Authors: Catherine Coulter
Titles by Catherine Coulter
THE WILD BARON
THE WYNDHAM LEGACY
THE NIGHTINGALE LEGACY
THE VALENTINE LEGACY
LORD OF HAWKFELL ISLAND
LORD OF RAVEN'S PEAK
LORD OF FALCON RIDGE
THE SHERBROOKE BRIDE
THE HELLION BRIDE
THE HEIRESS BRIDE
SEASON OF THE SUN
To Stacy Creamerâ
A woman who loves her crazed career, does it very well, and never loses her enthusiasm. A woman who's honorable, bright, and a jock. And she likes my writing.
All my thanks, Stacy. I hope you and I are together until either you lose your passion for pounding the pavement or I expire over my computer keyboard. I'm happy. I'm happy.
E STOOD STARING
out the narrow window down into the courtyard of his castle. It was April, but spring wasn't much in evidence yet save for the wildly blooming heather that poked through the patches of fog to dazzle the eye with a rainbow of vivid purples. Scottish heather, like his people, would burst through rock itself to bloom. This morning, fog hung thick over the stone ramparts; thick and gray and wet. He could hear his people clearly through his window two stories up in the north circular towerâold Marthe clucking to the chickens as she tossed them grain, Burnie yelling at the top of his lungs at young Ostle, a new stable lad who was also his nephew. He heard bowlegged Crocker yelling at his dog, George II, threatening that he'd kick the shiftless bugger, but everyone knew that Crocker would kill anyone who even said a cross word to George. The morning sounded no different from any he'd heard since he was a child. Everything was normal.
Only it wasn't.
He turned away from the window and walked to the small stone fireplace, splaying his hands to the
flames. This was his private study. Even his brother, Malcolm, when alive, had kept away from this particular room. It was warm in the room despite the sluggish fire, for thick wool tapestries woven by his great-grandmother were hung on every wall to keep away the damp and chill. There was also a beautiful old Aubusson carpet that covered most of the worn stones on the floor, and he wondered how his wastrel father or his damned brother had overlooked the carpet; it was worth a good deal of money, he imagined, and could have provided at least a week's worth of gaming or wenching or a bit of both. So the carpet was left, and the tapestries, but little else of value. Over the fireplace on a nearly rotted tapestry was the coat of arms of the Kinrosses:
Wounded But Unconquered.
He was nearly mortally wounded. He was in very deep trouble and the only way out of it was to marry an heiress, and quickly. He didn't want to. He would rather swallow one of Aunt Arleth's tonics than marry.
But he had no choice. The debts incurred by both his father and his now-dead elder brother had left him bowed to his knees and nearly beyond desperate. He was the only one to be responsible, no one else. He was the new earl of Ashburnham, the seventh bloody earl, and he was up to his peer's neck in financial woes.
All would be lost if he didn't act quickly. His people would starve or be forced to emigrate. His home would continue to decay and his family would know nothing but genteel poverty. He knew he couldn't allow that. He stared down at his hands, still stretched toward the fire. Strong hands he had, but were they strong enough to save the Kinross clan from the gut-wrenching poverty that had been his grandfather's plight after 1746? Ah, but his
grandfather had been a wily man, quickly adjusting to a new reality, quickly ingratiating himself with the few powerful earls left in Scotland. He'd also been smart, not disdaining the smell of the factories; and he'd invested the few groats he could get his gnarly hands on in iron and cloth factories springing up in the north of England. He'd been successful beyond his wildest dreams. But he'd died like all men must. Luckily for him he died old and quite pleased with himself, not realizing that his son was a rotter and would bring Vere Castle back to its knees.
Hell, what was a wife anyway, he mused, particularly an English wife? He could, if he wished, simply lock her in one of the musty rooms and toss away the key. He could beat her if he found her proud and unbending. In short, he could do anything he pleased to a damned wife. Perhaps he would be lucky and she'd be as malleable as a sheep, as witless as a cow, as bland as the castle goats who were at their happiest chewing on old boots. Whatever she would be, he would deal with it. He had no choice.
