Read The Dragon's Bride Online

Authors: Jo Beverley

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

The Dragon's Bride (7 page)

BOOK: The Dragon's Bride
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She had to get away.

How long would it take to hire a new housekeeper and make a dignified exit? Too long. Yet to flee was impossibly weak, and there still was the gold. She’d organized a complete cleaning of Crag Wyvern over the past few months and found nothing. The old earl’s hiding place must be obscure.

She left the room, locking it carefully, and went to her room to write a message to David. When he came up to see Con he could confirm that the run had been smooth. Then she would find a new housekeeper and make her escape, dignified or not.

Of course, where to go and what to do was another question entirely. Perhaps she should set off after her errant parents and head for the Antipodes!

As they went down a circular staircase, Race said, “I gather the lovely lady is out of bounds.”

Con hoped he hadn’t twitched. “Not particularly. As I said last night, you are free to woo her if it’s honorable wooing you have in mind.”

“Unlikely, but I might attempt an honorable flirtation if I’m not likely to feel your fist over it. She is the only good-looking woman in the place. The maid who brought my water was only one step more substantial than the skeleton in the corridor. This is a decidedly strange house.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” Con said dryly, and crossed the courtyard to the breakfast room. He paused to look at the fountain statue. The dragon, as over endowed as Saint George, was about to have its way with the clearly unwilling, naked sacrifice. Around the rim of the basin was carved
The Dragon and His Bride.

“I’ve never seen a dragon doing that with the traditional maiden before,” Race remarked. “Throws a whole new light on the story, doesn’t it?”

“I always thought Saint George’s lance was pretty suggestive, myself.”

“Especially the way pictures show him fondling it.”

Con laughed as he led the way through the open glass-paneled doors into the breakfast room. The furniture was the usual dark oak, but white walls lightened it, and the open doors to the garden were pleasant.

And he was laughing. He was suddenly grateful to Race for attaching himself to him and bringing laughter here.

“Remind me to show you the bath in my new rooms,” Con said as he sat down.

“The Chinese dragons too much for you?”

“The Saint George rooms have a very large, very interesting bath.”

“Ah. You and your baths. So what’s so special about this one?”

Con described it, and Race shook his head. “I’ve often wondered how those poor maidens felt about the price of rescue. I can think of a lot of heroes I’d not want to have to be grateful to. And what if the lady liked the dragon, and didn’t want to be rescued by a boring saint?”

The thin maid bustled in with a coffeepot in one hand and a chocolate pot in the other. “The rest won’t be long now, milord,” she gasped, and rushed out.

“Why would the lady choose the dragon?” Con poured himself coffee. “A hoard of jewels wouldn’t make up for being married to a monster.”

“Some women lust after monsters.”

“Then they deserve the monsters they get.”

Race’s eyes glinted with humor. “And those who choose saints deserve that fate, too?”

“Cynic.”

“I ask you, would you like to be married to a saint?”

For some reason, the image of Lady Anne Peckworth rose in Con’s mind.
Saint
was too strong a word, but she was gentle, kind, good, and devoted to practical charities to do with the education of children and the care of the old.

She was the woman he was probably going to marry. He’d certainly paid her enough attention in the past two months to give her reason to hope….

Two maids came in this time, blessedly interrupting his thoughts.

They unloaded laden trays onto the table. Neither maid was the one who’d come upon him naked. One was the skeleton, poor thing; the other was the older one from last night.

“Anything else, my lord?” the older one asked.

Con looked at the enormous amount of food on the table. “No, thank you. I think we can make do with this.”

The maids left and Con and Race shared a grin. “We could feed the regiment on this lot,” Race remarked, helping himself to a number of eggs and half the plate of ham.

Con speared a slice of beef on his fork and put it on his plate. “Trying to make a good impression, I suppose.”

“They’re succeeding.” Race spread butter lavishly on a roll. “So, who should a wise woman marry?”

“A good and boring man. Why are we stuck on the subject of women?”

“Something to do with the angelic Susan, I assume.”

Con looked at him sharply. “Why?”

“My dear fellow, tell me to button it if you want, but don’t pretend there’s nothing.”

