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Trapped by his father's demands, Gabriel Sinclair must take a bride…he vows it will be a marriage in name only. And so he weds the sultry, low-born Yankee wench who tried to steal his watch... Cassie McClellan, desperate to escape her life of poverty, accepts his outrageous proposal, never expecting to fall for this dangerous lord…

 

 

 

Gabriel's Bride

May 1994 · Avon Books
ISBN 0-380-77547-6

regency romance

I love Cinderella stories. And I love the marriage-of-convenience plotline. I decided to use both in GABRIEL'S BRIDE. After writing two medievals and a western, I knew it was time to return to England. But a different England this time—the world of the ton, hence the Regency setting for this book.

GABRIEL'S BRIDE is another book that ranks as one of my favorites. I'll never forget writing the last chapter with tears in my eyes. There's a scene with the hero, his son and his father that . . . well, I'm getting all choked up just thinking about it! In her revision letter, my editor mentioned that the emotion in this book really bowled her over. Touted as a three-hanky read, it's also been a reader favorite.

Since I have three daughters, I just love coming up with name for my heroes. Many of them are names I would have chosen if my husband and I had had boys rather than girls—Gabriel was tops on my list!

The title changed only a little. My first title was LORD GABRIEL'S BRIDE.

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GABRIEL'S BRIDE:

USA Today bestseller.

Waldenbooks bestseller.

Winner of the Colorado Romance Writers Award of Excellence.

Finalist, Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice Award for Best Regency Historical Romance.

Affaire de Coeur nominee for Best Overall Historical.

 

 

Just One Kiss

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Gabriel's BridePrologue

England 1790

Tall, ivy‑clad gates announced the entrance to Farleigh Hall. A long, winding drive wound its way amidst formal, terraced gardens and yew‑hedged walks. But it was Farleigh Hall itself, with its stately brick facade and sprawling grandeur, that inevitably commanded the eye of the beholder. Beyond the wide, curving stone steps, high, mullioned windows draped with shimmering gold silk stretched endlessly on either side ... it was at once a sight both formidable and awe‑inspiring.

At the east end of the manse, two young children sat beneath the watchful guidance of their tutor, Mr. Findley. More and more often their attention strayed to the window of the schoolroom, which was slightly ajar in deference to the warm, June afternoon. Stout and sturdy boys of ten and six they were, the elder as fair as the younger was dark, both with eyes the same piercing gray as their father.

And it was their father for whom the pair waited so anxiously, fidgeting at their cherrywood table, until at last Mr. Findley rolled his eyes heavenward and threw up his hands.

"Off with you now!" he said crossly. "I could be filling your heads with porridge for all the two of you would know! Your father won't be back from London before nightfall, but who am I to tell you differently? Education is indeed life's most coveted prize, but do either of you realize it? I think not!"

He cast a last disparaging glance at the boys, muttering under his breath about the vagaries of fate with an equal mix of envy and frustration. For although their minds might someday be empty as a poor man's kettle, such would not be the case with their pocketbooks ...

Not for the sons of the seventh Duke of Farleigh, a man who was among the wealthiest in all of England.

At that precise moment, the clatter of coach wheels sounded on the drive outside. Mr. Findley ignored it, his mettle pricked still further.

Outside, the carriage rounded the last graceful curve of the drive. The elder lad bounded down the wide stone steps. Although his brother struggled to keep pace, his thin legs pumping furiously, he lagged far behind. He had scarcely breached the wide double doors than the carriage door burst open. A handsome man, impeccably dressed in an elegant striped silk frock coat and pale pantaloons, leaped lightly to the ground.

"Papa!" Bright, eager eyes gleamed up at him. "We missed you! As much as I enjoy my riding lesson with Ferris, I'd much rather you taught me instead."

The duke's gaze settled upon his golden‑haired son, roving the aristocratic features that so reminded him of another ... Lord, but the boy resembled his mother!

He laughed. "And I, too, Stuart. Indeed, our lessons were oft on my mind while I was gone‑‑why, so much so that I couldn't resist bringing this back for you."

The duke gestured to his footman, and again the sound of hoofbeats was heard. Another rider appeared, but it was the small white pony which trailed behind that widened Stuart's eyes.

"Papa!" he breathed. "You have brought me my very own pony! Why, I shall name him White Dancer!"

An indulgent smile curved the duke's lips as he led the pony forward. "Of course I brought you a present. Nothing is too good for the future Duke of Farleigh, you know."

Neither of them had noticed young Gabriel, who now darted forth. "A pony!" he cried, beaming. "Papa, you have brought us a pony!" In his eagerness he thrust up a hand in front of the pony's nose.

But the suddenness of the move frightened the animal; he reared up and back, instinctively striking out with his forelegs. Stuart leaped back, only narrowly escaping the flashing hooves.

