Authors: Gabriels Bride
I would like to dedicate GABRIEL’S BRIDE to those wonderful people who made it possible…
To Lyssa Keusch, for her support and enthusiasm, and for being so fantastic to work with.
To my family—Ed, Kelly, Sara, and Jami—for their patience and understanding through so many deadlines…I love you all.
And last but not least, to Peggy, Iona, and Joyce…you’re the best, ladies!
Tall, ivy-clad gates announced the entrance to Farleigh Hall. A…
A torrential summer rain poured from the sky, drenching to…
It was him.
In the attic, Cassie rushed to the crooked table in…
It was almost noon by the time the carriage delivered…
Cassie roused slowly the next morning. The mattress beneath her…
For the life of him, Gabriel wished he had never…
A week later Gabriel announced they would dock in London…
A gentle knock on the door roused Cassie late the…
Over the next weeks, Edmund Sinclair watched all unfold with…
Gabriel reached her just as her knees began to buckle.
Nor was that the end of it.
He began to advance. “It occurs to me I have…
The day dawned dark and ominous. Cassie stirred, her subconscious…
Several days later they returned to Farleigh.
His mouth crushed hers, a searing brand. There was no…
Cassie awoke to blazing sunlight streaming brightly through the windows.
Though she tried to disguise it, Cassie’s mood was troubled…
Autumn came full upon the land. The countryside brightened to…
Though the night was near spent, the crush of people…
On this particular night in late March, the Hare’s Den…
Weary beyond measure, Cassie slept through the morning and well…
It was a week before Cassie was allowed to leave…
The creak of the door opening the next morning prodded…
Gabriel came to call the very next day, both morning…
Jonathan was plucked from his mother’s arms. Warrenton leaped heavily…
all, ivy-clad gates announced the entrance to Farleigh Hall. A long, winding drive wound its way amidst formal, terraced gardens and yew-hedged walks. But it was Farleigh Hall itself, with its stately brick facade and sprawling grandeur, that inevitably commanded the eye of the beholder. Beyond the wide, curving stone steps, high, mullioned windows draped with shimmering gold silk stretched endlessly on either side…it was at once a sight both formidable and awe-inspiring.
At the east end of the manse, two young children sat beneath the watchful guidance of their tutor, Mr. Findley. More and more often their attention strayed to the window of the schoolroom, which was slightly ajar in deference to the warm June afternoon. Stout and sturdy boys of ten and six they were, the elder as fair as the younger was dark, both with eyes the same piercing gray as their father.
And it was their father for whom the pair waited so anxiously, fidgeting at their cherrywood table, until at last Mr. Findley rolled his eyes heavenward and threw up his hands.
“Off with you now!” he said crossly. “I could be filling your heads with porridge for all the two of you would know! Your father won’t be back from London before nightfall, but who am I to tell you differently? Education is indeed life’s most coveted prize, but do either of you realize it? I think not!”
He cast a last disparaging glance at the boys, muttering under his breath about the vagaries of fate with an equal mix of envy and frustration. For although their minds might someday be empty as a poor man’s kettle, such would not be the case with their pocketbooks…
Not for the sons of the seventh duke of Farleigh, a man who was among the wealthiest in all of England.
At that precise moment, the clatter of coach wheels sounded on the drive outside. Mr. Findley ignored it, his mettle pricked still further.
Outside, the carriage rounded the last graceful curve of the drive. The elder lad bounded down the wide stone steps. Although his brother struggled to keep pace, his thin legs pumping furiously, he lagged far behind. He had scarcely breached the wide double doors when the carriage door burst open. A handsome man, impeccably dressed in an elegant striped silk frock coat and pale pantaloons, leaped lightly to the ground.
“Papa!” Bright, eager eyes gleamed up at him. “We missed you! As much as I enjoy my riding lesson with Ferris, I’d much rather you taught me instead.”
The duke’s gaze settled upon his golden-haired son, roving the aristocratic features that so remind
ed him of another…Lord, but the boy resembled his mother!
He laughed. “And I, too, Stuart. Indeed, our lessons were oft on my mind while I was gone—why, so much so that I couldn’t resist bringing this back for you.”
