Author's Note: If you would like to read the full version of this book, please visit my blog (web address is on my profile page).


Prologue

Outside of Phillipson House, the streets of Dmondia had fallen quiet, subject to the peacefulness of twilight that only existed on the East End of Dmondia upper-class neighborhoods. In all other areas, noise infiltrated the darkness at all hours as those of wealth and privilege celebrated their superiority. Only the East End of that central region of Dmondia ever followed the general principle of busy daytime, quiet night.

This was largely due to the fact that this particular area was mainly inhabited by old, crotchety men of political import.

Jensonn Phillipson was one such man. A prominent advisor to the King for thirty years, he had retired from his post at the ripe age of fifty-three and had taken advantage of his extra free time to remarry, to the utter chagrin of his then thirteen-year-old daughter. Inviting another female into one's home was always risky, but when the woman in question was only five years older than Phillipson's daughter…He might as well have asked for the rebellion of the southwest to enter the confines of his home.

On this night, however, all was as peaceful within the house as outside. Aylinn Phillipson was tucked cozily into her bed after a night spent watching her father's guests from a distance. A few of them had chosen to stay the night due to the lateness of the hour and the fact that the East End was perilously close to the eastern lower-class mercantile sector of Dmondia, known for late-night robberies.

In her mind, Aylinn could picture the guests as they had been an hour ago, comfortably settled into the sitting room in a circle of overstuffed chairs and small couches before a roaring fire that warded off the chill of winter. The men drank wine from etched glasses and argued politics in low, heated voices as the women chattered easily about the latest gossip. Everyone had looked so natural, their voices flowing without a hitch as Aylinn listened jealously to their clear tones.

Speaking had always been a bit of a problem for her, to the utter consternation of her father. Early on in life, he had deduced that it was far easier to ignore his progeny than to accept that she was damaged in ways unfathomable to him. Damaged by nature, damaged by her father's negligence, and damaged, for the past three years, by her stepmother's bitterness.

Sometimes, Aylinn wished that she had been born normal so that she might sit with the ladies in all their finery, pale gems glittering on her wrist as she laughed in that gentle and elegant manner all ladies seemed to have. Usually when Aylinn laughed, she snorted. This was but one of the many reasons why she had to admit that she was secretly glad her father kept her hidden away from everyone. She snorted when she laughed, she stammered when she was nervous—which was pretty much all the time—and, according to her stepmother, her appearance would cause any well-bred woman to have fits. Not that Aylinn was ugly, per se, but she had always been rather thin and frail, to the point where she often appeared unhealthily emaciated.

So instead of enjoying a normal life, sixteen-year-old Aylinn Phillipson watched life from behind a closed door, through the keyhole. She watched the women talk and giggle and cast flirtatious looks across the room at the men—often men not their husbands, sometimes even with their husbands in the same room.

Her stepmother was no exception. Judging by the lurid gazes swapped for most of the evening, her current prey was the handsome young rake Douglass Wolfe. Even though she never traveled in society, Aylinn was often able to identify members of the upper class strictly from description. And she overheard enough description to know that the man of the charming smile and graceful movements was the elder Wolfe twin. When she saw him enter the sitting room that evening, late and smiling with rueful charm at his host and hostess, her heart had fairly leapt into her throat. Never had she seen such a fine specimen of manhood, from his powerfully muscular upper body to the hard thighs encased in tight breeches. There was something about his movements that made her think of floating…or perhaps that was just her fanciful mind playing tricks on her.

Either way, after about thirty seconds of indulgence, she forced herself to focus on the whole of the party instead of that one particular individual. What did it matter if his neatly trimmed hair gleamed with flecks of gold and auburn in the candlelight and his eyes were such an unfathomable green they almost appeared black? Certainly she had no business drooling over the slight impression of a dimple in his right cheek. It was foolish of her to engage in fantasies that would never, not in a million years, come to life. She would never marry, nor would she ever be any man's lover. No one would want a less than perfect wife.

Still, her ears perked at the sound of his voice, a lazy drawl that caressed her ears and sent delicious shivers of heat down her spine. As her father and his cohorts argued over the latest bill to improve the conditions of the poorer sections of town, Douglass Wolfe spent his time seducing Aylinn's stepmother with his eyes. She had not known it was possible to do such a thing, but the man had it down to an art form.

