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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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She stared at him like a marble statue, and for a moment he thought she’d say a cold yes. But then she said, “No. I never came here before becoming housekeeper.”

It was damnably ambiguous. “Then why spend so many of your years here?”

“I told you. I needed employment, and it wasn’t easy to find. What’s more, this was interesting employment. The earl was mad, but his madness was fascinating at times. After all,” she added with a wry twist of her lips, “how many women in England have such an extensive knowledge of phalluses?”

It almost broke a laugh from him, and he looked away, at one of the two adjoining doors, the one that didn’t lead into the sanctum. “What’s through there?”

“His dressing room. Theoretically.”

Susan worked her way carefully through the clutter to open that door, feeling as if she were constantly working her way through chaotic and often rotten obstacles to try to reach some sort of understanding with Con.

She could not recapture the past, but did they have to clash like enemies? Wasn’t there at least neutral ground?

She stepped into the dressing room and stood aside for him. This room was blessedly clear of furniture other than two large armoires and the tin bathtub hung with draft-excluding curtains. The window curtains were open here, so the light was good.

She watched his reaction.

He stopped, staring at the figure hanging from the ceiling. But then he stepped forward and poked a finger into one of the flock-spilling gashes in the dummy.

A smile fought to show on her lips. Against logic she was deeply proud of the cool nerves formed in him by war. Against logic, a deep ache near her heart told her love still lingered in her. Love like a smoldering fire, threatening to burst into flame again.

Despite a growing longing to stay, she had to escape this place before she did something she would regret even more than she regretted the past.

He turned to a frame on the wall holding a number of swords and touched the blade of one with a careful finger. “Not ornaments,” he remarked.

“He told me he’d been a skilled fencer in his youth, but along with his fear of the outdoors, he feared anyone near him with a weapon. So he fenced with that.” She indicated the swaying figure that was suspended so that its feet almost touched the floor.

“Hanged by the neck?” Con asked.

She just shrugged.

“What a way to spend a life. There’s that Roman bath, however. How does that fit in?”

“He developed an obsession about physical cleanliness, and would spend hours in the tub. Then he had the idea of the larger one. He decided physical cleanliness was the key to a long life and good health, and also to fertility.”

“Zeus, that’s enough to give a bachelor a distaste for bathing.”

Their eyes met for a startled moment. She knew he too was thinking of the risk they’d so thoughtlessly taken eleven years ago.

Chapter Eight

“I was young and foolish,” he said, “and never gave the matter a thought. I hope …”

She wished she weren’t blushing. “Of course not. There would have been hell to pay.”

It was a delicate subject, but the wash of heat running through her skin was not only from that. Finally they were really talking about the past.

“That’s what I supposed.” He looked at her a moment longer and she held her breath, hoping for something that might weave a thread of connection, but then he looked around again. “Why haven’t these rooms been put into better order, Mrs. Kerslake?”

She suppressed a sigh and regrouped. “Anything likely to turn to slime has been thrown away, my lord. And of course they were inventoried. But apart from that, the earl stated in his will that everything was to be left for your disposal.”

“I hadn’t realized quite what that meant. Very well, dispose of that figure for a start.” He strode to the armoires and threw open the doors to reveal a collection of long robes. The drawers, she knew, contained a few suits of clothing, none younger than ten years.

“And get rid of this lot,” he said. “Give them to the vicar for the poor if they’re any use.” He walked back into the bedroom. “Have the extra furniture moved out of here. Is there still empty space in the floor above?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Then put it up there.” He looked at the bed. “Get rid of that. Burn that stuff hanging around it. And where the devil did he get those skulls from?”

“I don’t know, my lord.”

“I’ll talk to the vicar about decent interment. And about whether any graves have been disturbed around here. All these books can go to the library, though de Vere had better check to see whether there’s anything extraordinary about them.” But then he frowned. “He has enough to do. Is there someone else in the area who could organize and evaluate those texts?”

“The curate is a scholar and would welcome the extra income,” she said, enjoying seeing Con take command and issue crisp orders.

She might have enjoyed seeing him in battle except that it would have killed her, moment by moment, to watch him in danger. Bad enough to have known he was at war, to pick up each newspaper fearing to see his name.

She hadn’t been able to help following Con’s career through Fred Somerford. He’d entered the infantry. He’d made lieutenant, then captain, and once been mentioned in dispatches. He’d been at Talavera and wounded at the taking of San Sebastian—

Wounded!

—but not seriously.

He’d changed regiments three times to see more action.

Trying to pretend only polite interest, Susan had wanted to scream, “Why? Why not stay safe, you stupid creature?”

Her Con, her laughing gentle Con, had no place in fields of cannon fire and slaughter.

Yet it had made him the man she saw today….