Con evaded the question. “She’s the least angelic woman imaginable. She was out with the smugglers last night.”

“How splendid,” Race said, mopping up egg yolk with his bread. “As for angel, have you not realized she has the look of one of those Renaissance angels? Too beautiful to be a man. Too strongly featured to be a beautiful woman. Perfect, however, for angels, which are neither male nor female, but pure spirit.”

“I assure you, Susan Kerslake is entirely female and flesh.”

Con regretted it immediately, and wondered if he was going to have to kill Race to stop him from talking.

But after a moment Race said, “So, what orders for the day?”

Con grasped the change of subject with relief. “I plan a physical inspection of the place. Your mission is the old earl’s papers. The sooner I’m sure everything is in order here, the sooner I can leave, but it would be pleasant to pinpoint the leakage of funds as well.”

“What about the smugglers?”

“I’m curious about the earldom’s relationship with them, but otherwise we ignore them.” He saw Race’s mild surprise. “Race, smuggling is as much part of life here as the sea. If I put a stop to it people would starve. If I shipped every smuggler off to Australia, the coast would be empty. If there’s murder, extortion, that sort of thing going on, I might have to act. Otherwise we might as well try to rid the world of ants.”

“Right,” Race said, but looked surprised. Of course he was from Derbyshire, far from any coast. Con had grown up in Sussex. Not on the coast, to be sure, but close enough to understand smuggling ways.

“Start in the office, which is next to the library. The estate manager should turn up soon to fill in the details. I want a complete report of matters here over the past year. Make sure the accounts are sound.”

Race groaned, but Con said, “You can’t wait. Admit it.”

“You steal my little pleasures. I enjoy appearing to suffer.”

“Then I’ll make you spend your days squiring ladies around the shops, and your nights gaming.”

Race laughed. “Tortures of the damned. Dashed peculiar, though. If I’d suspected I had such a taste for paperwork, I’d have taken a nice safe job in London instead of marching around in mud and dust for years.”

“Heaven help London.” Con watched Race absorb another plateful of food, wondering where he put it. “How long am I likely to benefit from your peculiar tastes?”

“Until you bore me.”

“And I haven’t done that yet? I’m a pretty boring man.”

Race laughed, grabbing his serviette to cover his mouth. “Lord, don’t say things like that. You’ll kill me!”

Con leaned back in his chair. “I stick you in a quiet part of Sussex overhauling the antiquated administrative system of a minor estate, then drag you to this prisonlike place.”

Race took a clear breath. “Torture chamber, remember. And all those lovely papers.”

Con studied the curved handle of his coffee cup for a moment. “You aren’t by any chance playing the angel yourself, are you?” He looked up. “Guardian angel?”

Race looked back at him with perfect innocence. “Guarding you against what?”

Con almost answered, but then shook his head. “Clever, but no. I am not going to list possible answers.”

Race dropped his serviette on the table, seeming to drop his playful manner with it. “You were an officer I admired, Con, and you are a man I admire. But you were a different officer and a different man in the Peninsula than you are now. If I can help you find that man, I will.”

Con wasn’t quite sure what to do with this. “And here I thought I was giving you needful employment.”

“Employment is always nice.”

“There you go again….” But he might at least try to match honesty with honesty. “I’m not sure whether the Captain Somerford in the Peninsula was a better man, but whatever he was, he doesn’t exist anymore. If you start chipping at this dry shell you may find only dust.”

“Or a butterfly.”

Con burst out laughing. “A
butterfly

Race smiled. “There, see. I’ve made you laugh.”

“I laugh.”

“There’s laughter and laughter. Remember the pigs?”

Con couldn’t help but smile. “Piglets, Race. Piglets. What were there? Twelve? All tucked into the packs and jackets of men on the march. The company looked like a set of weavilly biscuits.” He straightened his face and frowned at his secretary. “If your aim is to turn me into the sort of man who’s always telling knee-slapping stories about army life, it’s a forlorn hope.”

“Talking of forlorn hopes,” Race said. “Remember Santa Magdalena?”

Con stood, pushing his chair back roughly. “Enough. Sometimes war knocks the heart out of a man. But it seems possible to live without a heart.”

