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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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Susan bit back cold, angry words, knowing they’d be far too revealing. With a bit of prompting some of the local people might remember that she and Con had been … well, whatever they had been.

Friends. They’d been friends.

People would remember that meeting between Con and Captain Drake in the George and Dragon. No one knew what had been said, but enough guessed. Most thought it had been a youthful love affair, though no one seemed to think they’d gone as far as they had.

Who would think it? A young lady of the manor, even if a bastard, and a young gentleman of Crag Wyvern. Simple people persisted in thinking that the higher orders had less fleshy desires than they, even in the face of evidence to the contrary such as Lady Belle and Mel Clyst. And the old earl taking any youngish woman who was willing to his bed.

People would soon realize that the new earl was Con Somerford, that likable lad who’d hung around the village soaking up any story a body wanted to tell, and who’d spent dunamany hours on the cliffs with Miss Susan. He’d made a good impression, and thus haunted her for years after with the villagers’ talk about “that young man of yours, Miss Susan.”

It would start again.
Fancy the earl being that young man of yours, Miss Susan.

How was she to bear it?

All around her, the women chattered and giggled about the naked earl, while she remembered the sight of him in the window earlier. She’d assumed he was wearing drawers, but now she knew he must have been stark naked. Despite logic it made that moment freshly embarrassing.

Or freshly stirring.

“Lovely body on him,” Diddy was saying, relishing being the center of attention. “Good hard muscles, and no really bad scars …”

Yes, thought Susan. The sleek youthful body had grown and hardened to perfection. Wide shoulders, just enough muscle.

No really bad scars? There were scars?

Of course there were.

“Got a tattoo on his chest, though,” Diddy said. “Can’t say as I like that on a man.”

So it hadn’t been a freak shadow of the half-open window.

“A dragon it is. Not like the Chinese ones. I rather like those ones…. I know!” Diddy exclaimed. “It’s like the one in the Saint George bedroom! Nasty old beast. Could be taken right off the walls there, it could. Coiled all around his …” Diddy circled her own large right breast.

Susan smelled burning and turned sharply. Ellen was watching Diddy, slack-mouthed.

“The toast’s burning,” Susan snapped, giving the girl a slap to the head, which she regretted immediately.

Ellen started to cry as she pulled the charred bread off the fork and grabbed a fresh slice. “I’m sorry, ma’am!”

Oh, Lord.
She’d had little sleep last night, what with having to be sure the contraband was well settled down below, and then Con rattling in her mind like a spiked ball. But she shouldn’t be taking it out on poor Ellen.

Susan rubbed the girl’s cap for a moment. “I’m sorry. But watch the toast, not Diddy’s boobies.” She turned to the rest of the room. “Enough of this shameful talk. This is a decent house now. There’ll be no goings-on, do you hear?”

Everyone hurried back to work, but Diddy said, “He be Earl of Wyvern, b’ain’t he? And he thought about my offer. I saw him. So there.”

Susan was sure he had. Diddy was plain, but she had a ripe body, a huge, generous curving of breasts and hips. She had plenty of suitors, and the only reason she wasn’t married already was that she had an eye to bettering herself.

Diddy’s ways weren’t responsible for the churning inside Susan, however, or for her surge of bad temper. Nor was tiredness. “Heaven knows why the earl is awake so early,” she said, “but we’ll have a good breakfast ready for him. Get to work. Whatever he might desire.”

Diddy chuckled.

Susan swallowed a retort and retreated to her rooms. There she sat, hugging herself.

It wasn’t Diddy.

It wasn’t even the thought of Con and Diddy.

It was the dragon.

If Con Somerford had a dragon tattooed on his chest, a dragon like the one in the big picture of George and the dragon in the Saint George rooms, it was all her fault.

Chapter Five

They’d talked about his name, George, and why he didn’t use it. She’d heard about the other two Georges—Van and Hawk—and how they’d chosen their names.

All three had been born within weeks around the time the French were imprisoning their king, and so all three boys had patriotically been christened George. They’d been born into neighboring families, too, and grown up as close friends, so the name became a constant confusion.

