Read The Dragon's Bride Online

Authors: Jo Beverley

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

The Dragon's Bride (8 page)

BOOK: The Dragon's Bride
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Hiding things.

Her chin went up slightly as she curtsied, and her eyes met his in a very unservile way.

Chapter Seven

Con saw immediately that Race was right. Her straight nose, square chin, and perfectly bowed lips did have that classical angelic look to them, especially with those clear eyes with smooth, arching brows. If Race had seen her at fifteen with her golden brown hair waving loose around her, he’d have thought he was seeing a heavenly vision….

“My lord?”

Dammit. Keep this businesslike.
He indicated the seat to his right. “Please sit down, Mrs. Kerslake. We have a great deal to discuss.”

She obeyed stiffly, clearly wary.

“Now, Mrs. Kerslake, explain to me how things have been managed here since the late earl’s death.”

He saw the slight relaxation. She’d been braced for something else. What?

“The sixth earl died suddenly, my lord, as you know—”

“Was there any inquiry about it?”

She stared at him, and her surprise seemed genuine. “Do you think it suspicious? He was constantly trying new ingredients.”

“Someone could have added a noxious herb if they had wished to.”

“But who? He entertained few guests, and never took them to his sanctum, as he called it. And,” she added with a direct look, “no one gained by his death but you, my lord.”

“Gain? This place, and a property peopled entirely by smugglers?”

“And the title.”

“I had a title. Many of us do not set such store on high rank.”

It was a jab and he instantly regretted it. Not because she flinched, but because it showed he remembered. Perhaps cared.

If it stung, she hid it well. “Ah yes, Viscount Amleigh, was it not, my lord?”

“And I assure you I was content with it. As for other suspects, people sometimes have concealed desires and angers.”

Her brows twitched, but it could be puzzlement as much as guilt. “His valet was with him when he prepared the potion, and when he drank it, and Fordham had been with him for thirty years. It is possible that some ingredient was not what it seemed, but the suppliers had no reason for mischief. They have lost an excellent and generous customer.”

She sounded completely honest about this. He didn’t even know why he’d taken that tack. He had enough problems without trying to create a murder out of nothing. “Very well. What happened after the death, Mrs. Kerslake? You had been acting as his assistant?”

She sat with a stillness that seemed all wrong for her—hands loosely linked in her dark lap, everything muted by white and gray until she seemed colorless. He had to concentrate to see that yes, her lips were slightly pink, her eyes hazel, her few visible curls that rich, complex brown. He’d always remembered her as vibrant, and despite the dark last night and dark clothes, she’d seemed so then.

Oh, yes. Susan was up to something.

“Yes, my lord.”

Yes, what, dammit?

His mind was full of other things, but he pulled it back into order. Her employment here. That was what they’d been discussing.

“And you became housekeeper after the earl’s death?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Why?”

She didn’t flinch. “The earl left Mrs. Lane an annuity in his will, and she wished to retire. She was over seventy, my lord, and suffered in her joints, but she would not go until there was a replacement to care for Crag Wyvern. So I took the position on a temporary basis. It is expected that you will hire a housekeeper to your taste now.”

“Did your aunt and uncle not object to your taking such employment?”

Her brows rose slightly. “I am past my girlhood, my lord. Since I haven’t married, I need occupation. I also need an income. My aunt and uncle are generous, but I cannot live forever on their charity.”

“Ah, yes, I remember that you were always ambitious.”

Another unworthy jab, and when she paled he almost apologized. But at the same time, the dark part of him wanted to see her flinch.

“Did your father not provide for you?”

She raised her eyes, but only as far as the silver teapot. He noted the delicate skin of her eyelids, the faint veins visible there, the dark line of her lashes. Her tense jaw. Did she want to let out honest, angry words?

He wished she would. He felt long overdue for a raging fight with Susan Kerslake.

“He purchased some property for me, my lord. It provides a small income.”

“Yet you felt obliged to work here?”

“I need occupation, my lord.”

“You should have married.”

“I have not received an offer that tempted me, my lord.”

“Held out for the Earl of Wyvern, did you?”

