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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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If Gifford was here with troops, wouldn’t he have acted by now? She stretched every quivering sense to detect soldiers concealed in the gorse, muskets trained toward the beach.

After long moments she found nothing.

Soldiers weren’t that good at staying quiet in the night.

So who was it, and what was he planning to do?

Heartbeat still fast, but not with panic now, she eased forward, trying not to present a silhouette against the sea and sky behind her. The land flattened as she reached the top, however, making it hard to crouch, making her clumsy, so some earth skittered away from beneath her feet.

She sensed rather than saw the man turn toward her.

Time to show herself and pray.

She pulled off her hood and used it to wipe the soot around so it would appear to be general grubbiness. She tucked the cloth into a pocket, then stood. Eccentric to be wandering about at night in men’s clothing, but a woman could be eccentric if she wanted to, especially a twenty-six-year-old spinster of shady antecedents.

She drew her pistol out of her belt and put it into the big pocket of her old-fashioned frock coat. She kept her hand on it as she walked up to the still and silent figure, and it was pointed forward, ready to fire.

She’d never shot anyone, but she hoped she could if it was necessary to save David.

“Who are you?” she said at normal volume. “What is your business here?”

She was within three feet of him, and in the deep dark she could not make out any detail except that he was a couple of inches taller than she was, which made him about six feet. He was hatless and his hair must be very short, since the brisk wind created no visible movement around his head.

She had to capture a strand of her own hair with her free hand to stop it blowing into her eyes.

She stared at him, wondering why he wasn’t answering, wondering what to do next. But then he said, “I am the Earl of Wyvern, so everything here is my business.” In the subsequent silence, he added, “Hello, Susan.”

Her heart stopped, then raced so impossibly fast that stars danced around her vision.

Oh, Lord. Con. Here. Now.

In the middle of a run!

He’d thought smuggling exciting eleven years ago, but people changed. He’d spent most of those years as a soldier, part of the mighty fist of the king’s law.

Dazed shock spiraled down to something numb, and then she could breathe again. “How did you know it was me?”

“What other lady would be walking the clifftop at the time of a smugglers’ run?”

She thought of denying it, but saw no point. “What are you going to do?”

She made herself draw the pistol, though she didn’t cock it. Heaven knew she wouldn’t be able to fire it. Not at Con. “It would be awkward to have to shoot you,” she said as firmly as she could.

Without warning, he threw himself at her. She landed hard, winded by the fall and his weight, pistol gone, his hand covering her mouth. “No squealing.”

He remembered. Did he remember everything? Did he remember lying on top of her like this in pleasure? Was his body remembering… ?

He’d been so charming, so easygoing, so dear, but now he was dark and dangerous, showing not a shred of concern for the lady he was squashing into hard, unforgiving earth.

“Answer me,” he said.

She nodded, and he eased his hand away, but stayed over her, pressing her down.

“There’s a stone digging into my back.”

For a moment he didn’t respond, but then he moved back and off her, grasping her wrist and pulling her to her feet before she had time to object. His hand was harder than she remembered, his strength greater. How could she remember so much from a summer fortnight eleven years ago?

How could she not? He’d been her first lover, and she his, and she’d denied every scrap of feeling when she’d sent him away.

Life was full of ironies. She’d rejected Con Somerford because he hadn’t been the man she’d thought he was— the heir to the earldom. And here he was, earl, a dark nemesis probably ready to destroy everything because of what she’d done eleven years ago.

What could she do to stop him?

She remembered David’s comment about feminine wiles and had to fight down wild laughter. That was one weapon that would never work on the new Earl of Wyvern.

“I heard Captain Drake was caught and transported,” he said, as if nothing of importance lay between them. “Who’s master smuggler now?”

“Captain Drake.”

“Mel Clyst escaped?”

“The smuggling master here is always called Captain Drake.”

“Ah, I didn’t know that.”

“How could you?” she pointed out with deliberate harshness, in direct reaction to a weakness that threatened to crumple her down onto the dark earth. “You were here for only two weeks.” As coldly as possible, she added, “As an outsider.”

“I got inside you, Susan.”

The deliberate crudeness stole her breath.

“Where are the Preventives?” he asked.

She swallowed and managed an answer. “Decoyed up the coast a bit.”

