Read The Dragon's Bride Online

Authors: Jo Beverley

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

The Dragon's Bride (6 page)

BOOK: The Dragon's Bride
13.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Until now. Until here, with Con back marked in ways she would never have wanted him marked, but still Con. If she’d not been so willful, if she’d let herself love and be loved, might he still be the gentle, laughing person she’d once known?

He’d seen himself as Saint George, warrior against evil, but at some point he’d had a dragon tattooed on his chest.

She stood, and planning a route that would avoid any possibility of bumping into him, she hurried to the Saint George rooms.

Chapter Six

The Saint George rooms were decorated in a vaguely Roman style, with a mock mosaic floor and classical white linen draperies. The picture of George and the dragon was a fresco that took up most of one wall in the bedroom. This wasn’t the first time that she’d come to look at it.

Saint George did look a little like Con, but now the saint looked softly unformed in comparison to the hardened warrior. He held his upright lance in an elegantly curved hand that seemed incapable of strength and violence. Con had touched her once last night, to pull her to her feet, and his hand had been hard and strong. The saint’s cocked-hip stance seemed more feminine than masculine. There had always been a grace to Con’s movements, but they were strong and direct, and now they were devastatingly, completely masculine.

The dragon was not dead. It reared up behind the saint, its head horned like a devil, the fainting virgin sacrifice chained to the rock behind it. Fangs and forked tongue were visible at the slightly open mouth. It was truly an evil dragon, and she wanted to shout to the stupid Saint George to look behind him—

The door opened, and she whirled to look behind.

Con stopped as if frozen, and perhaps a hint of color touched his brown cheeks. “I’m sorry. Are you using these rooms now?”

She knew she was red, and her mouth felt sealed by dryness. She made herself speak. “No. I have the housekeeper’s rooms below. I… I was—”

“Don’t lie.” It was said flatly. “There was something special between us, wasn’t there?” He came over to look at the picture, but carefully distanced from her. “I was an arrogant young ass to see a resemblance, though.”

“No! No, you weren’t.” It was pointless to think she could soothe his pride after all these years, but she couldn’t help it. “The first earl stood as a model for it, you know.”

“I suppose that might account for it then.” He turned to her, and there was even a hint of humor in him. “Though I’m not sure I want a resemblance to the Demented Devonish Somerfords.”

A hint of humor only, like the promise of sun on a heavily overcast day.

She wanted to ask why he was here, but she knew. For the same reason she was—a pilgrimage to the past.

She wanted to ask why he’d had this evil dragon etched into his skin.

But she knew—because of what she’d done to him in the past.

Most of all, she wanted to ask if there was any way to undo the hurt at this late date.

But no. The wounds she had inflicted must have healed and scarred over long since. Scars, like tattoos, could not be rubbed away. There was no bridge back to sweet yesterdays.

And anyway, she realized, she was here to find the mad earl’s stash of gold for David and the Horde. It was by rights the Horde’s money, and desperately needed, but Con wouldn’t see it that way. He’d see only a new, fresh betrayal.

Unless the run had gone smoothly.

It was a glimmer of brightness. If the run had gone as perfectly as she thought, then the Horde wouldn’t truly need the money. She wouldn’t have to betray Con again….

There’d been too long a silence between them, and she was in danger of saying all the wrong things. To break the moment, she moved to open a nearby door in the wall. “There’s been an innovation since you used these rooms.”

Seeming calm, he strolled over and looked into the room. “A Roman bath?”

“Yes.” She led the way across the short stretch of tiled floor and up the steps so they could look down into the huge mosaic bath. She hadn’t thought about the picture, just about getting away from that other one.

Now she was blushing because the picture on the bottom showed a hugely endowed Saint George, identified by his helmet, which was all he wore, about to impale a woman who was presumably the rescued princess.

Rescued? She was still bound to the rock with iron chains and obviously struggling to escape her fate.

“Physically impossible,” Con remarked, “or a bizarre form of murder. I’m not sure this bath is possible either. Are the taps functional?”

“Of course.” She walked around the wide rim to put the width of it between them. “There’s a cistern in the attics with a furnace below it. It takes time to heat the water, but the bath can be filled.”

“Ah, I see the drain too. What an interesting anatomical position for it.”

A laugh escaped her before she caught it, and their eyes met for a moment across a space both physical and temporal.

