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Authors: Jo Beverley

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

The Dragon's Bride (20 page)

BOOK: The Dragon's Bride
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“It does look remarkably like a stark fortress from out here,” Race said. “Has it ever withstood an attack?”

“Yes, as it happens. During the Civil War. The earls of Wyvern were staunch royalists, and a Parliamentary force marched here but failed to take the place. It was halfhearted, though, in part because my direct ancestor, the then Sir John Somerford, was high in the ranks of Parliament. We’ve tended to take opposite sides all along.”

“Don’t tell me. The Devon Somerfords for Stuart, the Sussex Somerfords for Hanover.”

“And the Devon Somerfords for James the Second, while my branch welcomed William of Orange.”

“They must all be rolling in their graves to see a Sussex Somerford here at last.”

“Quite. Which is why the old earl was obsessed with trying to get an heir.”

“Ah. But I thought he never married.”

“One of the many mysteries of Crag Wyvern. Rumor says that he wanted to try the ladies out first.”

“Don’t we all?”

Con laughed. “This one apparently took the testing seriously.” He told Race the system that Susan had described.

“You do have an interesting family. Did many women accept his invitation?”

“Some, I gather. Doubtless not from the upper classes.”

Race suddenly laughed. “You know, it’s rather like the mythic dragon demanding maidens in tribute!”

“Except that they didn’t have to be maidens, and he paid. The girls were sent home with twenty guineas for their service. Quite a nice dowry in a fanning family.”

“Droit du seigneur as well. What a splendid place!”

Con buffeted him and waved to where Diego was presumably watching.

The bath gargoyle snarled out at them from the middle of the wall, a crested dragon with a long forked tongue. In a moment the bell chimed, and the dragon spouted water. It arced down, silver, but touched with pink by the blushing light, to form glimmering pools and rivulets on the rough ground.

Race applauded, and Con said, “You are easily amused.”

“Probably as well in this place.”

“What? Three days here and you’ve had smuggling, a torture chamber, an energetic piece of destruction, and a treasure trove. Not to mention all those lovely papers to play with. What do you expect for an encore?”

“Some concupiscent nuns at midnight would be nice.”

Con laughed. “You could probably have Diddy if you tried.” Then he winced at the callous words, and remembered Susan’s warning. “Leave the maids alone.”

“I could take offense at that,” Race said quietly.

“I know. I’m sorry. Look, go in, will you? I’m going to stay out here for a while.”

Race—perceptive Race—touched him lightly on the shoulder, and went away.

Con looked again over the land, his land, settling softly into the subtle comforts of evening. Inside Crag Wyvern, it was easy to forget, to become wrapped up in his own twisted problems. Outside, he knew that these farms and villages deserved better than an absentee landlord.

That was all he could offer, however. He truly believed Crag Wyvern could drive him mad, but above all, he couldn’t live near Susan.

She might be a thief. No. She was.

Despite appearances and his instincts, she might be a whore.

She was still the woman who’d lurked in his heart for over a decade, and who could now ignite him with a glance.

And here he was, afraid to return to his own house.

His mind was full of Susan and that kiss, and he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to think straight again.

He could hardly stay out here, however, and dark was deepening around him, stealing color from sky and land. He retraced his steps and entered the Crag, but not without a shudder.

He went directly to the garden, thinking it would be a haven of sorts, but all he could think of was Susan laughing in the spray. Susan, her damp dress clinging to every delectable curve.

His Susan then.

His Susan on the cliff.

His Susan …

A maid bustled out of a door, then froze and turned to go back.

“Stop.”

She turned back, eyes wide.

No wonder. He was still in just breeches and an unbuttoned shirt and doubtless looked wild. He walked over to her. “What’s your name?”

She dipped a curtsy. “Ellen, milord.”

She was slight, young, and looked frightened. Perhaps she was a lowly maid who shouldn’t be here. Or perhaps she’d been taught to be afraid of any Earl of Wyvern, especially one who was acting in a strange way.

“Ellen, take a message to Mrs. Kerslake. Tell her I wish to see her in my room.” She wouldn’t come. He knew she wouldn’t. She had to. “Tell her it’s urgent.”

The maid’s eyes widened even more, but without suspicion. “Yes, milord.” She hurried away almost at a run.