Eventually they’d sat down to sort it out. They’d all wanted to be George, not for the king but for the saint who slew the dragon. To them the dragon represented all the evil in the world, and Saint George was the perfect hero. They’d discussed drawing lots, but in the end they’d decided that if they couldn’t all be George, none of them could. Instead they’d take names from their surnames.

George Vandeimen had become Van, George Hawkinville had become Hawk, but George Somerford had balked at the sissy name Somer. Instead he’d taken Con from his middle name, Connaught.

She remembered how she’d drunk in the stories of his close friends. Growing up at Kerslake Manor, she’d had her cousins for friends, but there were no other suitable young ladies nearby, and her cousins, though very sweet, were not mates for her adventurous soul. David was more in tune with her, but he was a brother, and two years younger.

Con had been the first true friend she had known, the only friend of instant, perfect connection. In her imagination, his friends were her friends.

The Georges, as Con had called them. Or, sometimes, the triumvirate. Con, Van, and Hawk.

He also had friends in the Company of Rogues, a group of friends at Harrow School. Twelve new boys gathered by a boy called Nicholas Delaney and formed into a band for protection from bullies—and for creative mayhem.

Fourteen good friends in all.

Riches beyond her imagination.

Yet all that happiness was now shadowed by that tattoo.

Con had loved the story of Saint George and the dragon, and all the dragon stories at Crag Wyvern. Though he had no high opinion of the Devonish Somerfords, he was thrilled to share the blood of a possible dragon slayer. He and his brother had been put in the Norse rooms together, but once he’d found the Saint George rooms he’d asked to move.

One day he’d sneaked her into Crag Wyvern and up to his room, to study the picture on the wall. Strangely, there had been no trace of awareness that they were together in his bedroom. That had been on the seventh day, before things changed.

“The George looks like me, don’t you think?” he’d said, eager expectation in his eyes.

She looked at the saint, so covered in Roman armor, swirling red cloak, and huge crested helmet that it was hard to see him at all. She knew what friendship demanded, though. “Yes, he does. He has your square chin. And your cheekbones.”

“I might be Con,” he said, “but in my heart I’m George, defender of the weak and innocent. I’ll defend you, Susan, if ever you are threatened.”

“I’m not weak and innocent!” she’d protested, with a disgust that made the older Susan wryly smile.

He’d been so flustered, apologizing and protesting at the same time, that they’d fled outdoors again, where everything seemed so much simpler.

She remembered thinking that he might like her to call him George, but it hadn’t seemed to fit him. He was Con, steady, fun-loving, beautiful Con. But in the aftermath of lovemaking, she’d said, “My George,” and he’d kissed her and said, “Forever.”

She could still remember that moment, perfect as a diamond set in gold. Lying in his arms in the warm shade of the cliff, seabirds calling, waves chuckling around nearby rocks.

It wasn’t what they had just done. It was that she’d found her person, the one she would be with all her life, the one from whom she would never want to part.

She’d known they’d have to separate for a while. They were young. People would make them wait. But they were joined for all eternity. And the perfect final detail was that her Saint George, her hero, her friend, would also one day be Earl of Wyvern.

She would be Lady Wyvern, queen of all she knew.

It had never crossed her mind that Con wasn’t the older son. He had been as tall as his brother, and both stronger and more vigorous. Fred Somerford had even been painfully shy, and only at ease when talking about boats.

So, all through those magical days as she had fallen in love with Con, she’d fallen in love with a vision of the future.

She wouldn’t be Lady Belle’s bastard daughter, always being told how kind it was of Sir Nathaniel and Lady Kerslake to treat her and David as part of the family.

She wouldn’t be a person who didn’t really belong.

She would be Countess of Wyvern.

It would be perfect retribution for all those people who treated her and David as not quite members of local society, who discouraged their children from spending time with them, who watched constantly for misbehavior.

She would be Countess of Wyvern. She would belong without question, and everyone—everyone!—would have to curtsy and smile to her. And she’d take David into respectability too, so he could go anywhere, do anything. Marry an heiress. Become a grand lord himself if he wanted.

