The Scarlett Mark (Prologue)

PROLOGUE

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Cynara

A black storm blew in from the ocean, a malicious tempest with gale force winds that threatened to topple the oak trees, as if their brine-soaked trunks were no more than thin sticks. Lightning flashed white as it rippled between gray clouds. Thunder roared and crackled, as if an enchanted force attempted to tear a hole in the twilight sky. Mother Nature brewed a warning of evil entering the forest, but Cynara Musadora’s wrath could not be stilled, and the witch kept coming.

Cynara had conjured the storm, and she welcomed the breeze as she walked headlong into the wind, shrouded in a black cloak with a silver lining that swirled around her legs; the fabric itself seemed to breathe an insidious life. She did not pause in her pursuit, even though cold air spat against her face, nipped at her hands, and whipped long jet-black strands of hair into her mint-green eyes. She parted the air with a wave of her hand and continued her mad quest through the woodland.

Walking beneath the oak trees, she swept branches away from her eyes, as if their woody limbs were her web and she the vengeful spider running across the silk tapestry to catch her prey. Lord Nicolai, unaware of her pursuit, already struggled in her web. She sensed the thrum of his heartbeat further along the silken thread. Soon she would wrap the reprehensible man within her black curse and punish him for his crime, a crime that drove her closer to his home to carry out her angry purpose.

Vengeance dangled in her field of vision, held like a stone in the palm of her hand, and she had no issue with seeing her plan through to completion. No man or woman would deter her revenge. She stepped around a tree, her hand pulsing into a fist, and found the pathway that led to the mansion and the man who fueled her anger.

“Soon, Nicolai,” she cackled, as the lightning flashed its warning a second time and the thunder boomed an equally dire threat. “Very soon, your heart will be mine.”

Cynara knew nothing could change her plan. When Nicolai rejected their relationship, the lost love had torn her heart into two bloody pieces. It still felt that way. Where a heart should beat strong, now only sorrow, silent rage, and two black stones lay lodged within her chest.

My precious heart is dead because of you, Nicolai, she thought. It’s not unreasonable that you should cry for death, too.

After all, Nicolai’s ignorance of her emotional well-being had pushed her patience to the limit since the betrothal announcement to his new paramour. Despite his excuses, his deception and his promise to another woman had caused her indescribable pain, provoking a hell-storm beyond herself that she couldn’t calm. In response, Cynara had a gift for him, a black curse she had conjured to teach him a lesson and end his fornicating ways forever.

If she could not have the man she loved—or rather, had once loved—if Nicolai could not see that she was his other half, his better half, then damn the man to hell. She would ensure that no other woman wore his ring or shared his impassioned bed.

As the forest gave way to a clearing, she walked across tall grasses swishing with the strong breeze to the ridge, whose rocky embankment traversed the path between the land and the sea. Not even the crash of the waves beneath the cliff edge stilled her purpose. Drum Manor was just beyond. She saw the lights of the manor house flickering in the windows like a beacon in the distance, drawing her closer. And she knew where the lord mindlessly waited. Lord Nicolai would be in the hall celebrating with his bride-to-be.

“But not for long,” Cynara snickered.

She’d soon find the betrothal partners and douse their damnable flames forever.

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Lord Nicolai Greydon

Lord Nicolai Greydon stood near the banquet table, dressed in a rich black vest accentuated with silver brocade, holding a tankard of ale in his right hand. He grinned, acknowledging the fact that he had reached a once unattainable goal—he had amassed his fortune and in so doing had returned his family name to its proper status. He considered this milestone as he scrutinized the gilt-edged hall, reflecting on the windfall of capital presented in the form of wealthy guests. He contemplated the men and women who engaged in conversation, danced to classical music, feasted on his food, or snuck down a corridor to a private room to share in more intimate pursuits. Drum Manor hosted the best of the best, and he was grateful that the wealthy were in attendance.

Counts and viscounts talked about parliamentary issues. The Lord High Marshall, in company with members of the king’s privy council, droned on about military matters to diplomats and stewards. Lords and ladies presented their stylish daughters in the hopes of finding a suitable husband. Everyone who could make a difference in his life shared his home on his betrothal night.Lord Nicolai Greydon stood near the banquet table, dressed in a rich black vest accentuated with silver brocade, holding a tankard of ale in his right hand. He grinned, acknowledging the fact that he had reached a once unattainable goal—he had amassed his fortune and in so doing had returned his family name to its proper status. He considered this milestone as he scrutinized the gilt-edged hall, reflecting on the windfall of capital presented in the form of wealthy guests. He contemplated the men and women who engaged in conversation, danced to classical music, feasted on his food, or snuck down a corridor to a private room to share in more intimate pursuits. Drum Manor hosted the best of the best, and he was grateful that the wealthy were in attendance.

