The wind rattled the cottage windowpanes, the pale sun presiding over a day that seemed endless to the young woman who writhed upon the bed. As the next contraction hit in a hard wave, Carrie Trewithan clutched her fingers across her distended belly and was unable to stifle a sharp cry.
The midwife hovered over her, patting a cool cloth to Carrie’s perspiring brow. “There, there, dearie. Try to hold on. ’Twill all be over soon enough, I’ll be bound.” Sarah gave her a broad toothless smile, but the fear in the old woman’s eyes was unmistakable.
Something was going terribly wrong this time. Carrie had labored hard for seventeen hours, all through last night, the morning and into the afternoon, longer than she’d ever done before, and still no babe. She sank back weakly against the pillows of the rough wooden bedstead, her lank brown hair tumbling about her. She couldn’t endure much more of this. She could feel her strength fading with each fresh wave of pain.
I’m going to die, she thought, closing her eyes tight to stem the flood of tears. Not for herself but for the helpless little ones she’d be forced to leave behind. The new babe if it lived and her other children, Janey, Tom, Sam, and Aggie. What would become of them with no mother to look after them?
Lost in the haze of her own misery, Carrie was only vaguely aware of Sarah moving away from the bed to whisper fiercely to someone attempting to enter the room. No doubt little Tom, crying again, wanting his mama. Lord knows, Carrie didn’t want any of her children seeing her this way. It took a great effort, but she turned her head to deliver a gentle admonishment, her eyes fluttering open. Her breath caught in her throat instead.
It wasn’t Tom. A man filled her threshold, carrying with him the powerful scent of crisp autumn air. His broad shoulders were draped in a caped greatcoat that fell to his knees, casting a dark presence like the specter of death itself.
Carrie stiffened in fear as the stranger stumped closer, his heavy boots ringing off the floor in an uneven gait. But before she could cry out, he stripped off his cloak and beaver hat, passing them to Sarah. The light filtering through the dirty windowpane fell full upon his face. No hideous spectral features but those of a mortal man. His wind-tossed black hair and heavy dark brows appeared too harsh for the pale hue of his countenance, the alarming lines of his hawklike nose at odds with the sensitive cast of his mouth. But one glance at him was enough for anyone to tell. This was a good man, a kind one, his strength tempered by gentleness.
Carrie’s fear evaporated in an awed sigh of relief.
“Oh, Dr. St. Leger,” she whispered. “You—you came.”
“Aye, Carrie.” He smiled down at her. He had a quiet smile, a mere half-quirking of the lips that marked him as a man who did not easily give way to mirth. He scolded gently, “Why on earth did you not send for me sooner?”
“ I should not have sent for you at all. I—I have not much money—”
“Hush. That’s not important.”
As he drew up a chair close to her bedside, Carrie moistened her lips, rushing to finish her explanation before the next wave of pain robbed her of breath. “ ’Tis only that it has gone on so long this time and—and it hurts so bad and I’m so tired—” Her voice broke on a dry sob. “You’re the only one who can help me, Dr. St. Leger. The only one.”
“And so I will, Carrie. Everything is going to be all right now.” His voice was soothing, filled with such quiet conviction that she believed him, even though she knew that her husband, Reeve, would be mighty angry with her for daring to summon the local doctor.
She should have been frightened to have done so herself. He was the youngest son of the dread lord of Castle Leger, Anatole St. Leger, a man rumored to be descended from a sorcerer. It was whispered that all St. Legers had a bit of the demon in them.
But she saw no demons in Valentine St. Leger’s solemn features. Rather he had the eyes of an angel, warm, compassionate, full of the knowledge of human suffering, because he knew what it was to suffer himself. She panicked a little as the next contraction started to build, but she felt his strong hand close over hers.
“Don’t be afraid, Carrie. Just look at me and hold on tight,” he said.
Her breath hitched in her throat, but she struggled to do as he asked. She gripped his hand and stared deep in his remarkable eyes, a rich velvety shade of brown. And at the touch of his palm against hers, something strange began to happen. First it was a mere tingling, then a warmth that slowly spread up her wrist like a golden liquid rushing through her veins. The terrible pain began to ebb.
She saw the doctor’s mouth tighten as though all her suffering was being drained from her into him. It was what everyone in the village whispered he could do, work this inexplicable magic, but Carrie had never fully believed it until now.
She knew she was in the throes of another terrible contraction, but she felt nothing, her eyelids growing heavy, deliciously drowsy. She lost all track of the minutes that she had counted with such agonizing precision before. From some great distance, she thought she heard Dr. St. Leger’s strained voice rapping out orders to Sarah, commanding Carrie herself to push. She felt a rush of warmth between her legs followed moments later by a tiny cry.
“God be praised,” Sarah seemed to sing out from a hundred miles away.
Carrie merely smiled like one floating in the mists of a dream. When she finally felt able to open her eyes again, something nestled in the crook of her arm, something soft and wriggling. Still half-dazed, Carrie peeled back the blanket to see that it was a babe, a little girl.
Like a sleepwalker jerked awake, reality sank in. She had just been delivered of a daughter. She was worn to a thread; she already had four other children she scarce had the strength to care for. Ah, but this new little girl of hers was such a miracle, so healthy, so perfect, and Carrie was still here to cradle the babe in her arms. Tears of joy trickled down her cheeks.
She turned to thank the angel who had seen her through this ordeal. But like the mysterious St. Leger that he was, the good doctor had already disappeared.
The road leading to Castle Leger wound uphill, a narrow track half lost in the purple haze of twilight. But the roan gelding moved with a sure step, a fortunate thing for his master was scarce alert enough to guide him.
Barely able to remain upright in the saddle, Val St. Leger hunched over, his bleary eyes struggling to focus on the road ahead. Exhaustion melted into the very marrow of his bones. He felt as drained as if . . . as if he’d just endured three hours of agonizing labor to bring forth a child?
