Authors: Dark Desires
A Revised Version
Revised edition copyright, 2011 by Eve Silver
First edition copyright, 2005 by Eve Silver
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems without permission in writing from the author, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review. This book may not be resold or uploaded for distribution to others.
This is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author's imagination, and any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
PRAISE FOR DARK DESIRES
“A dark and delicious gothic. I gobbled it up in a single sitting. Oh, how I have missed books like this!”—
New York Times
bestselling author Linda Lael Miller
“…beguiling gothic tale…”—Sandy Huseby,
“…captivatingly stunning…darkly torrid…”—aromancereview.com
“This sensual gothic will keep you up all night as you rush to finish it. Outstanding!”—
“…a gripping gothic that combines the tension of the Jack the Ripper stories with the dark aura of Jekyll and Hyde and the chill of a classic horror film. There's icy fear and smoldering passion, twists and turns and red herrings thrown in here and there to keep you up all night.”—
A thick gray wall of fog hovered over the damp stones of Hanbury Street, carrying the stink of old blood and rotting entrails. Darcie Finch shivered as chilled wisps curled like talons about her slim frame, and she hastened her steps, her feet sliding precariously on the wet cobblestones. Clutching her battered leather folio against her side, she tried in vain to close her senses to the stench.
The frightened lowing of cattle drifted on the rank air, carried from the nearby abattoir. Come morning, the stones on the next block would glisten wetly; not from mist and rain as they did tonight, but from a river of blood flowing over them. Despite her attempts to block the sound, the piteous noise intruded.
Darcie dragged in a shaky breath, fighting the panic that threatened to claw free of her breast. Did she feel the same dull fear as those poor beasts being herded to their doom, the same sense of the inevitable horror to be meted out by unfeeling hands? She could not help but compare their fate to hers, to the sorry lot she had chosen. But therein lay the distinction. The animals had been condemned without benefit of trial, born to the ending that awaited them—the slaughterhouse one block over. Those poor dumb beasts had no choice.
Her breath left her in a hiss. As if she did.
Darcie gave herself a mental shake. There were always choices, and she had made hers. Better to accept responsibility than to brandish her fist at the fates, crying and wailing against the burdens that were hers to bear.
She moved her feet mechanically, her worn boots scraping along the cobbled road as she rubbed her fingertips across the raised, puckered scar that marred the skin of her left hand.
Steppy had talked of destiny as though it were an old friend, or perhaps a mortal enemy with an ancient grudge. He always said that destiny brought all men to the same fate, a shroud and a bed in the cold hard ground.
Darcie clutched her flat leather case tighter against her chest. She knew now that Steppy had been wrong. A person might not find their end in the ground. A person might be dug up from a fresh grave and find their final end on an anatomist’s table. Whitechapel was a favorite haunt of the ressurectionists—unscrupulous men who plundered fresh graves and were whispered to hasten the dying on their way.
Shrugging off the morbid thought, she willed her exhausted body onward. Tragic and pitiable was the life that lay ahead, but no worse than so many young girls had faced before her. She sighed softly. Once she had believed in dreams and fairy tales, had relied on a gossamer web woven of privilege and fantasy. Now, she believed only in the harsh reality of life, relied only on her own ingenuity.
A sound. A shadow. Something made her stop, every fiber in her body alert. Icy tendrils twisted around her heart. Her gaze darted this way and that, searching the darkest corners of the narrow thoroughfare. The certainty that she was no longer alone slithered across her mind. She could feel something—no,
—and sense an evil intent. Peering into the shadows that loomed dark and frightful along the deserted street, she tried to place the cause of her unease.
Nothing materialized from the mist. Walking on, she shook her head at her own foolishness, at the fear that was a remnant of a time when she had lived a better life, a time when she would never have even considered roaming the back alleys of the worst part of the city. Those days were dusty memories. For so long now she had lived on these streets, existing from moment to moment, from meal to meal.
Again Darcie rubbed the length of the raised scar that crossed her hand, a memento of a poor choice, a reminder of Steppy. For a moment she thought of him as he had been, before storms and foolish decisions had taken his merchant's fortune to the black bottom of a pitiless ocean. Her stepfather had once been a man of means and a man of morals.
Just a few more steps and she'd be at Spitalfields Market. She knew the way, knew the safest route, and the most dangerous one as well. The scar began to throb and ache. It seemed to swell beneath her touch as she trudged onward, her folio of drawings tucked under one arm, her mind rooted in the past. She ought to have run in the opposite direction that day, ought to have chosen the safe road. Ought to—
Well, it didn't matter now.
Her footsteps faltered as the hair at the nape of her neck prickled and rose. Her earlier feeling of unease grew stronger, more insistent as it clamored for her attention. There
someone on the street with her. Slowly she turned to face the way she had come. The mist was thick as pottage. She could see nothing. No one. But though she could not see him, she could sense him, and she'd learned by trial and error that some senses didn't lie. Intuition was often the only safeguard between life and the oblivion of death.
Added to her own instinct was the weight of rumors that hovered over the streets of Whitechapel. Rumors of murder, of vile and painful death. Darcie knew the value of gossip. There was the probability of a frightening kernel of truth hidden beneath the layers of speculation and exaggeration.