Feeling as if he had won a luxurious prize, Nicolai smiled, sipped his ale, and focused on the woman who brought this influence into his life. Alexandra, the daughter of an earl; she would make the perfect wife. Some aristocratic men might consider their match a selfish pursuit of material gain, since this woman’s dowry advanced much required coin to his pocket.

Aw, but he didn’t care what anyone thought about his actions. He couldn’t wait to be wed to realize the wealth he would soon count. And her delicate features, blonde hair, and celestial blue eyes provided the perfect genetics should their union produce children. Dressed in a pale blue dress threaded with gold, she shimmered like the precious metal. He probably should love the woman for all she brought to him, but what did Nicolai Greydon know about love?

Nicolai had never considered the question of love until a hunting lad had enquired about his matrimonial motives, motives that could never define a lover’s true purpose. He had skirted the issue with a response long in coming.

What is love, anyway?

He sipped his drink and contemplated the question again now. The poets wrote about this notion of love as if its essence were a heady desire or a dark spell that squeezed at the victim’s heart and rendered them helpless. The minstrels sang of silly infatuations with high-pitched voices, imparting an intense lust and sudden couplings of the heart.

“Huh,” Nicolai remembered, chuckling under his breath. He felt that love was no more than an incurable malady, an arthritic condition; a chain that threatened to drag its victims into a life of servitude. He did not care for such an affliction, but he did covet the monetary elements that came with the commitment—the money that a marriage would bring.

Someday, he might care for Alexandra, perhaps even love her, but if not for his needs, he would never have chosen her for a bride. Despite her beauty, she feared his advances, shied away from conversation, and cringed at the slightest stroke against her flesh. Frankly, they entertained little chemistry. Bedding the woman might even prove to be a trial.

Lord Nicolai, or Nick, as the more brazen ladies chose to refer to him, was not accustomed to a shy lady like Alexandra. He preferred a daredevil of a woman. He licked the salty ale from his lips as Cyn came to mind—a dark-haired vixen who had once joined him in raucous sexual exploits. He heated as he recalled their affair, but their sex-play had ended when the marriage banns were announced. Perhaps he could find her again, take her as his mistress, and enjoy her seductive pleasure on the side.

“No,” he whispered to himself as he downed his ale in a choked gulp. Removing this dark woman from his life had been a well-chosen option, as their last encounter had ended horribly. Cynara had fought the news of his upcoming marriage. She chanced to be a take all or take naught sort of woman, a wanton female who would hurt a man if he didn’t pay close attention to her needs. Such a price he couldn’t afford to pay.

But the time had come to make the announcement, so Nicolai placed his empty mug on the table and went in search of Alexandra, finding his betrothed where a dutiful daughter should be: at her father’s side, just behind her mother’s skirt.

“There you are,” he called out, reflecting on her beauty as he crossed the space between them. “You’re dressed like an angel in your pale blue gown, Lady Alexandra. I swear your eyes are glowing with an inner light.”

She curtsied, dipping daintily. “Thank you for your kindness, my lord.”

He smiled and extended his gloved hand toward her. “May I have your hand, my dear? It’s time to make our betrothal announcement.”

Alexandra breathed deeply, sighed, and then placed her petite hand atop his palm while lowering her gaze. “Yes, Lord Nicolai.”

Gently, he pulled her to him. A tiny, fragile bird, she appeared ready to fly as she flitted to his side. He felt the fright in her quivering hand.

“Alexandra, my dear,” he whispered as he pulled her away from her father, leading her away. “You must not quiver in fright. I will be your husband soon.”

“I’m not frightened of you,” she mumbled, taking a deep breath. “Lord Nicolai, I’m just not ready for marriage, or this betrothal.”

He studied her sedate expression, pulling her close. “I know our engagement is sudden, but it’s a good match for our families. Surely a beauty such as yourself yearns for a husband? Isn’t that why your mother brought you to court a fortnight ago, to find you a suitable partner?”

He heard the rapid rhythm of her breathing and perceived the sharp pulse of her heartbeat beneath his fingertips. Her fear was so obviously expressed. Was she already concerning herself with the possibilities held within their bedchamber?

“I confess that I was excited to explore the idea of marriage,” she confided, nibbling at her lip. “However, I didn’t imagine I’d find myself betrothed quite so quickly. And to a—a rake of a man!”