Val’s mouth crooked in a tired smile. He’d wager there were few other men who could lay claim to such a feat. He would never make his mark in the world as a soldier, a brilliant artist, or a great statesman. But his strange St. Leger gift offered him at least one distinction. He knew firsthand how much pain had to be endured to give birth and he could only marvel at the strength of women to continue populating the world. Especially Carrie Trewithan.
The poor woman had been constantly with child these past seven years if one counted her miscarriages. Val had warned her oaf of a husband that Carrie’s frail body needed time to recover. It had been a miracle that she had survived this last pregnancy, and while she had fought to bring their child into the world, Reeve Trewithan had been off drinking at the Dragon’s Fire Inn, boasting about his potency. The man was notorious for neglecting his family, staggering home only when he felt the itch to drag his wife into bed.
Val would have to have another word with Trewithan tomorrow. A word! Val felt his hands tighten on the reins. He wanted to thrash Reeve Trewithan senseless. It was what his brother Lance would have done. But such behavior was not to be expected from the village doctor and a crippled one to boot.
An old injury had left Val with a permanent limp and his bad knee was flaring worse than usual tonight. Already tired from battling his own pain, it had not been the wisest thing, taking on Mrs. Trewithan’s suffering as well. But what else could he have done? Val thought, remembering Carrie’s hollow eyes, the desperation in her voice.
“You’re the only one who can help me, Dr. St. Leger. The only one.”
How often had he heard that plaintive refrain from too many suffering souls? The memory of pleading eyes, beseeching cries haunted him even in his sleep, pursued him in his waking hours. Unconsciously he attempted to spur Vulcan onward as though he would outride the persistent voices. He paid at once for the inadvertent movement. A stabbing pain shot through his knee.
Val gasped, drawing in several sharp breaths until the pain subsided to a dull ache. And it had made no difference to Vulcan. The horse continued to plod along at his own steady pace. There had been a time in his youth when Val had been able to spend a hard day in the saddle and then battle at swords with his brother half the night. A time when he had been able to handle the most spirited hunters in his father’s stable.
But remembering could only stir up bitter thoughts and regrets. Grieving over all that he had lost was something Val never allowed himself to do. He kept such dark emotions tamped deep down in the secret corner of his soul where they belonged.
As Vulcan rounded the next bend, Val was heartened, some of his weariness dissolving at the sight of his destination. A thick line of oaks obscured the newer portion of Castle Leger, but the battlements of the old keep soared above the trees. Even after so many centuries, the main tower still pierced the sky. The chamber had been the private refuge of the first lord of the castle, Prospero St. Leger. In that weathered turret the wily sorcerer had worked his black spells, tampered with the strange alchemy that had eventually brought about his downfall, condemning him to be burned at the stake.
A fairy tale, some might scoff, but Val had researched enough of his family’s past to know that it was all true. Both history and legend were mortared into the stone walls of Castle Leger, tales of valor and tales of magic.
How often his heart had swelled at the sight of those towering ramparts as he’d galloped home at twilight, Lance leading the way with Val following at a more sedate pace. He had always been the more cautious twin, the scholar, the dreamer. It was difficult to ride full tilt when his head was so stuffed full of books and romantic fantasies, imagining himself to be a bold knight returning to the castle astride his fiery steed to kneel at the feet of the beautiful lady who awaited him. He’d never been able to envision clearly her face, only the gentleness of her smile, the sweet glow of her eyes, her white slender arms reaching out to welcome him home.
That had been before he’d grown up enough to realize there were few professional prospects for a knight in the nineteenth century. Far more sensible to dream of becoming a doctor. And it was just as well, Val sighed, flexing his tired, aching muscles. He would have never been anyone’s idea of a bold knight, Vulcan was no fiery steed, and as for the lady . . .
There would never be a lady. At least not for him.
And yet there was someone waiting at the crest of the hill. A woman. Her willowy figure was draped in a scarlet cloak, the hood flung back, her hair spilling like a rippling shadow over her shoulders. The dying rays of the sun framed her in a brilliant burst of gold, dazzling Val’s eyes, stirring in him remembrance of the lady he’d conjured in his boyhood dreams.
He blinked hard, wondering if his exhausted eyes were playing tricks on him. Or perhaps his romantic imagination wasn’t as dead as he thought it was. He leaned forward eagerly as he drew nearer, only to slump back, smiling at his own idiocy as he recognized who it was.
It was certainly no lady. It was only his young friend Kate, the adopted daughter of a distant relative of his, Elfreda Fitzleger. When she spied Val, the girl let out a loud whoop and came tearing down the hill, her skirts hiked up to a scandalous level.
“Blast it, Kate, slow down,” Val roared out.
Either she didn’t hear him or, far more likely, she paid him no heed. She only picked up momentum, her gypsy black hair streaming behind her. Val reined in Vulcan, fearful that in her recklessness, the girl would dart directly into the horse’s path.
Val held his breath, expecting at any moment that she would lose her footing and come tumbling the rest of the way. He’d already lost track of the number of skinned knees he’d bandaged and the bones he’d reset for Miss Kate over the years.
But somehow the little hoyden made it down the steep track in one piece. Val let out a breath of relief as Kate fetched up beside the gelding’s head, holding on to Vulcan’s reins, panting and laughing from the sheer exhilaration of her mad dash. The horse gave a joyous whicker of recognition, nuzzling her ear.
Kate’s laughter was pure silver, so infectious Val had trouble maintaining a stern façade as he frowned down at her. “Katherine Fitzleger. Have you quite taken leave of your senses?”
“Very—very likely,” she gasped out. Fully recovering her breath, she marched around to stand by his boot. A rosy flush spread across cheeks that were still tanned from the summer. Kate found bonnets a great nuisance.
She smiled beguilingly up at him. “What have I done now to make you look so cross?”
