Read The Dragon's Bride Online

Authors: Jo Beverley

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

The Dragon's Bride (11 page)

BOOK: The Dragon's Bride
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Susan managed not to roll her eyes. “I am employed, Lieutenant, and not free to attend such events.”

“Come, come. Before the earl’s arrival your duties cannot have been burdensome.”

“On the contrary, sir. The late earl’s eccentricities left the place in disorder. I have been attempting to set everything to rights.”

“Indeed?” For some reason he seemed to disbelieve her. “But I’m sure you must be enjoying entertainment in some quarter or other. If you were to let me know, dear lady, I would make such places my special haunts.”

This struck her as a very peculiar thing to say, as if he expected her to be spending her nights in taverns, but she had no time or patience for this now.

“I live a very quiet, boring life, Lieutenant,” she said, opening the gate.

“You are funning! Very well, you pose a mystery for me to solve. For the moment, I am on my way to Dragon’s Cove to solve another mystery, though I doubt there’ll be anything to learn among that secretive lot.”

He mounted his horse. “With that scoundrel Melchisedeck Clyst gone, they’re doubtless in too much disorder to attempt a large run here, but I’ll take a close look at the new tavernkeeper, and keep my eyes open for cart tracks.”

Susan did not look down at the tracks beneath his horse’s hooves, but she was hard-pressed not to laugh. The new tavernkeeper at the George and Dragon was Mel’s cousin Rachel Clyst, a jolly middle-aged woman as wide as she was tall. She was certainly in league with the Horde, but a less likely Captain Drake was hard to imagine. She wheezed going up a few steps, never mind up a cliff.

Her humor faded as she watched Gifford ride away, however. He wouldn’t find anything at Dragon’s Cove, but he was clever enough and dutiful enough to find things eventually.

She went into the orchard worrying about that battle. When it came to smuggling,
was an accurate word. Hundreds of men could be involved, some of them carrying guns. Deaths could occur.

What had happened?

Was David lying bleeding somewhere?

She cut through the kitchen garden past a sleepy-looking lad who was pretending to hoe between some cabbages. Nearly everyone along the coast would have gone short of sleep last night.

The lad called a cheery greeting, however, and her flurry of anxiety calmed. No one would be smiling if Captain Drake had been wounded or captured. And everyone would know.

She walked more calmly through a honeysuckle arch onto the lawn that ran up to the lovely house. It was as neatly rectangular as the Crag, but the dull stone was whitewashed. Set amid wholesome land and pleasant gardens and filled with warmhearted people, the manor was another world.

She paused to study it, thinking that she must be mad not to feel completely at home here. Her family here were good people and she loved them dearly, but she didn’t think she’d ever truly felt she belonged, even as a young child. Once she’d learned the truth about her parents, she’d understood why….


She started, and saw her cousin Amelia running across the lawn waving. Amelia was twenty, plump, and excited, and typically her wide villager hat was sliding off her brown curls to hang down her back. “I hear the earl’s turned up!” she gasped as soon as she was close.

“Yes, late last night.”

“What’s he like? Is he handsome?”

“He has been here before.”

“Once, and I was nine years old! I do remember the father and two sons in the Wyvern pew at church, but it’s a faint memory. This one was darker and steadier, wasn’t he? I thought he was the older brother.”

“Yes,” Susan said, walking on toward the house, “so did I.”

“I knew Fred Somerford, of course,” Amelia chattered, falling into step. “Since Mother was always encouraging him to treat the manor as his home.” She giggled. “Do you remember Father muttering about mad Somerfords, and Mother arguing that he was a perfectly sane young man? She had such hopes that one of us would snare him. I wonder what she’ll do about the new one.”

Susan could have groaned at the thought of Aunt Miriam matchmaking again.

“Shame he drowned,” Amelia said. “Fred, I mean. But it’s not really surprising. I always thought of him as Fred the Unready, like Ethelred the Unready.”

