Wales, March 1810
Everyone in Avonlea knew the story of the Demon Earl.
Robert Gold had first appeared at Askham Hall as a young child to everyone’s surprise, including his father, Lord Malcolm Gold, Lord of Lonsdale. There was no denying the parentage; the young boy was Malcolm’s spitting image.
The surprising series of events was chalked up to youthful indiscretions and the boy was promptly shipped off to boarding schools. Avonlea almost forgot about the Lord of Lonsdale’s bastard son entirely until the day, nearly six years ago, when he had returned to Askham Hall as a wedded man with a bride on his arm.
The Demon Earl lasted less than a year before he decamped back to London. He left his young wife in Wales with her father-in-law and her new mother-in-law, a lady younger than she was.
Stories leaked out from Askham Hall about the devious debauchery Lord Robert engaged in while he was in London. Servants often noticed the ladies of the house in tears, and the Lord of Lonsdale in fits of rage over the reports in the paper about his son cutting a swath through every boudoir of London.
He ordered his errant son back home but less than a year later...Lord Malcolm Gold and his daughter-in-law were dead. Robert Gold disappeared the very same night and had not been heard from in four years.
Standing along the path overlooking the valley, Belle French gazed out at Askham Hall. Smoke curled up from the chimneys which meant the rumors were true; after four years, the Lord of Lonsdale had finally come home.
No one had known where he had gone. There had been no word, no whisper, not even a mention of the errant lord in the society papers. So, of course, in his absence, speculation had run rampant throughout Avonlea.
Some said the new Lord Lonsdale had pledged his soul to the devil and had since been off cavorting with demons. Others whispered he had gone off to profit from Napoleon’s bloody war on the Continent, while the bolder among them insisted he had gone to sell secrets to the dictator himself in exchange for refuge in France.
Rumors varied from source to source but everyone agreed upon one thing: Lord Robert Gold, was capable of anything.
Which was why, despite all the horrific rumors, Belle was on her way to Askham Hall.
Gold had been home for less than twenty-four hours and he already felt buried alive. His solicitor, Sidney Glass, had been firm that he could not put this off any longer, so Gold had returned to Askham Hall to put an end to this chapter of his life, once and for all. If he was truly going to be free of his past, he had to sever the last tie, the matter of the estate.
The halls were too quiet. The few remaining servants avoided him, scurrying out of his way less he curse them. He had heard the whispers, he knew the rumors. If he occasionally began to mutter something under his breath in Greek, just to watch a maid hurry away in terror, it was only for a moment’s respite from the eyes following him from room to room.
The head of house was the sole exception. “My lord,” Dove announced as he swung open the bedroom’s door, uninvited and unannounced. “I’ve brought you up the tea you requested.”
Turning from the window, Gold frowned. “I don’t recall requesting anything, Dove.”
The older man bowed. “My apologies,” he said as he left the tray on the table. HIs eyes flickered in disapproval around the guest bedroom. “We’ve finished airing out the state chambers,” he declared. “Perhaps those would be more suitable?”
Gold flinched. He had no interest in using his father’s rooms. He would rather barricade the door entirely then so much as take a step inside. As for his old rooms, it had merely taken one look at his bed for the memories of Milah to return.
These past four years, he had managed to banish her from his mind but her ghost had been awaiting him in their marriage bed. So, he had retreated to a guest room on the other side of the manor.
Let the household gossip about his choice of rooms. It did not matter to him. He was only here long enough to break the trust, to sell these cursed stones and leave the ghosts to some other poor sod.
The head of house lingered, clearly about to make his case on why a lord should not be staying in these lesser rooms. Uninterested in a lecture, Gold brushed past Dove towards the door. “I’ll be in my study,” he grumbled.
Arriving in the study, Gold tried and failed to find something to occupy his time when a flash of amber caught his eye. A bottle of brandy had been left out with a tumbler nearby. He stared at it for a long moment, debating.
Finally, figuring he had nothing else to do, and facing down a long afternoon of boredom and painful memories, he uncapped the brandy and poured himself a tall glass. It may not be the answer, but it was a solution.
Despite growing up in Avonlea, Belle had never actually been this close to Askham Hall. The great stone facade sprawled in every direction against the horizon of the sky, the dark stone glistening in the spring sun as if alive.
Belle lingered upon the stairs, mustering her courage. She had no experience with lords or great houses, but there was no helping that now. Steeling her spine, she stepped to the knocker, raised up to indicate the master of the house was at home and knocked.
It reverberated in the inner caverns of the great house. Belle pulled self-consciously on her sleeve and reached up to fix her bonnet. She had taken time to arrange her appearance just so, but now that she was actually here, she felt undressed. It did not take long for the door to open to reveal a somber fellow, whom Belle recognized at once as Askham Hall’s head of house, Dove.
Everyone in Avonlea knew the skeleton staff still employed by the errant lord; they were fortunate compared to the rest of Avonlea, with steady pay and lodgings while the rest of Avonlea had declined in the years that had followed the tragedies.
“Good afternoon,” Belle greeted. “I’m here to speak to Lord Lonsdale.”
The head of house recognized her as well. Being the town’s schoolmistress lent her a certain air of notoriety. “Miss French,” he said, though he did not open the door. “I don’t believe his lordship is receiving anyone today.”
She had not expected to be turned away at the door. She felt a bit silly that she had not considered that possibility. She plastered her best smile upon her face. “It’s a simple matter,” she said, which was not exactly true. “Perhaps Lord Lonsdale has just a moment?”
