Read Sleepless at Midnight Online

Authors: Jacquie D'Alessandro

Tags: #Romance, #Fiction, #General, #Fiction - Romance, #American Light Romantic Fiction, #Romance: Historical, #Romance & Sagas, #Romance - Historical, #Historical, #Nobility

Sleepless at Midnight

SLEEPLESS AT MIDNIGHT

Jacquie D’Alessandro

When the Ladies Literary Society of London forsakes the classics for more thrillingly forbidden fare, there can be but one outcome…

Midnight Mischief

The ladies in London are abuzz over Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, especially Miss Sarah Moorehouse. Her imagination is fired up, so when she spies Matthew Devenport, Lord Langston, mysteriously sneaking home in the wee hours clutching a shovel, she simply must investigate. Impelled by curiosity, the adventurous lass steals into his bedchamber only to be caught redhanded by the impossibly handsome and totally naked nobleman. Lord Langston has more important things to worry about than a group of literature-loving ladies. But Matthew’s grand plan to rescue the family from ruin could be lost when he discovers Sarah hiding behind his bedroom curtain. What is this meddlesome woman up to? And why are his desires inflamed by a chit who is too inquisitive for her own good? Well, two can play at this game…and when Matthew captures the beguiling Sarah in all her naked glory, the night of mischief has only just begun.

Chapter 1

A 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 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 him. 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. Time.

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 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 that 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 in sharp, rainsoaked 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? Had the village blacksmith seen him? Had it been Tom’s prying eyes he’d felt boring into him? Not that he wasn’t perfectly within his rights to dig holes on his own estate, but given the nature of his task, Matthew 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 among 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 what 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 several other 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 charges in his direction.

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 prize.

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, hothouse 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’d 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 happened to glance in her direction after the soup was served. She leaned over her bowl, presumably to enjoy the aroma. When she 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 teacup. He imagined her blinking furiously behind the opaque lenses, and his lips had twitched with amusement. Seconds later her lenses cleared and their gazes met. Something flickered in her eyes, yet before he could attempt to decipher it, she 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 ground.

“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 darkened windows. It was the perfect night to talk about monsters.

And murder.

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 updrawn 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 you 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. And is continuing with his work. Perhaps Mary Shelley knew him, worked for him, before she embarked on her scandalous affair with the married Percy.”

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