Susan laughed, then stopped it with a hand. “Oh, dear. That isn’t very kind.”

“I suppose not. But is the new one more ready?”

Ready for what?
Susan suddenly remembered Diddy describing him as “ready to go,” and blushed at the vivid image that sprung to mind.

“I couldn’t say,” she said.

“I remember him as dark. Is he still dark? I like dark men.”

“He could hardly be paler, unless he’d turned gray.”

“Well, some people do, don’t they? With stress, or fright. And Michael Paulet came back from the Peninsula with his light brown hair turned blond by the sun.”

“I don’t think dark brown hair does that.” She wished Amelia would stop asking all these questions.

“There was that miniature Fred Somerford brought,” Amelia said as they stepped onto the stone path that led to the back door. “I quite lost my heart to that dashing captain. Is he as handsome now?”

Susan fought not to react. Amelia and Con? She couldn’t bear it.

“Are you going to toss your cap at him?” she asked as lightly as she could.

Amelia grinned, showing deep dimples. “It can’t hurt to try.”

“Even if he’s not to your taste?”

“I won’t know without trying, will I? And an earl to my taste would be very nice indeed.”

“Even if you had to live at Crag Wyvern?”

Amelia glanced back at the house with a grimace. “A hit, I confess. But it could be changed. Windows on the outside, for a start. And white paint. Or stucco.”

It astonished Susan that her cousin could be so light-hearted about all this, as if life presented only sunny options. This was the Kerslake way, though, and why she always felt like an outsider. An envious outsider.

“The earl has a very pretty secretary,” she offered, knowing she was trying to deflect Amelia’s interest. “A Mr. Racecombe de Vere, who has all the air of a fine gentleman despite his lowly status. In fact, I doubt his status is particularly low. You should look him up in one of Uncle Nathaniel’s books.”

Amelia’s dimples deepened. “Two handsome strangers! It’s about time something interesting happened here.”

Susan glanced at her cousin. Surely Amelia knew.

“What’s the matter?” her cousin asked. “Is it the new earl? Is he truly mad?”

“No. No, of course not. But he’ll bring changes, and it’s hard to tell what they might be.”

“It has to be better than what’s gone on before. He’s young, he’s eligible, he’s handsome with a handsome friend. Will he be giving balls?”

Susan laughed. “At Crag Wyvern?”

“Why not? From what you say, it would be wonderful for a masquerade.”

It was as if Amelia had turned everything to show a new aspect. “You’re right, it would. And it might chase away some of the shadows. For the good of the area the place needs to become somewhere normal people might live and entertain their neighbors.”

Not one of the crazy earl’s crazy friends. Solid, normal tenants. She wondered how much it would cost to cover the walls with fashionable stucco. Perhaps those faux stone corridors could be painted cheerful colors, too. And windows cut…

Astonishing possibilities.

Chapter Ten

They entered the manor, finding Aunt Miriam working in the steamy kitchen alongside the cook and maid baking bread. Her round face tended to red anyway, and in the steam was puce, but her eyes lit. “Susan, love, how nice to see you. Give me a moment, and we’ll have a cup of tea.”

“I need to speak to David first, aunt.”

The warmth of her aunt’s smile was easing her, and stirring guilt. She knew Aunt Miriam thought of her as a daughter, and loved her like a daughter, and yet she could never be quite the daughter her aunt wanted her to be.

Conventional, happy, and married by now.

“He’s probably still in the breakfast parlor,” Aunt Miriam said, kneading away at a mound of dough. “I don’t know what hour he returned home last night, or what he’d been up to. Young men will burn the candles, won’t they?” she added with a wink.

Susan resisted an urge to state unwelcome truths, and went toward the front of the house hoping for a word in private with her brother. Aunt Miriam snared Amelia to help in the kitchen, which got rid of one problem, but when she entered the sun-filled breakfast room she found their cousin Henry keeping David company.

