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Authors: Jo Beverley

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

The Dragon's Bride (21 page)

BOOK: The Dragon's Bride
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She sat there, drinking in the beauty of his strong body, trying to look as if she knew what he was doing. She’d just lied to him, and she hated that. She wouldn’t tell the truth, however. She couldn’t bear for this to stop now.

He picked her up and sat her on the towels, then dropped back into the water. It was certainly more comfortable than cold, hard tile.

“Now lie back.”

She did so, but he kept his hands on her knees so she had to leave her feet dangling, up to the ankles in water. Then he began to draw her toward him, and hooked her legs over his shoulders.

She knew better than to cry a protest now, but she lay there on her back, quivering with ignorant uncertainty, staring at the lewd ceiling, but shockingly aware of being exposed to his very close eyes.

Then she felt his hands beneath her, thumbs brushing apart sensitive skin. She stared fixedly at the dragon about to impale the screaming maiden, water still thundering into the tub, echoing around the tiled chamber.

His thumbs entered her, opened her, shuddering her, making her want to squirm away—and to wriggle closer. Then it was only his mouth, stroking and sucking. She almost felt too sensitive to be touched there, and yet immediately her body responded, demanded.

His tongue swirled around her and she gasped for breath.

Her breasts ached, and she reached up to comfort them, squeezing and stroking. A mere touch at her nipples sent fire through her, and she pressed there, squeezed there. Hot pleasure swept down to meet his mouth, making her arch toward him, but the dragon had her lower body chained, completely in his power.

Her demanding dragon with the mouth of fire …

A moan escaped her to bounce around the room. She squeezed her breasts harder as he sucked harder and that blissful darkness circled in.

She was being ravished by her dragon, but raptured, not raped. This was the most perfect, the most blissful rapture she could ever imagine.

Then fiercely he was in her, wonderfully big, hard, and strong, driving the velvety darkness deep into her until it swallowed her whole.

She drifted back to hard tiles beneath damp towels, to sweat and sandalwood. To silence. The water had stopped.

Curious, she raised her head to look. It had stopped a hand’s breadth from the rim.

“Have we created a flood?” he asked sleepily.

She let her head sink back. He was half over her, his head between her breasts, and she stroked him there. “No.”

“Pity. I wouldn’t mind the end of the world.”

She knew what he meant.

She moved her hand down, exploring the firm strength of his muscled back beneath the smooth, wet skin, a worm of sadness stirring. Never to do this again. A bitter shame, but better than never to have known it.

The one candle gave little light, and the room, the house, was quiet. Even their breathing had calmed.

Then he stirred, pushing up off her to stand. He extended a hand and she put hers into it be pulled up. As she stood, she winced. She was tender, but her legs were protesting unusual exercise, too.

He smiled and pushed her into the water. She yelled as she splashed in, and it echoed around the room. Would it echo through corridors and courtyard to tell the world what they were doing here?

She didn’t care.

He jumped in after her, and waves splashed over the edge, rippling down the steps.

“You’ll bring the house down!” she protested, laughing.

“Good idea.” He circled his arms to create waves, and she lunged at him to hold him still, his body slippery beneath her hands. They wrestled through and beneath the water, to emerge spluttering and collapse against the side.

“We could go out on the beach in the dark,” he said, nibbling her ear. “Go swimming.”

She shared his need to re-create the past, to make it whole and good, but she had to say, ‘There’s not enough moon.“

“Another time then.” He said it lazily, but she knew from the tension of his body that he’d remembered that there wouldn’t be another time.

Because there wouldn’t be another time, every moment of the night became precious, and one thing she wanted was to know more about him.

She struggled up straight and embraced him in the water. “Tell me about the army.”

“That’s not something you want to hear.”

“It’s most of the years that divide us, Con. And there must have been some good times.”

He moved back against the side, and she let him. When he leaned his head against the rim and let his body float, she floated beside him despite the distraction of his lovely body and soft, promising genitals.

