The Mad, Bad Duke (Nvengaria #2)

The Mad, Bad Duke (Nvengaria #2)

Jennifer Ashley

Chapter 1

March 1820

Alexander woke in the middle of his garish sitting room, naked and alone. The pointed arches nailed over rectangular windows, the pillars carved to resemble palm trees, seemed to mock him. False things, covering the real.

Alexander Octavien Laurent Maximilien, Grand Duke of Nvengaria, exiled to rainy England to watch over its new portly king, was slowly going insane.

This was the dozenth time he’d had the memory lapse—this one, he realized as he glanced at the carved ivory clock, the longest. The last thing he remembered was sitting at his desk in his study upstairs, three hours ago. Alexander stretched out his scratched and bloody hands, noting that the abrasions were deeper this time.

It wasn’t drink that caused the memory gaps, because Alexander drank only small amounts of wine and brandy and never let himself become inebriated. He’d ruled out poison as well. His valet, Nikolai, fanatically devoted to keeping Alexander alive, had insisted on hiring a food taster and supervised the preparation of every dish.

Nikolai was the only one of the staff in on the secret of Alexander’s strange malady. The other servants in this house in Berkeley Square, both English and Nvengarian, so far had not noticed a thing. Most of the lapses lasted mere minutes, a few as long as a half hour, but this one of several hours was sure to have caused questions.

Alexander gave a brief, mirthless laugh, imagining his worried English staff carting him off to Bedlam. Not enough that Alexander was darkly lonely, far from the home he fiercely loved, and irritated by his task of keeping England on the side of Nvengaria. Alexander was like a ruthless sword, honed and fixed for one purpose. These memory losses and the strange new awareness inside him distracted him, and Alexander hated to be distracted.

As he turned to leave the room he caught sight of himself in an overly gilded mirror, his bare body slick with perspiration. His black hair, tangled from whatever had happened in the last three hours, touched wide shoulders on his tall frame, and his blue eyes were a bit wild.

Alexander was the second most powerful man in Nvengaria, and that power wrapped him like a second skin. He knew how to find things out, how to bend others to his will. He would discover who was doing this, and then he would show that person just what happened when someone tried to manipulate Grand Duke Alexander, leader of the Council of Dukes of Nvengaria. The result would not be pretty.

He left the room, his blood burning.

The fantastically decorated house that was his home while he was ambassador to England was silent as he crossed to the stairs. Alexander needed to reach his bedroom before one of his efficient Nvengarian staff saw him—or God forbid, the English servants who still did not know quite what to make of him. He’d escape into his chamber, clean himself up, and ring for Nikolai to dress him.

Before Alexander could start up the stairs, he spied a figure lurking behind one of the arched pillars that skirted the staircase hall.

“Myn?” he called softly.

Myn stepped out from the shadows as though he’d been waiting to be summoned.

Myn was a logosh, one of the legendary shape-shifting creatures that roamed the high mountains of Nvengaria. He stood Alexander’s height, six and a half feet tall, broad of shoulder, rippling with muscle. His eyes were blue, a strange, almost glowing blue that seemed to take in everything and give nothing away.

“Did it happen again?” Myn asked in slow Nvengarian. Myn never addressed Alexander as Your Grace, the only person who dared leave off the honorific.

Alexander scowled at him. “What do you know about this?”

Myn gave him a cryptic look in return. “It is beginning.”

“What is?” Alexander demanded, a sour taste in his mouth. “Tell me what you know—now.”

“It is inside you.” Myn tilted his head, his strange eyes fixed on him. “When you embrace it, these troubles will leave you.”

“That is not an answer,” Alexander growled.

Myn studied him quietly another moment, then the leader of the logosh walked away. Alexander started to call him back, but words choked in his throat. Myn moved into the shadows and then, in the uncanny way of his people, he simply disappeared.

Swearing under his breath, Alexander mounted the stairs, making for his rooms. Myn’s cryptic hints meant there was magic in this, and Alexander hated magic.

He would find out who wielded it and deal with the mage, no matter what ruthless and final methods he had to employ.

* * *

“Do hurry,” Deirdre Braithwaite bleated, grabbing Meagan’s arm with pinching fingers and dragging her into the little house just off the Strand.

From all Meagan had heard of the witch called Black Annie, she expected to step into a dark and smoky abode full of eerie things like bottles and jars of odd, bubbly liquids and dried reptile carcasses hanging from the ceiling. Instead Meagan found herself entering a narrow, white-painted front hall that looked no different from that of any other house in this part of London. The ordinary mob-capped maid who’d opened the door at Deirdre’s knock led them to a sunny sitting room.

Meagan hid her interest by sinking casually onto the scroll-backed sofa, pretending she consulted witches for love potions and the like every day. Her father would be livid if he’d known Meagan’s “outing” with Deirdre included a call on this witch to whom ladies of the London ton hurried with their problems. But Meagan hadn’t been able to resist the opportunity, even though Deirdre, since her marriage, had become quite indecorous.

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