“What have you done! Merely come plunging down that steep hill when it is already nearly dark. You could have fallen and broke your neck.”
“But I didn’t.”
“What are you doing out here anyway?”
“Waiting for you.”
“Alone? In the dark.”
“In the nearly dark,” she corrected him. “Besides, what could happen to me even if it were midnight? No one would dare trifle with me on St. Leger lands, not even an accursed Mortmain. And you drove off the last of those villains years ago.”
So Kate persisted in believing, imagining Val to have performed some heroic action on that occasion. If Rafe Mortmain had been banished from Cornwall, it had been owing more to Lance, Val thought. Val had succeeded only in nearly getting himself killed.
“It doesn’t matter how close we are to the castle,” he continued to scold. “You should not be wandering off alone anymore. You are a young lady—well, at least a young woman—now.”
“You’ve finally noticed,” Kate purred, fluttering her long thick lashes in a way that disconcerted him. If it had been anyone else but Kate, he might have imagined she was attempting to flirt with him.
“Yes, I’ve noticed, and no doubt so have many of the young lads hereabouts. If you persist in jaunting off alone . . .” Val paused, clearing his throat uncomfortably, trying to find some delicate way to explain his fear to the girl. “You could be—could be—”
“Raped?” Kate filled in bluntly.
“I was going to say subjected to some very unwelcome attentions.”
“Pooh! I’d like to see any man try it. It would be the sorriest day of his life, especially when I have this.” Kate groped beneath her cloak to the bulging inner pocket. With a triumphant flourish, she unsheathed a small flintlock pistol, which she brandished at Val.
Val jerked back involuntarily, startling Vulcan. “Sweet mother of God, Kate! Put that thing away before you hurt yourself.”
“It hasn’t been loaded . . . yet.”
Val tightened his grip on the reins, leaning forward to give Vulcan’s neck a soothing pat. As soon as the animal had quieted, Val extended his hand toward Kate. “Give me that infernal weapon. Right now.”
All she gave him was a serene smile as she lifted up the flap of her cloak and tucked the pistol back in her hidden pocket. “You needn’t fret, Val. I didn’t steal it or anything. The pistol is mine. It was a present from Lance.”
Val seldom swore, but he did so now, muttering under his breath. His brother had always been amused by Kate’s wild ways, encouraging the chit to don breeches, climb trees, even learn how to fence. But giving Kate a pistol. Had Lance entirely lost his mind?
As soon as he reached Castle Leger, Val intended to seize his brother by the cravat and tell him—Tell him what? Val snorted. Lecturing his incorrigible twin was about as useful as lecturing the kitchen cat. Or Kate.
Unperturbed by his reaction to her gift, she struggled to mount in front of him, the perch she had claimed from the time she’d been a little girl. Val had no choice but to haul her up. Bracing against the inevitable pull on his knee, he hefted her into the saddle. Not a difficult task. She was still a slip of a thing. Sometimes, it seemed to Val, she had not grown much taller since the orphaned girl had first arrived in Torrecombe ten years ago, all knobby knees and wide, defiant eyes.
She settled against his thighs, wrapping her arms about him, causing him to flinch when she brushed her fingers against his neck. Her hands were ice cold. Kate had, as usual, seen fit to dispense with her gloves.
“Now, you were saying,” she said, assuming a meek expression as though she meant to heed every word he had to say. But it didn’t work with Kate. There was too much fire sparkling in her storm gray eyes, too much mischief lurking in her bow-shaped mouth, too much stubbornness stroked into her delicate chin.
Val gave over the scolding with a resigned laugh. “Ah, Kate, Kate, whatever am I to do with you? You worry the devil out of me, girl.”
“You don’t have any devil in you, Val St. Leger.” She proceeded to rain enthusiastic kisses across his face, hitting his brows, his cheeks, his chin and coming perilously close to the corner of his mouth.
“Stop that,” he growled, struggling to get her to desist and still maintain his grip on Vulcan’s reins. “When are you going to learn to behave yourself?”
“When are you going to stop fretting over me?” She subsided with a final peck on his nose. “I can take care of myself and you, too. If any villain ever threatens either one of us, I’ll turn him into a warthog.”
“Now, Kate, you promised me. No more of that kind of talk.” Val pulled back enough to peer down at her anxiously. “Er, you haven’t been meddling with any more of that—that—”
“Witchcraft,” Kate filled in with a wicked waggling of her brows. “How could I after you took away that fascinating book I found?”
“And just as well I did, after what happened. You actually had old Ben Gurney believing that you could cast some sort of spell on his pig.”
“A love spell. And what a charming couple they would have made.” Kate chuckled but stopped immediately at Val’s frown. She peeled one hand away from him long enough to raise it solemnly. “Val, I swear to you, since then I have not been attempting to practice any more magic upon the unfortunate people of Torrecombe.”
“Good,” he said, relieved by her earnest reassurance. It wasn’t that he feared that Kate actually could instruct herself in the black arts. The book he had taken from Kate had been mere superstitious nonsense. Casting spells was not even an ability any of the St. Legers had ever possessed, unless one placed credence in all the old tales of Prospero’s sorcery. Most of Kate’s antics thus far had been harmless, but given the girl’s penchant for making mischief, it was as well that she left dabbling in the occult alone.
She was looking deceptively angelic at the moment. Hugging him tightly, she nestled her head against his shoulder with a contented sigh. Val stiffened a little, knowing he ought to discourage this. Kate truly was too old to be flinging herself at him in this fashion, too old to be waiting for him at the roadside and running to be lifted onto his horse.
He could make her promise not to do it anymore. For all her madcap ways, Kate had a strong streak of honor. She’d keep her vow. But even knowing it would be for the best, he couldn’t bring himself to extract such a pledge from her.