“It seems barbaric,” he said, “but it’s true—there were some good times. Wild incidents. Insane acts of bravery and generosity. And pure farce, like the time the company tried to smuggle a bunch of piglets on a march…”

He began to talk, telling her stories, but leaving out so much. She wanted to ask:
Were you frightened? What was it like to kill? How often have you been wounded? How much did it hurt?

They were stupid, invasive questions, but they made up a part of his life that she would never know.

She could tell from his body that he’d not been seriously wounded, but scars told of pain. She supposed everyone except an idiot was frightened sometimes. And certainly a soldier must kill.

Her sweet, gentle Con.

She turned to put an arm around him, to float against him. “I’m glad I was apart from you when all this happened.”

He stroked her back. “But I was just telling you about the time Major Tippet made assignations with three Spanish women on the same night. That’s not so terrible.”

“I know,” she said, without explanation, and he didn’t ask for one.

“I checked the casualty lists,” she confessed. “I knew that we’d hear the news eventually, but I couldn’t bear not to check.”

It was growing cold in the water, but she didn’t want to move, didn’t want to risk any change. “So many deaths. With each one, I thought what it would be like if it were you. I became intense about it. Uncle Nathaniel tried to forbid me to read the papers, but I always found ways. They couldn’t understand, but of course, they didn’t know about you.”

“They had to know something.”

She traced the coils of the dragon. “They knew we’d met. We’d been seen together often enough. But most of our time was out of sight. No one realized how much time we spent together. And of course, no one knew the whole of it.”

“You never told anyone?”

She shifted to look up at him. “Did you?”

“No, of course not.”

“Then why think I would?” It hurt, and she added, “It’s not as if I wanted to be forced to marry you, after all.”

They slid apart. “It was force you had in mind, was it?”

Appalled, she tried to repair the damage. “No! I thought you willing. You
were
willing! I simply encouraged you.”

“But you’d have encouraged Fred if you’d realized he was the heir, wouldn’t you? You did, in fact. I could tell from his letters that Miss Susan Kerslake was doing her best to be of interest to him.”

She bit back tears. “I told you. Marrying the future earl had to be a worthy goal. I’d already sacrificed you on that altar.”

“Any passionate little sessions on the beach with him? I doubt it. If you didn’t have sails and a rudder, Fred would hardly notice you.”

She sucked in a deep breath. “Don’t do this, Con. It’s so long ago now.” Desperate for harmony again, she offered him a cautious bit of her heart. “He wasn’t you.”

He took it wrong. “That always was the problem, wasn’t it?”

He yanked the plug out and water began to run away, taking her magical night with it.

She turned and climbed out by the stairs, grabbing a damp towel to wrap herself in, and drying herself as she hurried into the bedroom.

He followed, stark naked, watching her, silently.

“Are we finished?” she asked, knowing that too had come out all wrong.

“Oh, yes, I think we are.”

She turned away to pull on her shift, to fasten her corset, to struggle into her dress. Her hair was still sodden, and she shivered at the water running down her back.

No, that wasn’t why she shivered.

She’d constructed a time of lies here. She’d wanted him, and to get what she wanted she’d lied. As she’d feared, as she’d known, now she had only dust in her hands.

There was nothing for them now, but earlier there had been friendship, and tonight, together, they had thrown it away. What use was friendship, however, if they never met?

Once he left here, and she left here, they would never meet again.

She looked back at him still watching her, still naked.

The room smelled of sandalwood, and passion, and Con. She thought she’d remember it all her life.

What to say at such a moment?

In the end, she simply turned and left, in silence.

Chapter Twenty

Con could finally allow himself to collapse into a chair, to sink his head into his hands.

Susan. Susan.

A
thief, and a whore, and a liar.

He stood and went to the table to pour himself a glassful of wine, knocking it back in one swallow. He finally really did understand those poor fools entangled with worthless women. He could feel the bonds winding around his limbs.

