chill of unease snaked down Matthew Devenport’s spine and he stilled his shovel
to scan the darkened cemetery. All his senses on alert, he strained his ears
yet only heard the chirping of crickets and the rustling of leaves from the
unseasonably cool breeze heavily scented with the threat of rain.
Clouds obscured the moon, enveloping him in
shadows which served his purpose well, but which also made it impossible to
discern if someone lurked nearby--a realization that did nothing to stop the
unsettling quickening of his heartbeat.
He glanced around again, then forced
himself to relax. Bloody hell, why this sudden attack of nerves? Nothing
appeared amiss. Yet he couldn’t shake the eerie sensation that had plagued him
since leaving the house at midnight--that someone was following him. Watching
An owl hooted, and his pulse jumped, and he
pressed his lips together in annoyance at allowing the atmosphere to spook him.
He’d made these secret sojourns for months and was well accustomed to the eerie
sounds that rose from the darkened forest. Still, he reached down and closed
his fingers over the cool metal hilt of the knife tucked in his boot. He didn’t
relish the thought of using the weapon, but he would if he had to. He hadn’t
come this far, persevered this long, to have anyone threaten his search.
Search? The word mocked him and he
swallowed the bitter sound that rose in his throat as he jabbed his shovel into
the hard ground. This was more than a search. Over the course of the past
year, these damned ventures into the night had become more of a quest. An
obsession that robbed him of not only sleep, but of his peace of mind.
Soon...it will all be over soon.
One way or another.
Lifting a heavy shovelful of dirt, he tossed it
aside, his tired muscles straining with effort. How many more holes could he
dig? How many more sleepless nights could he endure? Even during the day, when
he didn’t search for fear of being discovered, his task haunted him. For he now
had less than a month left to keep his pledge. And honor, his integrity,
demanded that he do so. He’d once compromised both and as he was still paying
the consequences for that folly, he refused to make that same mistake again.
Yes, so much better to make other mistakes, his
inner voice sneered.
Such as these nightly journeys into the dark.
But now, after trying for so long yet failing,
there was no denying his greatest enemy.
His time was almost up.
He flung several more shovelfuls of dirt
then paused to swipe his sweaty brow with the back of his hand. Perspiration
trickled down his aching back, and he blew out a disgusted breath, frustrated by
the fact that as much as he hated this endless searching, he ironically hated
even more the fact that his house was now filled with guests, thus allowing him
less time with which to continue the search. They’d arrived en masse earlier
this evening and he’d forced himself to endure their company over dinner, an
interminable meal he’d thought would never end.
Damn it, he didn’t want guests. Didn’t
want people invading his home. His privacy. Yet, what choice did he have? He
needed a bride and needed one quick. And by God, he’d do whatever he had to in
order to get one. He paused, his gaze lingering on the hole he’d just dug, and
his fingers tightened on the rough wooden handle of the shovel. Yes, he’d do
whatever he had to.
As was necessary with so many other facets
of his life, he shoved aside his own desires and focused on what needed to be
done. There were choices to be made, life-altering choices, and as much as he
didn’t wish to make them, he could delay no longer. And as much as he didn’t
relish the interruption of playing host, if he’d left the estate and traveled to
London instead of inviting guests here to Kent, he’d have lost even more time.
A flash of lightning, followed by an ominous
growl of thunder interrupted his dark thoughts. Several raindrops splashed
against the back of his neck. Seconds later it seemed as if the heavens were
ripped asunder. A deluge of water spewed from the sky, stabbing his skin like
chilled needles. He was sorely tempted to head back to the house, to abandon
his task, but instead he lifted his face and closed his eyes, basking in the
sting of the cold spray which made him feel, if only for a few moments, as if he
were cleansed of the onerous chore that possessed him.