He pulled her nearer still, surprised at her temerity, and whispered words only she could hear. “A rake of a man?” Nicolai chortled, grazing her tender earlobe with his lips. “I see that my reputation precedes me. I assure you, my dear, that I am a gentleman, and as such I will treat you with the utmost respect.”

“I don’t doubt that you will respect me, my lord. However, I’ve heard tell that your standing rule with women is one of mutual affection.”

“I’m quite unsure as to what you imply, my lady, but I imagine in time you’ll assert your position.”

“You know,” she blushed. “Your clandestine relationships with the opposite sex.”

Nicolai shook his head. “Will it go easier for you if I promise to love only you?”

“Isn’t that what every woman should want, Lord Nicolai? A man who will share his flattery with only one woman?”

He paused in his stride, taking in her expectant look. One white lie; what did it matter if he shared a mistruth? “I see that this concern rattles you, so to aid in putting this worry behind us, I promise to bestow my fragile heart upon your good graces, Alexandra. And perhaps, in time, some affection, too.”

He watched her wary expression as he led her toward the podium. She looked back wistfully at her parents and her former life, and then sought his observation again.

“Truly?” she mouthed.

Nicolai merely winked at her and then commanded the orchestra to stop the music. The conversations drifted away to silence. “I am honored to announce my betrothal to Lady Alexandra von Kampen, the beloved daughter of the earl and countess, Lord Victor and Lady Anna von Kampen. We will be wed in the private gardens of her family home in a fortnight’s time. We thank our friends and family for celebrating this occasion with us. All we ask is that you support us in our journey to matrimony.”

Lightning streaked white across the sky, and the thunder boomed so loud the entire room shook. A gust of wind hit the manor house with such force that the double doors at the end of the hall surged open and banged against the walls. The woman who had entertained Nicolai’s thoughts earlier stepped into the room, dressed like a nymph just emerged wet from the sea.

Nicolai cringed. Alexandra staggered backwards. The look on Cynara’s furious face caused his heart to miss a precious beat.

“A party,” she hissed. She swept a black hood from her head, slipped out of her cape, and let the material slide from her shoulders to form a large stain on the floor. The fabric of her silver-patterned dress molded to her feminine figure and outlined the curvy hips Nicolai remembered. She walked across the hall to meet him with the grace of a serpent accustomed to the constriction.

“Rude of you not to include me, Nicolai.”

He cleared his throat. “What manner of hell has brought you to my home, Cynara? You’re no more than a lowly woman and have no right to walk into this betrothal party uninvited.”

“I have every right to be here,” she growled. “I should be standing beside you—not her!”

“Accept your lot in life. You were not invited to stand anywhere near me, Madam.”

Once quiet as a dormouse, Alexandra squeaked, “Nicolai, who is this woman?”

He glowered into Cynara’s minty eyes, wishing he could answer that damnable question. For a certainty he knew her and remembered her, but after their last meeting he thought their paths would never cross again.

“Her name is Cynara,” he growled, taking one uncertain step forward. “But her nickname Cyn was always more to my liking.”

“Nicolai, you ignorant sard,” the witch spat. “I should have known you were no good for me when you couldn’t deign to say my full name. I aim to ensure you never forget the sound of Cynara on your tongue again. The sound of ‘Cyn’ is distasteful; foul. It makes me appear to be a bad seed. I’m nothing of the sort.”

“You are a bad seed,” he called out, unmindful of his guests. “And a common woman, too. A pity you can’t accept your lower rank.”

“That comment will cost you dearly.”

“Cyn, my affairs no longer concern you. Retrace your steps, collect your cloak, and leave my hall.”

Whatever her purpose, Nicolai’s demands did not deter her movement. She appeared to sadden at first, but then her face contorted in anger and she walked closer. So close, he could see the fiery sparks in the whites of her eyes.

She paused meaningfully. “Cynara, Nicolai. Always remember that Cynara put you in your place.”

“What’s the meaning of this intrusion, Madam?” Alexandra’s father bellowed.

Nicolai groaned, watching his soon to be father-in-law, a know-it-all blatherskite, pace forward across the hall. The blighter stepping into the fray wore a belt under his girth to hold an overly large tummy. No hope from this quarter—the man looked the fool as he slobbered further with his prattle.

“Who are you to walk uninvited into this hall? This is my daughter’s day, and you will not dishonor it. Do what is asked of you and leave.”