Colin Kinross, seventh earl of Ashburnham, strode from the study room at the top of the north tower. The next morning he was on his way to London to find a bride with a dowry as great as Aladdin's treasure.
INJUN SAW HIM
the first time on a Wednesday night in the middle of May at a rout given by the Duke and Duchess of Portmaine. He was a good thirty feet from her across the massive ballroom, partially obscured by a lush palm tree, but it didn't matter. She saw him quite clearly enough and she couldn't look away. She craned her neck around two dowagers when he walked gracefully to a knot of ladies, bowed over a young one's hand, and led her in a cotillion. He was tall; she could see that because the lady came only to his shoulder. Unless, of course, the young lady was a dwarf, and Sinjun doubted that. No, he was tall, much taller than was she, the saints be praised.
She continued to stare at him, not knowing why she was doing it and not caring in the least, until she felt a hand on her forearm. She didn't want to look away from him, not now. She shook the hand away and walked off, her eyes still on him. She heard a woman's voice from behind her but didn't turn around. He was smiling down at his partner now, and she felt something deep and strong move within her. She walked closer, circling the dance floor, drawing nearer. He was no more than ten feet
away now and she saw that he was magnificent, as tall as her brother Douglas, and as massively built, his hair blacker than Douglas's, ink-black and thick, and his eyesâgood Lord, a man shouldn't have eyes like that. They were a rich dark blue, a blue deeper than the sapphire necklace Douglas had given Alex for her birthday. If only she were close enough to touch him, to set her fingers lightly upon the cleft in his chin, to sift through that shining hair of his. She knew in that moment that she would be perfectly content to look at him for the rest of her life. Surely that was a mad thought, but it was nonetheless true. He was well built; she wasn't ignorant about things like that, not with two outrageous older brothers. Yes, he had an athlete's body, strong and hard and tough, and he was young, probably younger than Ryder, who had just turned twenty-nine. A small, insistent voice told her that she was being a silly twit, to open her eyes, to stop this infatuated nonsense, for after all, he was just a man, a man like any other man, and in all good likelihood he was cursed with a troll's character to go along with his magnificent looks. That, or worse: He was a complete bore, or had no brain worth speaking of, or he had rotted teeth. But no, that wasn't true, for he just threw his head back and laughed deeply, showing beautiful, even, white teeth, and indeed, that laugh bespoke great intelligence to her discerning brain, a rich, deep laugh, just like his eyes, and weren't they intelligent? Ah, but he could be a drunkard or a gamester, or a rake or any number of other exceptionable things.
She didn't care. She just kept staring. A great hunger welled up in her, a hunger that spread into a great coalition of hungers she didn't understand, but she knew that he had put them there, deep inside her. Finally the cotillion ended and he bowed
over the young lady's hand, delivered her back into the bosom of her chaperon, and went to join a small group of gentlemen. They greeted him with loud and merry voices. So he was a man popular with other men, just like Douglas and Ryder, her brothers. The group went off toward the card room, much to Sinjun's disappointment.
Someone patted her bare arm again.
She sighed even as she turned to her sister-in-law Alex. “Yes?”
“Are you all right? You've been standing there as still as one of the Northcliffe Greek statues for the longest time. Before, I called to you, but you didn't seem to even see me.”
“Oh yes, I'm quite all right,” she said, and looked back to where she'd last seen him. Then she heard a man laugh and knew it was his laugh, pure and resonant. It filled her with warmth and excitement, and made that something deep inside her move again, move powerfully. She felt it to her toes.
No man could be the ideal of perfection that she'd bestowed upon him at first sight. No, it was quite impossible. She wasn't stupid or naive or a silly little debutante, not with two brothers so flagrantly brazen in their behavior and speech. He was probably a troll, at least on the inside.
“Sinjun, what the devil is wrong with you? Are you sickening with something?”
She drew a deep breath and decided to keep her mouth shut, which was quite unlike her. But this was too new, too uncertain. She grinned hugely. “Alex, I quite like her grace, the Duchess of Portmaine. Brandy is her nickname and she begged me not to call her that horrid name Brandella. Isn't that exceedingly clever to shorten Brandella in such a manner?” Sinjun leaned down close to
her sister-in-law's ear. “And would you just look at her grace's bosomâis it possible that she is more impressive than you? Of course, she is a bit older than you, I expect.”