What did it matter? a voice was saying. As his wife she’d have no need to steal. He should be able to keep her satisfied and in line so she didn’t whore around.

But could he ever trust a word she said?

She lied so well. So convincingly. She’d claimed lovers to overcome his resistance to surrendering to his needs.

But it had been his idea. He remembered that. His insane, overpowering idea. He’d bribed her with half the gold…

Was he mistaken? Was she honest?

How could he twist the lens to see her as honest?

“Lady Anne. Lady Anne. Lady Anne.” He spoke it aloud, an incantation against dark magic.

Thank God he’d sent that letter. It bound him. It protected him. But even so, he had to get away from here soon.

Swann was coming from Honiton tomorrow, and Race had sorted out the essentials of the earldom’s affairs. Even after giving Susan half the treasure trove, there’d be enough to keep this place going for a while.

By tomorrow night he might be able to leave with a clear conscience and ride east.

To claim Lady Anne.

Sweet, kind, gentle, good—

He hurled the glass to shatter against Saint George’s smug face.

Susan felt she could hardly breathe for suffocating sadness. She took refuge in the garden, but this was all too horribly like the past, without the brash certainties of youth to hide behind.

Then, for a while, she’d been able to think:
I made a brave sacrifice so I could continue to pursue my great goal.

Now she could only think of might-have-beens.

They might at least still have been friends.

Where had she gone wrong?

Everywhere.

She should have reacted with outrage, as she’d wanted to, to being bought, and explained clearly why the Horde had the right to that money. He might not have agreed, but he’d have known she wasn’t a greedy thief.

But then they would not have made love.

She circled the shadowy fountain, thinking of the dragon’s bride splayed on her rock, screaming. Had she screamed in true terror, or because she was horrified at wanting to be ravished?

The chain still hung there, trailing limply into the stone basin. What had really chained the bride to the rock? What if she’d gone willingly, though shaking, to give herself to the dragon?

She leaned on the rough stone rim, shivering with loss, and with the prosaic chill of damp clothes and wet hair. What else should she have done differently?

She should have pretended more skillfully to be experienced.

No, no, she should have told him the truth.

But then they would not have made love.

Clearly she shouldn’t have let her anger show at the end. Why not, though? Why not? Why shouldn’t she be outraged at being thought of no honor? Was that how he’d thought of her all these years, as a person who would stir up trouble out of spite?

But if she’d held her tongue, perhaps they would even now be making love again.

She pushed herself straight and took a deep breath. Life goes on. Despite lost chances and broken hearts, life goes on and must be endured.

As she continued through the shadowy garden she tried to comfort herself with the fact that she’d earned half the gold. She didn’t know how much half was, but it must surely enable David and the Horde to lie low for a month or two.

It didn’t touch the pain eating deeply into her.

Susan was wakened the next morning as usual by Ellen with her breakfast tray. Tea, a fresh roll, butter, and jam-Routine, blessed routine, except that she had no interest in food at all. She’d hardly slept, but she managed a smile for the girl, and thanks.

“Was it something terrible last night, ma’am?” the maid asked.

“What?” Susan froze, wondering what people knew, what they’d heard….

“The earl, ma’am. He said it was urgent, and he looked ever so wild!”

Susan choked down a laugh. “No, no. It was a minor matter. Nothing to worry about.”

“That’s good, ma’am.” Ellen smiled. “He’s a lovely man, really, isn’t he? It’ll be all right here with him as earl.”

Susan poured tea into her cup.
Life goes on.
“Yes, he’s a lovely man, though he’s not going to live here. But you’re right, Ellen. Everything will be all right as long as he’s earl.”

The maid left, and Susan spread butter and jam on the roll, took a bite, chewed, and swallowed.

Life must go on.

A lovely man.

He was.

Beneath the dark and angry moments lived Con, the blessing of her youth. With Lady Anne he probably was that man. At Somerford Court he probably was that man.