The duke gestured to his footman, and again the sound of hoofbeats was heard. Another rider appeared, but it was the small white pony that trailed behind that widened Stuart’s eyes.
“Papa!” he breathed. “You have brought me my very own pony! Why, I shall name him White Dancer!”
An indulgent smile curved the duke’s lips as he led the pony forward. “Of course I brought you a present. Nothing is too good for the future duke of Farleigh, you know.”
Neither of them had noticed young Gabriel, who now darted forth. “A pony!” he cried, beaming. “Papa, you have brought us a pony!” In his eagerness he thrust a hand up in front of the pony’s nose.
But the suddenness of the move frightened the animal; he reared up and back, instinctively striking out with his forelegs. Stuart leaped back, only narrowly escaping the flashing hooves.
The duke whirled on the child. “The pony is for your brother, boy, not you! And for pity’s sake, watch yourself! You know better than to startle a horse. Your brother might have been killed!”
Stuart glanced at his father. “He meant no harm, Papa.” His tone was earnest. “He only wanted to see the pony. Didn’t you, Gabriel?”
The child called Gabriel said nothing. He suf
fered his father’s silent disapproval, his dark head bowed low. His bottom lip trembled; all the life had flickered from his eyes.
“Yes, I suppose you’re right.” The duke did not bother to hide his irritation. “But he would do well to be more like you, Stuart. Your brother is a bit of a nuisance at times.”
The younger lad’s shoulders slumped further. Thinking to cheer him, Stuart glanced at his father. “Papa, what present have you brought for Gabriel?” he asked curiously.
The duke sighed. “Dear me. Wills and I were so caught up in trying to find your pony, I fear it quite escaped me. No matter—I shall try to remember the next time.” He crooked a finger at his elder son. “Come along now, Stuart. We’ve much to discuss, for I’ve decided you shall accompany me on my next trip to London.”
His chest swelling with pride, Stuart stepped up smartly beside his father. The duke turned as if to walk away. Then, as if it were an afterthought, he stopped and patted Gabriel on the head—like a favored pet—then turned and walked away, Stuart at his side.
But the boy was neither favored, nor a pet. He was only a child who did not understand why his father slighted him so.
But his mother knew.
Inside the house, a fold of the silk draperies slid silently back into place. Unbeknownst to the three of them, Lady Caroline Sinclair, duchess of Farleigh, watched from afar. There was a melancholy sadness about her as she turned away, for she was aware, in that way only a mother is, that the lad had
been wounded. She alone understood the wistful yearning in her son’s eyes, the ache in his soul. She could have wept, for the boy was always so eager to please, so anxious for his father’s attention. But Edmund was blind to his son’s devotion. Indeed, he scarcely knew the boy existed.
For the duke’s favorite was his firstborn.
And Caroline greatly feared that a second son was no better than a second
Bitterly she recalled that long-ago day Edmund had come to her. “Stuart needs a mother,” he had said. “And it seems I need a wife.” Oh, how bold he had been! So dashing, so arrogant and strong-willed! But Caroline had spared not a care, for she had loved Edmund Sinclair from the moment she had set eyes on him—and to think he had chosen her above all others! Her foolish heart had brimmed with joyful hope. Surely he would come to love her. Surely someday…
And so she strived mightily to be a loving, dutiful wife in all things, that he might come to love her in return. But she had come to realize that although her love would forever dwell with the man who claimed her heart, his forever dwelled with one who now lived with the angels…
Edmund was not incapable of loving—how much easier to bear were it so!
She pressed trembling fingers against her forehead. She must be strong, if not for her own sake, then for Gabriel. She could stand the hurt, the pain—anything for this child of her heart, for indeed, he was all she had—all that she might ever have. Her heart heavy with her burden, but determined such weakness would not show, she hurried
down the gallery and out into the sunshine.
The boy remained where he was, still and silent. Small and alone. Forgiven…then forgotten.
But the child did not forget, nor forgive; with gentle insistence he eased himself from his mother’s loving embrace. To her surprise, he would accept neither pity nor comfort. There were no tears, only a hint of stoic pride despite his tender years. For Gabriel was very much his father’s son…
Far more than any of them realized.