Race stayed where he was. “Lord Darius is dead, Con.”

Dear God, in what maudlin moment had he given Race even a sniff of Dare?

“Isn’t that the problem?” Con said. “He’s dead. I feel grief over it. Grief and laughter do not go well together.”

“Sometimes they do. Is it grief, though? Or guilt?”

“I have nothing to feel guilty about. Dare played his part at Waterloo, and like so many others, he died.”

“Quite.”

“For God’s sake. What the devil are you up to? Why are you acting as clumsy surgeon?”

Race frowned slightly. “I have no idea. I think it’s this house. It worries me.”

“It damn well worries me, too. That’s why I’m going to do my conscientious duty by it, then put it into good hands and ride back to the sanity of Sussex. Can I possibly persuade you to do your part?”

Race grimaced, but without a sign of repentance, and rose. “Persuasion is hardly necessary.”

Wanting to argue with Race, or throttle him, or both, Con led him to the estate office, where most of the administrative papers should be housed.

Guilt.

Dare had been an old friend, one of the Company of Rogues, and a complete civilian. Con felt that he should have found a way to stop Dare from volunteering. When Dare’s ducal connections had won him a role as a courier, he should have prepared him better. He should at least have kept an eye on him, though the devil alone knew how when Con was fixed in his regimental position and Dare was hurtling around all over.

He should definitely, however, have done the final duty of a friend and found Dare’s body for decent burial.

In the cool part of his mind Con knew none of it was his fault, but most of his mind was not cool. Dare had come to represent all the death and suffering that had been Waterloo, and it hung over everything still.

He flung the door open. The estate office was a relatively normal room for Crag Wyvern, walled with orderly shelves and drawers, with only a solid oaken desk in the middle. The carvings on the desk didn’t bear close inspection—though Race, of course, sank to his haunches to inspect them, and laughed—and the ceiling was painted with a vision of hell, complete with imaginative tortures of the damned.

Race looked up at it. “Clearly whoever ordered that did not enjoy paperwork. But it does remind me that you haven’t shown me the torture chamber yet.”

“I’m holding the treat back as a reward for work well done.”

“Very well, what is my work?”

Con looked around the room, which would be a torture chamber to him. “Go through everything. Make sense of what’s happened here. Find any shady goings-on or anomalies.”

To him it sounded like ordering a troop to wade through a torrent, crawl through a swamp, and take a hill crowned with army guns, but Race smiled and said, “Right!”

By the time Con left Race had already shed his jacket and begun to go through the desk drawers.

Con shook his head and returned to the breakfast room.

Damn Race.
Perhaps he and Diego huddled in the evenings to share nursemaid reports!

So Waterloo had left him bleak. It hardly seemed an irrational reaction to monstrous slaughter including the deaths of many friends and colleagues.

And now he had scheduled an interview with Susan.

He felt as if he’d been ordered to wade through a torrent, crawl through a swamp, and take a hill crowned with army guns….

He rang the bell.

When the skeleton maid responded—he found out that her name was Ada Splint, which seemed somewhat unfortunate—he asked her to tell Mrs. Kerslake that he was ready.

As he waited, he poured himself more of the excellent tea, sure that it had carried no tax, and planned the best line of attack.

First, he would treat her as housekeeper. That was the role she’d chosen for herself. She’d doubtless intended to be gone before he made his announced arrival, but now that she was caught she could damn well live with it.

Next, he must find out what she was up to.

Unfortunately she wasn’t intending to seduce her way into the countess’s bed. Being housekeeper was no route to that, especially with the clothes she was wearing. Or at least, she would think that way. In truth, he suspected that she could seduce him in rags….

Ah, no
. He forbade his mind to go in that direction.

Third, he would never, ever, call her Susan.

He drank some of the cooling tea and made himself consider why she was playing housekeeper.

Something to do with smuggling, he was sure. The Crag’s horses were used by the Dragon’s Horde, of course, and doubtless somewhere below were caves or chambers used for storage. Was that it? Was she simply guarding the Dragon’s Horde’s territory?

Susan came in from the corridor then, encased in her gray and white, blankly unreadable.

BOOK: The Dragon's Bride
5.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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