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Authors: Kay Hooper; Lisa Kleypas

Tags: #Romance, #Anthologies

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BOOK: Gifts of Love
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Outside the castle, the day’s cold wind and overcast sky had finally given way to another bleak winter storm, and Antonia shivered as she stood by the fireplace and listened to the wind wail in the night. She was not expecting anything to happen until nearer to midnight, but at a quarter past eleven it began.

She was standing by the fireplace when she caught a glimpse of movement near the door, and when she turned her head a chill went down her spine. It was the dark woman with the curiously fixed expression who had shown herself only once before. She had come into Parker’s room.

She stood just inside the door, gazing toward the bed. When Antonia looked in that direction, she felt a faint shock to discover that Parker’s bed of a century before was exactly where Antonia’s present-day bed was—perhaps it was even the same bed. She couldn’t help feeling peculiar at the thought that he might have returned from Linette’s room each dawn and crawled into bed with herself.

He was lying there now, wearing his dressing gown as if he had meant to rest for just a few minutes. But he seemed to be asleep. He didn’t stir as the dark woman moved slowly to the bed and stood gazing down at him. She was dressed—or partly dressed—in a nightgown so sheer that her body was clearly visible beneath it. She glanced toward the table by the bed, and an odd smile curved her thin lips.

Antonia looked as well, and saw the hazy shape of a mug on the table. She returned her gaze to the woman, puzzled and uneasy. What was the significance of the mug? And why was this woman in Parker’s room?

As she watched, the woman bent over the sleeping man and seemed to be searching for something. A moment later, she straightened, a heart-shaped golden locket dangling from her fingers.

“No,” Antonia murmured, shocked. “Linette gave that to him. You have no right!”

Like the lovers, the woman showed no awareness of a flesh and blood intruder. She put the chain around her own neck and looked at the locket, then very deliberately opened it and removed the curl of Linette’s fiery hair, dropping it to the floor with a scornful expression and then moving as if to grind the token underneath her slipper. She looked back at Parker for a moment, a frown drawing her brows together as he moved his head restlessly.

“Wake up,” Antonia murmured, hardly aware she had spoken aloud. She felt a cold, awful foreboding. “Please wake up and stop her.”

He continued to move in a sluggish way, his eyes still closed, and Antonia was suddenly sure that the mug had contained something to make him sleep. She was feeling colder by the minute as she watched the woman’s nimble fingers untie the string of the sheer nightgown and draw the edges of the material apart to bare full breasts almost to the nipples.

With her dark eyes fixed on the sleeping Parker, the woman moved slowly. She released her hair from its braid and combed it with her fingers, deliberately disarranging it. Her upper body seemed to sway, the gold locket shifting between her pale breasts, and she braced her legs a little apart. Her hands left her hair to slide slowly down her face and throat to her body.

Antonia felt sickened as she watched, feeling the woman’s unbalanced hunger so acutely it was as if it were a living thing loose in the room. If the lovers’ emotions had been tender and passionate, this woman’s need was a dark and twisted thing. And it shocked Antonia on some deep level, so that she had to look away.

She didn’t want to look back, but after several long minutes her gaze was pulled entirely against her will. And she felt a little sick, still deeply shocked. The woman was languidly stroking her body now, and even as hazy as she was, it was clear she wore the sleepy-eyed, sated look of a woman who had just experienced the utter pleasure of a physical release. Smiling, still caressing herself, she turned away from the bed.

Antonia glanced at Parker once, seeing him move even more restlessly and open his eyes, but she didn’t wait to see if he would get up. Instead, she followed the woman.

It was eleven-thirty.

The woman made a movement as if to open the door, then passed through it. Antonia quickly opened it in reality, but stopped before she could do more than cross the threshold. The woman was directly in front of her, half-turned to face Linette’s room across the hall.

Her sheer nightgown gaped open, revealing most of one breast and all of the other, the locket dangling between them. Her hair was tumbled, her heavy-lidded eyes and puffy lips glistening. Her smile was filled with a purely female satisfaction.

To a seventeen-year-old girl who had experienced passion herself, there was no doubt this smiling, sated woman had just come from the arms of a lover. And there was no way Linette could have known that the dark woman had been her own lover. She was standing in the open doorway of Parker’s room, from which she had just stepped, and the conclusion was a tragically obvious one.

“No,” Antonia whispered. “Oh, no, don’t believe it.”

But Linette did. Her lovely face was dazed with shock and agony. Her hands lifted in a strange, lost way, and her mouth opened in a silent cry of anguish. Then she stumbled into an unsteady run, heading, not toward the stairs, but toward the other end of the wide corridor.

Antonia spared one glance behind her and saw that Parker was struggling up from the bed. Then she raced after Linette, as unaware of her own cry as she was of the fact that she had passed through the hazy form of the dark woman.

