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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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He certainly wished he had a lamp or lantern rather than the candle he was holding in his right hand, instinctively leaving his left hand free, even though he carried no weapon. He wished he had a weapon, but the greatest danger he faced was that the wildly flaring candle might blow out, leaving him to feel his way down the stairs in the pitch dark.

He stepped out into a corner of the huge medieval-style hall with relief, pausing to let his hammering heart settle. The room was as peculiar as the rest of the place, the walls encrusted with weaponry, but it contained two relatively sane human beings.

“Ah, a human!” declared Racecombe de Vere, lounging on an oaken settle with deceptive languor, golden curls framing a fine-boned face, smoky-blue eyes cynically amused at the world.

“If an Earl of Wyvern is ever human,” Con replied.

“No? At least they seem to have been warlike.” Race gestured at the walls.

“Not a bit of it. This stuff must have been bought by the yard.”

“Alas. I was hoping some of the muskets and pistols might work. There’s a distinct feeling here of imminent battle.”

Race would know. He was an army man, but he’d missed Waterloo. He’d been part of the men rushed back from Canada who’d arrived too late. At which point he’d sold his commission in disgust.

Con put his candle with a stand of three others on the massive dark oak refectory table in the middle of the room. “The only likely battle would be against ghosts.”

“Then why did you disappear for a solitary midnight stroll?”

Con met Race’s mischievous eyes. “To stretch my legs. Servants are being roused.”

“Roused from sleep on the heathy headland?”

Con merely gave him a look.

Race had been his subaltern for a while in Spain, and they’d met again in Melton Mowbray in February. Con had just heard of his mad relative’s death. Race had decided he needed a secretary and appointed himself.

At the time it had seemed rather farcical, but Con hadn’t cared enough to object. Race, however, had turned out to have a gift for administration. He still could be an imp from hell at times.

“You are tired, my lord.” The soft, Spanish-inflected voice snapped his eyes open. He’d almost gone to sleep on his feet.

He shuddered and turned to Diego, a weather-beaten man nearly twice Con’s age. He had dark Spanish eyes, but light brown hair touched with gray. Con knew Diego was here only to look after him. Once Diego was sure he was all right, he would return to his beloved, sunny Spain.

“We’re all tired,” Con said, rubbing scratchy eyes. “I can tell you where to bed down now if you want, but there should be food soon, and a bath.”

There’d only be hot water enough for one bath at a time. It was a fact of being an earl that he would enjoy it first, a fact of life that Race and then Diego would use it after him if they wanted to. A tub of water could go through ten before it was cold and exhausted. Tenth in line for a tub had often been a dreamed-of luxury during the war….

“I would be happy to oversee the servants and encourage them to greater speed, sir,” said Diego.

The notion of Diego hounding Susan was vaguely alarming—vaguely because of invading sleep. “No.” Con battled fatigue. “No need. The housekeeper has the matter in hand.”

“The Mrs. Kerslake? What is she like, sir?”

“Young,” he said, walking about to keep the blood flowing to limbs and brain. “And despite the Mrs., unmarried,”

“Pretty?” asked Race, sitting up.

“Depending on taste.” Con suppressed an urge to growl a warning. “If you’re interested, treat her as a lady, because she is one. She’s niece to the local squire.”

No need now to get into the more complicated matters of Susan’s parentage.

To both of the men, he added, “If she asks any questions about me, don’t tell her anything.”

Diego’s brows quirked, and Con saw mischievous curiosity flit across Race’s face.

Damnation.
But there was no point hiding all of it. “I knew her years ago and she might be nosy. The important fact is that everyone here is involved in smuggling, and for the moment we’re going to pretend that it isn’t happening.”

“Which it is, of course,” Race said, coming to full alert. “Hence the lack of servants in the house or horses in the stables. Fascinating.”

“Remember, Race, we are for the moment blind, deaf, and very, very stupid.”

Race subsided, giving Con a very ironic salute. “Sir!”

“My lord.”

Con turned sharply to see Susan walking toward him. He couldn’t help but stare. He’d not been surprised to see her in men’s clothing, even though he’d never seen her dressed like that before. He was shocked to see her in dull housekeeper’s garb.

Affronted even. He wanted to tear off the ugly cap and starched fichu. To command her not to wear dark gray that stole the color from her face. The outfit almost did the impossible and made her ugly.

He recovered and performed the introductions. He noted Race attempting to flirt and being frostily discouraged.

Good.