That comforted her. She thought perhaps she could bear this loss if Con was living a good life somewhere in the world.

She rose and washed and dressed as usual, unable to escape memories of Con taking off the same clothes. So she faced the memories, embraced them. Most of them were to be treasured.

She almost felt the events of the night should have marked her, but the most careful scrutiny in the mirror showed not a sign. Last night her skin had been a little reddened, her lips a little swollen. Now no trace remained.

Just as it hadn’t eleven years ago.

She’d returned to the manor sure that everyone would know what she’d done, that she was marked, changed. It appeared not to have been so. Con and his father and brother had left three days later, and after that Aunt Miriam had remarked once or twice that Susan was missing him. Perhaps there’d been a hint of sympathy for a young love that had come to naught. But no more than that.

Today, no one would notice anything either.

What secrets lay in the other hearts around her?

With a sigh, she went out to organize the day.

She was inspecting the laundry that had come up from the village when Amelia bounced in, bright-eyed and beaming. “Hello. Where’s the dragon?”

“Not in these quarters,” Susan said, waving the maids off to put the folded sheets and pillowcases away. “What on earth are you doing here?”

She was smiling, though. No one could help smiling at Amelia, and all the shadows suddenly seemed to shrink.

“I do have a reason,” her cousin said, eyes twinkling with mischief, “but I won’t tell you what it is unless you tell me something exciting about the earl.”

“I’m a servant here,” Susan said, deliberately being difficult. “It is not a servant’s place to gossip about her employer.”

“Susan! We’ve gossiped about the earl enough in the past. What I really want is to see him.”

“I have to pick some flowers to refresh the arrangement in the dining room. You can come with me if you promise to behave.”

“I’m not a servant here.”

“Behave like a lady, I mean. And,” she added, picking up a basket and some shears, “you’re much more likely to see him there than here.”

That made Amelia enthusiastic. Susan fought off a touch of guilt. If she was any judge, Amelia wouldn’t catch a glimpse of Con while in her company.

When they entered the courtyard, Amelia looked around. “This isn’t much of a garden. If I’d known you wanted flowers I could have brought some from the manor. We’re awash with tulips.”

“Two gentlemen don’t require a lot of flowers.” Susan snipped some wallflowers and stocks.

Amelia was looking up. “All those windows. It’s like being in a box, watched.”

Susan looked up, realizing that Amelia was right— and that Con could be watching.

As if picking up the thought, Amelia asked, “Where is he? I do long to see him.”

“I don’t know.”

It was true. He’d eaten breakfast but she knew no more. Mr. Rufflestowe was here again going through the curiosities. De Vere was presumably in the office. Con could be with either of them, or anywhere else. She didn’t think he’d left Crag Wyvern, though. Mr. Swann was expected.

“How long are you going to stay here?” Amelia asked. “It must be pretty boring.” But then said, “What does it mean? ‘The Dragon and His Bride’?”

Susan looked over to see her cousin studying the words carved into the rim of the fountain.

“It used to have figures. A dragon and a woman.”

Amelia turned to her. “What happened to them?”

Susan was remembering one of the problems she had with life at the manor. Everyone expected to know everything. The concept of private matters did not occur to them.

“The earl didn’t like it, so he ordered it removed.”

Amelia’s eyes lit up. “Was it very improper?”

“Highly.”

“I wish I’d seen it before it was destroyed. It really isn’t fair. I never get to experience anything exciting.”

Susan added some delicate rue to her basket. “You don’t want to, either.”

Amelia wandered back to her side. “Not if it was uncomfortable, no. But a naughty statue wouldn’t be dangerous, would it?”

Susan suppressed a wry smile. “You’d be surprised.”

Con was with Mr. Rufflestowe, unwillingly fascinated by the strange and occult items being entered into a meticulous catalogue.

“People really do use eye of newt?” he asked, looking into a glass vial of small, dry objects.

