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Authors: Jo Beverley

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

The Dragon's Bride (3 page)

BOOK: The Dragon's Bride
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Probably not. She lit the solitary candle by his bed and left, closing the door on all the dragons within.

Chapter Three

Con sucked in what felt like his first clear breath since that figure had walked up to him on the headland and he’d realized who it was.

Eleven years.

It shouldn’t be hitting him so hard. There’d been other women.

They lay in his mind like ghosts, however, when Susan had always lived there in vibrant flesh.

Being rejected in the crudest, harshest way was like a brand, it would seem. Something a man never got rid of.

Like a tattoo. He rubbed absentmindedly at his right chest. Another permanent mark.

He wandered the room, idly opening drawers that were, of course, empty. Everywhere he looked, the dragons writhed and snarled. He glared at one and snarled back.

Damn the mad Earl of Wyvern. Damn the whole line of them, and the last one for dying far too soon. If not for that, he would be in the peace of Somerford Court in Sussex.

The curtains and bed hangings were a glorious black silk with more dragons embroidered on them. The frame of the bed was black lacquer, as was all the furniture. The carpet covered nearly the whole floor with thick silk in paler, gentle shades, but still containing a picture of a coiled dragon. He hated to be walking on it in his boots, but he couldn’t get them off without a jack or Diego.

His army boots had been more practical, but he’d thought he should be fashionable now he was done with all that. Thus, he’d ended up with boots too snug to drag off himself.

He crossed the carpet to one of the long windows and looked down at the dark courtyard garden. Two lamps cast pale circles of light on paths and touched the edges of branches and leaves. He remembered it as a pleasant spot in the middle of the peculiar house.

Through a youth’s eyes, Crag Wyvern had seemed a prime adventure, the crazy earl a figure of fun. Now he wasn’t so sure. A torture chamber. He shook his head. The Devonish Somerfords had been mad since the first earl, who’d liked to be called Dragonkiller. He’d claimed to have killed a dragon here two hundred years ago.

Rumor said they dabbled in witchcraft. They’d certainly been blessed by good fortune enough to indulge their mad whims. Disappointing, then, to find the coffers almost empty now.

He wondered what was so peculiar about the earl’s traditional chambers and felt a natural curiosity to go and look. He smiled. The boy never left the man entirely. He’d be happy to surrender to the boy again if he could, but life seemed to conspire against it.

His boyhood had ended when Susan Kerslake had ruthlessly destroyed it, and he’d taken the next step himself by joining the army. He didn’t entirely regret it. As a second son he’d needed employment, and neither the navy nor the church had appealed. Men were needed to fight Napoleon, and he had decided that he might as well be one of them.

He’d served eight years and felt proud to have done his duty, but he’d also been damned glad when Napoleon had abdicated and it was over. He’d been needed at home anyway, with his father dead, and then his brother drowned in a silly boating accident. He’d become Lord Amleigh, and though he mourned his father and Fred, he had felt blessed to have lived through the war to become owner of his lovely Sussex home.

Those brief golden days had ended a year ago when Napoleon had left Elba to snatch back his power and his crown. Wellington’s victorious, experienced army had been dispersed, so of course any seasoned officer had to return for the final battle.

Waterloo, it had ended up being called.

It had been a bloodbath, as he’d expected. Leaving England for Belgium, he’d known that neither general would be able to ride away to fight another day. It would be to the death, and somewhere in the months of peace and happiness in England he’d lost the calluses that made a soldier able to kill and kill, to wade through blood and mud, and climb over corpses, some of them of friends, to the only goal—victory.

No, he’d not lost the ability to do that. He’d lost the ability to celebrate afterward.

And somewhere in the mud and blood he’d lost himself.

His life before the army was a myth to him now, the memories of his life up till sixteen all invention. Perhaps he’d never been a happy child in Hawk in the Vale, a venturesome schoolboy at Harrow, an innocent youth on the rocks and beaches of Devon.

A precipitously impetuous lover …

He shook that away and looked around the extravagant room, catching sight of himself in a gilded mirror.