Which was part of the reason why she had retired early instead of viewing the evening in its entirety, as she normally did. The more the man drank, the hotter his looks got, and when Aylinn caught herself imagining that it was her at the receiving end of such passion, she knew it was time to return to reality.

Constantly reminding herself that her life of loneliness was far better than that of the city's poor and underprivileged was the only way she remained sane. Wouldn't she rather be closeted away and ignored than living on the streets and eating other people's garbage? Of course she would.

Now if she had a handsome beggar to share that impoverished life with, perhaps she would reconsider. But if no one wanted a rich and damaged wife, her chances would sink below nil if she were poor.

With a sigh, Aylinn flipped onto her back and stared up at the ceiling of her attic room. In most houses, the servants inhabited the attic. In Phillipson House, this was the only place where its owner could stick his daughter where none of the guests might accidentally stumble across her. So he had divided the attic into two sections, one for his servants and one for his daughter. While the room had been decorated as befitting her station, the sharp slope of her ceiling always served to remind her of her position in life.

Cursing her inability to remain unaffected by life's cruelties, Aylinn rolled over to blow out the candles on either side of her bed and settled back in the very center, drowning in sheets and blankets as she willed herself to sleep.

For a while she dozed, her mind drifting back to the sitting room. Except the guests were all gone, and she was sitting in one of those soft leather chairs the women loved, a glass of warm wine in one hand. Across the room, Douglass Wolfe lounged in his chair, that lazy smile on his face as his eyes burned holes through her clothes. Instead of remaining in his seat, he rose and crossed the room to her. He leaned down, his breath caressing her cheek as he whispered, "Tell me your name."

Aylinn, characteristically, could not speak. Her words died in her throat, suppressed by a choking force that left her shaking with frustration. But he only smiled and murmured, "Never mind. It doesn't matter tonight."

And then he kissed her. Not the polite kisses she had often been witness to during her father's parties, but the deep, open-mouthed kind she had once caught her stepmother engaging in with one of her many lovers. Back then, it had seemed rather unpleasant, more like a fight to see who could devour the other first.

She was forced to amend that opinion. Warm lips slid slickly over hers, causing her mouth to tingle. When his tongue touched the seam of her lips, she obeyed his silent request and opened to him, allowing him to search her mouth.

With a moan, Aylinn moved beneath him, beckoning him closer with her body. His weight depressed upon her gently, as if she were made of fine porcelain. His hands stroked her body with tender urgency, as if he could barely control himself.

Once, when she was fourteen, she had snuck some wine from her father's cellar. She'd finished half of the bottle before she realized she was stone drunk, and by then her world was spinning and she felt giddy and powerful all at the same time.

This was the same feeling.

"Sweet Dmond, you taste good," he moaned into her mouth as his hands stripped her free of her clothes. Roughness glided over the soft smoothness of her skin, and Aylinn delighted in the contrasts.

When he discarded his own clothes and laid her gently back—when had they left the sitting room and ended up in her room, her bed?—she could not hold back a moan of pleasure at the feel of his naked body pressed against hers.

"Yes," he groaned as his hands slipped between her legs and found the moistness there. "Ah, yes."

Upon determining her readiness, he moved something else to that spot, something hard and warm that swiftly penetrated her. She bit back a cry at the painful intrusion, almost considered hitting him in a silent plea to stop his torment.

But then he smoothed her hair back from her face and rained kisses upon her face, murmuring, "I'm so sorry, my sweet. I didn't know you were still a virgin. The pain will pass, I promise." And then, with strained breathlessness, "You feel so damn good."

It was the 'you feel so damn good' that did her in.

The world faded into blackness, and for what felt like an eternity, nothing existed but she and him, her legs locked around his waist as he thrust into her with slow, steady strokes. Inside of her, a pressure was building. She could barely contain her little cries and mewls of pleasure. Certainly she couldn't stop herself from arching against him, demanding more.

He answered with driving force, and with three sharp thrusts sent them both over the edge.

Aylinn drifted back into the numbness of sleep, a welcome release from the throbbing of her well-pleasured body. Something momentous had just occurred, and she wanted to sleep before she considered the consequences.