Douglas Sherbrooke, not stifling his laugh, said, “Good Lord, do you think that age is a factor, Sinjun? A lady's years adding to her endowments? My God, by the time Alex is sixty, she wouldn't be able to walk upright. But this calls for a closer study of the duchess. On the other hand, I must point out, Sinjun, as your eldest brother, that it is most inappropriate for you to remark upon her grace's assets and Alex's lack thereof.”
Sinjun laughed at her brother's words and the look on his wife's face as he continued to Alex in a mournful voice, “I had thought you the most nobly endowed lady in all of England. Perhaps it is only in southern England that you hold that distinction. Perhaps it is only within the immediate vicinity of Northcliffe Hall that you lord it over other less worthy bosoms. Perhaps I have been taken in, perhaps I have been duped.”
His fond wife punched his arm. “I suggest that you keep your eyes and thoughts at home, where they belong, my lord, and leave the duchess and her endowments to the duke.”
“Just so,” the earl said, then turned to his sister, who looked suddenly different to his critical and fond eye. She hadn't looked at all different earlier in the evening, but she did now. She looked abstracted, yes, that was it, which was odd, very odd indeed. Sinjun was usually as clear as a summer pond, her thoughts and feelings clearly writ on her expressive face; but now he didn't have the slightest idea what was in her mind. It bothered him. It was like a hard kick from a horse he'd just turned his back on. He suddenly felt as if he didn't
know this tall, quite lovely young lady, not at all. He tried for neutrality. “So, brat, are you having a good time? This last cotillion is the only dance you haven't danced the entire evening.”
“She is nineteen, Douglas,” Alex said. “Surely you must soon stop calling her brat.”
“Even when she continues to play the Virgin Bride to torment my sleep?”
Whilst the two of them argued over the luckless sixteenth-century ghost of Northcliffe Hall, Sinjun had time to think and decide what to say. When they finished, she sidestepped her brother neatly, saying only, “No ghosting about for me, at least in London, Douglas. Oh dear, there is Lord Castlebaum with his fond mama. I had forgotten that he has the next country dance. He sweats dreadfully, Douglas, and his hands are wetâ”
“I know. He's also a very nice young man. But Sinjun,” he continued quickly, raising his hand to still her, “it doesn't matter if he were a very dry saint. You don't have to marry him. Accept his sweat and his niceness and simply try to enjoy yourself. Remember, you are here in London to have fun, nothing more, just to enjoy yourself. Don't listen to Mother.”
Sinjun couldn't hide her sigh. “Mother,” she repeated. “It's difficult, Douglas. She says I must hie myself to the altar or I shall be on the wretched shelf. This shelf is the dreaded Spinster Shelf, and she always says it in capital letters. She continues to list out all the shelf's incumbent horrors, including becoming Alex's drudge once Mother has cast off her mortal coil. She even remarked that I was getting long in the tooth. When I looked at my teeth in the mirror, I swear one of my molars had lengthened just a bit.”
“Don't listen to her. I am the head of the Sherbrooke family. You will enjoy yourself; you will laugh and flirt to your heart's content. If you don't find a gentleman to please you, it doesn't matter.”
His voice was austere and very lordly, and Sinjun was forced to smile. “I'm also nineteen, and that, apparently, is nearing a disastrous age for a girl to be yet unwed, and completely unacceptable for a girl not to have even one beau. She even points to Alex being eighteen when she wed you. Then she says that Sophie was lucky to have coerced Ryder into marriage, because she was nearly twenty and likely to be a lifetime spinster. Taking in Ryder, she claims, was the smartest thing Sophie ever managed. It is also my second Season. Mother says I must keep my mouth shut because gentlemen don't like ladies who know more than they do. She says it drives them to the brandy bottle and to gaming hells.”
Douglas said something crude and quite inelegant.