If she had been thinking clearly, Antonia would have realized the uselessness of her action. What she had watched happen had occurred a century before, and no mortal hand could change the outcome. But she was completely caught up in the tragic drama, the players as real to her as they had once been in actuality, and it was sheer instinct that drove her to try to stop what was going to happen.

She thought she heard Richard call out her name as she ran, but her eyes were fixed on Linette’s form ahead of her. The distraught young woman might have been running blindly, but Antonia knew she was not. She was running toward the widow’s walk.

It was a remnant of the original castle or a fancy of some distant Wingate—Antonia didn’t know which. The crumbling stone wall around the small balcony might once have been a parapet designed to protect soldiers standing guard, or it might simply have been a rather plain, low balustrade built to prevent a casual stroller from pitching over and falling to the flagstone courtyard far below. In any case, it had begun to deteriorate more than a century before, and though the wing had been renovated, that exterior balcony had been left to crumble.

A solid wooden door, locked once but now merely barred, gave access to the balcony from the corridor. Linette paused for only a moment, seemingly struggling to open the heavy portal, then passed through. Antonia paused barely as long, desperation lending her the strength to lift the stout wooden bar and open the door.

She had forgotten the storm, and the blast of icy wind was shocking. Snow swirled wildly in the air and crunched beneath her thin slippers as Antonia hurried out—and almost immediately lost her balance.

The balcony was only a few feet in width, though it ran along the castle wall for nearly twenty yards. Snow had piled up against the castle wall in a deep drift, and it was that which caused Antonia to stumble and lose her balance. Two steps out from the door the balcony had been swept clean of snow by the wind—but earlier sleet and freezing rain had coated the rough stone in a sheet of ice—and because its support had been crumbling for a century, the outer edge of the balcony had a slight downward tilt.

Antonia tried to stop herself, but the icy stone gave her no purchase. Her own momentum was carrying her in an inexorable slide toward the low wall.

In a fleeting moment that seemed to stretch into infinity, she saw Linette to one side, collapsed against the wall in a heap of grief and pain. The young woman might have meant to throw herself over the wall; it was impossible to know for sure. She huddled against the rough stones, her frail shoulders jerking as she sobbed.

Then Antonia saw Parker stagger out, his unsteadiness clear evidence of the lingering effects of the drug the dark woman had given him. He called out something, shaking his head dizzily, and lurched toward Linette.

It must have been storming that night too. Parker seemed to slip and slide across the few feet of stone, his arms windmilling. It was clear he was trying to get to Linette, but either his drugged reflexes or the blinding storm made him misjudge the distance and angle. He was moving too fast, sliding wildly toward the wall, and he couldn’t save himself.

Linette looked up at the last minute, and what she saw must have haunted her all the remaining months of her life. Her lover hit the wall only a couple of feet from her, and it was too low to save him. He pitched forward, and vanished into the darkness.

Antonia saw all of that in a flashing instant. Then she felt the bite of the wall against her upper thighs, and her momentum began to carry her, too, over the crumbling stone.

“Toni!”

His arms caught her and wrenched her back with almost inhuman strength. For a moment it seemed they would both go over, and Antonia could feel the shudder of the parapet as the old stones began to give way. But then, somehow, Richard dragged her from the edge and onto the relative safety of the balcony nearest the castle wall, where the deep drifts surrounded them.

The snow blew angrily around them, but Antonia was conscious of nothing except the loving safety of Richard’s arms.

And the tragedy of two people destroyed by a twisted, evil woman.

Epilogue

“H
ere it is.” Sitting on the edge of the bed where Antonia was, at last, warm, Richard held the family history book open on his lap. He had been searching for a particular reference, and had finally located it.

“Who was she?” Antonia asked quietly.

He read in silence for a few moments, then looked up at her. His face was still somewhat drawn; Antonia’s close call on the balcony had shaken him badly. But his voice was steady when he replied to her question.

“Her name was Miriam Taylor. She’s included in the book only because she grew up in the castle, and because she was the ward of Parker’s father. You were right—the author of this history had no idea she was responsible for what happened to Parker and Linette. Apparently, no one did. Linette must have taken that secret to her grave.”

“And Miriam wouldn’t have told anyone, even if she believed it was her fault.” Remembering what she had seen, Antonia shuddered. “She was…sick, Richard. If you could have seen her in this room, what she did…”

“I didn’t even see Linette in my room, not this time. It wasn’t yet midnight, but I was about to come over here because I couldn’t stand not being with you a moment longer. Then I heard you cry out. By the time I reached the hall, you were nearly at the widow’s walk. And Parker was only a few steps behind you.”

“You didn’t see Miriam?”

“No. And, until you told me, I had no idea what had happened out there. All I saw was you.”

His voice remained steady—now. But he had sworn at her frantically when he had carried her back to her room little more than half an hour ago. He had been too anxious over her shivering to be much interested in anything except getting her warm again. But once she was tucked into the bed and no longer so pale, he had heard the whole story from her.