He was far too glad she’d come, too glad of the warm feel of her cuddled close, revealing that gentler side of her nature the restless Kate reserved for him alone. He deposited a brotherly kiss atop her curly dark head, some of his exhaustion seeming to evaporate merely with the fresh, sweet scent of her hair.
Arms stretched around Kate, he urged Vulcan into motion again, and the old horse set off at a very sedate walk as though aware of the precious burden he carried. Kate mumbled against Val’s shoulder, “All right, I suppose I should have waited for you tamely by the parlor fireside. But you know how impatient I get and you were taking so long. Where have you been all this time, Val?”
“Tending to a patient, my dear.”
“Old Mrs. McGinty?”
“No, Carrie Trewithan. I delivered her of her child, another daughter.”
“But the Trewithans usually summon the midwife for that. Why did Carrie need to have you—”
Kate broke off, her head jerking up from his shoulder to study his face, her eyes far too keen and accusing. “Val! You used your power again, didn’t you?”
He shrugged, but didn’t attempt to deny it. Kate knew him too well for that, and no doubt the haggard set of his face spoke for itself.
“Damn it, Val. You know you—”
“Don’t swear, Kate.”
“—shouldn’t have been messing about with your power again. It’s wearing you to a shadow and—and it’s dangerous!”
“Dangerous,” Val scoffed. “My father’s power to fling a man across the room with one flash of his eyes is dangerous. My brother’s ability to separate his body from his soul and go drifting through the night is dangerous. My power to absorb pain is pretty tame by comparison.”
“So tame that it already cost you the use of your leg.”
Val flinched. The one time he’d lost control of his power had cost him more than his leg. It had nearly cost him his brother as well. He and Lance had been estranged for a long time after that grim day on the battlefield in Spain, a rift that had been mended only in recent years. Val didn’t care to be reminded of that dark period in their lives and Kate knew that. But she never minded her tongue when she was angry or distressed, and she was clearly both at the moment. Val had assured her many times before that she did not need to worry so much over him, but he mustered his patience to do so again.
“Kate, I promise you I am very careful now about how and when I use my power. Today, I simply had no choice.”
“That’s what you always say.”
He smiled at her and said, “This time it happens to be true. I verily believe Mrs. Trewithan might have died if I hadn’t helped her. She simply had no endurance left. She was never that strong and her body is purely worn out from birthing children.”
“Because that husband of hers is a disgusting lecher. Reeve Trewithan should be castrated, his pecker whacked off with a red hot knife.”
“I forgot. Innocent young ladies aren’t supposed to be aware of such things. But you know I have never been all that innocent, Val,” she added rather sadly.
Few details were known of Kate’s childhood before her adoption, but it was obvious she had learned far too much too soon about the darker side of life. Whatever Kate remembered of those grim days, she had chosen to forget, but at times Val glimpsed a world-weariness in her young eyes that brought an ache to his heart. He tenderly eased her head to rest back against his shoulder.
They rode in silence, their bodies rocked together by the gentle pace of old Vulcan. But Kate could never allow any discussion to lapse until she had the final word.
“I’ll tell you one thing, Valentine St. Leger. Whenever I am with child, I won’t allow you to bear my pain. I’ll be strong enough to handle it all myself.”
Val was hard pressed not to laugh at that. The notion of his wild Kate becoming anyone’s wife, anyone’s mother was—was—
Not as absurd as he wanted to believe. Val felt his smile fade, knowing that time was approaching faster than he wished. Kate would sally out into the world and find herself a strapping young husband, begin a family of her own. It was only natural and right, yet it filled him with an inexplicable melancholy.
Val strained her close the rest of the ride home. Without any prompt- ing from him, Vulcan carried them to the stable yard behind Castle Leger’s newest wing, an imposing Georgian manor that seemed mismatched to the old fourteenth-century keep.
The quadrangular block of stables at Castle Leger was nearly as impressive as the house. On the ground floor were enough stalls to accommodate more than twenty hunters, mares, and carriage horses; the spacious tack room; and the coach house itself with its wide doors. Above were the hayloft and sleeping quarters for the army of grooms and stable hands.
The yard was quiet this time of evening, with Tobias, the plump head coachman, lolling on a bench, smoking his pipe. But at Val’s approach, two of the burly young grooms darted out, nearly colliding in their efforts to help Kate down from the saddle. Val frowned, finding their overeagerness surprisingly annoying.
It scarce mattered in any case. Kate dismounted after her own fashion. Before Val could remonstrate, she had squirmed out of his arms and managed to slide to the ground in a flurry of skirts. Val suppressed a deep sigh. Just once, it might have been nice if he could have leapt down first and lifted her out of the saddle.
But his blasted leg was so stiff, he was fortunate he didn’t disgrace himself by falling flat on his face in his struggles to alight. The impact of his boot striking the ground jarred his knee as he’d known it would. All he could do was grit his teeth and brace himself for the stab of pain.
He clung to the stirrup for a moment to steady himself. Kate unstrapped his ivory-handled cane from the saddle and handed it to him as practically as any medieval woman would have reminded her knight that he needed his sword.
But then Kate was well accustomed to his infirmity, Val reflected. She had never known him to be any different, had no recollection of when he’d been able to stand as steady and strong as any other man. That thought had never saddened him before, but tonight, for some odd reason, it did.
As Vulcan was led off to the stables, Val tried not to rely as heavily on the cane as he usually did. Ignoring the ache in his knee, he offered Kate his arm to escort her toward the house.
She seized hold of his hand instead, attempting to tug him in the opposite direction. “Please, Val. Must we go in just yet?”
Val regarded her in mild surprise. “I fear I am already overdue, and you know how my father is about dinner being served on time.”
“It is not that late yet. Please, Val. We could go take a stroll in the garden.”
“The garden.” Val gave an incredulous laugh. “In the dark and the cold?”
“The moon is rising and it is only a wee bit chilly. And I have not seen you all day, nay scarce all week. I just want us to have some time alone. Oh, please, Val, please.”
