A classic from #1 New York Times bestselling author Christine Feehan, Lair of the Lion is a dark-edged and enthralling take on the beloved “Beauty and the Beast” fairy tale. It is the breathtaking story of a beautiful, penniless aristocrat who promises herself to the handsome, powerful, mysterious, and not wholly human Don Nicolai DeMarco in order to free her imprisoned brother—even though legend has it that the Don will destroy any woman he weds. Perhaps best known for her bestselling “Dark” series, featuring the haunted and mesmerizing immortal Carpathians, Feehan is arguably the biggest name in paranormal historical romance—and any reader who loves passionate love stories tinged with the supernatural should enter the Lair of the Lion.
|Product dimensions:||4.10(w) x 6.60(h) x 1.50(d)|
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Lair of the Lion
By Christine Feehan
LEISURE BOOKSCopyright © 2002 Christine Feehan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe wind was shrieking through the narrow pass, bitter and cold, piercing right through her well-worn cape. Isabella Vernaducci pulled the long fur-lined cape closer around her shivering body and glanced anxiously at the high cliffs rising sharply overhead on either side. It was no wonder the don's army had never been defeated in battle. It was impossible to scale those terrible cliffs that rose straight up into air, like towers reaching to the clouds.
There was a shadow lurking within Isabella, an impression of danger. It had been growing steadily stronger in the last few hours as she traveled. She ducked her head into the horse's mane in an attempt to gain some relief from the unrelenting wind. Her guide had deserted her hours earlier, leaving her to find her own way along the narrow, twisting trail. Her horse was nervous, tossing its head and jumping skittishly from side to side, showing every sign it wanted to bolt as well. She had the sensation that something was pacing along beside them, just out of sight. She could hear an occasional grunt, almost like a cough-a strange noise she'd never heard before.
Isabella leaned forward, whispering softly, soothingly into the ears of her mount. Her mare was used to her, trusted her, and, although its great body was trembling, the animal madea valiant effort to continue forward. Icy particles stung both horse and rider, like angry bees piercing flesh. The horse shuddered and danced but moved stoically forward.
She had been warned repeatedly of the danger, of the wild beasts roaming freely in the Alps, but she had no choice. Somewhere up ahead of her was the only man who might save her brother. She had sacrificed all to get here, and she would not turn back now. She had sold everything she had of value to find this man, had given what remained of her money to the guide, and had gone the last two days without food or sleep. Nothing mattered but that she find the don. She had nowhere else to go; she had to find him and be granted an audience with him, no matter how elusive, no matter how dangerous and powerful he was.
His own people, so loyal they refused to help her, had warned her to stay away. His lands were enormous, his holdings vast. Villages and townships whispered of him, the man they looked to for protection, the one they feared above all others. His reputation was legend. And lethal. It was said he was untouchable. Armies attempting to march into his holdings had been buried by snow or rock slides. His enemies died swift and brutal deaths. Isabella had persisted despite all warnings, all accidents, the weather, every obstacle. She would not turn back no matter how the voices in the wind howled at her, no matter how icy the storm. She would see him.
Isabella glared up at the sky. "I will find you. I will see you," she declared firmly, a challenge of her own. "I am a Vernaducci. We do not turn back!' It was silly, but she felt convinced that somehow the owner of the great palazzo was commanding the very weather, throwing obstacles into her path.
A noise like grating rock captured her attention, and, frowning, She swung her head around to look up at one steep slope. Pebbles were bouncing down the mountain, picking up speed, dislodging other rocks. Her horse leapt forward, squealing in alarm as a shower of debris pelted them from above. She heard the chink of the horse's hooves as it scrambled for purchase, felt the great muscles bunching under her as the animal fought to stay on its feet amidst the rolling rocks. Isabella s fingers were nearly numb as she gripped the reins. She couldn't lose her seat! She would never survive the bitter cold and the wolf packs that roamed freely through the territory. Her horse crow-hopped, stiff-legged, each movement jarring Isabella until even her teeth ached from the impact.
It was desperation more than expertise that kept her in the saddle. The wind lashed at her face, and tears were torn out of the corners of her eyes. Her tightly braided hair was whipped into a frenzy of long, silken strands, pried loose by the fury of the coming storm. Isabella kicked her mare hard, urging it forward, wanting to be out of the pass. Winter was fast approaching, and with it would come heavier snowfalls. A few more days and she never would have made it through the narrow pass.
Shivering, teeth chattering, she urged the horse along the winding trail. Once she was out of the pass, the rising mountain on her left side dropped away to a ledge that appeared crumbling and unstable. She could see jagged rocks far below, a drop-off she had no hope of surviving should her horse lose its footing. Isabella forced herself to remain calm even as her boot scraped along the mountainside. Small rocks tumbled from above, rolled and bounced on the narrow ledge, and careened off into empty space.
