Lured to the night (the brotherhood series book 4) (page 4)

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The unexpected rattling of carriage wheels charging into the bailey caused her pulse to beat rapidly in her throat. If one considered the recent turn of events, her racing heart could be attributed to a fear of the villagers returning with a battering ram to take down the castle door. But the sudden sense of trepidation, the sudden realisation that only one person would arrive in a carriage without warning and in the dead of night, caused a debilitating feeling of dread.

Nikolai had returned.

She froze, her feet rooted to the spot. She opened her mouth to speak, to call out, but no words could ever be sufficient to convey the extent of her anguish.

What if Nikolai discovered Lachlan at the castle? He would see it as a sign of disrespect. He would use it as a reason to destroy everything she held dear.

Forcing one foot in front of the other, she found the courage to shuffle to the window. Peering out, she was shocked to find two people had alighted from the carriage. The couple staring at the large arched door looked disfigured through the thick square panes of glass. Their faces were misshapen and distorted: their cheeks too fat or too hollow depending on which way one tilted their head. The absence of any light made it impossible to distinguish their features. The gentleman had long hair that skimmed his shoulders. The last time she had seen Nikolai he’d had long hair too. The woman’s flowing golden locks were identical to her own.

Isla jumped back.

Suddenly it all became clear to her.

Her hand flew to her heart in a bid to stop it pounding out of her chest. Nikolai had spent the last three years searching for a woman who possessed an uncanny likeness to her own form: a ghostly apparition of herself. He had used his evil magic to lure another devil to unseat her. But she knew enough from old tales of folklore to know that they could not both exist in the same world; to see an identical spectre was a premonition of death.

The calm, reassuring voice of logic muttered away in a distant corner of her mind. It was foolish to believe in ancient stories. A vivid imagination could make the ridiculous seem plausible. But then she would never have expected to crave blood, or to shrivel in sunlight. Ignoring the incessant mumbling, she focused on the only thing that mattered. She would not let Nikolai sink his rotten fangs into Lachlan’s neck.

The loud bang on the door caused the festering anger to flare inside. If they knocked again, they would surely alert Lachlan, and so she had no choice but to face them. When outnumbered, the art of surprise was always the best plan of attack. One must make the best use of whatever means one has at their disposal. The woman would be the weakest, the most vulnerable.

With that in mind, Isla opened the door ajar. Without making eye contact, she slipped outside and closed it quickly behind her. The sharp tips of her fangs dug into her bottom lip, throbbing with the need to draw blood. Without hearing a word from Nikolai, or his pretty companion, she turned and flew at the woman. The affliction gave her the strength to overpower her quarry easily. Racing to stand behind the beauty, she held her to her chest, forced the lady’s head to the side and bared her fangs over the creamy column of her throat.

Nikolai cursed.

“Stay where you are,” Isla hollered before he had a chance to step forward. “I’ll not leave my home. You’ll not take that from me too.”

“Let her go.” Nikolai raised his hands: a sign of surrender. It was so unlike him. “Please, do not drink from her. I beg you.”

Beg? Nikolai would never stoop so low.

His voice sounded less intimidating than she remembered. Perhaps he had spent the last three years in England. He had lost the strange intonation that made him pronounce words sharply as though they were weapons. With the whites of her eyes now littered with red veins, she blinked a few times in a bid to focus on the blurry form before her.

The woman in her arms trembled. Guilt flared. She was not a monster, but Nikolai always brought out the worst elements of character. Survival, and protecting those she cared for, was her only motivation now.

“Tell me why you’ve come back.” With her fangs bared, the words fell awkwardly from her mouth. “Tell me what evil trick you’ve used to conjure a devil in my form.”

“You’re mistaken,” the woman panted. “We have not come here to hurt you. We understand your plight. Show her, Leo. Show her your mark.”

Leo?

Isla stared at the man opposite. He held his hands out in front of him once more. “We were once like you. We know of Nikolai, and we have come here to help you.”