She tugged more insistently at his hand, peering up at him through the thickness of her lashes. He was tired, his knee was aching like the very devil, but Val had never been proof against that look, perhaps because Kate rarely ever begged favors of anyone. She was far too proud.
It was no longer appropriate, their spending so much time alone with each other, but the truth was, he had greatly missed her company himself this past week. And their time together was growing so short. . . .
He acceded to her request, allowing her to lead him up the worn path that led to the gardens, a rustling wilderness of flowers and shrubs lit by the half-moon that hung like a broken locket in the dark night sky.
The current head gardener had labored all summer to lay out neat paths, rows of hedges that would border tidy flower beds. All to no avail. To Edmond’s deep frustration, the plants rebelled against such man-made order, their tendrils shooting out, growing sweet and wild to reclaim the walkways.
Perhaps, like so much else at Castle Leger, the garden possessed its own kind of magic. It had been planted during the time of Cromwell by Deidre St. Leger, a young enchantress who had possessed the startling power to coax seeds out of the ground, their flowers blossoming almost overnight. Her life had been cut tragically short, and to Val the garden still whispered of her sorrow, the last roses of the season dropping their petals along the path like a carpet of velvet tears.
The winters were so mild in Cornwall, even along this rugged section of coast, that something always remained in bloom. But the crowning glory of Deidre’s garden, the magnificent arbor of rhododendron trees, would not begin to bud again until February. The barren branches made the garden seem to Val a rather bleak place for a stroll on such a raw autumn eve.
He compelled Kate to don her gloves, while he himself tugged up the hood of her cloak as he had done from the time she had been a little girl.
“This is hardly romantic, Valentine,” she complained.
Romantic? Val’s eyes widened in surprise. There had been a time when his Kate would have never thought of such things. Whenever he’d read aloud to her from the King Arthur tales, she always insisted he skip over those “sticky sweet” love passages between Guinevere and Lancelot, go straight on to the exciting parts where heads were being lopped off with swords.
At times she still appeared the same madcap hoyden she’d always been. At others, Kate seemed to be changing too much, too fast. She peered up at him now with a look of such melting softness, Val felt a faint stirring of unease. Perhaps this moonlit walk was not such a good notion after all.
But there was no resisting Kate as she tugged him over to the nearest stone bench and insisted that she needed to sit down for a while. He wasn’t fooled. Kate had the stamina of a young colt. The knowledge that she proposed this rest out of consideration for him was both painful and sweet.
He wished it hadn’t been necessary, but he was too grateful to get his weight off his throbbing knee to refuse. He settled on the stone bench with a wearied sigh, propping his cane in front of him. Kate nestled beside him, wrapping her gloved hands about his arm.
They sat in that kind of companionable silence only longtime friends could share. He and Kate had often done this, sat in the garden together, staring up at the night sky, identifying the constellations, weaving fantastical stories about the far-off world of the stars. Why then did this particular evening keep weighing him down with sadness?
Of a sudden he felt so old, far older than his two and thirty years, as though the entire world were passing him by. Was it the dying leaves, the fallen rose petals making him so conscious of the relentless march of time? Or was it the budding young woman pressed so close to his side?
“Val,” Kate said at last.
“Have you completely forgotten what day it is?”
Val was forced to bite back a smile. “St. Swithin’s Day?”
“No!” Kate straightened to peer reproachfully at him.
Val frowned, pretending to wrack his brain. “Well, it cannot be Michaelmas. I am sure we are past that.”
Her head drooped, her eyes so downcast with disappointment, Val could not bear to tease her any longer. Crooking his fingers beneath her chin, he forced her to look up at him.
“Of course I recall what day it is, child. Many happy returns.”
Her face lit up with a radiant smile. He tenderly smoothed back one of her stray curls. “How could you possibly think I would forget your birth date? After all, it was I who gave it to you.”
Val could still remember clearly when he had discovered that the orphaned Kate had no idea when she was born, neither the date nor the year. It had not been many months after she had arrived in Torrecombe. February 14, the date of his own birth, as usual had been an embarrassment of riches of festivities, presents, and congratulations from his affectionate family.
When Kate had been prodded forward, nudged by Effie to wish him many happy returns, the child had shocked everyone by declaring fiercely, “I hate birthdays!” Only Val had seen the wistfulness beneath her gruff façade and guessed the reason for it. He had set about remedying the situation at once.
Kate murmured, “Val, do you remember why you chose this particular day in October to be my birthday?”
“Certainly. Because it is the anniversary of the day you arrived in Torrecombe.”
“And also the anniversary of the day we first met.”
“Yes, that, too,” he agreed. He hadn’t intended to give her his gift until after supper, but suddenly now when they were alone seemed like a very good time. Very likel y this would be the last of Kate’s birthdays they would ever share this way.
He tried not to think about that as he fumbled beneath his cloak until he produced a small brown wrapped parcel that he presented to her with a solemn smile.
“For you, milady.”
Kate let out a delighted cry. She pounced on the package with a greed that both amused and tugged at his heart, as though even after all this time his wild girl feared any gift, any happiness would be snatched away from her in a puff of smoke.
As she tore away the wrapping, he watched her, his pulse quickening with anticipation of her reaction. For all her hoyden’s ways, Kate harbored a secret delight in pretty trinkets, especially anything that glittered or sparkled.
When the small jewel case was revealed, Kate lifted the lid and gave a purely feminine shriek of joy at the contents. With quivering fingers, she lifted out the delicate gold necklace. Dangling from the end of the chain blazed a magnificent bloodred ruby. Pearls might have been a more suitable gift for a young girl, but not for his gypsy Kate.
“Do you like it?” he asked.
“Like it?” she breathed. “Oh, Val, I adore it. Thank you a million times.” Box and wrappings flew to the ground. Still clutching the necklace in her hand, she flung her arms about him in an impulsive hug that nearly sent them both tumbling off the bench.