Dove wavered but with a slight tilt of his head, he gestured for her to follow after him.
The hall was as great as Belle had expected. It was white marble with a great chandelier hanging overhead, glistening in the early spring sunlight but there was an unearthly stillness as if the hall was awaiting something.
Dove escorted Belle down a long corridor. Every room they passed showed signs of neglect and age, cluttered and crammed with furnishings. It was a shame to see such a beautiful house brought low but if the rumors were to be believed, this house had seen terrible things and perhaps it was for the best.
Caught up in staring at her surroundings, Belle almost walked straight into Dove when he stopped to open the library door. “Miss Belle French to see you, my lord,” Dove announced without so much as a look back at her.
Belle did not give the earl a chance to refuse to admit her. Seizing her courage, she walked straight past Dove into the library.- only to falter at the sight before her.
She hadn’t known what she expected the Demon Earl to look like, but it was not this. The earl was standing at a window, clad only in his shirt sleeves. The sun cut through the thin fabric to show the planes and lines of his frame beneath the muslin.
He was not a particularly physically intimidating man but there was a stillness about him, an air of power, that proved that this was indeed the man who had spawned so many legends in Avonlea. He was not a typically handsome man but there was something about him that drew the eye, invited one to look closer.
The door closed behind her as Dove departed. Jolted out of her reverie, Belle turned back to the door, rather wishing the head of house had lingered. Belle had never spoken to a member of the peerage before and suddenly felt wrong-footed, uncertain where to start.
When she did not speak, the earl lifted an eyebrow at her. “And who would you be?”
“Belle French, my lord.”
He waved his arm, the glass in his hand catching the sunlight. “Yes, I know that, Miss French, as you were just announced mere seconds ago. I meant who are you to me? It is considered the highest of impropriety for a lady to call upon a lord unaccompanied without so much as an introduction.”
Biting back an angry retort, she managed, “I’m the schoolmistress in Avonlea.”
“Ah.” Gold waved his hand and turned back to the window. “Barely home a day and already they come knocking,” he muttered to himself before saying loudly for her benefit,” I assume you are here seeking funds for a worthy cause. I’d advise you to have your husband or father apply to my steward in the future rather than inconveniencing me. Good day, Miss French.”
At his curt dismissal, Belle’s temper flickered and caught. “I am unwed and my father has been dead and buried ten years this August. Besides, this is not some simple matter for your steward, my lord.”
“It never is,” he said over his shoulder. He strolled over a decanter-covered cabinet and refilled the glass in his hand. “Everyone thinks their matters are too important for a steward. I wonder what I pay him for. ”
“Lord Lonsdale,” Belle said, starting again. ”I’m here because the people of Avonlea are suffering, and you are the only one in a position to help them. It will cost you little in time or money.”
“I don’t care how little it costs,” Gold snapped. “I don’t want anything to do with your village or the people in it. Which includes you.” He gestured toward the door. “So, I suggest you leave before things get uncivil.”
From her perspective, things were already uncivil, so Belle did not see that as a reason to leave. She gave up on any niceties, planting her hands on her hips. “I am not asking for your help, I am demanding it as your role of lord requires of you. Now, shall I explain now or wait for you in the parlor until you are sober?”
Lord Gold lowered his glass. “I wouldn’t speak to me like that if I were you,” he warned as he took a step closer. “Last I checked, you were in my home. Have a care how you speak to me.”
Belle had prepared for a certain level of antagonism and had meant to meet it with a calm, level head but as usual, her temper was starting to get a hold of her. “Your father was a good man,” Belle reminded him. “He did a great deal for the people of Avonlea. The poor fund, the chapel-”
“I am not my father.”
She had touched a nerve. Belle crossed her arms and blustered, “No, it appears the apple has fallen rather far from the tree. Since you have inherited, you haven’t done a thing for the estate or the village.”
“Nor do I intend to,” he picked his drink back up and finished it in one swallow.
He meant it too.
“How can you say such a thing?” she asked him. “No one is that heartless.”
Gold smiled. “Miss French, your innocence is touching.” He leaned against the edge of his table and crossed his arms. “You had best depart before I shatter any of your other dearly beloved illusions.”
She gaped at him. “Don’t you care that people are suffering?”
Gold thought for a moment. “No.”
“What would change your mind?” Belle pressed him. She had not come all this way to just give up
Gold waved his hand. “My help is not available for any price you would be willing to pay.”
“How can I know that unless you name your price?”
This caught his attention. He stilled and the air in the room shifted. “You want to make a deal?” he drawled, taking a step closer to her. He crooked a finger and beckoned her closer. “And what exactly do you have to offer, Miss French?”
Too late, Belle realized what could be insinuated from her reckless words. A flush spread across her face but she tried not to avert her eyes from his smug countenance as he sat upon the desk.
When she could not find her voice, Gold stood, victorious. “I fail to see why I should spend my time and energy when there is nothing in it for me.” He retrieved his glass and poured himself another glass of brandy, returning to the other side of the desk. “Close the door on your way out, Miss French.”
Belle was tempted to do just that, but she had to try one last time, not for her sake but for the sake of Avonlea. “I will not leave until you have named a price for your aid.”
The Demon Earl stared back at her, his face an impassive mask. ‘You will not like my answer.”
No, she rather thought she wouldn’t. Still. “At least name your cost.”
A shadow crossed his face, calculating and triumphant. “I’ll name my price, but it’s one I’m confident that you will refuse to pay.”
“What is it?” she asked warily.
“What I want,” he paused for a deep drink of brandy, “is you.”