Home > The Demon Count (Demon Count #1)

The Demon Count (Demon Count #1)
Anne Stuart

Chapter One

I have never been one to become hysterical with great frequency, but I knew with a certainty that if this wretchedly sprung diligence hit one more bump I would scream at the top of my lungs. It seemed like months since I‘d first climbed into this vehicle of the devil, and my poor, tired body was a mass of bruises and aches since we started on this rocky and ill-kept road across the plains of Italy; and as the miles passed each turn of the wheel was torture. Once more I was flung against my unwilling fellow traveler, a stout and surly banker, and without further hesitation I shrieked.

The coach pulled to a halt far quicker than I could have imagined possible, and the cheerful Swiss driver appeared at the window, creases of worry in his ruddy face. “What’s the matter?” he demanded anxiously in German.

The banker gave me a look of withering disdain. His opinion of womanhood was obviously not very high, and his opinion of a young lady who traveled unaccompanied on a public coach through the strife-torn Italy of 1840 was even less. And when that same young lady chose to scream for no reason … All this he communicated to the driver in a few short German words, while the comfortable- looking grandmother across from me nodded in weary agreement. It had been a long day, and the May weather was unseasonably warm.

I had the grace to look abashed, while the spotty young clerk on the lady’s left tried to catch my eye with a speaking glance of sympathy. I ignored him.

“I’m terribly sorry,” I said in my clear English voice. “I don’t know what came over me. I’m perfectly all right now.”

The banker, after giving me one last look of helpless dislike, turned and translated my gentle speech into German, adding a few distinctly uncomplimentary remarks about the English in general and this one in particular. I smiled at them all apologetically, bland incomprehension written on my face, settled back against the rough seat, and sighed.

For not the first time I wondered whether I had been incredibly foolish in taking off like this. Without question my reputation was in shreds, my meager finances almost gone, and my spirits at low ebb. I couldn’t help but wonder how my new guardian would react when his detested and despised young charge arrived at his palazzo. The thought cheered me.

As the coach began to bounce once more along the pot- holed highway, I let my mind drift back to the England I had left, the home in an uproar, the rage and disapproval of my mother’s family, providing a momentary diversion from the tedium of travel.

“You cannot, you absolutely cannot travel alone to Italy at this time!” Great-aunt Matilda stormed.

“Those wretched foreigners are about to erupt into war again!” Cousin Horace announced. “Not that they aren’t always in that state. I don’t know what could have gotten into your father, to have left you in the care of some damned Spaniard!”

“He’s Italian, Cousin Horace,” I corrected gently, my soft voice a reproval for his swearing. “And for that matter, he’s half British and a cousin by marriage. Father traveled widely … he knew many men and many places. I trust him to have chosen the best of them for me.”

“But to travel alone, Charlotte!” Aunt Isabel reproached. “So soon after your poor mother’s funeral.”

“I won’t be traveling alone. I’ll have my maid with me at all times, and luckily a friend of Mother’s is planning a trip to Venice. She has graciously offered to bear me company. So you can see I couldn’t possibly wait … Mrs. Hartmann is leaving in a week, and I’ll have to be ready. Count del Zaglia insists I come as soon as possible.”

“Damned impertinence, if you ask me!” Cousin Horace snorted, his jowls quivering with indignation. “Still, he’s your legal guardian for another year. There’s not much to be done about it. Now, if only your father had had the sense to talk to me about this, he would have seen that I was a much better person to take charge of your well- being.” Not to mention my comfortable fortune, I thought cynically. “We’ll have to meet this Mrs. Hartmann.” He snorted again, a distressing habit of his.

I had brightened at this sign of capitulation. “Of course, cousin.” But they had never met, for the simple reason that Mrs. Hartmann, like my erstwhile guardian’s summons to Italy, was a fabrication of my too-fertile imagination. Two days after that fateful conversation in the cold and dreary library of my mother’s rented house in Brighton I was safely on board a small ship making its leisurely way along the coast of Europe to the Mediterranean Sea and the Italian port of Genoa.

Not one word had I received on my mother’s death, not one note of condolence from my appointed guardian, merely a cold communication from his agent in England that I was on no account to even think of venturing to join him. I was to continue my schooling (schooling I had completed two years ago at the age of seventeen) and when the situation in Italy calmed a bit Count del Zaglia would arrange something for me.

