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Chapter One

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London, 1888

He has a terrible predilection for death.

The thought dominated Captain William Selsby’s mind as he sat in the study of Frederick, Lord Ashdowne, drank the man’s brandy, and studied the collection of stuffed fowl, fox, deer, and boars’ heads decorating every wall and flat surface. The creatures stared back at Will with glass eyes and what he imagined was a glare of resentment for the state he found them in.

He had just whipped the aristocrat quite neatly at a game of cards and would have been content to collect his winnings and be on his way, but Ashdowne had cajoled him into stopping for a bit of libation and another round of cards.

“Your hand is shaking, old man. Sure you’re up for another game?”

Flexing his left hand, Will attempted to ease the spike of pain that shot down his arm. Eight years had done nothing to eradicate the ache, though he had grown used to it, learned how to accommodate it. If nothing else, he had become skilled at drowning it, and in liquor far less tasty than the amber fire Freddy continued to pour from a seemingly bottomless crystal decanter.

A bird, a fragile little thing in life, now even more delicate in perpetual stuffed existence, gazed at him with a single black bead eye from the table at his side. His thoughts wandered to memories of another eye—the wild, terrified gaze of his war horse, Hercules, as they lay together, both wounded, with Will’s broken leg caught beneath the stallion’s massive body. The ache in his leg began to thrum, as if his body’s memory of the injury was as keen as his mind’s.

A decade earlier a display of preserved animals would have escaped his notice. As a medical student he had been more interested in human anatomy and physiology rather than that of animals. But most of all he had been brash and foolish, as heedless of death as he was careless with his life. He had been eager to join the army and even hungrier for battle. Nowadays he wished he could stumble upon his younger self in a back alley and clip the arrogant blighter on the chin. What a fool he had been. What a fool he had become.

Will lifted a snifter to his lips and tipped more brandy into his mouth. He savored the burn lancing down his throat, into his chest, the heat swelling out to give him a brief sense of warmth and comfort.

“Marvelous specimens, are they not, Selsby?”

Will bit his tongue to still his honest retort and formed a more diplomatic response. “I have never seen such an extensive collection.”

“They are all the work of my own hand, you know. Killed them myself. Skinned them myself. Stuffed them myself. The old bear detests my hobby. Only makes me more keen.”

Ashdowne had a ferocious grin, giving the impression he had just finished some particularly nasty business and was quite proud of himself. Will knew the man well enough to know “the old bear” referred to Freddy’s father. Something to do with the family’s coat of arms which featured a black bear—up on two legs, claws at the ready, and as ferocious as Freddy’s grin. Though he had never explained it to Will, Ashdowne’s hatred for his father was palpable. It was likely something to do with Freddy’s impatience. When the earl shuffled off his mortal coil, Ashdowne, his first born son, would inherit all the old man’s lands and titles.

“Quite a talent.” It was the only response Will could muster, and it wasn’t a lie. Freddy had a definite skill for taxidermy, and Will thought it worth pointing out, since he had never found much else to admire about the man. Spending time with Ashdowne, which he usually only did at the gentleman’s club where they had met, always made Will ill at ease, as if an invisible current of energy he could not itch was crawling across his skin.

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