Sinjun laughed, but it was a sham laugh. “Well, one never knows, does one?”
“All I know is that Mother says a lot, too much.”
But even as Douglas spoke, clearly harassed, she saw the man in her mind's eye and she smiled, this one real, filling her eyes with warmth and dreams. She realized that her sister-in-law Alex was looking at her closely, and that her expression was puzzled. But she said only, “Feel free to speak to me anytime you wish to, Sinjun.”
“Perhaps soon. Ah, here's Lord Castlebaum, wet hands and all. But he does dance very well. Perhaps I shall discuss shelves with him. I will see both of you later.”
She stepped on Lord Castlebaum's toes three times in an attempt to find the man again. Later
she began to think that her eyes must have lied, that no man could be so immensely glorious to behold. But she dreamed of him that night. They were together, and he was laughing and standing close to her, touching his fingertips to her cheek, and she knew she wanted him and she was leaning toward him, wanting to touch him, and it was there in her gaze, all the wanting she had for him, and he saw it and knew it as well. The scenes softened and slowed, melding together into vague colors and intertwining bodies, and she awoke near to dawn, her heart pounding, perspiration lying heavy on her skin, and a moan in her throat. Her body felt languid and slow. There was a strange ache deep in her belly. She knew she'd dreamed the mystery of lovemaking, but only in blurred images. She had yet to solve the mystery, yet to know him, yet to be intertwined with him. She wished she'd discovered his name, for to be that intimate with a nameless man wasn't something she could accept.
She saw him the second time at a musicale at the Ranleagh town house on Carlysle Square three nights later. A very large soprano from Milan thumped the piano with her fist as her Viennese accompanist tried to keep his fingers on the trembling keys and mark a strong beat at the same time. Sinjun was soon bored and twitching with restlessness. Then, quite suddenly, she felt something strange sweep over her and knew, simply knew, that he had come into the room. She turned slightly in her chair and there he was. She sucked in her breath at the sight of him. He had just divested himself of a black cloak and was speaking quietly to another gentleman. He looked even more splendid to her than he had at the Portmaine ball. He was dressed all in black with a very white batiste shirt.
His thick hair was brushed back, a bit long for current fashion, perhaps, but to her, perfection itself. He was seated at a diagonal from her, and if she kept her profile toward the bellowing soprano, she could look at him as much as she wanted. The moment he was seated, he grew instantly still. She watched him remain perfectly still, even as the soprano pumped up her lungs and gained a ringing high C. A man with courage and fortitude as well, she thought, nodding to herself. A man with manners and good breeding.
Her fingers itched to touch that cleft in his chin. She saw that his jaw was strong and well defined, that his nose was elegant and thin and that his mouth made her want toÂ .Â .Â . no, she had to get hold of herself. The dream images mixed in her mind for a moment and she knew herself well lost. Goodness, it was quite likely that he was already wed, or betrothed. She managed a show of outward calm until there was, at last, an adjournment to the supper room.
She said in an offhand manner to Lord Clinton, a friend of Douglas's from the Four Horse Club, who had escorted her to dinner, “Who is that man over there, Thomas? The tall one with the very black hair? You see him, he's with those three other men who aren't nearly as tall as he is or nearly as impressive.”
Thomas Mannerly, Lord Clinton, squinted in the direction she was pointing. He was myopic, but the man in question did stand out, no question about that. The man was very tall and too well built for his own good, the bastard. “Ah, that's Colin Kinross. He's new to London. He's the earl of Ashburnham, and a Scot.” The last was said with a hint of disdain.
“Why is he here, in London?”
Thomas stared at the lovely girl at his side, nearly as tall as he was, and that was surely a bit off-putting, but he didn't have to marry her, just keep an experienced eye on her. He said now, carefully, as he brushed some invisible lint from the sleeve of his black coat, “Why do you care, Sinjun?” At her silence, he stiffened. “My God, he hasn't offended you in any way, has he? Those damned Scots, they're barbarians, even when they're educated in England, as he was.”
“Oh no, no. I just asked out of curiosity. The lobster patties are quite good, don't you think?”