All the true Kerslakes tended to a comfortable roundness, and at twenty-eight Henry was developing a prosperous stomach. He had his hands clasped over it now as he watched David finish his breakfast and lectured him about the importance of the Corn Laws.

At the sight of Susan, however, he stood, beaming. “Now this is a treat!” He came around the table to take her hands and kiss her cheek. “We don’t see enough of you, cousin.”

Truly, everyone here was impossibly kind. She always felt like a thistle in a flower bed. David, despite being so like her, bloomed carelessly along with the rest.

She sat at the table, looking at the evidence of his hearty breakfast. “Anyone would think you actually worked for your living, love.”

She saw evidence of tiredness, but none of fighting. He seemed his usual lighthearted self, thank the Lord. Everything was all right.

He flashed her a look from subtle blue-gray eyes. Apart from the eyes they’d been very alike when young, with their father’s square chin and their mother’s golden brown hair. By now, however, he’d grown heavier bones and six more inches of height, and a great deal of muscle.

She had the disconcerting concern of how it would go if he and Con got into a fight. David had inches and breadth on Con, but something warned her that Con might win.

“Aren’t you supposed to be working, too?” he asked, forking the last piece of fried bread into his mouth.

“I am. I’m playing sheepdog. A message was sent commanding your presence up at the Crag.”

“And you’ve come to nip me up there? Is the earl in such a hurry?”

“It’s almost noon. And I don’t know about hurry, but he’s thorough. Or rather, his very efficient secretary is. He’s going through everything like a miser hunting for a penny.”

It was a warning. There shouldn’t be anything in the Wyvern papers about smuggling operations, but it was possible.

“Right and proper thing to do,” Henry said. “Take over the reins. See what’s what. It’s about time there was some order and decorum up there. He’ll want your records and advice, Davy, and if you’re ordered up there, up there you should be!”

David poured himself another cup of coffee and leaned back, mischief in his eyes. “If he wanted instant service, he should have sent warning of his arrival.”

As he sipped from his cup, those smiling eyes slid to Susan carrying a question.

She smiled a little to show that there wasn’t. Which was true. Con wasn’t throwing a fit over the smuggling run, which was all David would care about. She needed to talk to him, though, and Henry was stuck in his chair like a burr in a long-haired dog.

So she gossiped about the earl, and entered into aimless speculation with Henry on the effect on the neighborhood. Again, she passed on Con’s message that he wasn’t going to make this his principal residence.

“Shame, that,” Henry said. “Perhaps he’ll change his mind if we show him what a pleasant little community we have here.”

David’s brows and lips twitched in a humorous wince. There was nothing he wanted less than an earl in residence at the Crag. Even a friendly one had to be constantly thought of and pacified. “You’ll have to see if Amelia can steal his heart, Henry. That would tie him here.”

Henry reddened. “Marry her off to a mad Earl of Wyvern? I’ll know the man a great deal better before I’ll countenance that, and I’ll go odds Father will feel the same way.”

“Then if he’s a handsome devil, perhaps we shouldn’t encourage him to hang around.”

Henry looked at Susan. “Is he a handsome devil?”

It wasn’t hard to play her part. “I’m afraid so.”

He pushed to his feet. “I need to talk to Father about this.”

He paused however, to lecture David. “Obey orders and get up there, Davy. It’s a nice little post you have, and if the earl isn’t going to be in residence, an easy job with local influence. You don’t want to lose it.”

“How true.” David was still lounging, however.

“You may think now that you do well enough as you are,” Henry said with exasperation, “but one day you’ll want to marry and set up your own establishment. That takes money. You need your employment.”

“You’re completely right, Henry,” David said, eyes twinkling. “I’ll just finish my coffee and be off.”

Henry sighed and left to consult with Sir Nathaniel. Susan looked at her brother and suppressed laughter. She wouldn’t hurt Henry by letting him hear them laughing at him, but David’s prospects in life no longer depended on his post, and anyone aware of what was going on around them would know it.