He turned to look out at the water. The sickle moon shone clear for a moment, showing a clean, strong profile and, at sea, the armada of small boats heading out for another load.

“Looks like a smooth run, then. Come back to the house with me.” He turned as if his word were law.

“I’d rather not.” Overriding her weakness was fear, as sharp as winter ice. Irrational fear, she hoped, but frantic.

He looked back at her. “Come back to the house with me, Susan.”

He made no threat. She had no idea what he might be threatening, but a breath escaped her that was close to a sigh, and she followed him across the scrubby heathland.

After eleven years, Con Somerford was back, lord and master of all that surrounded them.

Chapter Two

Susan felt dazed, almost drunk with shock. How could it feel as if eleven full years had disappeared like melting snow? And yet it did. Despite the physical changes in both of them, and a virtual lifetime of experiences, he was Con, who for that brief time had been the friend of the heart she had never found since.

Who for an even briefer time had been the lover she could never imagine finding again.

Con. Con, short for Connaught, his second name, because his first name was George and his two friends were called George, and they’d all agreed to choose other names….

Her mind was dancing crazily, flinching off memories and feelings, then ricocheting back to them again.

He’d simply been Con when she’d known him.

She bit her lip on nervous laughter. In the biblical sense. The sweetest, steadiest young man she’d ever known in any sense. She’d teased him about being her Saint George, who’d save her from any dragon.

He’d promised to be her hero, always.

In almost the next breath she’d told him she never wanted to see him again.

The house loomed ahead with only the one candlelit window to break the blackness. Con was back, but he wasn’t Saint George anymore. He was Wyvern. He was the dragon.

“There’s a door on this side, isn’t there?” he asked.

“Yes.” She stepped past him, but even she had to feel for the door in the dark. When her unsteady hands found the iron latch, the door opened silently into light, for she’d left a lamp burning for her return. Once inside she quickly closed the door, then turned, afraid of what she might see.

She saw lines and angles that had not been there before, and two white slashes up near his hairline that hinted at danger narrowly missed. He’d been a soldier for ten years.

And yet, he was still Con.

His rebellious, overlong hair was now trimmed severely short. She’d run fingers through that long hair, sticky with sweat….

His eyes were the same steady gray. She’d thought they were as changeable as the sea, but she’d never dreamed of seeing them so stormily cold.

He was earl. In theory at least, he ruled this part of England. In practice, the smugglers took the
free
in Freetraders very seriously. He looked like the sort of man who might try to stop the smuggling, and that could get him killed.

She was suddenly as afraid
for
him as
of
him. Lieutenant Perch had come to a bloody “accidental” end. That could happen to anyone who got in the way of the Freetrade. She didn’t think David would kill to save himself and his men, but these days she wasn’t sure.

David would kill to save her. She was sure of that.

“What are you going to do?” she asked, not even sure if she meant about the smuggling, herself, or everything.

Con was looking at her with an unnervingly steady gaze. He probably didn’t approve of the jacket and breeches, but was there something more personal in his scrutiny? Was he contrasting her with the fifteen-year-old, as she was him?

“What am I going to do?” he echoed softly, silver eyes still resting on her. “Having ridden hard for far too long, I plan to eat, have a bath, then go to bed. The servants seem to be in short supply, however, and my housekeeper is also missing.”

There was no choice but to admit it. “I am your housekeeper.”

His eyes widened and it was wryly pleasant to shock him. “I was told my new housekeeper was a
Mrs.
Kerslake.”

“Told? Told by who?”

“Don’t pretend to be stupid, Susan. It won’t wash. Swann has been sending me regular reports ever since I inherited.”

Of course. Of course.
She felt stupid. Not a spy, but Swann, the earldom’s lawyer, who rode out from Honiton every fortnight to check his client’s property.

“I am Mrs. Kerslake,” she said.

He shook his head. “One day when I’m less tired and hungry, you must tell me how this all came about.”

“People change.” Belatedly she added, “My lord,” desperate for distance and protection. “And a housekeeper doesn’t actually scrub the grates and bake the cakes, you know. You will find everything in order.”

She seized the lamp to lead the way out of the constricting room.

“But I didn’t find everything in order.”

She turned back sharply, alerted by his tone.

He was still angry. After all these years he was still angry. Fear surged through her in a sickening wave. This was a man to fear when he was angry.