Isla narrowed her gaze. Nikolai’s hair was as black as the night. Now she stood a little closer, this man’s hair appeared more of a warm brown. How had she failed to notice the difference? Nikolai possessed a lithe, almost scrawny frame. This man’s muscular arms strained against the confines of his coat. She blinked again. “Tell me you’re not Nikolai. Tell me you’re not my husband. Let me hear the words fall from your lips.”

The stranger’s eyes widened. They stared at each other.

“I am not Nikolai,” the gentleman said. “I am not your husband. But I will prove to you that we are kin, that we once shared the same blood affliction.” The gentleman shrugged out of his coat, untied his cravat and threw them to the ground. His waistcoat soon joined the other garments before he parted his shirt to reveal the same branding mark that was seared into her hip.

Still gripping the lady firmly, Isla shuffled forward. “How did you come by such a mark?”

The gentleman shook his head. “Release my wife and let us go inside where we can talk.”

“I have the same mark.” The woman gulped, the action evident in the pulsating in her neck. “Nikolai hurt me, too, in the same way he did you.”

The mere mention of his name made Isla’s skin slither over her bones. “Do you know where my husband is? Have you seen him?”

The gentleman nodded. “Yes. And you will be pleased to know—”

The front door flew open. Lachlan and Douglas sprinted out, panic marring their faces.

Isla froze. She did not want Lachlan to see the monster she had become. The hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach grew to cavernous proportions.

Douglas took one look at her ugly eyes, and his face grew ashen, deathly pale. He turned to Lachlan. “It’s best ye stay inside. I’ll deal with this. Go. Go now and tell Malmuirie we have visitors.”

Lachlan ignored him. His confused gaze fell to the clothing discarded on the ground before shooting up to the gentleman’s open shirt. “Who are you? What do you want here?” Lachlan turned his attention to her. As he narrowed his gaze, it took a moment for him to express any sign of emotion. “Isla?” The sharp gasp was accompanied by wide, horrified eyes and a gaping mouth. “What … what is wrong with you?”

Douglas stepped in between them and grabbed Lachlan’s shoulders. “Go inside and we’ll talk about this later.”

Lachlan shrugged out of the old man’s grasp and stepped to the side. “What has happened to your eyes, to your teeth?”

She could not bear to look at him. His horrified expression reminded her so much of the last look to grace her father’s face. Feeling nothing but shame and mortification, she released the woman she’d held pinned to her chest. The woman scurried over to her husband who embraced her in his arms and kissed her tenderly on the temple.

Isla buried her grotesque face in her hands and sobbed. “I thought Nikolai had returned. My … my mind … I cannot think clearly. I do not know what is real anymore.”

“Nikolai?” Douglas snorted. He came over to her, placed a comforting arm around her shoulder. “Could ye not see yer mistake, lass? Hell, I’d know that heathen like I’d know my own mother.”

“Will someone mind telling me what on earth is going on?” Lachlan’s voice held no hint of anger, no hint of disgust.

He deserved to know the truth.

Isla sucked in a breath, let the air travel calmly through her body to bolster her courage. She straightened her spine, gave Douglas a weak smile.

“I am not human, Lachlan.” She came to stand in front of him, ignored the way his brows knitted together when he looked at her face. “I’ve not been human since Nikolai infected my blood. I have no choice but to live like this. I must drink fresh blood else I will die.” She ran her tongue over the points of her fangs. “I am the creature the villagers fear. I am their worst nightmare come true.”

He took a step back. “You killed their cattle for their blood?”

“No!” She shook her head vigorously. “Good Lord, no. Everything I have told you has been the truth. You saw the real culprit yourself. It is just that there is more to the affliction than I led you to believe.”

Douglas stepped forward. “She’s still the same lass you remember. You dinnae have to look at her teeth.”

She would have laughed at her old friend’s words had she not been so utterly heartbroken. As though powered by her sorrowful thoughts, the fangs she detested shrank back into their sheath.

Lachlan jerked his head in surprise. “My mind refuses to accept what my eyes are seeing.”

