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Authors: Jo Beverley

Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Fantasy, #Adult, #Regency

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BOOK: The Dragon's Bride
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Race was looking decidedly dazzled. It was the profit, not the person, but Con’s jaw was aching with the need to drag her away from his side.

“You know a surprising amount about it, Mrs. Kerslake,” he said, and saw her remember discretion with a start.

“Everyone does in these parts.” She moved away from Race, however, which was an improvement.

Race looked up from his papers. “No wonder the earldom seems to have taken in at least two thousand pounds on top of rents each year.”

“Has it, by gad?” Con strode to the desk to look at the papers Race had spread in front of him. “Yet according to the records Swann’s sent me, there’s only a couple of thousand in the earldom’s bank.” He looked across the desk. “Any explanation of that, Mrs. Kerslake?”

“The sixth earl spent a great deal on what interested him, my lord. His antiquities.” She was hiding behind her servant’s manner, but he wasn’t fooled. She was tense with knowledge.

“ ‘Eye of newt and tail of frog’ being very expensive these days?” Con turned back to Race. “Any idea if there’s any squirreled away?”

“It’s ‘Eye of newt and toe of frog,’ actually,” Susan interjected. He looked at her and was hard-pressed not to smile at the touch of mischief there—an adult mischief based on wit and wisdom rather than girlish high spirits.

“Tails may make more sense,” she pointed out, “but toes must bring more profit, frogs having more than one.”

“Tails would have rarity value, however, since they do not have one once they’re fully grown.”

Her eyes sparkled. “That would make them a symbol of eternal youth… !”

He picked up her thought. “And if the earl were still alive, I could make a fortune selling him frog’s tails.”

Con thought they both came to a shocked awareness of relaxation, of memory of past times, simultaneously. She certainly sobered and turned to Race at the same time Con did.

“Hidden profits?” Con prompted, aware of his secretary’s intrigued interest, damn him.

“I’ve found none yet, my lord. Not all his incomes and expenditures are clearly itemized, however, and he clearly often dealt in cash. It is possible he spent it all.”

Surely after being the earl’s secretary for so many years, Susan would know. He challenged her directly. “I presume you don’t know where the extra money is, Mrs. Kerslake?”

She looked him straight in the eye. “No, my lord.”

That was the truth.

“Keep up the search,” he ordered Race. “It will enliven your dull days. And note any records of the purchase price of his peculiarities. That might be the key to my fortune.”

Susan’s expression turned so perfectly blank he knew she was hiding something. He really must stop thinking her an honest woman. She was beautiful, fascinating, deadly.

But not honest.

She’d had years to play with the books here, diverting money at will. She was up against Race now, however, whose chief delight was finding the truths and secrets hidden in records and ledgers.

Raw from that moment of friendly banter, he had to escape. “I am going to inspect the estate.”

Then he realized this would leave Susan free to get up to all sorts of mischief. “Mrs. Kerslake, I wish you to work with Mr. de Vere. You are familiar with the earldom’s management.”

“The torture chamber, my lord?” she reminded him.

“A thoroughly superfluous addition.” He saw her puzzlement, but wasn’t about to explain. Crag Wyvern was one huge torture chamber when Susan Kerslake was in it, and a trap, too.

Race was showing absolutely no interest in rack and pincers, so Con left, shutting the door on them.

Then he turned to go back. Susan and Race, alone together? After a moment he made himself walk away from the door. Perhaps Race could save him from himself.

A few more days of this new Susan and he might be rolling in the sand with her again, and this time there was nothing to prevent him offering marriage and being caught for life.

Except, he suddenly thought, a prior commitment.

Last week he’d been drifting toward offering marriage to Anne Peckworth. Nothing had changed. She was well-bred, well dowered, kind, and gentle. His mother and sisters liked her. She was the perfect wife for him.

She had another advantage—the reason, in fact, that he’d sought her out. Earlier in the year, a fellow Rogue, Lord Middlethorpe, had been about to offer for Lady Anne when he’d met and married his beautiful wife, Serena. Lady Anne had been led to expect that offer, and been hurt, but she’d behaved beautifully.

He’d decided that since he seemed to lack the ability to fall in love, he might as well take Francis’s place with Anne, who had a crippled foot and thus didn’t find it easy to attend social events.

It was rational, reasonable, and yet here, with Susan, he was in danger of losing his grip on that sane decision.