Sleep did not last long, however. She woke to the sound of raised voices. Her father's. Douglass's.

Hers.

"How dare you take advantage of my hospitality by forcing yourself upon my daughter!" her father roared.

"Your daughter? Bloody hell, what is your daughter doing in the attic?" Douglass returned.

"It is no concern of mine. Not anymore. You'll marry her in the morning, and that is the last thing I will do for that retarded little trollop. Do you hear me, girl?" he shouted at the bed, where Aylinn was just sitting up, still blinking her eyes in bleary confusion. "I wash my hands of you as of tomorrow morning."

With that, he stormed out of the room, leaving Douglass to face Aylinn and Anjelika, one still half-asleep, the other looking entirely too smug. The heat in his gaze no longer held any desire, but only a deep loathing as his eyes fell upon Aylinn's stepmother.

"You did this on purpose, didn't you?" he demanded, his voice shaking with barely-suppressed emotion.

"Darling, it's for the best. I had to get her out of the way, or I would never be able to end my marriage to Jensonn. How else are we to wed? And don't worry about this little marriage. Girls with her problem cannot even get pregnant. Give it a month, and then you can have it annulled. No one will question your decision," she assured him, her gaze both seductive and placating.

Douglass did not rise to the bait. He just barely managed to bite off, "And why would no one question an annulment?"

"Look at her." She nodded her head in Aylinn's direction. While now fully awake and completely cognizant of what was going on around her, she was at a loss for how to respond to her stepmother's statement.

The dream had been real. Douglass Wolfe had seduced her, her of all people, and it had all been a plot by her stepmother to be rid of her. She didn't blame him. It was obvious he'd been an unwilling player in Anjelika's little game. Nor did she pay any attention to the little thrill in her belly at the prospect of being the wife of such a charming, handsome man, even for a mere month.

This was reality. The dream had ended. And in reality, she could not speak. She opened her mouth, but nothing came out but garbled nonsense. When she finally managed to get out a faint "I," it repeated endlessly without moving on to the next word.

Just as she had always suspected would happen if anyone outside of her family witnessed her deficiencies, Douglass Wolfe stared at her with absolute horror in his beautiful green eyes.

"She's simple," he whispered, his face turning white as a sheet. "You bitch." That was directed at Anjelika, a low growl of contempt. "You heartless bitch." He stomped to the door of Aylinn's room, holding it open as he glared back at her father's wife, the way he averted his eyes implying that he could no longer even bear to look at her. "I will marry her, as I am sure you anticipated I would, because it is the right thing to do. And in one month, if she is not carrying my child, I will annul the marriage. Not because you want me to, but because it wouldn't be right to keep it in place given the circumstances. If you ever approach me again after tomorrow, I will ruin you."

With that said, he left.

Trembling from the simmering emotions still hanging about the atmosphere in her room, from the strain of the past few hours, Aylinn barely noticed the cold and calculated look in her stepmother's eyes as she approached her bed. Dreams and reality all in one night…perfection and despair…was this the curse of her life? That her brain and heart should work perfectly while her tongue simply refused to cooperate?

So unfair…

"You stupid girl. What did you do to make him so angry? Douglass Wolfe has seduced a hundred women and not looked back. Why should he care so much about the conquest of one idiot child?" she demanded angrily, pinching the skin on Aylinn's arm, hard.

Because he is disgusted by what we did. Because he made love to someone less than human. Because you betrayed his trust by leading him to me.

But the words would not come. Sometimes, in private, Aylinn spoke. To herself, to the dolls she still kept piled up in one corner of her room. The words flowed perfectly then, with only an occasional stammer. Yet whenever Anjelika entered a room, her wits fled, and her tongue turned into a dead weight within her mouth.

Like tonight, when she could have easily refuted her stepmother's claim with just a few words, but she had been frozen in place by fear and shame and the knowledge that perhaps she was a little bit simple. Her father and her doctor and her stepmother all seemed to think so, anyway.

"You are not free of me yet. Tonight, you inconsiderate little bitch, I will show you what happens to naughty girls who disobey their mothers."

Steeling herself against the torment to come, Aylinn closed her eyes.

One more night, she told herself. One more night of pain, one more night of disgrace, and then she would be free. At least for a month, she would be free of the reality.