He looked away. “Where does it drain to?”

The tiled walls gave the room a slight resonance, and she felt that her pounding heart should be audible too. When he wasn’t looking at her, she was drinking in the details of him, of his manly beauty so unlike—so like— the youth.

“Out of a gargoyle’s mouth,” she said, “and down on anyone who happens to be below.” She pointed to a gilded chain. “It’s polite to ring that bell first.”

He looked around at the mosaic walls, where even the stylized trees were subtly phallic and gave tantalizing glimpses of other lewd activities. “Did my dear departed relative use this facility much?”

“Now and then, I gather.”

“Alone?”

“I don’t think so. It is rather large for one.”

He looked at her, completely the earl. “I wish to move into these rooms, Mrs. Kerslake. I’m very fond of baths. See to it, if you please.”

She almost protested. Having him in the Saint George rooms was too close to the past, and she hated to think that he’d changed so much that he liked this lewd display.

But she said, “Of course, my lord.”

Whoever he was now, however, she didn’t want him sharing this bath. With Diddy, for example. As they left the room she tried to establish some rules. “I run this house in a respectable manner, my lord. I hope you will not use that bath in any lewd way.”

“Are you trying to dictate my conduct, Mrs. Kerslake?”

“I believe I have a right to concern myself with the welfare of the servants, my lord.”

“Ah, I see. But if I were to bring in ladies—or others—from outside to share my bath, you would have no objection?”

She met his eyes. “You would be exposing the servants to impropriety.”

“And they have not been so exposed before?”

‘Times have changed.“

“Have they?” He let it linger, then added, “And if I do not obey your dictates, Susan, you will do what?”

It was a neatly decisive blow.

The only possible retaliation was her resignation, but she couldn’t leave Crag Wyvern just yet.

At her silence, one brow rose. There was a hint of humor, a lot of triumph, but also speculation. She didn’t want him thinking about why she needed to stay.

She headed for the door. “I believe your breakfast will be waiting, my lord.”

“I believe my breakfast will wait for me. There have to be some privileges of rank. Show me the late earl’s rooms.”

She wanted so desperately to escape, but she wouldn’t simply be running from time spent with Con. She’d be fleeing the dream-memory friend of her heart. Her first clumsily wonderful lover. The youth she’d deliberately hurt. The man he had become.

More urgently, she’d be fleeing the dragon, coiled, patient, and the embodiment of silver-eyed peril. With a horrified glance back at the huge picture she saw that though the color of the saint’s eyes was impossible to tell, the dragon’s eyes were silver-gray.

“Mrs. Kerslake?” he prompted with a hint of authority.

She gathered her wits. “As you wish, my lord. They are next door so the earl had easy access to the bath.”

She had to control her wretched reaction to him. If he felt anything at all for her it was anger. And yet… and yet he’d admitted he’d come here for the same reason as she, and that there had been sweetness between them once….

She realized she’d almost walked past the first door to the Wyvern rooms, and stopped to unlock it. The key seemed to fight her about going into the lock, probably because Con was standing close beside her. She could swear she felt the heat of his body. She could certainly detect a faint but recognizable smell.

She’d not thought people had such a powerful individual smell, but even though he’d bathed, there was something, something in the air that carried her straight back to a naked tangle on a hot beach, and a youthful, muscular chest she had nuzzled and kissed again and again.

Stop it!

The key jerked home and she turned it, then thrust the door open, blessing the stale, pungent air that swamped sweeter memories. These smells—herbal, chemical, and the lingering hint of vomit—were all of the old earl. She walked briskly to fling open the window.

“He died here?” Con asked, as if he could smell death. Perhaps a soldier could.

She turned to face him, safer now that the large desk and wide worktable lay between them. “Yes. The room’s been cleaned, of course, but otherwise left untouched. Some of these scrolls and books are valuable. Some of the ingredients, too.”

The walls were covered by mismatched shelves stuffed higgledy-piggledy with texts, jars, bottles, and pots.

“Only to another of his kind.” Con strolled over to inspect a shelf of glass bottles. “Was he pursuing alchemy or chemistry?”

“Alchemy, with a touch of sorcery thrown in.”

He turned to look at her. “Trying to turn lead into gold?”

“Trying to turn age into youth. He was seeking the secret of eternal life.”