“This is who I am now, Lachlan. I cannot turn back time. I cannot go back to how things used to be. I am cursed, and there is nothing I can do but learn to live with my affliction.”

The gentleman cleared his throat as he picked up his coat and shook it out. “That is not entirely true.” He shrugged into the garment and took his wife’s hand. “I am Leo Devlin, Marquess of Hartford. And this is my wife, Ivana. We have travelled all the way from Bavaria to see you.”

“Bavaria?” Isla gasped. Good heavens. She did not know what was more shocking. A marquess stood in the bailey — a peer of the realm — and he had come hundreds of miles to see her.

The lady rushed forward, her warm countenance in no way reflecting any resentment for her earlier mistreatment. She took Isla’s hand and rubbed it affectionately. “We have come to tell you that Nikolai is dead. We have come to bring you the cure for your blood affliction.”

 

 

Chapter 7

 

 

 

Isla’s knees buckled, and she crumpled to the ground.

Nikolai was dead. She was a widow. The strangers spoke of a cure for her debilitating disease. The Lord had listened to her prayers. It was all too much for her to absorb.

Lachlan reached for her arm; the lady assisted him in helping to haul her to her feet. She sensed an element of hesitancy in Lachlan’s movements: a reluctance to touch her coupled with an air of apprehension one often saw when someone held a newborn child that wasn’t kin.

Douglas wrapped his arms across his chest. “I say we continue this conversation in front of the fire. The night’s as cold as Malmuirie’s—” He stopped abruptly before his tongue ran away with him and he said something to offend their illustrious guests. Waving a hand towards the door, he said, “Please, come this way, my lord.”

The marquess smiled. “You must call me Leo. When people are connected as we are, there’s no need for formalities.” The gentleman’s wary gaze travelled over her. “I assume your daughter has no objection to us entering your home.”

“Ah, Isla’s nae my daughter. But her father was like a brother to me and so that makes us kin.”

The gentleman nodded. “I understand completely.”

“I … I have no objection.” Isla’s thoughts were so chaotic, in such a state of disarray, that she doubted she’d be able to object to anything. Besides, she needed to hear all the gory details of Nikolai’s demise if she were ever to believe it was true.

Not being a man to bow to anyone, Douglas gave a curt nod. “The name’s Douglas, and this is Lachlan.”

Lachlan merely raised his chin in acknowledgement.Since witnessing her deformed features, he had struggled to look her in the eye. The invisible barrier that now stood between them felt as solid as a wall of stone, one she might never have the strength to climb. She didn’t blame him. No one wanted to see a person they were once going to marry stripped of their humanity. No one wanted to believe that the nightmares they had heard as a child were real.

The lady took her husband’s arm and turned to face her. “We have much to discuss. There are many things to tell you, many questions we have of our own.”

Isla forced a smile although guilt flared for the appalling way she had behaved. “It has been a traumatic night. I was not of sound mind when I attacked you, and so I ask for your forgiveness.”

“We are all guilty of acting in a way we later come to regret.” Ivana hugged her husband's arm, a small inconspicuous gesture yet it suggested the couple had not always been as enamoured with each other as they now appeared. “I am the last person to judge. I am the last person to condemn anyone for using violence as a way of coping with fear.”

Isla curtsied, suddenly recalling that this considerate woman, whom she would have sunk her fangs into, was a marchioness. “Thank you, my lady, for your kindness and compassion.”

“You must call me Ivana. As Leo said, we are not ones for formality. And I am certain when we leave here we shall do so as friends.”

“Can we nae continue with the pleasantries inside?” Douglas visibly shivered. “With my poor circulation, I’m sure to lose a few toes if I hover about here much longer.”

Even in her subdued mood, Isla could not help but chuckle inwardly at her old friend’s blunt manner. “Come, Douglas, we’d not want to see you spend the rest of your days hobbling about with a stick. I’ll speak to Malmuirie. She can heat some of her mint and rosemary balm and give them a thorough rub.”

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