The tendency to laughter faded. She’d rather David was simply an earl’s estate manager.

“Everything went smoothly last night?” she asked quietly. As usual, there was no certain privacy here.

“Not exactly,” he said, abruptly sober. “I’ll tell you later.”

Her stomach clenched. She chose her words carefully. “I met Lieutenant Gifford on the way here. He was on his way to Dragon’s Cove looking for evidence of a run coming in there last night.”

David drank the rest of his coffee. “I doubt he’ll find anything.”

So that wasn’t the problem. She began to imagine different kinds of disasters.

“So what’s the new earl really like?” he asked.

“Not mad.” He needed a warning about the sort of man Con was now. “Strong,” she said. “He was a captain in the army. He fought at Waterloo.” Reluctantly, the word escaped. “Unforgiving.”

Her brother became thoughtful. “You knew him when he was here, didn’t you? In 1805.”

She hastily picked up a piece of bread and nibbled it. What had David heard? The last thing she needed was antagonism between David and Con over her, but she equally didn’t want to confess to David how badly she’d behaved.

“Yes, I knew him,” she said. “We’re the same age.”

“Tom Bridgelow said something last night. About Mel thinking you two were getting too close, and warning him off.”

“There was nothing to it,” she said, trying to make it sound absurd. “We met here and there and were friends of a sort. He was only here two weeks.”

“According to Tom once Mel had said his piece you and he weren’t seen together again.”

“Not surprising. No one would want Mel angry with them. A rare example of paternal concern.”

“He kept an eye on us.” Before Susan could ask what he meant, he added, “Shame there was nothing between you. It would be useful now if you were on close terms.”

“It was eleven years ago, David, and we’ve not so much as exchanged a letter!”

He shrugged. “Just a thought.” He pushed back from the table and stood, sober and thoughtful enough to please Henry, if he’d been here to see it. Susan suddenly saw a similarity between David and Con, an aura that came of being a leader, of carrying the lives and welfare of many on his shoulders.

It made her shiver. That way lay glory, but that way lay death, too. Then she saw him wince and favor a leg as he moved from the table.

“What’s the matter?” she whispered.

“Got into a fight,” he said in a normal voice. “Lots of bruises, but no real damage, so don’t fuss. I’ll get my record books and we can be off up to prostrate ourselves before the demanding earl.” He stopped to yawn, wincing again as he stretched. “I hope his questions aren’t too deep or difficult, though. I’ve only had four hours’ sleep.”

Susan waited for him in the kitchen, smothering her anxiety with a hot bun running with butter, and chatting with her aunt about Con.

“A lovely lad,” Aunt Miriam said. “Full of energy but kind with it. George,” she added, pouring cups of tea all around. “But he preferred to be called something else. Ah yes, Con.”

She passed Susan a cup and saucer, a twinkle in her eye. “I suspect he’s grown into a handsome man.”

Susan hadn’t asked for the tea, but she took a fortifying gulp. “Yes, he has.” As a defense against that hopeful twinkle, she added, “He’s betrothed to a nobleman’s daughter.”

Aunt Miriam pulled a face. “Ah, well. I remembered that you met him here and there when you were studying your insects. A shared interest is always nice.”

“I doubt he’s much interested in entomology anymore.” Susan finished her tea, astonished by the complete lack of suspicion in her aunt’s manner. Had she never thought it dubious that her almost-daughter was out with a young man, no chaperon in sight?

Sometimes it seemed to her that her manor family lived inside a soap bubble, disconnected from the reality of the Crag, Dragon’s Cove, smuggling, or anything less than idyllic.

It must be lovely.

But she knew the notion of cozy complacency was an illusion. Four children had died in this house, three of Aunt Miriam’s and one of Lady Belle’s, and many members of previous generations. Aunt Miriam knew all about the less pleasant aspects of life.