“This should have been my day,” Cynara howled, waving his words away as if he were a fly and turning her attention to Alexandra in a most unnatural way. Nicolai saw the hate in Cynara’s eyes as Alexandra stepped backward in response, toward the natural protection of her father.

“Soon your daughter will wish she had never been born,” Cynara spat, slowly moving forward. “Perhaps she will also wish you had never sold her to this cat’s eye.”

“My guests and I have heard enough,” Nicolai raged, stepping forward. He grabbed Cynara’s arm and attempted to lead her from the hall. But she pulled free, broke their contact, and raised her hands against him in the strangest manner.

“Nicolai Greydon,” she shouted, “you have wronged me!”

He tried to laugh, but the sound came out strangled. The situation grew more ludicrous as each minute passed. At one time he had taken his pleasure from this woman, as most lords were inclined to do in the company of a common woman, but now she embarrassed him in front of his guests.

“Cynara,” he yelled. “A man cannot wrong a fallen woman! You do not know your place and have entertained us long enough.”

Nicolai searched the crowd of shocked guests until he found his butler. “Bensen,” he called across the hall. “Lead this woman from the hall and have her away.”

Cynara screamed a brutal sound; her face distorted and turned purple with rage. “I would ignore your master’s call if I were you,” she shouted.

Bensen was not deterred and had not walked far before she raised her hand, splayed her fingers wide, and directed a current of electricity at him. Lightning sizzled from her fingertips and surged across the room. The candlelight flickered; the thunder echoed her anger and raged aloud.

Nicolai could not believe the scene he was witnessing. Black magic wrapped Bensen’s body within a cocoon of light, lifting the butler off the floor as if he were no more than a rock, throwing him across the hall. He lay on the floor like a beaten dog, whimpering, clutching the leg of a lounge chair, his body still. All Nicolai could do was stare in shock.

“Who’s next?” Cynara screamed, turning back to Nicolai while women cried in fright and ran from the room in panic, with husbands, fathers, and servants following.

Alexandra tried to flee too, attempting to reach her parents, but an unseen force held her in place. “Mother,” she cried out in panic. Tears filled her eyes as she reached for her mum, but Lady Anna could not free her daughter from the evil.

Cynara’s eyes pierced Nicolai with white-hot anger. “I hate you, Nicolai. I abhor you for using me, and I curse you to the blackest depths of hell for as long as you shall live.”

Nicolai didn’t know whether he should laugh or cry as he had just witnessed her unnatural power on his butler. For the first time ever, he was scared. Now his only thought was to protect Alexandra. He grabbed her hand and tried to lead her away, but she had become fixed to the ground, rooted like a statue.

“You think to leave, my lord? You should be aware that a predator always gives chase.”

Nicolai stepped away from his betrothed, knowing that closing his distance to her only threatened her further. He heard Cynara chanting in her witch’s voice loud and shrill, speaking slowly at first and then so quickly he couldn’t understand the language.

What in God’s bones was she muttering? However, he didn’t need to understand her foreign words to know that lives were in danger. Cynara held all their fates in her hands.

White light blinded him and the thunder boomed again as if the storm churned inside the room. By God, dark powers consumed his hall, and he couldn’t protect himself, Alexandra, or any of the guests that he had welcomed to Drum Manor.

“Within this hour,” Cynara wailed, “I bind thy power. To be mine for eternity, cursed with a black poverty…”

Lightning entered Nicolai’s body and grasped his beating heart. It squeezed his lifeblood and pulled him bodily away from his betrothed.

“Cynara, please don’t do this,” he begged. Screaming in agony, he fought against the electric current that burned deep within his chest. The powerful surge yanked him off his feet and slid him beneath Cynara’s heated, maniacal gaze.

Strange laughter filled his head and pressed against every living vessel. The pain was so intense, he curled into a fetal position, clutching at his chest and spilling his urine inside his pants. He begged for mercy, moaning in pain, but he could see from her crazed expression that a merciful escape was impossible.

“Nicolai Greydon, you foolish man, I curse you to live in darkness throughout the rest of your miserable life because you have wronged me. You will live in a black existence like a cat, always chasing a mouse, never able to hold the love you forfeited when you wounded me.”

“Please, Cynara,” Nicolai cried, writhing on the floor. “Please, release me…”

“Leave him alone, you monster,” Alexandra screamed in panic, finding her voice too late.

“No more from you, little bird!” Cynara shouted.