“And he died at fifty from drinking his own nostrum. How ironic. We are generally a long-lived family, barring accidents. My father succumbed to influenza, my brother to a careless moment on the water. My grandfather was thrown from his horse at seventy, and had the misfortune to land on his head.”

For some reason she was clutching the windowsill behind her as if needing a tether to sanity. “He was afraid of death, and afraid of meeting his ancestor, the first earl.”

“Why?”

“He had no heir. He was the one to let the Dragonkiller’s line die out.”

“He should have married.”

She didn’t explain the mad earl’s ways. She couldn’t talk about things like that with Con.

He settled his hips against the desk, long, lean, hard, and still dueling with her. “How do you know so much about him? You only came here after Mrs. Lane left, didn’t you?”

She was reluctant to admit the truth, but it was common knowledge. “I was the earl’s assistant for three years before that.”

“Assistant?” he queried, and she could see he was thinking the worst.

“I copied old documents, did research, and found sources for his ingredients. I was a kind of secretary.”

“My, my, you were keen to become countess, weren’t you?”

She gripped the sill behind her more tightly. “I was his secretary, and I took the job because I wanted employment.”

“The manor threw you out?”

“Of course not. I preferred not to live on charity anymore.”

“And this was the only employment available?”

Why was she even trying to explain? But burdened by so many things she couldn’t explain away, she would try to avoid guilt over this.

“It was the only employment locally for someone like me. A Miss Kerslake of Kerslake Manor could hardly be hired for menial work, and the offspring of a smuggler and a whore is not desirable for polite occupation. The earl offered me the position, and I took it.”

“Did he offer your brother the position of estate manager, too?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

She hadn’t considered the question. “I assume my father suggested it.”

“And the earl did as Mel Clyst suggested?” A slight smile of disbelief touched his lips.

“They had an agreement.” After a moment, she added, “Smuggling, Con.”

“Ah.” He pushed off from the desk. “You can tell Captain Drake—I assume you know the current Captain Drake—that there will be no agreement.”

“Con—”

His sharp, angry look silenced her, but then the moment was broken by an outsider.

“Good Lord, what is this?”

Con’s secretary sauntered in like a spring breeze into a stale cavern. Lissome, she thought, with his light, lithe body and soft blond hair. But no angel. Every inch of him denied angel.

Snatched from an entirely different existence, for a moment she couldn’t remember his name. He smiled—a speculative, knowing smile. “Racecombe de Vere, ma’am, at your service. My friends call me Race.”

Susan dropped a curtsy. “Mr. de Vere.”

She realized then that she had never once curtsied to Con.

De Vere’s lips twitched and charming humor glinted in his eyes. He was a lady-killer, but he was having no effect on her except a slight irritation—and huge relief that he had interrupted.

“What is this weighty atmosphere I sense?” de Vere asked.

“Equal parts witchcraft and exasperation,” Con said. ‘This was the old earl’s lair. He was completely barmy, and killed himself with some brew that was supposed to give him eternal life.“

“Does he haunt the house?” de Vere asked, clearly thinking this a treat.

Con looked at Susan, so she said, “Not that anyone has noticed. Surprisingly, Crag Wyvern has no ghosts at all.”

“That’s because the torture chamber victims are made of wax.”

“Torture chamber!” declared de Vere, eyes bright. “Con, you best of good fellows. Let us go there immediately.”

“If you want to be stretched on the rack, we can do that later.” Con seized the younger man’s elbow and marched him to the door. “For the moment, I gather that breakfast is waiting.”

At the door, however, he looked back. “After breakfast I want a complete tour, Mrs. Kerslake, and most of your time throughout the day. Also, make sure your brother is available with the estate records.”

He didn’t wait for a response, which was as well, as she didn’t have one except a shiver that made her fold her arms and rub herself. Even when fighting, even when a third person had been present, they’d talked to each other in a ghostly reminiscence of past intimacy. As if they alone were real in an unreal world.

It was the other way around. The world was real and Susan Kerslake and Con Somerford were phantasms, ghosts of two young people from a summer so long ago, two people who no longer existed except in memory.

But ghosts could carry a potent aura. His friend had sensed it, and he was the sort to make trouble.

BOOK: The Dragon's Bride
13.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Eden Close by Shreve, Anita
Star Fish by May, Nicola
Destiny by Mitchel Grace
Falling in Love Again by Sophie King