Look at me, Susan. I want to feed off every expression in your eyes.

As if he’d spoken, she did raise her eyes then, to fire a pointed, rather impatient look at him.

Ah, of course.
Focusing on his own turmoil, he’d ignored the larger picture. Bringing an outsider here would be very inconvenient for the smugglers. Putting someone local in charge, someone in sympathy with the Dragon’s Horde, had been the sensible action.

Why Susan, though? He couldn’t believe that the area lacked women able to give basic care to a house, even a grand one like Crag Wyvern.

Perhaps, he thought, controlling every reaction, the question was, Who was the new Captain Drake? Susan had been out with the smugglers last night, but being the daughter of the old Captain Drake wouldn’t entitle her to be there.

Being the lover of the new one might.

Hardly surprising if she’d followed in her mother’s footsteps and taken up with the smuggling master. Hardly surprising if she was playing housekeeper for his sake.

It was the most reasonable explanation he’d come up with thus far, and without knowing the man he wanted him dead. Or at least captured and transported to join Melchisedeck Clyst in Botany Bay. He’d see to it.

No, dammit, he would not. He would not become the sort of man to harm weaker rivals over a woman.

He took a moment to clear his head, then asked, “Are you willing to stay on until I make decisions about Crag Wyvern, Mrs. Kerslake?”

He thought she would refuse, but then she said, “For a little while, my lord. I thought to begin the search for a replacement.”

“Very well, but there is no need to seek a highly qualified woman. I do not intend to live here. I have a home elsewhere, and a family well suited there.”

“A family?” The words were followed by a flush of color, and a quick, mortified lowering of her startled eyes.

He could have crowed with triumph. That had stung her.

By God,
did
she have hopes of entrancing him after all? He’d like to see her try.

Oh, yes, he’d very much like to see her try.

He’d also love to claim a wife and children and make her wounds bleed. If he’d a hope of maintaining the lie he might have done it, but it wouldn’t stick.

“My mother and two sisters,” he said. “They would not like to move here.” But then he realized he had one blade that might cut deeply. “Also, I am to marry. Lady Anne would not be comfortable here.”

You have a rival, Susan.

A serious rival.

What are you going to do about that?

He had met Lady Anne only a few times in London, then spent four days at her father’s home, Lea Park. Nothing was settled, but he was thinking of making an offer of marriage. It wasn’t an outright lie, and Lady Anne was too good a weapon to leave in the scabbard.

Susan was guarded now, however, and little showed, though her widened eyes gave him a bit of satisfaction.

“It is not good for a house to stand empty, my lord.”

“I hardly think Crag Wyvern will appeal to many tenants.”

“Some people have unusual tastes, my lord,” she said with a slight, cool smile. “The earl had guests who liked Crag Wyvern very much indeed.”

The smile was an act of pure bravery that made him want to salute her.

Damnation, Susan. Why?

“Then please supply Mr. de Vere with their names, ma’am. They may have first refusal. I know that leaving the chief house empty is always an economic hardship to an area.”

Her brows rose, and her lips tightened, but it was a suppressed smile rather than annoyance, and it danced in her eyes.

“You’re thinking of smuggling,” he said. “Yes, at the moment the area is prospering from the Freetrade, but the end of the war is bringing hard times everywhere. On top of that, the army and navy have men to spare to patrol the coasts. That, I assume, is how your father was caught.”

Her smile fled. “Yes, though if the earl had raised a finger to help him, he’d not have been transported.”

“Remarkable that the mad earl for once did the right thing. The law is the law, and must be upheld.”

There, that was a clear enough message for her.

“If there’s any sanity in Parliament,” he went on, “duties will be reduced and smuggling will cease to be profitable enough to justify the risks. The change won’t come today or tomorrow, but it’s on the horizon, Susan. People hereabouts need to remember that they once lived by farming, and by fishing for something other than barrels and bales.”

“We know,” she said softly.

“We?”

“The people hereabouts.”

That was not what she’d meant. She’d meant herself and the new Captain Drake, damn his black soul.

And somewhere in that he’d called her by her name, which he’d resolved not to do.

Con stood abruptly. “The tour of the house, Mrs. Kerslake.”

