Lowarn Cove, Cornwall, England. June 1809.
“Catch me if you dare!”
With wildness surging, Tamsyn’s yelled challenge became lost beneath the galloping thud of hooves and the howl of the westerly wind, but grinning, she leaned low, urging her mare onwards.
Often, they raced across the headland to the boulder of Devil’s Claw, but not so often was she able to gain a lead. Tonight, however, she’d cheated, flashing an ankle to leave Jonathan cursing in her wake, red-cheeked and bright-eyed.
“Faster, Melyn,” she pleaded as the peculiar silhouette of stone emerged in the slow descent of dusk. “We can do it.”
The first to reach Devil’s Claw would be entitled to laze all evening, dipping toes in the rock pools of the hidden cove below, whilst the loser – namely Jonathan – built a fire on the beach and roasted the split partridge she’d snaffled from cook’s pantry.
“Cheats never prosper, Miss Tamsyn Penrose!” His voice boomed closer than she’d supposed, and she peered behind to see her beloved friend no more than a pisky’s breath from her horse’s tail.
Melyn snorted, aware they were losing ground to the superior gelding, and stepped up the pace, hooves pounding the soft turf, mud flying up both their flanks. Tamsyn laughed loud and heard Jonathan’s own wild chuckle.
They were two sides of a coin, and she didn’t know why Father was sending her to London for a Season next year because she would marry Jonathan as soon as he’d made his fortune in the navy.
Genteel dances and sumptuous silks held no appeal; instead, she dreamed of racing across the Cornish countryside, hair wayward, feet bare, and most important of all, corset free.
The Devil’s Claw boulder loomed ominous, its petrified fingers reaching to the heavens. She would touch it and win at la–
Hooves reared. Yells and the creaking of wood as a farm cart emerged from behind the Claw, heaving to a halt across her path, black silhouettes brandishing ire.
She yanked on the reins, screamed, mare rearing in terror as men bellowed, snarling faces lit by dusk. Faces she didn’t recognise.
“What the hell?” Jonathan roared from behind, but it was all too late as her grip loosened and she fell, fast and tangled, head thudding to the earth before a shroud of dark descended.
Harsh voices drifted through aching blackness as liquid trickled down Tamsyn’s forehead, eyes refusing to open.
The fierce words weren’t English, and she forced her scattered senses to still. Maybe French?
Panic clawed at her chest.
What would the enemy want on this stretch of coast? An invasion? Spies? Or perhaps smugglers?
But all the men of that trade were Cornishmen – men from the villages who would never hurt a Penrose.
Tamsyn strained to hear but the rush of tide upon pebble drowned their quarrel, and with half-numbed fingers, she stroked the ground where she lay.
Moist, jagged rock.
“Sacré bleu,” a voice growled. “How could I leave the dead English up there?”
Her eyes snapped open.
Dark crags gawped overhead, but night had not yet fallen and ashen gloom still stretched its withering fingers into this cave. Amber flickers from a lantern distorted the sea-hewn walls, casting monstrous shapes upon them.
Sluggishly, she twisted her head, gasped, blood freezing as Jonathan stared back through unseeing eyes, his neck wrong and askew. The gasp became a sob, fingers seeking his wild face.
Not her Jonathan.
His skin held warmth, and she stroked his cheek, but no smile appeared, no teasing glance – a beloved without life.
“No,” she cried, heart stuttering.
A shadow fell, obliterating her Jonathan’s features.
“Morceau de merde. The girl, she is alive.”
Tamsyn wrenched her gaze to the slight figure stood over her, hands to his hips.
Wrapped in black, the hooded face remained hidden in the gloom, but she caught the glint of white teeth and pale hair.
“To the boat. I will deal with ma petite.” The fiend crouched low and Tamsyn scuttled back over the coarse rock, but he lunged to grab her wrists, pressed her to the unforgiving cold, and straddled her. “Ma belle,” he purred, “what a terrible shame for all men. Tres délicieuse you would be when older.” His other hand stroked down her mass of hair. “But sadly, no English, be they man…or girl, can ever set eyes on me and live.”
Tamsyn shook, tears streaking her cheeks.
Have mercy. She was to die. Barely sixteen and she would die in this dismal cave with her dearest Jonathan, never to see Papa, her brother, her family again.
Frankincense cologne teased her nostrils as he leaned close, such an exotic scent in this rock-cut grave that stank of seaweed and carcass, but as she watched him reach into his jacket, a curious calm descended upon her.
He didn’t belong here, this enemy, this killer.
This land was her home and he was violating it with blood and death.
A wicked silver dagger emerged and in a gust of wind, the lantern cast its dim light before all was submerged into shadow once more. But she’d seen young slender features and sculptured cheekbones. Direct eyes and a cleft chin.
Amusement played upon his lips as he stroked the flat of the blade across her cheek.
She forced her face to one side as that sharp edge caressed her neck, and Tamsyn’s gaze fell upon her precious Jonathan. Tears welled anew for the boy she was to marry, the life ahead of them.
That calm of a moment ago did not linger.
Instead, anger, raw and unbound, erupted within. This Frenchman had taken her beloved’s life, caused this deep pain that ravaged her.
The fiend shifted, trailing the blade in teasing flicks but as he did so, she twisted to spit in his face.
“Do it then,” she screamed, beating her freed hand upon his chest. “You lily-livered beast. Killing innocents. You…wh-whoreson!”
Capturing her wrist, he hauled it above her head, pinning with one fist as she bucked and fought. “Ma fille, such spirit, such wildness,” he rasped, laughing while her fury pulsed.
“Do it, you damn coward. But look me in the eye, if you dare.”
He did as she bade.
Tamsyn felt the full weight of his gaze as the steel bit at her throat.
Yet she stared back.
This gutless demon would never see her fear. She was a Penrose of steadfast stock. A Cornish lady.
“Sacré bleu, you are not afraid,” he mused, the knife lifting a fraction. “By now, any man would be pleading for his life. Do you not wish to trade your sweet body? Appeal to my greed?” His head cocked in the gloom. “You stare at death with such scorn. Such strength for one so young.”
The knife skimmed lower and her breath caught.
“I am not afraid of you,” she bit out. “You are not death, but a pathetic rat.”
His laughter echoed from the cleaved rock – a hundred laughs for her brave words.
“Non, non, ma petite, I am La Chauve-Souris. The bat of darkness. Silent. Deathly. But I believe… I believe for once I will not kill such life, such verve.” He shook his head. “Non. I will preserve it for my own.”
“You’ll hang for this. I’ll–”
“Tut, tut, as you English say. I think not.” He pulled her wrists tight as if shackles of bruising iron. “I know your name, ma petite, from your saddlebags. You have famille, non? Noble famille? Pretty friends?” He chuckled. “I am all Englishmen’s terror, and if I hear one word of this night from those pure…” The blade pressed to her lips and his head bent, warm breath at her ear.
He whispered vileness.
Terrible deeds he would inflict on her family.
Blood. Violation. Torture… Death.
She believed him.
Every unspeakable word.
And her body trembled – for Papa, her brother Ruan, her friends.
The demon’s head rose and he kissed her. A delicate press. “Keep silent, my little one, and I spare them all.” The lantern swung, igniting menace in his eyes. “But, to ensure you are mine for eternity…”
Piercing pain, such as she had never known, seared above her breast. A shredding without end.
And a murmur.
“Wait for me, won’t you, ma petite?”