He was opening and closing drawers in the desk, glancing at the contents. “The curate had better go through everything,” he said. “In fact, perhaps you shouldn’t get rid of the bed. Just the hangings and mattress. There’s a dearth of money in the coffers, so I can’t afford the grand gesture of throwing away solid furniture.”

Susan worked at keeping a bland expression but was jabbed by guilt. She remembered Con saying years ago that his branch of the family was the poor one. It had sprung from the first earl’s younger son, and what modest wealth the Sussex Somerfords had accumulated had been wiped out by royalist sympathies during the Civil War. Since then they’d lived comfortably enough, but more as titled gentlemen farmers than as members of the aristocracy.

Times were hard for farmers now, however, even gentlemen farmers, and the old earl had run the earldom’s coffers almost dry with his crazy pursuits. And she must try to take what little coin might be left….

One idea stirred. “What of the contents of his sanctum, my lord? The … specimens and ingredients. I believe some of them are valuable. Certainly the earl paid a great deal for them.”

He looked at her. “So I shouldn’t consign them to the fire? Hell. Is there an expert nearby who might be willing to organize the sale of them?”

“The late earl dealt with a Mr. Traynor in Exeter. A dealer in antiquarian curiosities.”

“Is that what they call them? Well, waste not, want not. Give the details to de Vere and he’ll summon Traynor. And the various peculiar objects in this room might as well be put in the sanctum for his assessment. Perhaps crocodile heads have mystic powers. We wouldn’t want to deprive the world of such valuable artifacts, would we?”

A smile was fighting at her lips as she glanced at the withered objects hanging around the bed. “And those?”

“By all means.”

But then he worked his way over to a sideboard and gingerly extracted something from under a pile of old magazines. It was a pistol. He carefully checked it, then tipped something out. The powder in the firing pan, she assumed.

He turned to her. “He feared invaders?”

“I don’t know, but he liked to keep in practice.”

“What did he practice shooting on if he never went out?”

“The birds in the courtyard. He was quite good.”

He turned to look out at the courtyard. No birds were flying now, but the busy chirping and twittering was audible. “Not so safe after all,” he murmured, and she wondered what he meant.

He put down the pistol and headed so quickly for the door that he bumped into a set of rotating shelves, sending it spinning and books tumbling.

“Hell!” He stopped to rub his thigh.

She hurried over to pick up the books, but he said, “Leave them,” and continued out into the gloomy corridor.

She followed, wondering what was suddenly so wrong.

“How many keys are there?” he demanded.

“Just two. Mine and the earl’s, which should have been sent to you.”

“A large bunch of keys, yes. I thought they were symbolic.” He pulled the door shut. “Lock it. We’ll let this Traynor loose on all of it before touching anything.”

As she turned the key in the lock, he spoke again, however. “Are there anymore firearms in there, do you think?”

“I believe he had a pair.”

She saw him brace to return to the room, and then give up the idea. “Before Traynor arrives, I’ll have Pearce check the room for danger. No need to accompany him, Mrs. Kerslake. You can trust him with the key.”

They were back to formality, when for a moment back there it had slipped. “Very well, my lord.”

Then he said, “You’d have married him to become Lady Wyvern?”

“No.”

“It never crossed your mind?”

Ah.

“I was a girl, Con.” All she seemed to have to offer him was honesty, tarnished though it was. “Yes, I thought of it, but I’d never met him. I’d hardly seen him. He was as mythological to me as a dragon. I sought the position as his assistant with the idea in the back of my mind. But then I learned that he wouldn’t marry anyone until he was sure they were carrying his child, and I could not do that. Which made me see that I could not be intimate with the mad earl before or after marriage. And that was before I saw that bed.”

“He demanded a trial marriage? Did he think to get a local lady to marry him that way?”

‘The local
un
-ladies were willing enough.“

“He would have married
any
woman carrying his child?”

“Apparently.”

“And no one fooled him?”

“He was mad, Con, not stupid. Any woman had to come here during her courses—and he checked to be sure it was real—and then stay here until she bled again. As you know, there are no male servants other than his valet, who was fanatically devoted.”

“The old goat.”

“They came willingly enough, and he gave them twenty guineas when they left. A handsome amount for simple folk. In fact,” she added with a distinct flare of mischief, “some may come up here hoping you’ll be interested, too.”

“Hell’s hounds! I’ll pay them twenty guineas to go away.”

“Don’t let word of that out in public.”

She thought he might laugh, but then he shook his head. “We should progress to the dungeon, I suppose, and get this over with, but I promised de Vere the treat.”

Con set off down the corridor, hoping it looked like a steady, well-ordered retreat, not the panicked flight it was. He believed her. She’d not seriously contemplated joining the mad earl in that bed, and yet the image haunted him.

She’d thought of marrying the old earl.

She was behind him. He sensed her even though she made no sound in her soft slippers—like a memory, or the ghost of a memory.

She’d only thought of it.