No one would be able to look down on them again.

So she had lain there in his arms, sure of complete perfection.

“I don’t know when I’ll be back,” he said, stroking her, looking at her body as if it was a wondrous mystery to him.

She was looking at him the same way. What they’d done had hurt a bit, and she was sure there was more to it, but still, it had been the most magical thing she could ever imagine, and she wanted to do it again.

There was the danger of catching a baby from him, but if it happened it might not be so bad. They’d have to marry immediately then, wouldn’t they?

“Don’t be long,” she said, tracing a pattern in the dusting of sand on his chest.

They’d had enough thought to spread their clothes beneath them, but some sand had still stuck on their skin.

“It might not be for a year. I don’t see how I can bear it.”

“A year?” She shifted so she could look at him. “You could ask to come back sooner than that.”

“With what reason?”

She’d kissed him. ‘To see me?“

He smiled. “I don’t think anyone would be impressed by that. They’ll say we’re too young.”

“Say you want to learn more about your future estate then.”

He blinked at her, lashes clumped, dark hair stuck to his temples by sweat. “It’s not my future estate. It’s Fred’s.”

She could remember, even now, the sick, aching coldness that had swept through her. “He’s younger than you,” she’d protested, already knowing it was stupid, that he wouldn’t lie about such a thing.

“Perhaps he looks it, but he’s thirteen months older. Sorry I’m not the heir?” He said it lightly, teasingly confident of a laughing denial.

But she’d been shivering as if they’d been tossed from August to November. It wasn’t just that he wouldn’t have Crag Wyvern, that he was a younger son who’d never be a lord. He didn’t belong here. He didn’t belong back in Sussex at Somerford Court. He didn’t belong
anywhere
any more than she did!

If she married him she’d have to go wherever he went, rootlessly with the army, or moving from parish to parish as a curate’s wife, when all she’d ever wanted, above all other things, was to belong.

Here.

She’d given her maidenhead to Con to seal him to her. She’d seduced him. He hadn’t been unwilling, but he’d never have done it if she hadn’t taken the first steps. She’d done it to claim her place here at last, and instead she’d thrown her fate upon the waters, to be swept wherever the wind blew.

What if she was with child!

Looking back, she couldn’t understand that girl. Why hadn’t she seen that Con would have been her place, her security, her stability in the world? Perhaps she’d been misled by his gentle nature, his ability to simply enjoy life, and not thought him dependable.

If so, she’d badly misjudged what lay beneath.

She’d only been fifteen, though. What fifteen-year-old made subtle judgments about these things? Few sealed their lives with their folly, however.

No wonder parents protected their young from their very youth.

The light, the confidence, had faded from his face, and she had wanted to kiss him, to say that of course she didn’t mind that he wasn’t the heir. She could remember that. Remember feeling sliced into two parts, the part that loved Con Somerford, and the part that had gambled all to be Countess of Wyvern.

The lightness had gone entirely, and he said, “Susan?”

She’d wanted him so much, ached for him, the friend of her heart, that she’d only been able to leave harshly. She’d pushed away from him, grabbing her shift to cover her nakedness, to fight off the chill.

“Yes, I’m sorry you’re not the older brother. I want to be countess. Nothing less will do.”

Perhaps she’d hoped saying it like that would make it make sense. She had tried to add an apology, but eleven years later she still winced at its inadequacy: “I’m sorry.”

He had simply sat there, naked, beautiful, the shock of betrayal stamped in every line of his face, so she’d tried once more. “You’ll be glad when you think about it. You don’t want to be tied to the bastard child of a smuggler and a whore.”

It had been a mistake. She’d seen the spark of hope, the beginning of argument, so she’d clutched her clothes to her and fled, but not before shouting, “I don’t want to see you again! Never speak to me again!”

And he’d obeyed.

If he’d come after her then, or sought her out in the remaining few days, if he’d argued with her, perhaps she would have seen sense. But being Con, he’d taken her at her word, and she’d not seen him or heard him speak again until last night.