She rose with controlled grace and led the way back into the faux-stone corridor, heading toward the kitchen area first.

There weren’t many surprises. He’d roamed this house as a youth and discovered most of its nooks and crannies. One startling new feature was a kind of drawing room off the great hall, plastered and painted in the modern style, furnished with spindle-legged chairs and tables.

“I persuaded the earl to have one room where conventional guests might feel more at ease,” Susan said, standing composedly beside him, smelling faintly of lavender soap. Not the right perfume for her at all. She should smell of wildflowers—and sweat, and sand.

“Did he have any conventional guests?”

“Occasionally, my lord. People will drop by.”

“How alarming. Perhaps that’s why he constructed a torture chamber. I’ve known drop-by guests I’d like to hang in chains.”

He intended it to be a joke but had forgotten whom he was with. When her eyes flickered to his, alight with startled laughter, he instinctively stepped away.

“Now I suppose we must tackle the upper floors,” he said. “Including a more thorough check of the late earl’s chambers.”

Her face was carefully blank as she turned to lead the way. “They are not particularly alarming, my lord, but in some disorder….” From the back he saw her slight shrug, which drew his attention to her square shoulders and then to her straight back.

Which he could remember naked …

Breathe, dammit, breathe. And listen
. She’d said something about disorder.

“I remember he didn’t like to leave Crag Wyvern,” he said as she led the way up the wide central stairs. Her long back seemed to point down, down to the full curve of her bottom, which was bewitchingly at eye level. He sped up to climb the stairs alongside her, housekeeper or not.

He ached for her now as if she were a fire on a freezing night in the sierra. But fire burned. Fire destroyed. Even a safe fire, built within stones, could harm. He’d seen frozen men ruin their hands and feet by trying to warm them too close to a hot fire.

“He never left here,” she was saying. “Certainly not as long as I’ve been aware of his movements.”

“Why not?”

“He suffered from a fear of the outside.”

“What did he fear out there?”

For Con, the danger was all within.

Could even fear enable him to resist the flaming power of Susan, especially if she was to stop, turn, approach, press, kiss, begin to shed her clothing … ?

She stopped, turned….

“He had nothing real to fear as far as I could tell. He simply feared being outside these walls. He was insane, Con. It was mostly in subtle ways, but he was insane.”

As insane as he was to imagine that Susan planned seduction! He gestured her to lead on and soon they reached the earl’s rooms. She unlocked a different door this time and they entered the bedroom, though it did not seem a precise term for the room he saw.

The bed was there, huge, hung with faded red hangings that were actually moth-eaten to holes in places. It sat in a jumble of other furniture, however, as if the earl had tried to make this one room into a house.

The red window curtains were drawn against the courtyard light, but the holes let in some light. As his eyes adjusted, he saw a large dining table with just one chair, an armchair, a sofa, a breakfront desk, and bookcases everywhere.

There were more bookcases than would fit around the walls, so many were the freestanding, rotating sort. All were full, with surplus books staggering on top. Con hesitated to try to move through the room, and for other reasons as well. The smell of musty books and vaguely noxious things hung heavily in the gloomy air.

Every surface was scattered with objects from riding crops to strange glass vials to stuffed animals. Con saw two human skulls, and not the neat, clean skulls found in anatomists’ collections. There were other bones, too, which he hoped were from animals. Some were small enough to even be leftovers from the earl’s dinners.

Presumably the crazy earl hadn’t eaten the body of the crocodile, however, leaving only the glassy-eyed head, or the rest of whatever had owned the black and leathery claw hanging from the cobwebbed lamp near the desk. The upper rail of the bed boasted a fringe of other dark and shriveled things.

Curiosity made him work his way through the room to have a closer look.

“Dried phalluses,” she said. “From as many species as he could obtain them. His most prized collection.”

Con stopped, then pushed his way to the window to drag open the heavy curtains. The right one tore in his hand, spewing dust and other things over him so that he coughed, and had to brush off his face.

Through sunlight swarmed with motes he faced her. “Did you really think of joining him in that bed?”

BOOK: The Dragon's Bride
12.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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