Susan had been ten when her second brother had arrived at the manor. She’d been too young to question David’s birth, but little Sammy had required explanation.

The truth had driven her to help take care of the frail baby, but had also stirred dreams and longings. She only vaguely knew Mel Clyst and Lady Belle, since none of the children of the manor were encouraged to go over to the village of Dragon’s Cove.

But once she knew that Mel and Belle were her parents, her real parents, they fascinated her.

She’d fought to keep Sammy alive for his own sake, but perhaps as well she’d hoped to prove worthy of her parents’ attention. She’d been heartbroken when the baby gave up the fight at six weeks, and guilt-struck as well.

She vividly remembered Lady Belle and Mel Clyst coming to the manor to look at the waxen body. Though she’d hovered nearby, Lady Belle—lush, queenly, and richly dressed—had paid her no attention. She’d looked at the baby as if he were an exhibit in a glass case.

Melchisedeck Clyst, who despite being a tavernkeeper had been dressed as well as Uncle Nathaniel, had seemed to feel something. He’d touched the swaddled child, and glanced at Susan in a way that might have been an acknowledgment. But no more than that.

They’d gone with the coffin to the church for the service, and then to the graveyard to see the small box settled in the Kerslake plot. To Susan, weeping, it had seemed that Lady Belle was profoundly bored.

From that day on she had put aside all hope that her true parents would clasp her to their bosoms. She didn’t know why she had wanted it when she’d had the love of Aunt Miriam, Sir Nathaniel, her brother, and her cousins.

But from that day on she’d also longed to belong.

Sometimes she wondered if she’d simply needed to be in a position where Lady Belle would be forced to acknowledge her existence.

When David came into the kitchen and snitched a bun despite just having finished that huge breakfast, Susan rose and impulsively gave her aunt a hug. Her aunt hugged her back, but with a question in her eyes. Susan could see that she was touched, though, and was glad she’d done it. Had she ever shown her aunt and uncle how grateful she was for what they’d done for them?

“Is everything all right, Susan?” Aunt Miriam asked, holding on to her hand for a moment.

Susan felt a brief urge to burst into wild laughter and tears, but she said, “Yes, of course. Though the earl being at the Crag is going to bring changes. I don’t think I want to stay there as housekeeper much longer.”

“It always was a temporary thing, love, and it’ll be grand to have you back here again.”

Susan smiled, but she knew she couldn’t do it. She’d taken a fork in the road, and she couldn’t return to this coziness any more than she could explore the cliffs with Con again. She didn’t say that, though, merely squeezed her aunt’s hand and went on her way.

As soon as they were out of earshot of the house, David asked, “Is the earl going to make trouble?”

Trouble? What was trouble? Perhaps she should tell David the whole story so he would be warned. She was very afraid that if Con discovered that her brother was the new Captain Drake he’d turn against the Dragon’s Horde for that reason.

“I don’t think he’ll fight the smuggling,” she said, hoping it was true. “As things are at the moment. I suspect he won’t invest, though, and he might not cooperate about the cellars and the horses.”

“Inconvenient. Are you sure you can’t persuade him to play a part? Smuggling has to continue, or I wouldn’t be doing it.”

“Truly?” She looked at him.

“Truly. I confess, I enjoy it in part, but I’m all too aware of the dangers. If you can, persuade the earl to be on our side.”

Susan suppressed a shudder at the thought. “I think Gifford is more likely to persuade him into complete opposition. They’re both army men.”

“But isn’t Gifford sweet on you?”

“I am not encouraging the poor man, not even for you.”

“Ah, well,” he said as they passed through the arch into the orchard, “Mel always said we had to play the hand we were dealt.”

“Mel,” Susan said, remembering. “David, Gifford suggested that the old earl helped bring about Mel’s arrest.”

He stopped to stare at her. “What? That’s nonsense. They had an agreement.”

BOOK: The Dragon's Bride
2.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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