“So it would seem, my lord,” said the round and polished young man. He rose to take down a heavy, leather-bound book from the section already recorded. He flicked through the pages carefully and then pointed to a recipe.

“I can hardly read that writing, never mind translate the Latin after all these years,” Con said.

“It instructs the user to dissolve four eyes of newt in mercury and pig’s urine.”

“And what is that supposed to cure?”

Mr. Rufflestowe went pink. “Er … a female complaint, my lord.”

“Should certainly stop all complaints dead, I’d think.”

Con was mildly amused, and Rufflestowe was surprisingly entertaining company, but essentially he was in hiding, waiting for Swann to turn up so he could arrange his escape.

Susan was somewhere in the house, and he wasn’t going to see her, or speak to her if he could help it.

He glanced out of the window, however, and one resolution crumbled. Susan was out there. A new aspect of Susan, smiling and chatting with a plump and pretty young lady in a sunshiny yellow dress that was all the brighter beside Susan’s gray and white.

Dammit, as her employer could he order her to wear something different?

Unfair, and dangerous.

But he couldn’t stop watching the two women. There was something so comfortable and familiar between them, and he realized that it reminded him of his sisters together.

That must be one of her Kerslake cousins.

He knew he should move back, turn away, as if from a spellbinder, but he continued to watch.

Then Race stepped into view.

“Good morning, ladies!”

Susan turned to see Race de Vere sauntering out of the office doors, smiling angelically. “Speaking of naughty and dangerous…” she murmured.

“Oh, lovely,” Amelia murmured back, giving de Vere her best flirtatious look.

“Mrs. Kerslake, do we have a new maid?” he asked, eyes twinkling.

Susan heard a little squeak of outrage from her cousin and had to fight a smile. She’d thought she’d never smile again.

“Don’t be mischievous, Mr. de Vere,” she said. “This is my cousin, Miss Kerslake. Amelia, Mr. de Vere. Lord Wyvern’s secretary.”

“And friend,” he said, stepping closer and bowing. “It must mean something to be an earl’s friend.”

Amelia dropped a curtsy, dimples showing that she’d overcome any outrage. “Have you been the earl’s secretary long, Mr. de Vere?”

“Mere months, but it seems like an eon, Miss Kerslake….”

Susan rolled her eyes and left them to their light-hearted flirtation as she looked around for suitable greenery. Amelia at least had what she’d come for here—an encounter with an interesting new gentleman. The selection in this area was limited and very familiar.

She wondered if Amelia had looked up de Vere in any books, and what she’d found. She was sure he was not a typical secretary with his way to make in the world. He was far too sure of himself for that.

As she worked her way around the garden, their voices and occasional laughter as background, she recalled Amelia’s interrupted question. How long was she going to stay?

There was nothing to keep her here now.

Nothing.

A flutter of pain and panic told her how much she didn’t want to leave. Not while Con was still here. It might be crumbs from the table, but if that was all there was she would stay for them.

And perhaps, just perhaps, he would summon her to his room again.

Wicked to even think of it, but she couldn’t help it. And she didn’t think she would be strong enough not to go.

Con felt unreasonable irritation that Race could stroll out there and flirt while he was pinned up here, a mere observer. Susan was now almost out of his sight unless he peered down from the window, and he wasn’t about to do that. That left only the laughing, flirting couple.

How strange it was, however, to see such normal interaction within Crag Wyvern. He was sure it had been years, decades even, since two normal young people had enjoyed each other’s company here.

Was it something to do with expectations? Could he and Susan get along better together if they weren’t so aware of the poisonous nature of this place?

But then, it was their past, not their location, that had twisted everything into disaster.

A new person came onstage.

Susan’s brother.

Ah, yes. Con remembered summoning him. If he was going to protect Captain Drake it might as well be an open matter between them.

For the first time, he wondered if he should warn Kerslake about Gifford’s threat to Susan. She’d told him in confidence as a friend, he knew, and yet it was a matter that needed to be dealt with.

“Susan.”

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