Charleston, South Carolina
torrential summer rain poured from the sky, drenching to the skin those dauntless souls who ventured outside, and turning the already rutted, stinking streets into a sea of mud. But inside the taproom of Black Jack’s Inn, the air fairly seethed with the pulse of life and raucous, masculine laughter.
Although it was only a few blocks from the waterfront, Black Jack’s was one of the better establishments of the city. It boasted excellent food, clean sheets, and respectable service, all at a fair price.
On this particular wet, dreary night, the table in the far corner was occupied by two well-dressed men, one with hair as dark as the midnight hour, the other slender and chestnut-haired. After weeks at sea, they’d decided to forego the ship’s cramped quarters for the pleasures of a warm, comfortable mattress.
“To a safe trip back to England—and to the earl of Wakefield and his future bride!”
The laughter-filled voice belonged to one Sir
Christopher Marley. Lord Gabriel Sinclair, however, was not so eager to join the toast. And little wonder, for his impending nuptials were hardly to his liking…
They were most certainly not of his doing.
He stared into his glass as if it held the secrets of the world. These last weeks had blurred into a dream—sweet heaven, a nightmare.
Stuart was dead, a casualty of the battle of New Orleans.
. An unseen hand seemed to close about his heart and squeeze. In truth, his brother’s death was something Gabriel had never once considered. He and Stuart had never been truly close, and the years had found them drifting further and further apart. Gabriel had left Farleigh the day of his mother’s funeral, and he’d not been back. In truth, he had turned his back on his father and set about building a successful shipping business of his own. And in so doing, Gabriel had turned his back on all that he was.
Bitter remembrance seared his heart. Needless, his father had not sought him out, even when he’d left to march with the English forces against Napoleon. No, not once in nearly five years had his father deigned to call upon him. Indeed, it was as if he never existed…
But all that had changed with Stuart’s death.
It was inevitable, perhaps…Gabriel’s mind slid back in time, back to his last meeting in his father’s London study when he’d learned his brother was dead.
His father had not changed. He was as arrogant, as imperious…as cold as ever.
“You are now the earl of Wakefield, the next duke of Farleigh,” his father said in that frigid, formal tone Gabriel remembered so well—and hated so intensely. “’Tis your duty to marry, to give me a grandson so that our family name does not die out.”
. God, but the word was suddenly vile. In truth, Gabriel had known precious little of duty, for that was the role for which Stuart had been groomed.
He forced himself to relax, then smiled lazily. “Oh, I’ve many uses for women, Father, both in the bedroom and without.” He paused, taking a perverse delight at his father’s expression, visible proof of his displeasure. He gave a short laugh and continued. “Fortunately, none of them have ever included marriage.”
Brows the color of iron drew together over Edmund Sinclair’s eyes. His hair, still well in abundance, was streaked with the same iron-gray. Gabriel did not flinch from such piercing regard, the way he had done so often as a child. “Ah, yes, so it would seem.” The duke’s tone was icily distant. “I’ve been kept apprised of your…activities. It seems you’ve had many a mistress yet never a wife.”
Gabriel’s smile vanished. The man had dared to spy upon him! He glared at his father, only barely able to conceal his temper.
“With a title comes responsibility, Gabriel, as well as respectability. In light of your…behavior, I believe the first step should be to remedy the situation. You must take a wife. Now. From your own lips, you’ve indicated no preference. I,
therefore, propose a solution. Since Stuart can no longer wed Lady Evelyn, it seems only logical that you take his place.”
Gabriel had known, of course, of Stuart’s betrothal to Lady Evelyn, only child of the duke of Warrenton, whose estate bordered Farleigh in Kent.
“Indeed,” his father had gone on, “I see no reason why the wedding should not take place as planned.”
For an instant, Gabriel had been too stunned to reply. It was only later that he realized he should have expected such haughty presumption—after all, this was his father with whom he was dealing.
The urge to walk away was almost overpowering. Lord, he’d been tempted to do exactly that, to shirk his so-called
and to hell with his father. Yet something stopped him…
Gabriel was many things, but never a fool. Farleigh was a grand estate, and a future dukedom was a powerful lure indeed…
Perhaps, he decided grimly, this was Fate’s way of seeking to erase those miserable years of his youth.
“Well?” Oh, but his father’s note of impatience was far too familiar. “Have you nothing to say, Gabriel? If so, then I must assume you have no objection to wedding Lady Evelyn.”