He’d thought of doing a good many things he was blessed not to have done. Suicide once, even. Only the thought of it.

He’d contemplated desertion once, too. In the early days before he became hardened to men and animals in agony, to causing men and animals to be in agony. For a few days it had seemed the only sane choice, and he’d planned how to go about it.

But then they’d come suddenly under attack and he’d fought to survive and to help his comrades survive. Somewhere in the process he’d committed himself to the fight against Napoleon and been able to carry on.

He’d almost raped a woman once.

He’d been with a group of officers drinking in a taverna in a Spanish village. It had been not long after battle, though he was damned if he could remember which one or anything else about the place. Blood had been running hot still, and they all wanted a woman.

Some of the women were willing, but a few were not, and their protests and attempts to escape had seemed amusing. Exciting, even.

He could look back at it now as if from the outside and wonder how he could have behaved like that, but he also remembered feeling a godlike ecstasy. That the women were his warrior’s due.

Pressing the struggling, sobbing woman down on a table with the cheers of the men and the wild Spanish music still playing …

His cock had been throbbing, jumping with eagerness and he’d had his flap half undone. Other hands had been helping hold her down.

But something in his mind had clicked. Some shard of sanity had shot icy reality through him.

He’d grabbed her up off the table and pushed out of the room saying something about doing this properly. Some had tried to stop him, but he’d fought free into the hot Spanish air and a touch of sanity, the woman still writhing and sobbing in his grasp.

He’d kept her in his tent all night and sent her off at dawn with some coins. Pausing before leaving, she’d asked, “Do you wish me to say that you can do it, Capitan?”

She’d thought the rescue was to cover up impotence. He’d managed to hold back wild laughter, and simply said, “Say whatever is easiest for you, seńora.”

He heard days later that she’d spread tales of heroic virility. He supposed she’d meant well, but it had made life damned difficult at times. He’d never spent a whole night with a woman since in case she expected a heroic performance.

So he could understand that sometimes people did things in a kind of temporary madness, or thought of them. And that consequences, even of well-intentioned acts, were unpredictable.

And that people were often not what they seemed.

As they approached the office door he turned to her. “What do you think of Mr. de Vere as secretary?”

Her brows rose. “It is not for me to make such judgments, my lord.”

“Drop the servant act, Susan. Do you think he’ll be snoozing, or sitting with his feet up enjoying a book of questionable pictures?”

“I did, but now I assume not.”

He opened the door to reveal Race, as expected, at the desk surrounded by stacks of paper and an aura of intense activity. He looked up impatiently and Con could almost see the words
Go away
coming out of his mouth, as in a satirical cartoon.

After a moment, however, he put his pen in the standish and stood.

“The records are in fairly good shape, my lord,” he said, even giving Con the tribute of his title in front of Susan. “But you know, there’s a great deal of money unaccounted for.”

Ah-ha! Con turned to Susan. “Any idea where it might have gone, Mrs. Kerslake?”

“No,” said Race. “I mean there’s a lot of money that’s appeared on the books out of nowhere.”

Con turned back to him with a look. “Smuggling.”

Race pushed hair off his forehead. “Oh, I suppose so. As I’m from Derbyshire, it doesn’t come first to mind.” He picked up a piece of paper to review it. “It must be a very profitable business.”

“It is.” Con glanced back at Susan. She had a rather fixed look on her face, as if she’d rather deny that such a thing as smuggling existed. “As the earl’s secretary in the past,” he prompted, “I’m sure you know something about his involvement.”

The look she flashed at him was almost a glare. “The earl invested in cargoes, yes, my lord. Most people hereabouts do.”

“And how much profit does a run make?”

With another irritated glance, she said, “About five times the investment, if all goes smoothly. There are always some runs that fail, of course, creating a total loss.”

Con saw Race’s eyes widen and said, “Remember this is illegal.”

“So are a great many interesting things,” Race replied. “Mrs. Kerslake, do you know the amount invested and raised on a good run? I ask only out of fascinated interest, of course.”

Susan suddenly relaxed and smiled—at Race. A relaxed, friendly smile that made Con grit his teeth.

She moved toward the desk. “It’s said that a cargo came in down the coast last year with a thousand gallons each of brandy, rum, and gin, and a quarter ton of tobacco. I hear that tobacco can be bought abroad for sixpence a pound and sold here for five times that. Spirits might be a shilling a gallon and six shillings here.”

Race bent to make quick calculations on paper. “Almost a thousand pounds from an investment of about a hundred and sixty. Lord above.‘”

She moved closer to look at his figures. “There are expenses, of course. The ship and captain, payment to the landers, tubmen, batmen, and for use of horses and carts. Everyone will expect a little of the goods to take home, too. On the other hand,” she added, “tea is even more profitable. Ten to one.”

BOOK: The Dragon's Bride
2.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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