Dark, harsh, and somber—scoured down to the man that war and killing and constant, encircling death had made, a man who smiled only with conscious effort.

He still had purpose, at least—duty. And the earldom of Wyvern, including this house, was part of it. He’d avoided coming here for far too long. He must make sure that the place was being properly run, that his people here were being taken care of.

It would be nice to make some sense of the finances, too, so there was money to take care of Crag Wyvern without draining Somerford Court.

He’d come here knowing that he might meet Susan Kerslake. He’d never imagined meeting her so swiftly and directly.

And now? He was perfectly aware of all the irrational reactions sweeping through him, but he was not a boy anymore.

The important question was, What was she up to? Why was she here, playing at being housekeeper? The smuggling didn’t surprise him—it was in her blood—but the domestic work was as ridiculous as setting a thoroughbred to work a mine pump.

She was up to something.

He caught his breath. Could she be crazy enough to think she could try again to whore her way into the rank of countess?

A laugh escaped. She’d have to be as crazy as the crazy earl to think it possible.

And yet … and yet the panicked reactions swirling inside him said that it might be entirely too possible if he let his guard down. She was not the coltish girl he remembered, but she was more.

She was the same person grown devastatingly womanly.

Despite rough men’s garments and a sooty face, she’d still had the clean-cut features he remembered, and the beautiful hazel eyes. She was tall and lithe and moved like a woman who could still climb cliffs like a mountain sheep and swim like a fish.

He took a deep breath and stood straight. He was an officer, and a damn good one. He’d faced many dangerous enemies and survived. He could face, and survive, Susan Kerslake.

Susan hurried down the corridor, fighting panic to try to think which servants could best be spared from the cellars to prepare food and heat bathwater for Con.

No, the earl. She had to think of him as the earl to remind herself that he wasn’t the sweet-natured youth of the past, and that he held the livelihood of everyone here in his hands.

She’d left spine-twisted Maisie in charge of the main part of the house, never thinking she’d have to climb up to tell Diddy to light that candle signaling guests.

Who else could take care of Con? Middle-aged Jane and young Ellen.

Con, Con
. What had he thought of her?

She knew what he thought of her! What else could he think after what she’d done all those years ago?

He was her employer now, that was all, and he wanted food and a bath.

She thoughtlessly started down the wide stairs that ran straight into the great hall, and hastily swung back out of sight—so hastily that her lamp tilted.
Get a grip on yourself, my girl, or you’ll be up in flames!

There were people down there waiting—two men— and here she was in men’s clothing with dirt smeared over her face. Where were her wits? She might as well announce that she was part of the smuggling gang.

She knew where her wits were, and she didn’t seem able to do anything about it.

She let herself lean against the wall for a moment, steadying herself as the white-gold flame steadied, taking the moment to come to terms with the situation.

So Con was here. Clearly he felt nothing for her now except old anger. If they kept in their proper stations, they need hardly meet. They were both adults now, and that insane youthful passion was a thing of the far past. He wasn’t the same person, and neither was she.

Deep inside she didn’t believe that, but she must. It was stark truth.

She took servants’ stairs to the kitchens. Only Maisie was in there.

“Did I do right, ma’am? Took me a while to get up there.”

“You did perfectly, Maisie. Don’t worry. Everything’s all right. It’s just that the new earl arrived at last.”

“He looked right frightening, though, ma’am.”

“He’s just tired. He wants food and a bath, so build the fire under the big kettle while I go get Ellen and Jane. And boil the small kettle for tea.”

Tea! Wild laughter threatened. Would Con demand to know where the tea and brandy he drank came from? Most of England used smuggled goods if they could get them, but there were always those who stuck on principle.

Perhaps Con would follow the pattern of past generations and come to a gentleman’s agreement with the Horde, but it didn’t seem likely. He was a soldier, used to obeying orders and enforcing the law. He wouldn’t find smuggling romantic anymore.

If he insisted, she’d buy everything, taxes paid, at ten times the price. She’d be the laughingstock of south Devon, though.

But most people couldn’t afford those prices. Why wouldn’t the government come to its senses and accept that there’d be more money in taxes if taxes were lower?