Gabriel clenched his fists at his sides. “Father,” he said evenly, “the years have not changed you. You possess no will but your own. You
no will but your own. Would it truly matter to you
if I harbored some objection?” Even as he spoke, his mind was otherwise encumbered. He needed time to consider, time to decide one way or the other…
One thing stood out high in his mind. If he chose to wed Lady Evelyn, it would be done not to please his father, but himself.
As Gabriel expected, the duke chose to ignore his jibe. “Very well, then. Warrenton and his daughter have already agreed to the match. Therefore, we shall share this news immediately—”
“No. I have business in America. My ship leaves at dawn tomorrow. I fear I must insist we wait until my return.”
The duke’s dislike of Yankees was known far and wide, and little wonder, considering the fate that had befallen his first wife, and now Stuart…The duke’s lips tightened. “I see no reason to delay,” he began.
“Ah, but I do. Surely a wait of several months would be more appropriate in light of Stuart’s demise. Besides, I hardly think it proper that the
be apprised of such an event without my presence in the flesh.” Gabriel shrugged, his tone one of reason and utter calm. “Surely a few months will make little difference.”
The duke’s jaw clamped tight. His eyes were a cool, pale reflection of his son’s. “You are right, of course,” he said at length. “We will make the formal announcement as soon as you have concluded your business and returned to London.”
His father was furious, Gabriel acknowledged smugly. The victory was a small one, but a victory
nonetheless. As such, he would do well to enjoy it.
A heaving guffaw from behind Gabriel brought him back to the present. What was it Christopher had said?
To the earl of Wakefield and his future bride
. Recalling the toast, Gabriel raised a darkly slanted brow in lieu of his tankard. The way he felt right now, he’d just as soon take as his wife an ugly hag than do as his father wanted.
“We’ve only just arrived,” he said lightly. “Are you so anxious then to depart without sampling all Charleston has to offer?” One corner of his hard mouth came up. “As I recall, our last visit to Charleston left nearly every maid in the town yearning for the thrust of an English blade!”
Though Gabriel was sometimes distant, often remote, Christopher had known his friend far too long to overlook his brittle smile. “Something,” Christopher said slowly, “is troubling you.”
Troubling him? Why, what should he care that Fate had cast him back into his father’s path? A mocking smile twisted Gabriel’s lips.
“I will soon be wed to a woman whose lineage is among the oldest in all of England. You are right, Christopher. Let us toast the alliance between the house of Warrenton and the house of Farleigh.” He raised his glass high. “To the mighty and the damned!”
This time it was Christopher who looked on as Gabriel proceeded to drain his tankard of every drop of ale. He pictured in his mind the pale ethereal blond who would wed his friend. He sighed. What he wouldn’t give to be in Gabriel’s shoes! But to a lowly baronet, the lovely Evelyn was as far out of reach as the stars.
“Lady Evelyn is hardly a troll, Gabriel. Faith, she is as comely as any! Were I you,” he chided, “I’d find marriage to her no hardship at all.”
Gabriel said nothing. He had already inherited Stuart’s title, he thought blackly. Why not his wife as well?
In truth, it was not the marriage itself that Gabriel found so distasteful. Christopher was right, he realized. He supposed Evelyn was pretty enough. And perhaps it was well and good that she was quiet and mousy and half-terrified of him. She would do as she was told, and would not dare to question him. And did it truly matter that he would soon have a wife? Marriage and fidelity were hardly synonymous. Society accepted that a man slept where he chose, and with whom he chose. No, his life need not be any different than before.
Nonetheless, a seething resentment seized hold of him. What grated was that his father had commanded he marry. And it was just like his father to expect that his every wish be obeyed, blast his arrogant, autocratic hide!
For a moment his brooding silence lingered. “I did not expect to have to marry out of duty,” he said at last. “Indeed,” he did not bother to hide his annoyance, “I did not expect to have to marry at all.”
When the innkeeper hurried over to serve them a sumptuous round of beef swimming in gravy, baked yams, and honeyed ham, Christopher silently studied his friend. From the time they’d met at Cambridge, Gabriel had been wild and reckless, ever the rebel. Even then the state of affairs between Gabriel and his father had been bleak. But
there was now a hardness within him, a brooding hardness that had been there until his mother had died.