He went to his room and opened his traveling desk to take out a sheet of paper. After fighting an instinct to hesitate, he wrote a swift letter to Anne Peckworth.

A gentleman writing to an unmarried lady was tantamount to commitment anyway, but to make all safe he stated clearly that he intended to speak to her father as soon as he returned to Sussex, which he hoped would be in a week or so.

He did not sand the ink but watched it dry, knowing he was burning his bridges. He was burning bridges between himself and the enemy, however, which was an excellent military tactic.

Attraction, even love, was not always good. He’d seen men bewitched and entangled by unworthy women, often to their destruction. He would not be one.

The ink was dry.

He folded the letter, sealed it, addressed it and scrawled
Wyvern
across the top to cover the postage. Then he gave it to Diego. “Take this down to Pearce. He’s to get it into the mail immediately. If he has to ride to Honiton or Exeter, so be it. I want it on its way.”

So that I can’t weaken and snatch it back.

He saw Diego’s brows rise, but the valet only said, “Yes, my lord.”

He sat back and considered his defensive position. It was perfect. Now he could resist any weapons Susan brought to bear.

Chapter Nine

Susan tried to pay attention to de Vere and the paperwork, but her mind and heart were still with Con. That brief moment of fun had been like a drop of water on parched earth.

Tantalizing rather than refreshing.

She could not endure more such encounters. They made her feel like the most fragile shell on the seashore, being worn thinner and thinner with every wave of interaction. She’d be transparent soon, and shatterable with the slightest pressure. She’d end up as sand, swept away with the next tide….

“Mrs. Kerslake?” De Vere’s voice broke into her thoughts.

She turned to him and saw his expression—intrigued, but not unkind.

“Perhaps you could explain how the earl recorded his investment interests. It seems somewhat unclear.”

She concentrated on simple matters. “He was secretive by nature, Mr. de Vere.”

He had brought over a chair so she could sit by him, and now asked a series of focused, intelligent questions. She was impressed by how quickly he’d grasped the arcane aspects of the records and by how clearly he understood what was contained in them, including what was implied.

She was also impressed and worried by his systematic approach. She had been efficient, but not so meticulous. Though de Vere was working with remarkable speed, he was stripping every sheet of paper of its information and organizing it for future reference.

She was almost sure that there were no details here about smuggling matters, but things might be learned between the lines. Payments were made to the George and Dragon tavern for wine and spirits, for example, which were disguised investments in smuggling. Would de Vere, from Derbyshire, realize that?

Large sums of money were entered under loan repayments without any record of the loan.

Also the earl had been inclined to scribble notes to himself on all kinds of matters on the edge of papers, or on scraps that often ended up mixed in with other things.

What might de Vere learn that way?

Might he learn that David was the new Captain Drake? If he did, what might he do with that, as an outsider and a soldier?

She needed to speak to David, to warn him, even though she knew such a warning was useless. There was nothing he could change, nothing he could do, except perhaps lie low.

And where was he? She’d sent the message saying he was wanted here. She needed to know the run had gone smoothly, that she could put aside the matter of finding the hidden money.

She gazed sightlessly at a row of figures. What if it hadn’t gone well? What if David was wounded somewhere and that was why he wasn’t here?

She made herself be sensible. She’d have received word. Someone would have told her.

What if no one knew? If her aunt and uncle thought he was staying with friends … ?

She realized that de Vere had asked her the same thing twice. He must think her an addlepated female.

Trying to speak calmly, she said, “You know, I think my brother would be able to help you more on these matters, Mr. de Vere. I wonder where he is.”

“Until he comes, perhaps—”

She rose. “I will go and make sure the message was sent.” Before he could object, she escaped.

She went to the kitchen and put Mrs. Gorland in charge. She almost ran out as she was, but she disciplined herself and put on her plain, wide hat. She must be Mrs. Kerslake, respectable housekeeper, not Susan Kerslake, who’d tramped free on the hills.

Who’d gone adventuring with Con Somerford.

As soon as she was outside Crag Wyvern, her panic faded and she took a deep breath. She’d never liked the Crag, but until today she’d not felt its full constrictive power.

David was doubtless fine. Merely tired from last night and careless about responding to commands. But she was outside now, and she’d make the most of it.

The most of her freedom.

She’d never felt quite like this before, but then, Con Somerford had not been inside Crag Wyvern before. Or not for eleven years.