Val chuckled softly, patting her shoulder, but like the quicksilver creature she was, Kate peeled herself out of his arms. She pressed the ruby into his hand and demanded, “Fasten it on me. Please.”
“Here? Now?” he protested, laughing. “It would be better if you waited until we went back to the house.”
But Kate leapt up from the bench, eagerly undoing the fastenings of her cloak.
“You’ll catch your death—” Val’s words died on his lips as the cloak fell away, revealing the gown she wore. For a moment all Val could do was stare, unable to speak another word, the necklace nearly slipping between his fingers.
He firmly believed Kate would have strutted around in breeches the rest of her life if it had been possible. It was a rare thing to see her attired as elegantly as she was tonight. The white silk crepe gown adorned with chenille embroidery fit her to perfection, the short puffed sleeves emphasizing the gracefulness of her arms.
The night breeze tugged at the folds of the dress, molding the fabric to Kate’s slender frame, revealing a hint of her supple limbs, soft hips, and narrow waist. The close-fitting bodice displayed more than a hint of her high, rounded bosom.
Val blinked, dazed. With her dramatic dark hair spilling about her shoulders, it was as though she had been transformed into a young goddess before his very eyes. He stared for so long, even Kate noticed.
Holding out the folds of the gown, she twirled around in front of him. “This is the new frock Effie had made for my birthday. Don’t you like it?”
“It—it’s very nice,” Val said. “But it does not quite look like the design you showed me. The fashion plate was—was—”
Decidedly different. Sweet and demure, whereas this gown . . . well!
Kate shrugged. “Oh, I did have Mrs. Bell attempt to copy that design, but she put too much lace on it. I had to take all that trim right back off again. You know I can’t abide frills.”
But the frills had been very necessary, Val thought with dismay. Especially about the neckline. Without the trim, Kate’s décolletage plunged to a dar- ing level, displaying far too much of her to the chance eye of any wandering rogue.
That lace had to be sewn back on at once. But when he opened his mouth to tell her so, he found himself averting his eyes instead. Good lord, he was almost blushing. He thought that he’d always be able to talk to Kate about anything, but this was clearly a subject his mother was going to have to broach with the girl. The best he could do was fasten the necklace on her and get Kate covered up again as quickly as possible.
He struggled painfully to his feet, balancing his weight upon his good leg. An awkward position. Likely that was what made his hands so unsteady as he draped the chain around Kate’s neck.
He was so much taller than she was. It was far too easy to see over her shoulder, to notice the way the moonlight played over the creamy expanse of her skin, dipping down to form an intriguing shadow between her breasts. He fumbled with the clasp, trying to touch her as little as possible, and still he felt how warm she was, her flesh seeming to pulse with all the vibrant energy and passion that was Kate.
Gritting his teeth, Val forced himself to focus on the necklace. As soon as he had it fastened, he all but snatched his hands away. For once, he scarce felt the wrench in his knee as he bent down to retrieve Kate’s cloak.
He straightened, shaking out the scarlet folds, frowning as he felt the weight of that blasted pistol knock against him. He was tempted to slip his fingers into the hidden pocket and confiscate the thing. But he had never behaved in such high-handed fashion with Kate before and he wasn’t about to start now. He merely held out the cloak to her instead.
Despite the gooseflesh parading along her arms, Kate seemed in no hurry to be bundled back up again. She fingered the fragile chain, peering dreamily down at the ruby nestled against the swell of her breasts in brilliant contrast to the ivory of her skin.
“Val, how old do you think I really am?”
“Fifteen. Sixteen at most,” he said promptly.
She shot him a wry smile. “You can be so exasperating sometimes, Valentine. I think I must be nearly one and twenty.”
Val merely grunted by way of response, determinedly swirling the cloak back around her shoulders. As he worked to redo the fastenings, Kate slanted a glance up at him.
“I must certainly be old enough to be kissed by you.”
Val deposited a brusque kiss upon her forehead as he did up the next button.
“No.” Kate pouted. “I mean a real kiss.”
Val drew in a sharp breath. The invitation in her eyes was as dangerous as the full, tempting curve of her lips.
“That wouldn’t be wise, Kate.” He secured the last button and prepared to retreat, but Kate slipped her arms about his neck.
“Why not? I have to get the hang of kissing sometime and you’ve already taught me everything else—my sums, my Latin, my copperplate.”
Val attempted to disengage her. “This would be a little different. You need to wait until you are properly betrothed to some nice young man—”
“Oh, Val, do you really want my first kiss to come from some callow boy who will slobber all over me and ruin the magic of it all?”
No, he didn’t. In fact he was surprised how much he was disturbed by the image of some oafish lad crushing his mouth against Kate’s tender lips.
She stood on tiptoe, straining toward him, tipping back her head. Her eyes were soft, dark, and vulnerable. “Please, Val,” she whispered.
Oh, God, not that look. Val tried to steel himself against it. And yet . . . one little kiss. What harm could it do? Kate had always had a boundless curiosity about everything, and it might be the surest way to end any further desire on her part to experiment. After all, kissing him could hardly prove to be that great of a thrill.
He bent toward her, intending to do no more than touch his mouth to hers, a mere whispering of lips. But he reckoned without Kate. She yanked him forward so that their lips met in a collision of warmth that sent a jolt through his entire system. She buried her fingers in his hair, her mouth exploring his with an eager innocence that touched him deeply. It was wrong, but he couldn’t stop his arms from stealing around her, holding her fast as he savored the fresh sweet taste of her lips.
He sighed, his heated breath mingling with hers. Tentatively Kate’s tongue crept forward to flicker against his, stirring in him desires he’d long denied, desires he could not allow himself to feel for any woman, let alone Kate. He started to deepen the kiss, only to snap sharply back to his senses.