What the hell did he think he was doing?

He knew, though. He was in the grip of that mad force again, but he couldn’t resist it.

She wanted gold, did she?

He’d give her gold.

He went up to his room and dismissed Diego. Then he glared at the picture of Saint George, pushing his hands through his hair in search of sanity. He should pray that she wouldn’t come.

He begged heaven that she would.

She had to. He had to know her. He had to
know
.

How could he possibly marry another woman with this madness burning within?

How could he marry Susan, thief and whore?

Perhaps if she came tonight this obsession would burn out, leave him free.

If she came …

There was a rap on the door and he whirled to face it.

Susan walked in.

Chapter Nineteen

She was still in her modest, long-sleeved gray gown, but her hair was loosely tied back. She must have been preparing for bed.

Bed.

“Take it off,” he said.

She stared at him, lips parted, pink flushing her cheeks.

“The dress. It’s ugly. Take it off.”

His mouth was working apart from his brain, but parts of him were in control that had nothing to do with brain.

She flushed.

Quickly, before she could refuse, he said, “You wanted that gold. I’ll give you half for a night.”

All the pretty pink drained away, leaving her ivory-pale. “You would make me into your whore?”

He wanted to deny it, to fall on his knees before her, but need raged over conscience. He found a shrug. “You clearly want the gold. I thought to offer you a chance to deserve it.”

Fury flashed in her eyes, but she didn’t leave. “A remarkably well-paid whore,” she remarked, simply looking at him—mysterious, unreadable—for what felt like an eon. Then, as his knees weakened at the sight, she lifted her hands to unfasten the buttons on the front of her bodice.

He watched, a part of him disbelieving, as she reached behind to untie something. It all came loose, and she raised the gown up over her head, revealing by layers sturdy gray stockings, a simple shift, and a plain corset.

He stared at it. He’d never seen such a plain corset before. It was clearly something only working women wore, or only decent women wore. But Susan, by her own admission, was not a decent woman. That’s why they were here like this.

“What do you want the gold for?” he asked, hoping for some explanation that would make sense of it. Of her.

“That is none of your business, my lord.”

“Con,” he said firmly.

“Con,” she submitted, chin still firm, eyes steady on him.

Ah Susan, magnificent Susan.

“But you don’t deny you want it. That you’ve been searching for it?”

“No, I don’t deny that.”

She dropped the dress to the ground and stood there. She was wide-eyed, but not wide-eyed like little Ellen. Susan was no innocent, and she wasn’t pretending to be. Nor was she reluctant. He saw—surely he saw—the same passions burning in her that were consuming him.

Battles could rage, kingdoms could fall, and he did not care. He wanted only this.

He walked toward her, looking at the corset, seeing hooks at the front. He put both unsteady hands there, at the top edge, between her breasts—the breasts that rose and fell against his fingers as he clumsily unfastened those hooks.

Susan wondered if she was visibly shaking, or if it was an insubstantial thing, this tremor in her heart, her soul. She’d come here with irrational hope, then been hit with cruel shock. But now … now all she could think was that she and Con were going to make love, that she would have this one night to remember.

I’m sorry, Lady Anne. But it is only the one night.

She knew she should have reacted to his offer with anger, with outrage, even. That, however, would have ended this. She knew Con. He would never allow himself to do this if he thought her honest and virtuous.

For that reason she would not tell him that the gold belonged to the Horde. If he believed her he might give her half the gold, or even all the gold, but he wouldn’t give her what she ached and burned for.

Himself.

But now, with his hands upon her, she didn’t know her part. What should she do? She’d been bolder eleven years ago, carried on the courage of ignorance and instinct. Now she stood passively as he parted the corset and let her tingling breasts free. He spread it, pushed the straps off her shoulders, and down her arms.

Let it drop to the floor.

She gazed at the open vee of his shirt as he untied the ribbon that gathered the neckline of her shift, loosening it. Such a strong neck he had now, such a square, firm jaw, darkened by the hint of a beard.

He pushed her shift off too, so that it slid down her unresisting arms. As it passed over her sensitive nipples, she shivered, shivering more as it rippled down over eager skin to pool around her feet.

Only her stockings remained.

She sucked in a deep breath, watching him, seeking the reassurance of passion, if not love.