Lightning flashed again, streaking across the
darkened sky, and he opened his eyes. For several seconds the Devenport family
tombstones dating back centuries were illuminated into sharp, rain-soaked
relief. Matthew blinked against the sudden brightness, then froze as his gaze
riveted on a man. A man making his way in an unmistakably furtive manner across
the back boundary of the cemetery. A man he instantly recognized.
Bloody hell, what was Tom Willstone doing
skulking about on private property in the middle of the night? Matthew’s
fingers tightened on the shovel’s wooden handle. Had the village blacksmith
seen him? Had it been Tom’s prying eyes he’d felt boring into him? Not that
Matthew wasn’t perfectly within his rights to dig holes on his own estate, but
given the nature of his task, he had no desire to be observed. Observation
would only lead to speculation and speculation to endless questions--none of
which he would, or could, answer.
Another bolt of lightning flashed and he saw Tom
disappear amongst the soaring elms and shrubbery that marked the property line
separating Langston Manor and the path leading to the village of Upper
Fladersham. He didn’t know what Tom was doing or what he might have seen, but
he needed to find out. Which would require a trip to the village.
His stomach cramped at the mere thought. He
hadn’t been to the village in nearly twenty years. Not since--
He sliced off the thought, refusing to allow the
painful memories to swallow him. He didn’t have to go to the village himself.
He’d simply do the same thing he’d been doing for the past two decades and send
someone in his stead. Luckily Daniel was one of his house party guests. His
best friend would make the trip for him.
His guests...Daniel--his one trusted male
friend, and other several male acquaintances. And a seeming gaggle of young
women, all of whom appeared to be duplicates of each other, blending into a
single mass of chattering femininity so as to be indistinguishable. And then
there were the chaperones--a marriage-minded mama and an equally marriage-minded
aunt--who eyed him with the avarice of vultures contemplating a fresh carcass.
If those fine protectors of virtue knew the truth of his life, his
circumstances, surely they wouldn’t be so anxious to foist their daughters in
A humorless sound escaped him, swallowed up by
the rain and thunder. But then again, perhaps it wouldn’t matter. After all, a
great deal could be overlooked when a title such as Marchioness Langston was the
He fought a grimace at the mere thought of the
society gems he’d invited into his home. They all seemed so...ordinary. So
typical of women of his class--ornamental, hot-house flowers who chatted about
inane subjects and could wax poetic about the weather and fashion for hours.
While each of his female guests possessed the necessary traits he required, none
had stood out to him.
Well, except for the one who sat at the opposite
end of the dining room table from him. Lady Wingate’s younger sister whom she’d
insisted accompany her to his house party. The one with the spectacles that
kept sliding down her nose. What was the chit’s name? He shook his head,
unable to recall.
Indeed, the only reason she’d stood out was
because he’d happened to glance in her direction after the soup was served. She
leaned over her bowl, presumably to enjoy the aroma. When she’d raised her
head, her spectacle lenses were completely fogged over from the soup’s steam.
An unexpected laugh had risen in his throat at the sight, one born of empathy as
the very same thing frequently happened to him whenever he wore his reading
spectacles and sipped from his tea cup. He imagined her blinking furiously
behind the opaque lenses, and his lips had twitched with amusement. Seconds
later her lenses cleared and their gazes had met. Something flickered in her
eyes, yet before he could attempt to decipher it, she’d looked away and his
attention was quickly claimed by another guest.
Ah yes, his guests, all of whom were fast
asleep, cozily nestled in their beds. Their warm, dry beds. Lucky devils.
He blinked the rain from his eyes then
ruthlessly shoved aside his pang of envy and again stabbed his shovel into the
* * * * *
“I hereby call our meeting to order.”
A thrill ran through Sarah Moorehouse at the
softly spoken words she’d waited so long to utter. She stood near the marble
fireplace in her guest bedchamber at Lord Langston’s country estate, the warmth
from the low burning fire in the grate seeping through her thin cotton robe and
night rail. Eerie shadows flickered in the room, made all the more menacing by
the flashes of lightning, rumbles of thunder, and rain lashing against the
It was the perfect night to talk about monsters.
