of his own blood. The bastards had shot him! Flames swept across the club’s facade, temporarily distracting the men who’d given chase. Adrian gazed at the brilliant, dangerous light, both fascinated and terrified, as always. His brothers did not understand his penchant for using fire to destroy these hellholes, but how could they? He didn’t understand it himself. Satisfaction burned bright within him as he viewed the destruction he’d wrought. Since he’d set the fire in the attic, everyone had been able to get out safely, but for a few nights, at least, the scum who frequented the club would not be able to slake their lust on children. Tightening his hold on the boy he’d rescued from that prison, he concentrated on his escape, more than a bit disturbed by the fact that his prey seemed to have been ready for him this time. He’d have to figure out how later.

For now, the only thing that mattered was getting the boy to safety. The child remained eerily quiet as Adrian leaped from roof to roof. Despite Adrian’s assurances, he doubted the boy realized he’d been rescued, enduring the situation with a blank-eyed acceptance that broke what remained of Adrian’s heart. Adrian had managed to put no more than half a dozen blocks between himself and the club when the sounds of pursuit intensified. He paused for a moment in the shadow of a chimney, breathing heavily with pain and exhaustion as he weighed his options. His leg ached unbearably, and dizziness threatened to overwhelm him. God knew how much blood he’d lost. He needed a place to lie low until his pursuers lost interest. As he took stock of his surroundings, a ludicrous idea took root in his mind. Vanessa Bourke lived a few streets over, in a once-opulent mansion that had seen its better days and had been split into half a dozen flats.

He’d made it his business to know, even though he’d assumed the information would prove useless. What would she do if he were to show up uninvited, dressed as Prometheus? Would she turn him away, or would she take him in and bandage his wound? Could he use the child to gain her trust? He would never make it to Brookhaven Orphanage in his current condition. Telling himself he had no other choice, he headed toward Miss Bourke’s flat.

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