Zeus, could he sink so low as jealousy?

She turned back to him. “We have simple food ready for you all, my lord. Where do you want everyone to eat?”

Diego would normally eat with the servants, but Con didn’t want him where he might see smuggling activity. Smugglers tended to keep their secrets with a knife. “In the breakfast room on this occasion, if you please.”

She nodded. “If you remember the way, my lord, perhaps you could take your party there and I will have the food served within moments.”

She disappeared again, and that was the last Con saw of her for the night. Two maids brought soup, bread, cheese, and a currant pie into the breakfast room. On request they returned with tankards of ale to go with it. One was past first youth and plain, the other young, thin, and bucktoothed. Con wondered whether Susan saw him and his men as a bunch of seducers and had chosen the plainest servants.

When they’d finished, he led Race and Diego upstairs, and found a steaming bath ready for him. By then he was almost too tired to care, but since coming home from Waterloo, he had tried never again to go filthy to sleep. He stripped, sat in the wooden tub, scrubbed briskly, and staggered off to fall into bed, asleep almost as soon as he was horizontal.

Chapter Four

Daylight awoke him. He’d neglected to draw the curtains.

Daybreak and birdsong—a very English awakening that he still savored every single day. He loved England with a passion built through all the days when loss of life and loss of England had rushed upon him. Perhaps if he could get enough of the true England he could heal.

The England he loved, however, was the England of the gentle Sussex downs, of tranquil Somerford Court and pastoral Hawk in the Vale. It wasn’t this aberrant house on a heathy headland, haunted by madmen and criminals.

He climbed out of bed, snarled back at the dragons, and walked naked to the small-paned window to look into the garden. At Somerford his room looked out into the garden, but beyond that lay the valley and a view for miles. Here, the garden was enclosed by dark stone walls. At least the walls were covered with ivy and other growing plants, and the courtyard even contained two trees. They were stunted, however, and a sense of enclosure, of limits, pressed on him.

Such enclosure had doubtless been deliberate in a monastery or convent, but he had not renounced the world. Or perhaps he had. Perhaps riding away from Hawk in the Vale and his friend had been a renunciation of the deepest kind.

At least there were birds. He’d not imagined the bird-song, and he saw a sparrow fly across from tree to ivy, and swifts swooping up near the roof. He could pick out a thrush’s trill and a robin’s happy song. Maybe the birds were singing that there was a lot to be said for an artificial garden surrounded by high walls.

He began to see a pattern in the courtyard paths. Pentangles. An occult symbol. He shook his head. In the center stood a statue fountain that had not been here eleven years ago. There seemed to be a woman and a dragon. He assumed it was bizarre.

A torture chamber, too.

Deeply, truly, he wanted no part of this place, safe or not.

A movement caught his eye, and he saw Susan come out of one side of the house and walk briskly across a diagonal of the courtyard. She was still in the dull gray and white that offended him, with that cap covering almost all her hair, but her walk was free and graceful.

Her clothes eleven years ago had been schoolroom wear, but more lively and becoming than this. Come to think of it, they’d been almost entirely pale colors, and she’d always been grimacing about mud, sand, and grass stains from their adventures.

What was his free spirit doing in gray playing housekeeper here?

Clearly not seeking to seduce him. She’d dress more becomingly for that.

She paused to study some tall, plumy flowers. He suspected that there was some interesting insect on them.

She had always loved insects.

What do you mean, always? You knew her for two weeks.

But it hadn’t simply been a fortnight. It had been a lifetime in fourteen days. She’d loved to watch insects, often lying down on the ground or in the sand to study and wonder, to analyze their quirks of behavior. She’d carried a sketching pad and drawn them, showing real talent. That had been her key to freedom, the fact that she went out to study and draw insects, but it hadn’t been pretense.

He watched her watch. Then she straightened, stretching her head back to take a deep, relished breath.

He inhaled with her, and carefully, quietly, opened the casement window to let in the same perfumed air that she was breathing.

Not quietly enough. With the window only half open, she started and looked up at him.

He conquered the urge to step back. The sill hit him at hip level, so he was essentially decent, though naked.

Their eyes held for what seemed to be far too long. He saw her lips part, as if she might speak, or perhaps just to catch air.

Then she broke the contact and turned to walk briskly, more briskly, across the courtyard and away.

He stayed there, arms braced on the sill, breathing as if breathing were difficult. For so long he’d told himself that their time here had been a minor thing, a passing moment, that her agonizing dismissal of him had wiped away any warm feelings and—paradoxically—hadn’t hurt a bit.