She slowly approached the bed, her gaze touching
on the three women perched like pigeons on a branch upon the oversized mattress,
their stark white nightclothes appearing to glow in the dancing light. Lady
Emily Stapleford and Lady Julianne Bradley both looked at her through wide,
expectant eyes, their arms wrapped around their up drawn knees. Sarah had had
her doubts that the sheltered young women would follow through with the plan to
sneak from their quarters and gather here for this clandestine meeting, but
they’d arrived at exactly one a.m., clearly eager for the proceedings to begin.
Sarah’s gaze shifted to her older sister,
Carolyn. By virtue of her marriage ten years earlier, Carolyn had been elevated
from a mere physician’s daughter to Viscountess Wingate. And by virtue of her
beloved husband’s death three years ago, had been deflated into a heartbroken,
grieving widow, her soul so shattered Sarah had wondered if she’d ever get her
sister back. The sparkle now glowing in Carolyn’s blue eyes was worth any
scandal their activities might cause, and Sarah was deeply thankful that despite
her loss, Carolyn was now making an effort to rejoin life.
After settling herself on the counterpane so the
four women formed a small circle, Sarah pushed her spectacles higher on her
nose, lifted her chin and said in a serious tone befitting the occasion, “I’ll
begin by asking a question which, given the nature of our discussion, has surely
occurred to all of us: Do you think Dr. Frankenstein was merely a figment of
Mary Shelley’s imagination--or do believe it’s possible there really was a mad
scientist who dug up graves and stole body parts to create a living monster?”
Emily, the most daring of Sarah’s companions
whispered, “Was a mad scientist? Perhaps he still exists. Perhaps Mary Shelley
knew him, worked for him, before she embarked on her scandalous affair with the
Sarah looked at the beautiful Lady Emily, whom
she’d befriended two years earlier through her sister. She’d taken an
immediately like to the energetic Emily whose green eyes often twinkled with
mischief and whose imagination matched Sarah’s own. At one and twenty, Emily
was the eldest of Lord and Lady Fenstraw’s six children. Thanks to her family’s
recent reversal of fortunes due to her father’s unfortunate penchants for unwise
investments and expensive mistresses, Emily had no choice but to marry well.
Sadly, Sarah’s observations of the ton had shown
her that Emily’s father was not the only gentleman of his class whose profligate
tendencies and lack of business acumen had thrust their families into such dire
financial circumstances. And had further shown that even a beautiful girl such
as Emily was rendered less attractive by the lack of a dowry. Which of course
meant that for someone like her--plain and lacking a fortune and who’d reached
the advanced age of six and twenty--spinsterhood was a foregone conclusion.
Which was quite agreeable to her as her observations had also led to conclude
that men were far more trouble than they were worth.
Clearing her throat, Sarah said, “Do mad
scientists such a Dr. Frankenstein truly exist...a perfect question to begin our
discussion of Shelley’s book.”
Julianne, the only daughter of the Earl and
Countess of Gatesbourne, one of England’s wealthiest families, cleared her
throat then said, “If Mama even suspected I’d read that book she’d succumb to
Sarah turned toward Julianne, noting her deep
blush. Sarah knew that some people found the beautiful blonde heiress cool and
aloof, indeed, she herself had thought as much when they’d first met last year.
But Sarah had quickly realized that rather than aloof, Julianne was merely
painfully shy. She meekly deferred to her overbearing mother, yet Sarah
suspected that beneath Julianne’s perfectly poised, reserved exterior lurked an
adventurous spirit that longed for something more titillating than a stroll
through Hyde Park under the close watch of her chaperone--and Sarah was
determined to bring that spirit into the open so it could soar.