Her heart had been shattered, but in a twisted way that had strengthened her will. Her mother had followed her heart and her desires into a shameful union, causing all Susan’s problems. Lady Belle could have married well. She’d been courted by half the county, including the earl himself.

Instead she’d followed her stupid heart to a tavern in a fishing village, and even if Mel Clyst was Captain Drake, that didn’t coat her shame with glory in the eyes of most of the world.

Susan would
not
be the prisoner of her desires like her mother. She would not ran up to the Crag to sneak into the Saint George rooms to find her own George and beg him to forgive her. She would not send the letters she wrote to him after he left.

Looking back, she was awed by the steely will of that fifteen-year-old, able to crash every instinct in order to pursue a goal of being a grand lady instead of a charity case.

Hand over her mouth, she swallowed tears. She thought she’d forgotten better than this.

The fifteen-year-old had ruthlessly tried to scrub Con from her mind. With age had come wisdom, and then regret, but she had still worked at forgetting. It was done and couldn’t be undone, and she’d felt at times that she might bleed to death if she let herself think of it.

She should have known it hadn’t worked. For eleven years, every rock and plant and insect had reminded her. Irish Cove was intolerable. She’d never been there since.

But she’d thought she’d buried it all deeper than this.

She’d let two men seduce her solely to drive the memory of Con from her flesh. That hadn’t worked either, not even Lord Rivenham, a skilled rake, who’d given her all the pleasure she’d expected, and still failed to dissolve the sweetness of that clumsy time with Con.

Fixed on her goal, she’d even tried to attract the attention of Con’s older brother, Fred. After all, she’d given up heaven for Crag Wyvern, so she had to have it or her sacrifice would have been for nothing.

She could look back now and thank God that Fred Somerford had not been looking for a wife. Imagine meeting Con again after all these years as his sister-in-law.

She’d realized eventually that the prize was worthless tinsel, but it had been far too late. She’d dreamed sometimes of finding Con and trying to heal the wounds, but amiable Fred had visited a few times a year and brought news, so she’d known that Con had gone abroad with the army not long after leaving her, and was rarely home.

For some reason, his being out of England had made him even more lost to her. Even so, she’d written letters over the years to Ensign, then Lieutenant, then Captain George Connaught Somerford, letters she’d torn up and burned.

She’d known all about Con’s career because Aunt Miriam had encouraged his brother, Fred, to visit the manor as often as he wished. It was partly true kindness, but also because she had two daughters and a niece, and why shouldn’t they end up as Countess of Wyvern as well as any other young woman?

She remembered the time, at a family dinner, when Fred had produced a miniature that Con had sent him, done in his new captain’s uniform. It had passed from hand to hand. Susan had watched it circling toward her with a mix of unbearable anticipation and terror.

Once in her hands it had stolen her breath. She’d had to pass it on before she’d had nearly enough time to absorb it.

She’d desperately longed to snatch it, hide it, steal it.

He’d been twenty-two when the picture had been done, the square chin stronger, leanness making the high cheekbones more pronounced. Following regulation, his hair had been powdered, seeming to emphasize his dark-lashed silvery eyes. He’d been smiling, however, and she’d genuinely rejoiced that he might be happy, might have forgotten her entirely.

But he had still been at war. Weakly, she’d checked the obituaries and casualty lists, praying never to see his name.

Through too many sleepless nights she’d relived the moment of decision, imagining what might have happened if she’d followed her weak heart instead of her strong will. They’d only been fifteen. No question of marriage unless she’d caught a child which, thank the Lord, she had not.

As a younger son Con would have needed a profession, but perhaps he would have chosen differently for her sake. Been safer. At the least she would have been with him, even following the drum.

It had been a pointless, painful circling that she’d tried to block, but which had often sucked her down, especially if she woke in the gray middle of the night. Over the years, however, it had become almost a fantasy, the people no longer quite real—people she knew rather than a person she had been. That had drawn its fangs.

BOOK: The Dragon's Bride
3.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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