What the devil was he doing? This was Kate, his young friend, his wild girl. He wrenched his mouth free, thrusting her away from him, appalled and repulsed by his own ungentlemanly behavior.
He staggered away from her, his bad knee threatening to give out beneath him. Where had he left his infernal cane? He limped painfully back toward the bench and located the walking stick, his fingers for once closing gratefully over the worn ivory handle.
The cane returned to him some measure of control, and he needed it, for Kate showed no signs of displaying any. Her face flushed, her breasts rising and falling too quickly, she attempted to pounce on him again. Somehow he managed to hold her at arm’s length.
“That will do, young lady,” he said as sternly as he could manage. “No more kissing lessons. You learn far too quickly.”
“That is because I have been practicing with you every night in my dreams.” She added almost shyly, “I love you, Val.”
“I know you do, my dear. I have been like your older brother forever, but—”
“No, not like a brother! I never thought of you that way. Even when I was a little girl, I always knew I would belong to you one day.”
Oh, lord. Val suppressed a groan. He had realized that Kate had once harbored such nonsensical notions, but he had hoped, nay believed, she would outgrow them. Clearly she had not. He longed to swear, to call himself every kind of fool imaginable. Stupid! Stupid to have allowed that kiss, this stroll in the moonlight.
He should have seen this coming, but perhaps he hadn’t wanted to, knowing Kate’s feelings would threaten their friendship.
He touched his hand to her cheek, attempting to reason with her. “Kate, I know you believe yourself to be in love with me, but you have met few other men. In time you will forget—”
“Why would I want to forget the best thing that has ever happened to me?” She caught hold of his hand and pressed her lips against the palm. “Marry me, Val. Please.”
She gazed up at him, her eyes shining with such naked trust and adoration, it was enough to unman him. He tugged his hand from her grasp.
“I can’t, Kate,” he said as gently as possible. It was not often Kate wore her heart on her sleeve. The last thing he wanted to do was trample all over the love she so innocently offered, but he could already see the hurt beginning to well in her eyes.
“Why not?” she cried. “Because you’re the son of a great lord and I am the bastard daughter of no one knows who?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, child. I couldn’t marry you even if you were the queen of England. I can never marry anyone.”
“Because of the legend. The stupid legend!”
“Aye, the legend,” Val said. A painful fact of his existence, as much as his crippled leg. “Perhaps you have forgotten all the details of it.”
“I have certainly tried to,” Kate snapped.
“Then I need to remind you. Once upon a time—”
“Oh, Val,” she groaned, rolling her eyes.
He offered a sad smile, realizing he was treating her like a little girl. But it seemed by far the safest way to diffuse this situation. He began again, spinning out for her the story as he had done so many winter nights, while sipping cider, and huddled by the fireside.
“Once upon a time there was a family named St. Leger who lived in a magnificent castle high atop the rugged cliffs of Cornwall. They were a strange breed, in many ways as wild and mysterious as the land itself, perhaps because they lived in such splendid isolation, but mostly because they were the descendants of Lord Prospero, a man who had been a great knight, but was an even greater sorcerer.”
Kate folded her arms rebelliously across her breasts, impatiently tapping her foot.
“Through Prospero, the St. Legers all inherited vastly differing powers, gifts that were both blessing and curse. Some could predict the future, some could read the hearts of other men, some could separate body from soul to go drifting through the night.”
“And some could nearly kill themselves trying to absorb the pain of everyone they touched,” Kate put in tartly.
Val frowned, but chose to ignore the interruption.
“Along with these strange gifts came an even more powerful legacy, the legend of the chosen bride.”
Kate gave a very unladylike snort.
“According to the tradition, each St. Leger was promised a perfect mate, a love that would last forever, through death and beyond, shining as long as the stars. But there was a condition to this great gift.”
“Isn’t there always in these silly stories,” Kate muttered.
“St. Legers are forbidden to seek their own mates. If they do so, only death and tragedy will follow. They are forced to rely upon the services of the Bride Finder, a being born in each generation with mystical powers to find for each St. Leger his perfect bride—”
“Oh, for mercy’s sake, Val!” Kate cut him off, clearly unable to endure any more. “I know the damned story.”
“Don’t swear, Kate.”
She glared at him. “You told it to me at least a hundred times.”
“I thought you loved hearing it.”
“Well, I didn’t. I hated it.”
Val stared at her, stunned. “Then why did you always let me—”
“Because I hoped you would finally outgrow it.”
His mouth fell open. He might have been tempted to laugh at the notion of Kate standing there sounding so pompous, scolding him like someone’s elderly aunt. Except—Val winced. Except she sounded too much like him.
“Kate, I realize I have always presented the legend to you in the form of a fairy story. But every word of it is true.”
“Piffle!” Her mouth set in a mulish line. “I don’t know how an educated man like you can continue believing such nonsense.”
“It isn’t nonsense. You have practically grown up in my family. You have witnessed the strange powers—”
“The powers are one thing, but this chosen bride legend is pure foolishness. I happen to be the adopted daughter of your supposedly wise and wonderful Bride Finder, remember?” Kate gave a contemptuous shrug. “I am very fond of Effie, but I assure you, there is nothing magical about her. She still dresses like a woman half her age and she hung fuchsia curtains in our drawing room. Fuchsia, for mercy’s sake!”
“I admit that Effie’s judgement may err in some respects, but as our Bride Finder, she has always been impeccable. She matched up my brother and his wife.”
“Lance and Rosalind were simply right for each other. Effie made a lucky guess, as she always does.” Kate took to pacing along the garden path, waving her arms in such an agitated fashion, Val was obliged to step out of her way. “Ask Victor St. Leger how clever he thinks Effie is. I happen to know he is very unhappy with Effie’s choice of Mollie Grey for him.”
“That is because Victor is an ungrateful idiot. But he’ll come around in time.”
“And what about you, Val?” she demanded. “Where is your chosen bride?”