His eyes lingered on her body, then rose to hers, darkened. “I’m not forcing you,” he said.

She didn’t know if it was a question or not, but she said, “No, you’re not forcing me. Even for the gold I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t want you.”

It was honest. Every part of her, inside and out, quivered for his touch. The heat gathered again, but not just between her thighs. Everywhere. If he touched her, she was sure he’d feel raw heat.
Please let him touch me!
Her legs felt quivery, as when he’d kissed her in the dungeon, and he wasn’t kissing her.
Please let him kiss me!

He seemed frozen there, inches away. Afraid of hesitation, she moved closer and put her hands on his chest.

He broke then, kissing her as he’d kissed her earlier, so they folded down irresistibly to the floor, mouths desperately melded. She’d have taken him there and then, but he picked her up and carried her to the bed, laid her there, and began to strip.

In seconds he was naked and she sat up. “Stop.”

She saw his face and quickly said, “I want to look at you! That’s all. I want to look at you, Con. You are so very beautiful.”

He laughed and pushed her down again. “Look later. I am so very desperate.”

Laughing with him—she hadn’t expected laughter— she scrabbled the covers down beneath her so she could get to the sheets. With one mighty pull, he dragged them all off the bed, then flung himself beside her, one leg trapping her, there where she wanted to be.

“Better than a beach,” he said, his chest rising and falling, his hunger swirling in the air.

“And no fear of being caught.” She twisted onto her back and dragged him over her.

“Susan—”

“Hush,” she said, adjusting her hips and guiding him into her with her hand. Shuddering with him as they slid together.

“Hush,” she said softly again when he groaned, but she didn’t mean it. She loved the sound of his need satisfied, of pleasure.

She loved its echo in herself.

He filled her, filled her beautifully, and it didn’t matter that she had so little experience of this. A powerful surge of womanly knowledge swept her along.

He began to pump into her and she met him, trying not to surrender to the fever growing within, because she wanted to give him this and she wanted to watch, to watch Con, to drink in his pleasure to the last drop.

To remember it.

She was swirled away, however, into private heat and darkness and only dimly aware of his gasp, his force, then his full weight upon her. Silence fell, hot, deep-breathing, sweaty silence in which she lay, slightly sick and trembly.

She felt him slide out of her, leaving her throbbing, almost in pain. Was it going to be wrong with Con, too? She couldn’t bear it.

She hadn’t felt this way the first time, with him on the beach. She hadn’t felt this way with Rivenham. She hadn’t even felt so horribly unright with Captain Lavalle.

He stirred, moved off her slightly, hand sliding down her side, over her hip. His mouth brushed across her aching breasts, then found a nipple. He gently sucked.

Her whole body leaped. “Con!”

He raised his head to say, “Hush,” a trace of laughter in it, then went to work again as his hand slid between her thighs. She flinched, she was so sensitive down there, and his touch immediately gentled. Became exactly what she wanted.

He used the flat of his fingers, gently circling, and a buzz started in her head, lifting her away from herself. With deep gratitude she recognized it, welcomed it, and surrendered.

She lay there afterward, flat on her back, his hand still cupped against her, amazed at how perfectly she felt. Perfectly what? She had no idea.

She rolled her head to study him. He looked thoughtful as much as anything, but with endearingly tranquil thoughts. His short hair was on end in places, and stuck to his forehead in others. His dark jaw made him very unlike her Con of the past, and yet she felt only moments had passed between now and the last time they had lain together in sweaty satisfaction.

She looked down and saw the dragon.

She pushed him onto his back and sat up to trace it. “It’s beautifully done.”

He was watching her from under lowered lids. “By sheer luck we came upon an expert. But it took a devil of a long time.” After a moment he added, “I’ve grown, which has spoiled it a bit.”

The dark dragon coiled, breathing flames toward the center of his chest. “Why the dragon, Con?” She had to ask. “Was it because of me?”

She looked up again. He was still watching her. She thought he wasn’t going to answer, but then he said, “Yes.”

She sucked in a breath, but it was mostly gratitude for his honesty. “I am so very sorry. I wish I could scratch it away.”

He trapped her hand. “No, thank you.”

She heard humor and looked up to his eyes.

He said, “It’s done. It can’t be undone. Like many things.”

Heart breaking, she understood. She worked at keeping a slight smile on her face. “But we have a night?”