She barely refrained from allowing her outspoken
nature to overtake her and state that a good dose of the vapors would do
Julianne’s dour-faced, sharp-eyed mother some good. Instead she said, “By
calling ourselves the Ladies Literary Society of London, a name which implies we
read and discuss the works of Shakespeare while we’re actually reading what we
want, we should be safe enough. And since The Modern Prometheus--or
Frankenstein if you prefer, is, in spite of the scandals surrounding it,
considered a literary work, no one can accuse us of lying.” Her lips curved
upward. “Those very scandals being the exact reason I chose it for our first
“I have to admit, this is the most fun I’ve had
in a long time,” said Carolyn with an enthusiasm that defied her usual sedate
manner, filling Sarah with hope that her idea to draw her sister further from
her self-imposed shell was working. Already she could sense the change in her
two friends as well. This small act of defiance in reading a scandalous book by
a woman who’d had an affair with a married man and bore him two children before
they’d finally married marked Julianne’s first timid steps from her mother’s
tight control and was proving a much needed diversion for Emily from her
family’s financial problems.
“A very fun venture,” Sarah said with a nod. “I
think we can all agree that Mary Shelley possesses a vivid and formidable
“I can see why it was at first believed that the
book was written by a man,” Emily murmured. “Who would suspect that a woman
could conceive such a chilling tale?”
“That is just one of the many unfair aspects of
today’s society,” Sarah said, touching upon a subject close to her heart.
“Women are constantly underestimated. A grave error in my opinion.”
“An error, perhaps,” Carolyn said, “but it is
the way of things.”
Emily nodded. “And the people who constantly
underestimate us are men.”
“Precisely,” said Sarah, shoving up her
spectacles. “Which simply proves one of my pet theories: there is no creature
on this earth more vexing than a man.”
“Are you speaking of any man in particular?”
asked Carolyn, her voice laced with amusement, “or simply in general terms?”
“General terms. You know how I enjoy observing
human nature, and based on my detailed observations, I’ve deduced that the vast
majority of men can be effectively summed in one word.”
“A word other than vexing?” asked Julianne.
“Yes.” Sarah raised her brows and paused
expectantly, like a teacher waiting for her pupils to answer a query. When no
one ventured a guess, she prompted, “Men are...?”
“Enigmatic?” said Carolyn.
“Er, manly?” suggested Emily.
“Um, hairy?” said Julianne.
“Nincompoops,” stated Sarah with an emphatic nod
that sent her glasses sliding once again. “Nearly without exception. Young or
old, they believe that women are nothing save brainless ornaments to be either
ignored or just trotted out and then tolerated with gritted teeth. Patted upon
the head, then sent back to which ever corner he plucked her from whilst he
resumes his brandy drinking or flirting.”
“I wasn’t aware you’d that much experience with
gentlemen,” Carolyn said mildly.
“One can draw conclusions from observations.
I’ve no need to jump into a fire to know it would burn.” Still, warmth flushed
Sarah’s cheeks. In truth, she had very little direct experience with men as
their gazes always seemed to skip right over her to land upon someone more
attractive. Being of a pragmatic nature and fully aware of the limitations of
her appearance, she’d ceased to be hurt by such goings on long ago. And being
nearly invisible to men had afforded her many hours to observe their behavior
while she sat in the corners at the numerous soirees she’d attended in recent
months with Carolyn--all in her attempt to encourage her sister to step out of
her mourning. And based upon those observations, Sarah felt fully confident,
and justified in her opinion.
“If your theory is to hold true,” Carolyn said,
“then clearly gentlemen believe women are also good for flirting.” Her eyes
crinkled at the corners, but Sarah caught the flicker of sadness in their
depths. “Or are they flirting with the potted palms?”
Guilt pricked Sarah for her unguarded words and
she plucked at the ribbon tied at the end of her long braid from which unruly
curls sprang. Carolyn’s husband, Edward, had been a paragon amongst
men--devoted, loving, and loyal. Not at all a nincompoop. Yet, more than
anyone else, Carolyn was certainly accustomed to her outspoken nature.