He’d always known it was a lie.

Fifteen. He’d been fifteen, bedazzled, scared, eager….

It had been a strange progression from sitting on the headland talking about everyday things, to lying side by side on their bellies talking about personal matters, to holding hands as they walked along the beach, to sitting in one another’s arms sharing dreams and fears.

The moon had become full during that second week, and twice they’d sneaked out at night to sit on the beach surrounded by the magic music of the sea, to talk of anything and everything. He’d wanted to build a fire but she’d told him it was illegal. It could be a signal fire for smugglers, so it was illegal.

She’d known a lot about smugglers and shared it all, and he’d been romantically thrilled by stories of the Freetraders. Then she’d admitted her personal connection—that she wasn’t a daughter of Sir Nathaniel and Lady Kerslake at the manor, but of Sir Nathaniel’s sister Isabelle and the keeper of the George and Dragon tavern in the village of Dragon’s Cove.

And then that her father, Melchisedeck Clyst, was Captain Drake, leader of the local smuggling gang.

She clearly didn’t know whether to be proud or ashamed of her parentage. Though “Lady Belle” lived openly with Melchisedeck Clyst in Dragon’s Cove, they’d never married.

Con was delightfully scandalized by this blatant sinfulness—things like that never happened in Hawk in the Vale. Overall, however, he thought it a grand connection, and it made Susan even more exceptional in his eyes.

He and his brother Fred spent time in Dragon’s Cove, and he started to look out for Captain Drake. He didn’t see him, and had no reason to go into the George and Dragon.

They had a grand time in the village anyway. The fishermen were mostly willing to talk as they cleaned their catch or mended nets. They picked up fishing lore and tall stories as they tried to spot which were smugglers and which weren’t.

The truth was, of course, that they all were.

Sometimes the fishermen took them out in their boats and even let them have the huge treat of hauling in nets for them. Fred liked being on the boats more than Con, so he’d had time alone to wander the village straining to hear smuggling secrets.

Stupid boy.

He’d finally spotted Mel Clyst, a sinewy man of only moderate height, with a square jaw and Susan’s hazel eyes. He wasn’t exactly handsome—his bones were heavy and his nose had been broken a time or two—but it was easy to see him as a leader of men. He’d been dressed like the prosperous businessman he was in a cutaway coat and stylish beaver hat.

Another time he saw him with Lady Belle, who was dressed as a fine lady, though with a flamboyant touch that Lady Kerslake would never attempt. A wicked woman, and Susan’s mother, although he gathered she had nothing at all to do with her children.

Lady Belle fascinated him, but Captain Drake fascinated him more. It became his dearest ambition to have a chat with his hero.

He got his wish, but it was not a chat he would have wanted.

He’d been sitting on the pebbly beach listening to old Sim Lowstock telling his version of the killing of the dragon by the first earl when they were interrupted. He was politely but firmly escorted into the George and Dragon. Not into the taproom at the front, but into a back room fitted out more like a gentleman’s sitting room.

Mel Clyst was sitting on a sofa in gentleman’s dress, Lady Belle beside him. It was the first time Con had seen her up close, and he noted plump, clear skin and large blue eyes, but above all he recognized her lush, carnal appeal. Her bodice was very low, and her wide hat held a sweeping, glorious plume dyed scarlet.

Captain Drake and Lady Belle sat on the sofa like a king and queen, and Mel Clyst had chatted about Con and Susan.

Now a man—and a man tested by fire—Con could still feel the sick nervousness and embarrassment of that interview. Or trial, even.

Clyst had not been cruel, but Con had felt all Captain Drake’s power that day—the power of a natural leader, but also the power of a man who held the allegiance of most of the population of the coast. If he ordered one of the fishermen to take Con out and throw him into the deeps, it would be done.

In later years, developing his own authority, and using the power of the direct warning and the unspoken threat, Captain Drake had been one of Con’s prime models.

All it had been, however, was a conversation, one in which Mel Clyst acknowledged that Susan Kerslake was his daughter, that she enjoyed great freedom to wander the area because surely no one would do her any harm. That a promising young man like Con Somerford had an interesting life ahead of him, one away from here, in the army perhaps, or the law.

It had been a silent but clear warning, man to man, not to do what he and Susan had done the very next day.

Had the warning put the idea into his head, sown some sort of seed? There was no way to know. His affection, his boyish adoration, had been essentially pure, but his body had been young, healthy, and lusty.