Val stiffened. It was a painful question, the answer equally as painful.
“I don’t have one,” he said quietly. “Effie—the Bride Finder has decreed that there will never be a bride for me.”
“Because she won’t bestir herself to find you one! And if she refuses to find you a wife, why can’t you choose your own?”
“You know it doesn’t work that way, Kate. Any St. Leger who acts on his own in this matter is cursed.”
“Ohhh!” Kate stamped her foot, venting a low growl of frustration.
“It is true. My own grandmother . . . she died long before I was born.” Val paused, his gaze drifting toward the skeletal arbor of trees that sloped down the hill. Somewhere out there in the darkness, the beautiful wild garden ended abruptly at the edge of the towering cliffs. Even from this safe distance, one could hear the dull roar of the sea as it crashed against the treacherous rocks below.
“My father never spoke of it, but I stumbled across the story myself when I was researching our family history. Cecily St. Leger was not a chosen bride. She was terrified when she realized what manner of family she had mar- ried into. Even though she loved my grandfather, she eventually went mad, and one dark night she fled the castle, heading for the cliffs. No one seems to have been entirely sure if she slipped and fell or if she flung herself to her death.”
Kate shivered a little at the grim tale, but she said, “Your grandmother was obviously very fragile. I am not, Val. Even if there really is a curse, I am perfectly willing to take the risk.”
“But I am not!” Val said vehemently. “Not with your life.”
Kate shot him an exasperated look. “So you intend to live out the rest of your life alone?”
“I have no choice. It is something I have had to learn to accept.”
“Oh, Val!” She melted past his guard, coming close enough to cup his face with her hands, forcing him to look at her.
“How can you always be so resigned about everything? You’re far too patient and good. Why should you be condemned to such a loveless existence?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps because I am only a simple country doctor, hardly the stuff legends are made of.”
“Yes, you are. You have always been my hero.” Her eyes fluttered closed and he saw she meant to kiss him again. Val managed to prevent that, pulling away, putting the stone bench between them.
“Someday you’ll find your hero, Kate. A real one. You are so beautiful, you’ll have plenty of dashing admirers.”
“I don’t want them! I’ll use the fools for target practice,” she said, pursuing him determinedly around the bench.
“I think it is time we returned to the house,” Val said hastily. He started to turn away, but Kate rushed after him.
“No, Val, wait.” She appeared to struggle with herself for a moment then conceded, “All right. I understand. I cannot be your wife.”
Val heaved a great sigh of relief. He reached for her hand to give it a comforting pat.
“I’ll have to be your mistress instead.”
Val froze in absolute horror.
“Oh, don’t look so shocked. I have never been all that respectable. After all, I am only a bastard.”
“I realize I am not what a man would envision in a mistress, but I am sure I could learn to be more charming and seductive.”
“I’d try to be more ladylike, wear elegant gowns for you, and even if eventually you grew tired of me—”
“Kate!” He seized hold of her shoulders. “How can you believe that I ever would— That I would for one moment consider— Damn it, girl. I don’t ever want to hear you talk like this again.”
He had never spoken to her so harshly before. She flinched as though he’d struck her, her fierce gray eyes gazing up at him wide and wounded.
“So even if I were to change,” she said in a small voice, “you don’t think you could love me—just a little?”
Love her? He felt as though she were tearing his heart out. He drifted the back of his fingers down the soft curve of her cheek.
“Kate,” he said hoarsely. “I am so sorry.”
She stared at him for a long painful moment, then backed away. Being Kate, she didn’t burst into tears. She merely whirled around and with a savage oath smashed her fist against the nearest tree with a force that made him wince. She cupped the hand to her, smothering a soft cry.
There was nothing he could do about a bruised heart, but bruised knuckles were another matter. At least being a St. Leger made him good for something. Val limped to her side, reaching for her hand, preparing to do what he’d often done for her as child. Open his mind, open his power, and absorb her aches into himself.
But before he could even start to focus, Kate snatched her hand away.
“Oh, no, you don’t,” she choked. Even though her eyes blazed with unshed tears, she raised her chin proudly. “This is my pain, Val St. Leger. Not yours! Just—just leave me alone.”
She spun away from him and tore off running, but not in the direction of the house. Off through the trees, heading toward those treacherous paths that plunged down to the sea.
“Kate!” Val roared out her name and started to run after her. He took a few halting steps only to have his knee give out. He stumbled, would have fallen if he had not managed to catch at a low-hanging branch.
Sharp pain pierced his leg, but he set his jaw, trying to ignore it. Steadying himself with his cane, he hobbled forward only to realize how useless it was. Kate had already vanished into the darkness. She was as fleet as a young deer. He’d never be able to catch up to her.
A rare surge of anger churned through him, fury at his own blasted helplessness. He longed to slash out with his cane, striking out at the trees, the flowers, anything in his path. But he forced himself to take a deep breath until he mastered the dark impulse. Losing his temper would help nothing. He would still be just as crippled and Kate would be just as gone.
Coming about, he limped back toward the house as fast as he was able, grinding his teeth against the throb in his knee. Kate would be all right, he reassured himself. Even in the dark, she knew that rugged path down to the sea better than any St. Leger, and he would find someone else to go after the girl, soothe her.
That in itself was a bitter thought. He had always been Kate’s comforter. When angry or distressed by anything from skinned elbows to when the village brats taunted her for being a foundling, she had ever run to him.
But she wouldn’t want him now. Things could never be the same between them ever again. Not after tonight, he thought bleakly.
She was young, he tried to tell himself. She would get over this infatuation she felt for him. It was only that Kate was so passionate, flinging herself at life so hard, yet beneath that tough façade, so vulnerable. It had almost been inevitable that at some point some man would break her heart.
Val had simply never realized that he was going to be the one.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Midnight Bride by Susan Carroll. Copyright © 2001 by Susan Carroll. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.