Arrange something for me! The very thought turned me livid with rage. I had at that moment decided I would instead arrange something for the so-dear count. A trip to the continent would be just the thing to help me over the shock of my mother’s unexpected death. Within a day the tickets were purchased, two small bags were packed with my mother’s cast-off mourning clothes, and I was ready to depart.

As the carriage rumbled along at a painfully brisk pace, I thought back to my mother’s sulky, delicate face, and wondered what she would think of me now. It would probably amuse her, if truth be known, to think of her only daughter traveling alone and unchaperoned. She hadn’t much maternal feeling for me.

I had often wondered what had possessed, my father to marry her. Theresa Brunwood was pretty enough in her youth, indeed, even till her untimely death, but there were others with as much beauty. She had quite a frightening intellect, a curse she had passed on to me, which perhaps accounted for poor Charles Morrow’s initial enchantments, so accustomed was he to brainless society belles. As a rising young diplomat perhaps he thought the lovely creature would be an impetus to his burgeoning career. If so, he had reckoned without Theresa’s intrinsic coldness and self- absorption. One year after their only child was born my father took up residence at the embassy in Rome. Theresa remained behind, victim of a conveniently failing constitution.

To say my mother enjoyed Ill-health would be to put it mildly. Every day I would be brought before her chaise longue, to kiss her artfully pale cheek and recite to her my lessons. Each day I would look for some sign of affection, some gesture of maternal love. I never found one, and by the age of twelve I had given up looking.

Theresa had taught me many things, however. She taught me to revere learning, to be self-sufficient, to smile prettily and play the fool when gentlemen were about.

“But my dear Charlotte, “ she would say softly when I was older and more romantic and would dare to mention an attractive would-be beau, “He has the mind of a well-bred horse. Surely you couldn’t really be interested in one such as he?” And I would blush before her gentle mockery and agree miserably that no, of course I could not be interested in such a natural thing.

All in all, I grew up totally unsuited for the one profession open to me, that of marriage and motherhood. I could speak seven languages, five fluently, I could cipher, discuss politics, literature, and history, outrun, outtalk, and out- think any man of my limited acquaintance. And if I did have a weakness every now and then for a pair of broad shoulders or clear blue eyes I would catch my mother’s faintly superior smile and turn away with great resolution and only the faintest trace of lingering regret.

“It won’t be much longer, signorina,” the spotty young clerk opposite me broke into my none-too-pleasant thoughts, and the banker frowned warningly at him. “Another hour or two and we’ll stop for the night.”

“And none too soon,” the banker harrumphed, casting a steely glance in my innocent direction, placing the blame for our delays squarely on my delicate shoulders.

I considered the two of them for a moment, then offered the younger one my sweetest smile. “Thank you,” I murmured gently, and then deliberately directed my attention to the gently sloping countryside below me, leaving the crestfallen clerk to stare moodily at my averted profile.

I couldn’t blame the fellow. Every time I looked in a mirror I experienced a start of surprise, that the fairyland creature should be me, Charlotte Theresa Sabina Morrow. A perfect English rose, a smitten young man had once told me, and I could unconcernedly see the truth in that. I had guinea-gold hair that fell in delightful soft curls around my face, a retrousse nose, rosebud mouth, and china-blue eyes as big as saucers. My complexion was touched with a healthy pink, my eyelashes were thick and curly, and my natural expression was one of charming innocence. My body lacked the perfect, insipid beauty of my face, but it was well enough. A bit over average height and not quite as plump as was the carrent style. In all I was quite astonishingly lovely, and it interested me not one whit. In my soul I fancied myself a dark, tragic figure, with melting dark eyes, hair black as night, and an alabaster complexion that was both pale and interesting. The porcelain English beauty that stared at me was a bland and uninteresting stranger, and my recognition of its attractive qualities had nothing to do with vanity. It simply existed.

I had learned swiftly in the last two years since I left school that I had only to smile and some nice young man would rush to do my bidding. Even motherly ladies would respond to my gentle requests, a fact that amused my own mother no end. “You should do splendidly, my dear,” she had chortled one evening with uncharacteristic glee. “Everything that should have been mine will be at your fingertips. You need only to perfect your use of your natural gifts and the world will be yours.”

I had watched her amusement with somber doubt. I had no idea what great future my mother had in store for me, but somehow I doubted it was something that would appeal to me. In truth, I would have been far happier if I had been able to succumb to just one of those stalwart young men that flocked around our rented mansion in the seaside resort town. But I was far too much my mother’s daughter to do that.

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