She felt it then, an oddly disorienting sensation, as if the earth shimmered and twisted, as if something better left alone had awakened upon her entrance into the valley. With renewed fury the wind slashed and tore at her, ice crystals burning her face and any part of her skin that was exposed. She continued riding for another hour while the wind came at her from all directions. If blew fiercely, viciously, seemingly directing itself toward her. Overhead, storm clouds gathered rather than move swiftly away with the wind. Her fingers tightened into fists around the reins. There had been a hundred delaying tactics. Small incidents. Accidents. The sound of voices murmuring hideously in the wind. Strange, noxious smells. The howling of wolves. Worst was the terrible far-off roar of an unknown beast.
She wouldn't turn back. She couldn't turn back. She had no choice. She was beginning to believe the evil things said about this man. He was mysterious, elusive, dark and dangerous. A man to avoid. Some said he could command the very heavens, that the beasts below did his bidding. It didn't matter. She had to reach him, had to throw herself on his mercy if that was what it took.
The horse rounded the next bend, and Isabella felt the breath leave her body. She was there. She had made it. The castello was real, not a figment of someone's imagination. It rose up out of the mountainside, part rock, part marble, a huge, hulking palazzo, impossibly large and sprawling. It looked evil in the gathering dusk, staring with blank eyes, the rows of windows frightening in the lashing wind. The structure was several stories high, with long battlements, high, rounded turrets, and great towers. She could make out large stone lions guarding the towers, stone harpies with razor-sharp beaks perched on the eaves. Empty but all-seeing eyes stared at her from every direction; watching her silently.
Her mare shifted nervously, sidestepping, tossing its head, eyes rolling in fear. Isabella's heart began to pound so loudly it was thunder in her ears. She had made it. She should have been relieved, but she couldn't suppress the terror welling up inside her. She had done what was said to be impossible. She was in sheer wilderness, and whatever manner of man lived here was as untamed as the land he claimed dominion over.
Lifting her chin, Isabella slid from the back of the horse, clinging to the saddle to keep from falling. Her feet were numb, her legs wobbly, refusing to support her. She stood still for several moments, breathing deeply, waiting to recover her strength. She stared up at the castello, her teeth worrying her lower lip. Now that she was actually here, now that she had found him, she had no idea what she was going to do. White wisps of fog wound around the palazzo's columns, creating an eerie effect. The fog stayed in place, seemingly anchored there despite the ferocious wind ripping at her.
She walked the horse as close to the castello as she could manage, tying the reins securely, not wanting to lose the animal, her only means of escaping. She tried patting the mare's heaving sides, but her hands were clumsy and burning with cold. "We made it," she whispered softly. "Grazie." Hunching deeper into her cape, she pulled the hood up around her head and was swallowed by the garment. Stumbling in the vicious wind, she made her way to the steep steps. For some reason she had been certain the castello would be in a state of disrepair, but the steps were a solid, shiny marble beneath her feet. Slippery with the tiny ice particles on them.
Huge lion heads were carved on the great double doors, incongruous so far out in the Alpine wilderness. The eyes were staring fiercely, the manes shaggy, and the great muzzles open, revealing fangs. The knocker was inside one mouth, and she was forced to put her hand in past the teeth. Taking a deep breath, she reached in, careful not to cut her flesh on the sharpened spikes. She let the knocker fall, and the sound seemed to vibrate through the palazzo while the wind lashed at the windows, furious that she had escaped into the comparative shelter of the rows of columns and buttresses. Shaking with cold, her legs weak, she leaned against the wall and tucked her hands inside her cape. He was within the walls of the castello. She knew he was home. She felt him. Dark. Dangerous. A monster lying in wait ... He was watching her. She felt eyes on her, malevolent, malicious, venomous eyes. Something evil lurked in the bowels of the palazzo, and with her peculiar sensitivity, she felt it like a fist around her heart.
The compulsion to run back into the fury of the storm was strong. Self-preservation told her to stay in the shelter of the large castello, but instead, everything inside her rose up in rebellion. She couldn't make herself knock again. Even her tremendous willpower seemed to desert her, and she actually turned toward the lashing wind, ready to take her chances there. Then Isabella clamped down hard on her wayward imagination. She was not going to panic and run back to her horse. She actually grasped the heavy doorframe, her fingernails digging in hard to hold her in place.
The creak of the door warned her. Soft. Ominous. Forbidding. A portent of danger. The interior beyond was dark. An elderly man dressed in severe black stood looking at her with sad eyes. "The Master will not see anyone."
Isabella froze where she was. Seconds earlier she had wanted nothing more than to run back to her horse and ride away as fast as she possibly could. Now she was annoyed. The storm was growing in a frenzy, sheets of ice slamming to earth, white crystals covering the ground almost instantly. As the door began to swing closed, she thrust one booted foot into the crack. Jamming her ice-cold hands into her pockets, she took a deep breath to calm her trembling body. "Well, he will have to change his mind. I shall see him. He has no choice."