“They only flirt with the potted palms after
imbibing too much brandy. Which happens with shocking frequency. But I only
mention nincompoops as we are speaking about our book selection, and as far as I
am concerned, Victor Frankenstein was a nincompoop.”
“I absolutely agree,” said Julianne with a
vigorous nod, her usual reserve temporarily forgotten as it often was when the
four of them were together. “All the bad things that happened in the story, all
the murders and tragic deaths, were his fault.”
“But Victor didn’t kill anyone,” Emily said,
scooting closer. “The monster was responsible.”
“Yes, but Victor created the monster,” pointed
“And then utterly rejected him.” Sarah pressed
her palms together, vividly recalling her dislike for the scientist and her deep
sympathy for the grotesque being he created. “Victor discarded that poor
creature as if he were yesterday’s trash, running away from him, leaving him
with nothing. No knowledge of life or of how to survive. He created him, then
showed him not even a moment of human decency. Simply because he was hideous.
It certainly wasn’t the monster’s fault he was so. Not everyone is beautiful.”
She gave a philosophical shrug and forced back the suspicion that her empathy
for the monster perhaps reflected a bit too closely some of her own personal
“The monster was worse than merely ‘not
beautiful’,” Julianne pointed out. “He was wretched and huge and hideous. Very
“Still, even if no one else could have found it
in their hearts to treat him decently, surely Victor, his creator, should have
extended some tiny crumb of kindness to him,” Sarah insisted. “The monster
didn’t turn harsh and cruel until after he finally realized that he would never
be accepted. By anyone. How different his life would have been if just one
person had been kind to him.”
“I agree,” said Carolyn. “He was such a tragic
figure. If Victor had treated him with decency, I think others would have
“But Victor suffered greatly for his sins as
well,” said Julianne. “The monster killed his brother, his best friend, and his
wife. I found I had sympathy for both Frankenstein and his monster.”
Sarah pursed her lips. “I must admit my
curiosity was piqued by the fact that other than vague references to visiting
charnel houses and digging about in graveyards for bodies, Shelley was very
evasive on how the creature was actually made and came to life. Makes me wonder
if such a thing is really possible.” She glanced toward the window where the
rain slashed and lightning flashed. “You realize that the monster was created
during a storm just like this.”
“Do not even consider such a thing,” Julianne
said with a visible shudder. “Don’t forget, it was Victor’s obsession with
knowledge and learning that led to his downfall.”
“There is nothing wrong with the pursuit of
knowledge,” Sarah protested.
“I suspect Victor Frankenstein, and his monster,
would disagree with you,” said Carolyn.
“Personally, I think Victor’s downfall was
creating a creature that was so repulsive,” said Emily. “Surely he could see
that it was hideous before he brought it to life. I may not be a scientist, but
if I were going to create a man, I would set my sights on fashioning the perfect
man. Certainly not one a person couldn’t bear to gaze upon. And definitely not
one who would resort to murder.”
“The Perfect Man...” mused Julianne, tapping
her finger to her chin. “Do you think such a thing exists?”
Sarah glanced at Carolyn. Saw the shadow of
sadness that clouded her sister’s eyes. And could almost hear her thinking, I
know he does. I was married to him.
Emily sighed. “I’d like to think so, but I
cannot say as I’ve ever met him.”
“Nor have I,” said Sarah. “And over the past
few months we’ve certainly had the opportunity to observe the best society has
to offer. Not a perfect man in the entire bunch.”
“Not even a near perfect specimen,” Julianne
concurred with a sigh.
“Well, I find that unacceptable,” Sarah said
sitting up straighter. “Therefore, in the spirit of our reading of The Modern
Prometheus, I propose that we do what Victor Frankenstein failed to do.” She
leaned forward and paused, excitement humming through her, the silence broken
only by the ominous rumble of thunder and the violent splatter of rain against
the windows. Lightning flashed, illuminating the trio of questioning gazes
locked upon her.
“I propose,” Sarah said in a low voice, “that we
create the Perfect Man.”