He raised her hand and kissed it. “We have a night. I wish I hadn’t wasted the bath on Race.”

She did smile then. “Your valet asked if it should be filled again and I said yes. It won’t have had time to warm much….”

He was already out of bed, candle in one hand, pulling her with him with the other. “How is it filled so quickly?”

“A gravity feed from the main tank.”

“Wonderful design.”

They were in the bathroom then, and he went to turn on the big taps. Water gushed out and he put a hand under it, then smiled at her. “Not as cold as the sea, at least.”

Memories. Memories.

If she’d been a wiser woman then—if she’d been a woman at all—she could have claimed a treasure greater than gold.

But at least she had one night.

He put the candle on the edge, where it danced strange shadows around the pictures on the wall and left mysterious corners where wickedness doubtless lurked. Then he dropped down into the waist-high tub, the water already swirling around his ankles. He held his hands out to her, but she went to a shelf holding fine china pots.

“If those are some of the old earl’s potions, I don’t want anything to do with them.”

She looked back, smiling. “No doubts about your virility, sir?”

He glanced down. “Not with you, Susan. Never with you.”

She knew she was blushing as she turned back. “These are just perfumes.”

“We don’t need perfumes either.”

She picked up a pot anyway, and returned to toss a handful of brown powder into the water. As she walked down the marble steps, the scent of sandalwood began to fill the room.

“If we let the cistern drain into here, will the bath overflow?” he asked, coming toward her.

“It’s not supposed to. Why?”

“I might lose attention soon.” He pulled her into his arms, then leaned her back against the smooth, cold side of the bath.

She rested there, nervousness stirring. That hot passion had been all very well, but she’d given him the impression she was vastly experienced, and now, like this, all faculties alert, she didn’t know what to do.

She knew her supposedly vast experience was another reason he was doing this. He mustn’t guess the truth.

He nuzzled at her neck and jaw. “What’s the matter? Something in particular you want?”

What did that mean? “No,” she said. Then, “Yes. Kiss me slowly, Con.”

He moved one hand to cradle her neck, sliding behind to hold her for his lips, which settled firmly, hotly. She opened to him, feasting, her own hand going to his strong shoulder, his neck, his hair….

The water thundered, creeping up her calves. Sandalwood created spicy mysteries.

He moved back. “Like that?” he asked, smiling.

She smiled back. “Just like that.”

He kissed her again, and she kissed back, her body stirring with primal knowledge. Perhaps it was all instinct after all, which only emerged with the right partner.

He pressed against her, and the water swirled around her wobbly knees. Perhaps his wobbled too, for eventually he sank down, taking her with him into water that was now chest-high.

He smiled.

She looked down and saw that the water was lapping at her nipples.

She laughed up at him, knowing exactly what he was thinking.

“You can touch them if you want.”

“Oh, I want.” He put both hands under her breasts, raising them, flicking the nipples with his thumbs. “I remember thinking that I was a dead man if Mel Clyst ever found out I’d touched his daughter’s breasts. And that it was worth it.”

His touch and his words sparked sharp desire. Through clear water she could see his erection. With an unsteady hand, she dared to reach through the water to gently touch it.

He put his mouth to her raised breasts again, and because of the rising water she had to stand slightly, bracing herself on his shoulders.

He seemed completely intent on his play—licking, tugging, nipping. He suddenly nipped sharply, and she yelled and pushed backward. He let go and she went right under, emerging spitting water and pushing sodden hair off her face.

“You bit me!”

“Mmm.” Laughing, he grabbed her by the waist and hoisted her out of the bath to sit on the edge, then spread her legs wide. He smiled at her as he’d smiled at her breasts, then put his mouth there.

“Con!” She tried to wriggle back, but he grabbed her hips, looking at her with surprise.

She knew then that this was something experienced lovers did. She stopped trying to escape, but didn’t know what else to do, what to say.

“You don’t like it?” he asked.

“Of course! You just surprised me.” Did that sound convincing? “And you bit me,” she added as a distraction. “I thought you were going to bite me there!”

“No teeth. I promise.”

He put one hand on the rim and leaped with agility out of the bath. He went to the pile of linen towels on a shelf and came back to spread them lavishly on the tiles.

BOOK: The Dragon's Bride
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