Pulling back into the shadowed niche of a doorway, she used the night and the fog to her advantage. The thought that she had imagined the whole of it, that the sound was only the footfall of some poor soul on his way home from a hard night's labor, was one she wanted to consider. Still, instinct argued against the possibility.
Hide in the shadows. Run, girl. Run!
Steppy's voice calling her from beyond the grave.
Darcie wedged herself into the dimmest corner of the doorway, praying that the mad pounding of her heart was audible only to her own ears. She sensed that whoever, whatever, shared the street with her was on a quest, a search for the surest path to misery—her misery.
As if conjured from her most terrible imaginings, the shape of a man emerged from the mist. No sound heralded his arrival, just a ripple, a current that moved the air. Darcie dared not breathe, though an odor, foul and frightful, came uninvited into her nostrils. The smell of evil.
She could hear the sound of his breathing, low and rough. He was close enough now that she could lean out and touch his cape if she were of a mind to summon his notice. The garment was long, nearly to the ground, black in color, and of a fine material. She could see the smooth surface of his highly polished Hessians, splattered by the mud of the road. A man of money, she surmised. A man of money who had come to the East End, to Whitechapel, to prey on the poorest of the poor.
Seconds ticked by with agonizing slowness. Abruptly, he turned and began to walk away, the hollow sound of his footfall ringing on the stones. A sense of relief so acute as to be almost painful washed over her.
As the echo of the man's footsteps faded, Darcie slunk from the shadows, cautious, ever watchful. But the street was deserted.
She continued on her way, meeting no one as she walked, and when her stomach gave an ugly rumble, she ignored it. There was no choice given that she possessed not a crumb of food. The hour was close to dawn. The prostitutes and the men who searched them out had left the street for the night, and honest folk had yet to stir.
A rat scurried across her path. Watching it blend into the shadows, she remembered another life, when such a sight would have drawn her revulsion, even her fear, a time when she had lived in a small house in Shrewsbury, with Mama and Abigail and Steppy. And later, with Steppy alone. Wispy memories teased her thoughts. Warm cocoa and soft hugs, the smell of Christmas morning, the childhood innocence that allowed her to feel safe.... Ruthlessly she shoved the thoughts of a better time to the back of her mind. No sense pining for the past when the present was what she must face. She was so close to the end of her desperate journey.
Tears filled her eyes, not of relief, but of despair. The end of her journey would bring only grief. The irony was a bitter tonic.
“So, you have come, Darcie Finch. I wondered how long it would take you.”
A woman with garish face paint and cold eyes stood in the doorway of 10 Hadley Street, summoned there by the scantily clad girl who had answered Darcie's tentative knock. Her lips were pulled in a tight sneer and her brows rose mockingly as she looked down at Darcie, who stood rain-damp and bedraggled on the single timeworn stone step that led to the open door. Darcie swallowed and hesitated, though the woman swept her hand across the portal in a clear invitation to enter.
“Are you in, or out? I haven't all night. Not unless you've got a stiff rod and a bagful of coin.” She barked a harsh laugh at her own joke.
Darcie tried to answer, to tell the woman why she had come. Her throat moved and she meant to speak but, despite her intentions, no sound issued forth.
“Lost your wits, girl?” With an impatient click of her tongue the woman closed her fingers around Darcie's wrist.
A sharp tug, and Darcie stumbled into the house. Grabbing the edge of the marble entry table to steady herself, she stopped just short of landing in an ignominious heap at the other woman's feet.
The place smelled of smoke and strong perfume. And some other smell that was heavy and cloyingly sweet.
“Is he dead and buried, then?”
Darcie swallowed convulsively and nodded.
Dead, dead, dead.
Steppy was dead. Buried? She had no idea.
“You'll call me Mrs. Feather, like the other girls. No special treatment for you.”
“Of course, Mrs. Feather.” Darcie found her voice at last. She had heard of Mrs. Feather's house—there were few in Whitechapel who had not. But when she had realized that the address she sought, taken from the faded and ratty old letter that was her final link to the past, was actually Mrs. Feather's house, she had been shocked beyond words.
Darcie stared at the woman before her. Hard and bitter, she bore the marks of a sad and savage life. Could this cold creature really be Abigail? Pretty Abigail who used to sing Darcie to sleep and hold her in the night when the bad dreams came? A heaviness burdened Darcie's heart as she realized that this shell was all that remained of her sister.
Mrs. Feather caught Darcie's chin between her thumb and forefinger, regarding her shrewdly through eyes that glittered like chips of ice. She stared without speaking for a long moment.
Darcie returned the perusal with a sidelong glance, noticing that Mrs. Feather looked old and worn, when in truth she was barely thirty. The bright color painted on her lips could not disguise the furrows that bracketed her mouth. The powder and rouge that colored her skin did little to hide the deep grooves that marked her brow, the brittle cast to her features, or the sallow complexion.
Saddened, Darcie lowered her gaze, unwilling to acknowledge this woman who was but a caricature of the sister she remembered. She immediately realized her mistake. In looking away she had changed nothing, for she was yet confronted by the reality of her sister's life. Her gown was tight and low, her full breasts pushed up to the point that they nearly spilled over the top of her bodice, and the scent of her perfume swirled around Darcie in a sickening cloud.
Suddenly, Mrs. Feather snatched at the battered folio that Darcie clutched under one arm. “What's this, then? You're not still scratching out pictures?”