The servant stood impassively, staring at her. He neither moved out of her way nor opened the door wider to allow her entry.
Isabella refused to look away from him, refused to give in to the terrible warnings shrieking at her to run while she still had the chance. The storm was full-fledged now, the howling wind hurtling pieces of ice that felt like spears even into the shelter of the covered entryway. "I must put my horse in your stable. Please direct me immediately." She lifted her chin and stared the servant down.
The manservant hesitated, glanced into the darkened interior, and then slipped out, closing the door behind him. "You must leave this place. Go now." He was whispering, his eyes restless and his gnarled hands shaking. "Go while you still can." There was desperation in his eyes, pleading. His voice was a mere thread of sound, almost unheard in the bitter shrieking of the wind.
Isabella could tell that his warning was genuine, and her heart stuttered with fear. What was so terrible within that this man would send her out into an icy blizzard to take her chances with raw nature rather than have her enter the palazzo? Where his eyes had been blank before, they were now filled with trepidation. She studied him for a moment, trying to judge his motives. He had a quiet dignity about him, a fierce pride, but she could smell his fear. It oozed out of his pores like sweat.
The door opened a crack, no more. The servant stiffened. An older woman poked her gray-haired head out. "Betto, the master has said she must come in."
The male servant sagged for a fraction of time only, his hand shooting out to the doorframe to steady himself, but then he was bowing low. "I will see to your horse myself." His voice was flat, revealing no emotion at all at his being caught in a lie.
Isabella looked up at the high walls of the castello. It was a fortress, nothing less. The great doors were large and thick and heavy. Her chin rose, and she nodded at the older man. "Grazie tanto for going to so much trouble for me." To warn me. The unspoken words hung between them.
The man lifted an eyebrow. She was clearly an aristocratica. Women such as this one rarely even noticed a servant. He was shocked that she didn't berate him for his lie. That she seemed to understand he was desperately attempting to help her. To save her. He bowed again, hesitated slightly before turning toward the icy storm, then squared his shoulders in resignation.
Isabella stepped across the threshold. Alarm triggered her heart to thud wildly. A thick stench of evil permeated the castello. It was a cloud, gray and somber and edged with malice. She took a deep, calming breath and looked around her. The entryway was quite spacious, tapers burning everywhere to light up the great hall and dispel the darkness she had glimpsed. As she stepped inside, a wind whipped down the corridor, and the flames leapt in a macabre dance. A hiss of hatred accompanied the wind. An audible hiss of acknowledgment. Whatever it was recognized her just as surely as she recognized it.
The interior of the castello was immaculately clean. Wide-open spaces and high, vaulted ceilings gave the impression of a great cathedral. A series of columns rose to the ceilings, each ornately carved with winged creatures. Isabella could see the apparitions winding their way upward. The castello preyed on the senses-the artwork rich, the structure impressive-yet it was a trap for the unwary. Everything about the palazzo was beautiful, but something unearthly watched Isabella with terrible eyes, watched her with malignant hatred.
"Follow me. The Master wishes you to be given a room. The storm is expected to last several days." The woman smiled at her, her smile genuine, but her eyes held a hint of worry. "I am Sarina Sincini." She stood there a moment waiting.
Isabella opened her mouth to introduce herself, but no sound emerged. All at once she was aware of the utter silence in the huge palazzo. No creaking of timbers, no footsteps, no murmur of servants. It was as if the castello were waiting for her to utter her name aloud. She wouldn't give her name to this hideous palazzo, a living, breathing entity of evil. Her legs gave way, and she sat down abruptly on the marble tiles, close to tears, swaying with a dark dread that was a stone in her heart.
"Oh, signorina, you must be so tired." Signora Sincini immediately wrapped an arm around Isabella's waist. "Allow me to help you. I can call a manservant to carry you if need be."
Isabella shook her head quickly. She was shaking with cold and weak from hunger and the terrible journey, but the truth was, it was the unnerving feeling of a malignant presence watching her that filled her with dread, that caused her already shaking legs to collapse beneath her. The feeling was strong. Carefully she looked around, trying to appear composed when all she wanted to do was run.
Without warning, from somewhere close by a roar filled the silence. It was answered by a second, then a third. The horrifying noise erupted from every direction, near and far. For one terrible moment the sounds blended and surrounded them, shaking the very ground beneath their feet. The roars reverberated throughout the palazzo, filling the vaulted spaces and every distant corner. A strange series of coughlike grunts followed. Isabella, standing with Signora Sincini, felt the older woman stiffen. She could almost hear the servant's heart thudding loudly in tune to her own.
Excerpted from Lair of the Lion by Christine Feehan Copyright © 2002 by Christine Feehan
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.