He frowned. “Are you all right?”

She’d probably gone sheet white. “Like you, I am tired. If you expected a better reception, my lord, you should have sent warning. Come along and I will see to your needs.”

She opened the door, wishing she hadn’t used quite those words. What was she going to do if he wanted her in his bed? She didn’t want to kill him. She didn’t want anyone else to kill him. She didn’t want to stir anymore trouble around here than they already had.

She didn’t want to bed him.

A slight but deep ache said that perhaps she lied….

Aware of stillness behind, she turned.

He was giving that excellent impression of a stone statue. “If I choose to act on impulse, Mrs. Kerslake, it is for my household, my servants, to accommodate me.”

“You inherited the earldom two months ago and haven’t seen fit to visit here until today. Were we to stand in readiness, just in case?”

“Since I am paying you, yes.”

She raised her chin. “Then you should have made it clear that you wanted to waste money. I would have had a banquet prepared every night!”

His eyes narrowed and danger prickled through the room. From fear as much as anything, she whirled and marched out into the corridor. “This way, my lord. We can produce simple food quickly, and a bath for you within the hour.”

She kept on walking. If he chose not to follow, so be it. Better so. She needed time away from him to regroup.

Alas, she heard his footsteps behind.

“Are you alone, my lord, or have you brought servants with you?”

“Of course I’ve brought servants. My valet, my secretary, and two manservants.”

She grimaced. She must be sounding like an idiot. But she kept thinking of him as Con, the ordinary young man she’d met on the headland and on the beach, exploring, teasing, and talking, talking, talking as if they’d make a world out of words and hide in it forever. They’d crawled into caves and waded tidal pools without stockings. Then one day they’d gone swimming in scanty clothing, and that had been their undoing.

He’s the earl now,
she told herself.
Remember it. Earl of Wyvern, with all the strange things that implies.

“You have two footmen?” she asked to fill the silence as she began to climb the stairs. “That will be useful. The old earl didn’t like male household servants, and I haven’t engaged any since.”

“They’re not footmen, no. Consider them grooms.”

Consider them? Then what were they? Soldiers? Spies? She wished she could slip away to warn David, but it would be pointless. There was nothing to be done tonight. Was there anything to be done at all? They couldn’t attack an earl without bringing the wrath of the nation down on them.

But someone could push him off a cliff….

She realized that she’d thoughtlessly chosen one of the simple servants’ staircases that riddled the house. So be it. If it was beneath his dignity, then he could go the longer way to find steps more suited to his noble feet. Her soft boots made no sound on the plain wood, but his riding boots rapped hard with each step.

Having him behind her began to unnerve her. She didn’t really think he’d attack her, but her neck prickled. He’d thrown her down and unarmed her so easily.

She was a tall, strong woman, and she’d fooled herself that she was a match for most men. Perhaps she was, but more likely no man had ever seriously attacked her before.

Born Captain Drake’s daughter. Now Captain Drake’s sister. She was close to untouchable on this stretch of coast, but she understood the message of that attack. Anyone who threatened the new earl would be instantly and effectively contested, no matter who they were.

She opened the door into the south corridor, her lamp glowing on walls painted to look like rough stone.

He spoke behind her. “The dear old place hasn’t changed, I see.”

She turned and some trick of the lamplight made his eyes seem paler and more intense. “Oh, it has. You probably didn’t notice the gargoyles outside in the dark. We have a torture chamber now, too.”

She answered his unspoken, startled question. “No, he didn’t use it, except to scare the occasional guest. But he commissioned waxworks of victims from Madame Tussaud.”

“Good God.” She expected some comment, perhaps an instruction to rip the place apart, but he merely said, “Food and a bath, Mrs. Kerslake?”

She turned, stung by his indifference. What had she expected?

So much time had passed, and he must have known many women. She’d given her body to two other men, but they hadn’t erased a moment of the memory of Con, clumsy and imperfect as it had been.

She’d wanted them to, but they hadn’t.

As they walked along the gloomy corridor she said, “You won’t want to use the earl’s chambers, my lord. The Chinese rooms are the next grandest. Everything is tolerably well maintained, though I cannot guarantee that the mattress will not be damp. Not having been given notice to prepare.”

“I’ve endured worse than a damp mattress. Why don’t I want to use the earl’s chambers?”