She set off down the hill to the inland village of Church Wyvern. For a blessing, the sun was shining from an almost cloudless sky. It had been a dreadful summer, apparently because of the eruption of a volcano last year half a world away. Sweet summer days were scarce, and after last night they could have expected overcast and even rainy weather, but heaven had sent sunshine when she needed it so badly.

She prayed that the run had been successful. Then she could quickly find a new housekeeper and be out of Con’s orbit before she did something to destroy him, or herself. It would break her heart to separate herself from him again, but she knew she must.

Destroy, she thought, glancing back at the gloomy house. So strong a word, and yet she felt that kind of power swirling in the house between them.

He was so dark, so unlike the Con she remembered, even though her sweet, magical Con was there, too. Trapped, perhaps? If he was trapped inside that dark shell, she didn’t know how to free him. Even if it was all her fault, if she’d started the encrustation all those years ago in Irish Cove, she didn’t know how to break him free now.

But she could avoid making things worse.

Going down the hill, the pretty village was spread before her, with cottages clustered around the church spire. She saw Diddy’s mother hanging out the wash in her back garden, little children running around her. Grandchildren, probably, though Diddy’s youngest brother was still an infant. One little girl was solemnly handing Mrs. Howlock the pegs, and Susan thought wistfully of such simple pleasures. A home, children, daily tasks that didn’t require much thought or anxiety.

She knew it was nonsense, that worry lived in the cottages as well as in the manor and at the Crag, but most people didn’t deliberately entangle themselves with madness and hanging crimes.

Could she get David to forget about all of this? They could move far from the coast and live ordinary lives….

She shook her head. The blood of a wanton and a smuggling master mingled in them both. David had been reluctant to become Captain Drake, but he’d taken to it like a cat to mousing, and she knew he wouldn’t give it up now.

Anyway, it was his duty, and he knew that. The people here needed smuggling, and needed an orderly leadership. He couldn’t walk away from his inherited responsibility any more than Con could.

She could go anywhere, however.

But where?

She was completely unsuited to be a governess or a companion, and her birth made her unattractive for that or as a bride to a gentleman. She wasn’t sure she had the temperament to make a good wife anyway, and of course, she wasn’t a virgin.

Where could she go?

What could she do?

She had enjoyed being the earl’s secretary, but such a position normally belonged to a man. And she didn’t want to leave here, the one place on earth where she belonged.

Jack Croker was working in his garden, ready to plant his beans by the looks of the long stakes he was setting, as he had for thirty years or more. A tumble of very young piglets was all over a sow in Fumleigh’s farmyard. Apple blossom carpeted the manor’s orchard, promising autumn fruit.

There was no way to belong to a village like this without being born to it. Everyone else, no matter how pleasant, was an outsider. She belonged, but she was and would always be the daughter of Mel Clyst and Lady Belle, a couple who hadn’t even bothered to put the gloss of marriage on the scandal of their union.

If she’d been willing, or able, to live like a young lady of the manor, she would have been accepted better. But no, she’d had to spend all the time she could outdoors, exploring, questioning, learning to swim and sail, so that soon people had begun to whisper that she was as wild as her mother and would come to the same end.

Which perhaps she had, though less happily.

She turned into the lane that circled around the village, noting the faint cart tracks in the soft earth. Last night’s drizzle had softened the ground enough to leave the trace, but no more than a trace. The Dragon’s Horde was skillful, and men always followed the cart with a roller, smoothing out the tracks a bit to make them look older, then superimposing footprints, even those of children. Everyone hereabouts was involved in the smuggling trade.

There were hoofprints too. The manor’s horses would have been borrowed for the run, and returned around dawn. Farmers grumbled sometimes about tired beasts and men, but most accepted the payment in kegs and bales found among the straw.

She’d never been sure what Uncle Nathaniel and Aunt Miriam thought about smuggling. It was rarely mentioned at the manor, and only then as something that went on elsewhere. From being the earl’s secretary and now helping David with the Horde’s accounts, she knew they didn’t invest.

Probably like most of the gentry along the coast, they were neutral, not noticing when their horses were borrowed, nor looking too closely at things hidden on their land, and not asking questions about kegs of spirits, packages of tea, or twists of lace that appeared—

“Mistress Kerslake!”

She turned with a start to see a horseman waving from a nearby rise. For a heart-jumping moment she thought it was Con. But of course not. Only one person used the old-fashioned term of address “mistress.” Lieutenant Gifford, the riding officer.