Of course if they did, that’d be the end of smuggling, and then where would the south coast be?

It was coming to a point where she didn’t know what to pray for.

Maisie was moving burning coals under the big water kettle, and adding fresh so they crackled and flared.

“When you’ve finished there, Maisie, put together a soup of some sort.”

Susan gathered herself, feeling slightly breathless, as if the world were whirling around her.

What now? What should she do now?

Go down to get Ellen and Jane, or change? She should go down first, but what if Con decided to pursue her here? She wanted to be safe in her severe housekeeper clothes when she had to face him again.

She hurried into her rooms, a bedchamber and small parlor that the previous housekeeper, bless her, had fitted out in a cozy modern style with pale green painted walls. Susan had added some of her framed insect drawings and a lot of books. Unexpectedly, she’d come to love these rooms, the only private space she’d ever owned.

She’d been raised at Kerslake Manor with love and kindness, but love and kindness couldn’t produce enough rooms for everyone to have their own. That was why she’d spent so much time outdoors.

That was why she’d met Con. Why they’d—

A glance in the mirror showed her a pale face streaked with black, her hair simply tied back. Oh, Lord. This was not how she would have chosen to meet Con again.

The
earl
!

The Earl of Wyvern, who was no longer any personal business of hers.

She tore off her jacket, then shed the rest of her clothes. She washed off the soot, then slipped into a fresh shift, a light corset, and one of her plain gray dresses. She pinned a crisp white apron on top.

This wasn’t how she wanted to look for Con either, but it was better. Much better. It was armor.

She twisted her brown hair up on top of her head and pinned it in place, then covered it with a cap, tying the strings under her chin. Not quite armored enough, she added a fichu of starched cotton around her shoulders.

Deep inside, like a tolling alarm bell, pounded the need to escape, to run before she had to see Con again. Counterpoint to it beat the desperate rhythm of need.

To see him, to hear him, the man the youth had become …

She swallowed, and as ready as she was likely to be, went out again into the kitchen. On the big hearth, steam was already rising from three pots, and Maisie was finely chopping vegetables. Susan praised her, picked up the lamp, and plunged down into the chilly depths of Crag Wyvern to summon the other maids.

It was only a temporary escape, however.

Above, the dragon still waited to be faced.

Con wondered if an earl in his noble home was supposed to stay in his grand chambers until service arrived. He wasn’t in the earl’s grand chambers, however—the Wyvern rooms, he remembered they were called—and the service was likely to be snail-slow.

The bed tempted him like a siren song. He’d been on horseback since early morning, pushing on as the light faded because of a need to get here, to get the first part over.

Or the need to escape.

Despite the call of duty, he probably wouldn’t have left Somerford Court to come here if one of his oldest friends had not returned to his neighboring estate. Instead of riding across the valley to meet Van for the first time in a year, however, he’d lurked at home. When work had started on Steynings, indicating that Van might be returning for good, he’d discovered an urgent need to inspect this property in Devon and set off with no preparation at all.

He rubbed his hands over his weary face. Mad. Perhaps he was as mad as the Demented Devonish Somerfords.

Van had lost all his immediate family in recent years. And yet, knowing he probably needed a friend, Con had fled like a coward fleeing a battle.

Because Van might want to help him—

God!
Con grabbed the candle and plunged back out into the corridor.
Dammit.
Which way did he go in this crazy place? It was full of staircases, he remembered. Circular ones at the corners. A straight one down into the hall. Servants’ narrow stairs.

Right or left, he’d come to a circular one. Left, why not? He was left-handed.

He found the arch and headed down, remembering that his left-handedness gave him an advantage here.

In castles, these staircases always curled counterclockwise so that defenders from above would have their right arm—their sword arm—free, while attackers from below would be cramped by the inner wall. The Crag Wyvern stairs curled clockwise because left-handedness ran in the blood of the Devonish Somerfords.

The old earl had been left-handed, and apparently so had most before him. Con was left-handed. Was that a bad omen? He could feel the pressure of madness in the very walls of this place.

BOOK: The Dragon's Bride
7.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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