‘Trust me, Con, you don’t.“

She froze. She’d called him Con, and he was probably laughing at the idea of trusting her. She couldn’t help it. She turned.

He looked more weary than amused, but like a man who could fight and even kill when weary.

She was suddenly aware of the sweeping curve of his dark brows above his dark-lashed pale eyes. She’d always thought his eyes the most beautiful she’d ever seen.

“Who is your husband?” he asked.

She blinked, puzzled for a moment. “I’m not married.”

“
Mrs
. Kerslake?”

Absurdly, she felt her cheeks heat, as if she were caught in a lie. “It’s convention for a housekeeper to be addressed that way.”

“Ah, so it is. But I find your domestic incarnation surprising. How did it come about?”

“I thought you were hungry, my lord.”

“I’ve known hunger before. Well? How?”

Buffeted by his will, she explained. “When the old earl died, Mrs. Lane wanted to retire. No one else suitable wanted the job, so I offered to take care of things for a while. Despite tonight, my lord, I am well trained in domestic economy.”

“And your brother, David? Is he my butler?”

Susan suppressed a twitch, as if the truth would flare out. “Don’t you know he’s your estate manager?”

“Swann must have neglected to mention it. How very cozy, to be sure.” He gestured. “Lead on to the Chinese rooms, Mrs. Kerslake. I remember them as being all barbaric splendor, but I suppose I will become accustomed.”

The Chinese rooms were on the far side of the house, and since Crag Wyvern was built like a monastery around a large central courtyard, the walk there was long. A continuous narrow corridor ran along the outside walls, leaving the rooms facing inward, overlooking the courtyard garden. The only windows into the corridor were the narrow glazed arrow slits.

The effect was gloomy on a sunny day. At past midnight it was cavernous, especially with the trompe l’oeil stone walls and floor and the ornamental weaponry hanging on them. Susan was accustomed to it. She was not accustomed to a dark presence at her back.

The weaponry was not, in fact, completely ornamental, and he could seize a sword or ax and decapitate her. She knew he wouldn’t, but she walked between shining blades, nerves twitching.

“Old Yorrick’s still here,” he remarked as they turned the corner that held a skeleton hanging in chains.

He touched the chains, setting the whole thing clattering and clanging. Susan did the same childish thing herself sometimes, but now the lingering rattle behind them raised the hairs on her neck.

Dear God, but she’d thought she was accustomed to this place, but tonight it seemed newly horrid—an outward sign of the traditional madness of the earls of Wyvern. The last one had certainly been insane. Thank heavens Con came from a different branch of the family.

The walk seemed endless, and she flung open the door of the bedroom of the Chinese suite with relief. Golden dragons snarled in the lamplight, fangs bared against bright red walls framed in black-lacquered woodwork.

“Zeus,” he said with a short laugh. “My memory had faded somewhat. I remember wishing I had this room. It’s obviously wise to be careful what you wish for.”

He swung his heavy riding cloak off and spread it over a chair. Beneath, he was neatly dressed in brown and buff. “Are there servants’ rooms attached?”

“There’s a dressing room, which includes a bed for a valet.”

“The Norse rooms are next door, aren’t they? I remember that my father had this room and Fred and I were in the Norse suite. To begin with.”

A memory sparked like a falling star. She ignored it. “Yes.”

“Put my secretary in there. His name is Racecombe de Vere and he’s a rascal. My valet is Diego Sarmiento. His English is excellent and he will use it to complain about the climate and to try to seduce the maids. My other two servants, Pearce and White, are down in the stables in the village. The stables that are strangely lacking grooms and horses.”

She didn’t respond. He had to know that the Crag’s horses were on loan to the smugglers tonight, along with most other horses in the area. What would he do when he discovered that Crag Wyvern had supported ten horses for years when the old earl never left the place? It would be an inconvenience to the Horde not to have those excellent, sturdy horses available.

Perhaps he sighed. “Light the candle and go about your housekeeping duties, Mrs. Kerslake. Any sustenance will do, but I want that bath within the hour, regardless of any other business taking place.”

For some reason, Susan found herself reluctant to leave, and seeking words to bridge the gap that lay deep and wide between them. Did the words exist to make sense of their situation, past and present?

BOOK: The Dragon's Bride
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