Mel Clyst had given one blunt order—no more nighttime meetings. Without a word of threat, Con had known that he, and probably Susan, would suffer sharply if they disobeyed.

So they had met in the afternoon the next day, in Irish Cove, a mile or more along the coast from both the fishing village and Crag Wyvern. It was not easily reached, since an old road there had been cut off by a landslip, and the way down to the beach was steep and treacherous. A smuggler’s path, Susan told him, intended to be difficult. They’d scrambled down in search of privacy, aware now of being observed.

They hadn’t been planning anything.

At least, he hadn’t been.

They’d shared their grievance about interfering adults who didn’t understand a friendship, and laughed at the suspicions.

Then they’d kissed to test it out, to prove that it wasn’t…

Except that it was.

He had kissed a girl or two before. It had been mildly intriguing, but not something he particularly wanted to do again.

When he’d kissed Susan, it had been different. He closed his eyes now and could almost feel it again, taste it again, that soft, uncertain innocence that had left him hot and breathless.

He could still smell her—something subtle and flowery over the heat of her body in the sun. He could relive the hesitancy, the growing enthusiasm, the absorption. Then the breaking apart in shock, fear—and intense, burning speculation.

He’d had an erection. Astonishing, alarming, demanding. He’d had many erections before, but never one with such direct and present purpose.

She knew. She looked at his breeches and smiled, blushing. He was fiery-faced too.

“Cold water will cure that, they say,” she said, and stood to strip off her dress. She hadn’t even been wearing a corset on her firm, lightly curved body, only a shift, stockings, and shoes. She’d shed shoes and stockings, then said, “Come on!” and run down into the water.

Slim, lanky, but oh, so feminine in those subtle curves hinted at beneath her sturdy shift.

They were in view of anyone on the clifftop! But the road there went nowhere, so unless they were being closely watched, no one would pass by to see by accident.

If they were being watched he’d be married or dead come morning. Susan would likely receive the whipping of her life. Even so, he fought out of entangling clothes down to his breeches and ran to join her in the cool water.

Since she hadn’t hesitated, he didn’t, and plunged in to swim. She could swim too, better than he could, and they swirled back and forth in the salt water, her shift molded to her body now. It was a kind of dance, but as with other dances, awareness swam with them, heightened by brushing touch and glimpse of shape. Knowledge sat deep in eyes that rarely parted.

Then she stood, water lapping at her small, high breasts, hiding then revealing her nipples beneath opaque cloth. He couldn’t stop looking at those flickering buds.

“You can touch them if you want,” she said.

And he did, after one frantic glance at the deserted headland. He was dead—dead—if Captain Drake found out he’d touched his daughter’s breasts.

Death seemed worth it.

Her breasts were cold from the water, and rough with the covering of cloth, but soft and firm, and sweetly unlike any part of his own body. They were womanly mystery in form, and he kissed them by instinct alone, wishing desperately that he were brave enough to uncover them, to feel silky warm skin instead of rough, cold cotton—

A squawk jerked him out of the past.

A red-faced maid stood in his doorway, a huge jug clutched to her chest. “I knocked, milord! Mrs. Kerslake said you were up—” She bit her lip, going puce at what she’d said.

He was stark naked and didn’t need to look to know he had a full erection.

They both stood frozen for a moment. Then the maid scuttled over to his washstand, eyes averted, then out again. Except that she hesitated at the door, her color merely rosy. Her eyes slid to him, down, then back up to his face. “Unless there’s anything else you need, milord.”

He caught his breath as base temptation sank its teeth. She was willing, and though she was plain, with a heavy face and thick neck, it didn’t seem to matter.

“No,” he managed to say, “that’s all.”

The door closed, and so did his eyes as he struggled for control. It would be the last bloody straw to start using the servants as convenients.

He knew that wasn’t the real reason he’d turned down the offer, though. The absolute barrier had been the thought of Susan’s reaction when she found out.

Susan was in the kitchen supervising little Ellen in the making of toast when Diddy Howlock rushed in. “He were naked. Stark, staring naked! And ready to go, too!”

Laughter and exclamations ran round the five women in the room, young and old.

“And you just left him like that, Diddy,” said Mrs. Gorland, the middle-aged cook who came in daily. “That’s a turn up.”

Diddy giggled. “I did offer. I’d not mind an earl’s bastard. Likely set me up for life, and this one’d be able to, I reckon.”

BOOK: The Dragon's Bride
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