He set his horse to a canter then jumped the low wall down the path a bit before trotting to join her.

She tried not to show her sudden burst of panic. He didn’t suspect anything. He was new to the area and had not even realized yet that she and David were not Sir Nathaniel’s children. But the ghostly cart tracks seemed suddenly deep and obvious beneath her feet.

He dismounted to stand beside her, such a pleasant young man with a slightly round face and soft brown curls, but also with a firmness to his mouth and chin that reminded her a bit of Con. Gifford, too, had fought at Waterloo. She liked him, and he was only trying to do his conscientious duty, and yet he was their enemy.

“A lovely day, is it not?” he said with an unshadowed smile.

She smiled back, and hoped it looked natural. “It is indeed, sir, and we deserve it after the dull ones we’ve had.”

“That dashed volcano. And we’re doing better here than on the continent and in America. You are walking to the manor house, Mistress Kerslake? May I walk beside you?”

“Of course.” What else could she say?

The man was courting her, however, and it embarrassed her when it was so impossible. She cared nothing for him, and he would not wish to pursue it when he learned about her irregular birth. More than that, however, no riding officer could marry a smuggler’s daughter without ruining his career.

She’d like to tell him, but could not point the way to David like that. Perhaps she could at least use this moment to find out about last night. “And how goes your business, Lieutenant Gifford?”

He pulled a face. “Now, Mistress Kerslake, don’t play me for a fool. Everyone in the area knows when there’s been a run, and there was one last night. Two, damn them. One I was allowed to stop, whilst another went on elsewhere along the coast.”

Such a pity he was intelligent.

“I’ve been stuck up at Crag Wyvern all morning, Lieutenant, so I haven’t heard any gossip. The new earl has arrived.”

“Has he?” His eyes sharpened. “A military man, I understand.”

She knew where his thoughts were turning. “I believe he was a captain in the infantry, yes.”

“Then perhaps I’ll have an ally in these parts.”

She felt some sympathy for him, but had to say, “The earl doesn’t intend to live here, Lieutenant. He has a family home in Sussex and prefers it.”

He glanced up at the dark house. “Hardly surprising, but a shame. The Earl of Wyvern can make or break smuggling in this area. I heard talk that the old earl helped bring down Melchisedeck Clyst.”

“What?” She collected herself, hoping her shock hadn’t shown. “You must be mistaken. The earl was known to support the smugglers.”

“A falling-out, perhaps. There’s no honor among thieves, you know, ma’am.”

Susan’s head was spinning with the idea that the mad earl had not just failed to intervene, but had actively caused her father’s arrest and the loss of a whole cargo.

Why on earth would he do that?

“I’ve heard rumors that last night’s cargo came in near here,” Gifford was saying, “but I can find no trace of it. I don’t suppose you heard anything, Mistress Kerslake.”

It sounded like a statement of fact rather than a question. He knew that no one around here would give him information.

“I’m afraid not, Lieutenant.”

“There was a battle up near Pott’s Hill with a couple of men left badly wounded. Doubtless a quarrel over the spoils, so the cargo must have been brought in near here.”

Her heart skipped a beat. “A battle?” she said, thankful that shock would seem natural. “Whatever do you mean, sir?”

“One gang trying to steal from another. Happens all the time, my dear lady. These smugglers are not the noble adventurers some would have you think.”

Lord above, did he really think anyone born and raised here had any illusions about smugglers? But what had happened? Had David truly been hurt? Had the cargo been stolen?

She tried her best to put on a look of innocence—or stupidity, maybe. “But then, can you not arrest the injured men?”

“Not without evidence, Mistress Kerslake,” he said kindly. “They claim to have fought over a woman and will not be moved from that. Unfortunately, before we arrived, any contraband had disappeared.”

She waited for a moment. If David was one of the injured he must surely mention it. When he didn’t, she felt she could breathe again.

“Surely a fight over a woman is not so very unusual, Lieutenant.”

“On the night of a run, Mistress Kerslake, even women are of lesser interest.” But then he smiled. “That is, to lowborn wretches. To a gentleman, a lady is always first in his mind.”

She could say something scathing about duty, but she managed not to. Thank heavens the gate into the manor orchard was only yards away.

“I see all too little of you, Mistress Kerslake. There was an assembly at Honiton last week that was blighted by your absence.”

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