By: Kathleen E. Woodiwis

Kathleen E. Woodiwiss

Part One

Is this the horrid dragon beast Of sinew strong and deep of chest And never needing rest?

A steed, the best?

Then seize a saddle from the rack And strap it on the beastie’s back, Of courage never have a lack, No turning back.

The beast has served and flown the earth around.

You’ve sought your treasures, forced him to the ground.

You loose the reins, your goal is found.

He turns around.

Long of fang, the fiercest eye and talons, not discounting, No fault of choice, nor better beast you’d ever take ahunting.

But now you’re caught and find the peril is dismounting—

Chapter 1

Midnight, November 18, 1749


NIGHT GRIPPED THE CITY with cold, misty darkness. The threat of winter was heavy in the air. Acrid smoke stung the nostrils and throat, for in every home fires were stirred and stoked against the seaborne chill that pierced to the bone. Low-hanging clouds dribbled fine droplets of moisture which mixed with the soot spewed forth from London’s towering chimneys before falling as a thin film that covered every surface.

The miserable night masked the passage of a carriage that careened through the narrow streets as if it fled from some terrible disaster. It jolted and tottered precariously over the cobblestones, its high wheels sending mud and water splattering. In the calm that followed the coach’s passing, the murky liquid trickled slowly back to mirrored pools pocked with droplets or neatly patterned with ripples. The driver, ominously large and cloaked in black, hauled on the reins, hurling an oath down at the team of dapple-grays, but his voice was lost beneath the heavy thud of pounding hooves and the rattle of churning wheels. The din of the ride echoed in the chilling night until it seemed to come from every direction. The dark shape of the carriage flitted through dim pools of light cast from the flickering door lanterns of the baroque facades it passed. Grinning gargoyles stared down from high above where they squatted on stony eaves, thin runnels of rain dribbling from their carved granite mouths as if they hungered for the prey passing below their perches.

Shanna Trahrn pushed back into the plush, red velvet seats of the carriage to brace herself against the breakneck speed. She was little concerned with the murk beyond the leather shades, or, indeed, with anything but her own thoughts. She sat alone and silent. Her face was devoid of expression, yet now and then the lantern would swing with a jolting lurch of the carriage, and its weak light would catch the hard, brittle gleam in the depths of the blue-green eyes. No man gazing into them now would have found a trace of warmth to cheer him or any hint of love to comfort his heart. The face, so stirringly beautiful and young, was dispassionate. Without the usual audience of male admirers in attendance, there was no need to portray a charming or gracious image, though it was rare indeed that Shanna Trahern exerted herself beyond a momentary whim. If it met her mood, she could enchant anyone, but now her eyes showed a stern determination that would have shriveled any but the most heroic spirit.

“I am cursed,” the fair lips curled. “Were I heaven blessed, I would not be about this errand. What other woman must venture out upon the streets on a night such as this to ease the torment of her state?” Her mind raced along its well-traveled path. “What cruel twist of fate that I be born beneath the blighting branches of my father’s wealth? Would that I were poor and thus could know that a man wanted me for myself.”

She sighed in introspection and let her mind probe once again her reasoning as if to find a flaw. Neither her beauty nor her father’s riches had aided her. A three-year stint in the best schools in Europe and Britain had bored her to distraction. Those so-called ladies’ schools had dealt more with court manners, fashion, and the various tedious forms of needlework than with techniques of writing or dealing with numbers. There she had been pursued for her beauty and exposed to the insincerity of young roués seeking to extend their reputations at her expense. Many had felt the prick of her scorn then, disheartened, sulked away. When it became known that she was the daughter of Orlan Trahern, one of the richest men ever to frequent the marketplace, all those young men in needy circumstances came seeking her hand. She could abide these milksops no better than the rest and heartlessly dashed their dreams with words as painful as a dagger’s blade.

Her disenchantment with men led to her father’s ultimatum. It had begun simply enough. On her return from Europe he had chided her for not finding a husband.

“With all those eager young studs of the courts posturing about you, girl, you couldn’t even get yourself a man with a name to bring recognition to your children.”

His words had nipped at Shanna’s pride, bringing a rush of tears to her eyes. Heedless of her distress, her father had ranted on, setting the spur deeper.

“Damn me, girl! What have I built my fortune for, if not for my own kin? But seen to your way, ’twill go no further than your grave. Blast it all, I want grandchildren! Are you set to be a spinster who rejects every man that comes courting? Your children could be powers at court if they have a title to aid them. They’ll need but two things to be successful in this world and accepted by royalty. I give them one—wealth—more than you can spend in a lifetime. You can gain them the other—a name no one would dare question, a name with a lineage so pure and fine ’twill need a good stock of common blood to strengthen it. Such a name can do as much to open doors as riches. But with no other name than Trahern, they’ll be little more than merchants.” His voice had sharpened in anger. “Tis my hell that I am given a daughter with the looks to choose among the bluest lines, one to make barons, earls, even dukes fawn and drool upon themselves for the want of her. But she dallies like some dreamy twit for a silver knight on a white charger who might match her own untouched purity.”