Indeed, Christopher could have sworn that Gabriel blamed his father for his mother’s death…Yet Caroline had died of an accident—a tragic one, to be sure—but an accident nonetheless.
But Christopher did not ask why Gabriel might hold his father accountable. For there were some boundaries even he dared not cross.
Christopher shook his head. “Few of us eagerly enter the marriage market, my friend. I fear ’tis usually a case of needs must.”
Gabriel gave a harsh laugh and reached for his fork. “On that, you are right. Women complain that ’tis men who possess all the freedom. But marriages are made to acquire that which one does not hold. ’Tis ironic, is it not, that if a woman possesses much in the way of beauty, she usually manages to marry a fortune. And if she already has a fortune, she needn’t marry at all. But a man…well, if a man wishes to produce an heir, he must find himself a wife!”
Christopher’s blue eyes filled with mirth. “Perhaps the lady—and marriage—will tame you.” His friend chuckled. “Indeed, I find the possibility rather intriguing!”
Gabriel smiled, his first genuine display of humor. “Intriguing, yes,” he drawled. “But likely?” He shook his head. “I think not.” Gabriel was well aware his reputation as a rakehell was hardly undeserved. Of vice he knew much, of virtue, precious little.
“In fact,” he continued lightly, “I suggest we occupy ourselves with the pursuit of far more pleasant matters. Why, who knows what new fields have bloomed in our absence?”
His gaze swept the taproom, his meaning unmistakable. Christopher was only too glad for the diversion. A barmaid had just moved to clear the tankards from a table recently vacated. Generous-hipped and raw-boned, she had round brown eyes and plump red cheeks. On seeing she had captured their attention, she flashed a beaming smile and leaned forward across the table. Her bodice gaped wide, offering an unimpeded view of bare, ample breasts.
“Ah,” Christopher murmured. “A display of female charms that is hardly platonic, wouldn’t you say?”
“Indeed.” Gabriel was mildly amused by the barmaid’s ploy. Clearly the wench was willing. She was young, and appeared to have good teeth. But she was a bit ungainly…“I fear,” he murmured, “she’s rather clumsily made for my tastes.”
Christopher laughed. “No doubt she’ll make some man a good farmer’s wife.”
It was then that Gabriel saw her—the other barmaid. She was hurrying from the kitchen, tying an apron about her waist.
And this one was far from ungainly. Her hair seemed the same rich color as the firelight, a striking combination of amber and gold. But it was caught up in a knot on her nape, pulled so severely tight that the skin on her forehead was stretched taut. He found himself possessed of the notion that she sought to hide her beauty.
Christopher’s gaze trailed his. On seeing where Gabriel’s had settled, he raised a thick chestnut brow. “Ah,” he murmured, rubbing his chin. “Now there’s a maid I vow is as pleasant to kiss as to look upon. Nature has not failed her, my friend. Why, I daresay such beauty could carry her far…no farmer’s wife, this one, eh? No doubt she could aim far higher.”
Gabriel was not disposed to answer. Nor did he need to, Christopher decided. Gabriel’s intense scrutiny of the girl told him all he needed to know. He heaved a silent sigh of regret, for the thought of pursuing a dalliance with the wench was captivating indeed, but Gabriel had spied her first so he would quell any frivolous pursuit on his part.
Gabriel’s gaze had yet to leave the girl. She was dressed much the same as the other, in a worn, muslin gown that might have once been green. The square bodice was cut low. She carried a heavily laden tray and had begun to serve frothy tankards of ale at the table across the room.
Gabriel couldn’t help but note the way her hand fluttered to the low-cut neckline every so often; the merest hint of creamy roundness was revealed. He gave a cynical half-smile, for oddly enough, he found himself far more fascinated by what this lass humbly concealed than what the first barmaid brazenly displayed.
Small-boned and unearthly slender beneath that wretched gown, it slipped through his mind that she seemed strangely out of place here, like a frail pink blossom among thorns…He was abruptly irritated with himself. What nonsense was this?
Comparing the wench with roses? He was suddenly both angry and annoyed, yet buried beneath his self-derisive scorn was the realization that he could scarcely escape the reminder…