Lightning flashed quick and silver and surrounded Alexandra with a cloak of crimson flames. For an instant a beautiful angel stood in a burning light, appealing for help. Alexandra screamed in terror as her hands searched for an escape inside the barrier. The fire melted and then burned her flesh, the heat so intense that soon only the flames burning the shape of a woman were visible. A million stars burned bright around her slender form and then simply fell apart, scattering in the air and falling to the ground, dissipating. Soon nothing remained. The space where Alexandra had stood was empty, with not even an ash left on the floor. Nicolai’s betrothed was gone.

“Consider your betrothal broken, Nicolai!”

Lady Anna screamed in horror and ran from the hall. Cynara did not appear to hear her. Earl Victor von Kampen, undone, stepped backwards, tears leaking from his eyes as if he could not believe what he had seen. He looked to where his daughter had fallen and wailed like a baby, then took the hand of his countess and rushed her away.

“What have you done, Cynara?” Nicolai said, incredulous, feeling the weight of his loss in the empty room.

She walked around him where he lay on the floor, and he knew she felt joy in his suffering. She did not care about the lifeblood lost.

“What have I done?” she sneered. “What have you done, Nicolai Greydon? You brought this storm, not I.”

Cynara reached toward Nicolai’s chest and squeezed her fingers into a fist. A white light formed the shape of a hand and grabbed him around the chest, squeezing tight.

Nicolai writhed in agony as pain twisted like a knife inside his heart. “Feel this,” she shouted, as his world began to change. He barely heard her voice chanting as a sinister whisper wrapped him in a horrible dark magic.

Make me strong where this man is weak, and give him little wisdom to seek.

Twist his heart into cold black stone, never to love again, for the pursuit of love will capture him alone.

Set upon him a sharp ugly tooth—a black cat in the night, to feed upon red ruins.

Before me now let him cringe in pain, never to enjoy the fruits of life again.

“Cynara,” Nicolai cried, tears streaming down his face as he tried to breathe. “Please… I beg of you. Have mercy.”

Mutatio, mutatio,” she screeched, lifting him off the ground and spinning him faster and faster in a circular spiral in the air. “Transform! Change! Mine will be done!”

Pulled off the ground, Nicolai felt his body shifting and changing. Liquid fire moved through his veins, flowed to the tips of his fingers and toes, and threatened to burn his blood vessels alive. He felt his insides being pulled apart and then molded back together, a whir of cells and molecules coming apart and then growing back together while his mass continued to spin in the air. He convulsed, twisted, and flexed, but he did not burn up. Human flesh softened to workable putty and then reshaped into something new. Cynara relinquished her hold. Suddenly the pain loosened its grip, and Nicolai fell.

He landed on the ground perfectly intact on his feet—on his four feet.

Nicolai knew something wicked had occurred. Cynara towered above him. He tried to talk to her, but only a snarl emanated from his mouth.

“Look at you now, Nicolai,” she cackled with ill humor. The evil cadence ricocheted in his head. He watched as the color in the matrix of her eyes returned to normal. “You poor furry creature. You don’t even know what you’ve become.”

He snarled again and leapt at her throat, swiping at the witch with thick black paws and extended claws, but she merely pushed him backwards as if he were a gnat. Her voice became serious yet again.

“You answer to me now, Black Panther, and though your teeth are sharp and your claws are deadly weapons, you will never be able to use them against me, for I am your keeper. You are cursed with a black death, Nicolai. Cursed!”

He growled. He moved around her, pacing back and forth, searching for any possibility to attack, his huge black paw swiping through the air. He wanted to lunge at her throat, as the hatred he felt inside raged to fight back, but he could not attack. He roared in frustration and jumped against an invisible barrier that he could not penetrate.

Cynara walked back to where her cape lay on the ground, picked it up, and swept the inky blackness back around her shoulders, attaching the cape at her throat. By now the hall was completely empty, and they were alone. Even his butler had managed to crawl away. Nicolai had lost everything. More than he could ever have imagined.

“It’s not as bad as it seems, Nicolai, for you won’t hold this form for long. You will be a man again, but you will never enjoy a fruitful woman beneath your loins again. I will satisfy myself knowing that this black transformation will ensure that you are miserable for the rest of your dying days.”

He could only watch as she sauntered to the double doors. “Not that I care, but please accept some words of advice, Nicolai. If you ever think to couple with a woman, or share her pleasure, you will change into the panther, and when the darkness overcomes you, you will kill her. Your teeth are quite sharp, and your claws as well.”

She grabbed one door and closed it, then paused while holding the other. “Good night, Nicolai.” She smiled and then cackled with a shriek that hurt his ears. “Black becomes you.”

She slammed the door and proceeded away into the dark night.

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