Antonia fumbled one hand from beneath the covers and reached out to him, smiling when his fingers instantly closed over hers. “You saved my life,” she said gravely.

His voice roughened. “Don’t remind me of how nearly I came to losing you. Never, as long as I live, will I forget the terror I felt when I saw you hurtling toward that wall.”

“I know it was foolish,” she admitted. “But somehow I couldn’t think of that. It was all so heartbreaking—and such a tragic waste for all of them. I wanted so badly to stop it, change it…”

“Yes, I know. But it happened, sweet. No one can change it now.”

“If only Linette hadn’t run. If only she had faced Parker and asked him to explain.”

Richard hesitated, then spoke very deliberately. “If she had, Parker might not have died. But their love would have been changed forever by suspicion. It was, after all, his word against Miriam’s that what Linette saw was a lie. He had no witness, no one to step forward and call her a liar. Linette might never have been able to forgive Parker. For his betrayal.”

Antonia’s grave eyes searched out his every feature as if she had never seen them before. She was still trying to reconcile two disparate men—and the only way she could do it was to accept the possibility that one of those men had been a lie, a creation.

Who was to say that a woman might not go to extremes in order to get—or keep—the man she wanted? Miriam had. And in so doing, she had caused Parker’s death.

Claire Dalton might well have done all in her power to keep Richard Allerton for herself. She might have hired a thief to break into his house, out of greed or revenge because he had turned away from her. Finding the fob could have been pure chance, and since the button had been engraved with Antonia’s initials, it would not have been difficult to figure out that Richard had fashioned himself a memento.

A woman might even have guessed how that button had come to be lost.

After all, what did Mrs. Dalton have to lose by her lies? If Richard really had ended their arrangement, she might have believed there was a chance he would return to her once his betrothed was out of the way—and she might have guessed that a young woman such as Antonia would likely break the engagement in a burst of emotion and flee. Richard might have returned to his mistress in anger.

There was really, Antonia realized suddenly, no other logical reason why Mrs. Dalton would have visited her, or said the things she had—except for spite or the desire to reclaim something she had lost. If her relationship with Richard had been as solid as she had said it was, she would never have jeopardized it by going to Antonia. The result, as anyone of reason might have guessed, had been scandal and a severe blow to Richard’s pride—neither of which was a thing any man would thank his mistress for inviting into his life.

“Toni?”

She realized that she had been silent for a long time, and that he was watching her intently. “I have said a great deal about broken trust, haven’t I?” she said. “But the truth is, if I had trusted you as I claimed to, I would have at least listened to your side of the story. I’m sorry, Richard. I should have listened—and I should have believed you.”

“Do you believe me now?”

Antonia nodded, and the resistance inside her was gone as easily as that. She believed him because she loved him and accepted his honesty. And because, after what she had witnessed tonight, she knew the folly of trusting her own eyes and ears to tell her…all of the truth. Sometimes, only the heart could know that.

“Yes. I do believe you.”

She went into his arms eagerly, pushing the bulky covers away so that she could feel the hard strength of his body against hers. He kissed her with intense desire, a little rough because the fear of having so nearly lost her was still with him, and she responded to his passion as she always had.

It was a long time later when Antonia lay close beside her duke in the warm bed. As sleep tugged at her, she thought of a question left unanswered. “Richard? In the book—does it say what happened to Miriam?”

He pulled her a bit closer and sighed, stroking her tumbled hair. “Yes, it does. Six months after Parker’s death, she threw herself from the widow’s walk.”

Antonia wasn’t much surprised by the information, and gave it only fleeting attention. Her thoughts turned to Linette and Parker, and to their daughter Mercy. Perhaps those three had been doomed to short lives and anguish, but all of them had known love. And all of them refused to completely let go of life. Was that a testament to love? Tragedy? Family?

She didn’t know. But she was deeply grateful that she had been given the opportunity to learn something from an old tragedy, and even more grateful that her own mistaken belief in betrayal had not demanded so high a price from the man she loved.

Unlike Linette, she had been given a second chance. And she intended to make the most of it.

“Merry Christmas, love,” Richard said, pressing a tender kiss to her forehead.

Antonia had a flashing vision of future holidays filled with happiness, laughter, and the delighted cries of children. Perhaps, she thought, the sounds of life and love would fill this castle one day. She meant to make sure of that, because now the castle felt like home to her. Besides, she and Richard had a debt to repay. Perhaps only the contentment of their descendants would lay the restless spirits of the Wingate family to rest.

Perhaps.

Snuggling up to her betrothed, Antonia wondered sleepily how many Wingates had occupied this bed over the years, and if any of them might visit it from time to time. It would be unnerving to wake up with a ghost in one’s bed. But Antonia wasn’t particularly concerned about the possibility, and it seemed too much trouble to worry about—or to warn Richard.

“Merry Christmas, darling,” she murmured.

BOOK: Gifts of Love
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