The duke whirled on the child. "The pony is for your brother, boy, not you! And for pity's sake, watch yourself! You know better than to startle a horse. Your brother might have been killed!"

Stuart glanced at his father. "He meant no harm, Papa." His tone was earnest. "He only wanted to see the pony. Didn't you, Gabriel?"

The child called Gabriel said nothing. He suffered his father's silent disapproval, his dark head bowed low. His bottom lip trembled; all the life had flickered from his eyes.

"Yes, I suppose you're right." The duke did not bother to hide his irritation. "But he would do well to be more like you, Stuart. Your brother is a bit of a nuisance at times."

The younger lad's shoulders slumped further. Thinking to cheer him, Stuart glanced at his father. "Papa, what present have you brought for Gabriel?" he asked curiously.

The duke sighed. "Dear me. Wills and I were so caught up in trying to find your pony, I fear it quite escaped me. No matter--I shall try to remember the next time." He crooked a finger at his eldest son. "Come along now, Stuart. We've much to discuss, for I've decided you shall accompany me on my next trip to London.

His chest swelling with pride, Stuart stepped up smartly beside his father. The duke turned, as if to walk away. Then, as if it were an afterthought, he stopped and patted Gabriel on the head‑‑like a favored pet‑‑then turned and walked away, Stuart at his side.

But the boy was neither favored, nor a pet. He was only a child who did not understand why his father so slighted him.

But his mother knew.

Inside the house, a fold of the silk draperies slid silently back into place. Unbeknownst to the three of them, Lady Caroline Sinclair, Duchess of Farleigh, watched from afar. There was a melancholy sadness about her as she turned away, for she was aware, in that way only a mother is, that the lad had been wounded. She alone understood the wistful yearning in her son's eyes, the ache in his soul. She could have wept, for the boy was always so eager to please, so anxious for his father's attention. But Edmund was blind to his son's devotion. Indeed, he scarcely knew the boy existed.

For the duke's favorite was his firstborn.

And Caroline greatly feared that a second son was no better than a second wife ...

Bitterly she recalled that long‑ago day Edmund had come to her. "Stuart needs a mother," he had said. "And it seems I need a wife." Oh, how bold he had been! So dashing, so arrogant and strong‑willed! But Caroline had spared not a care, for she had loved Edmund Sinclair from the moment she had set eyes on him‑‑and to think he had chosen her above all others! Her foolish heart had brimmed with joyful hope. Surely he would come to love her. Surely someday...

And so she strived mightily to be a loving, dutiful wife in all things, that he might come to love her in return. But she had come to realize that although her love would forever dwell with the man who claimed her heart, his forever dwelled with one who now lived with the angels ...

Edmund was not incapable of loving‑‑‑how much easier to bear were it so!

She pressed trembling fingers against her forehead. She must be strong, if not for her own sake, then for Gabriel. She could stand the hurt, the pain‑‑anything for this child of her heart, for indeed, he was all she had‑‑all that she might ever have. Her heart heavy with her burden, but determined such weakness would not show, she hurried down the gallery and out into the sunshine.

The boy remained where he was, still and silent. Small and alone. Forgiven ... then forgotten.

But the child did not forget, nor forgive; with gentle insistence he eased himself from his mother's loving embrace. To her surprise, he would accept neither pity nor comfort. There were no tears, only a hint of stoic pride despite his tender years. For Gabriel was very much his father's son...

Far more than any of them realized.

Chapter 1

Charleston, South Carolina

1815

Gabriel's BrideA torrential summer rain poured from the sky, drenching to the skin those dauntless souls who ventured outside, and turning the already rutted, stinking streets into a sea of mud.

But inside the taproom of Black Jack's Inn, the air fairly seethed with the pulse of life and raucous, masculine laughter.

Although it was only few blocks from the waterfront, Black Jack's was one of the better establishments of the city. It boasted excellent food, clean sheets, and respectable service, all at a fair price.

On this particular wet, dreary night, the table in the far corner was occupied by two well‑dressed men, one with hair as dark as the midnight hour, the other slender and chestnut‑haired. After weeks at sea, they'd decided to forego the ship's cramped quarters for the pleasures of a warm, comfortable mattress.

"To a safe trip back to England‑‑and to the earl of Wakefield and his future bride!"

The laughter‑filled voice belonged to one Sir Christopher Marley. Gabriel Sinclair, however, was not so eager to join the toast. And little wonder, for his impending nuptials were hardly to his liking ...

They were most certainly not of his doing.

He stared into his glass as if it held the secrets of the world. These last weeks had blurred into a dream‑‑sweet heaven, a nightmare.

Stuart was dead, a casualty of the battle of New Orleans.

Stuart. An unseen hand seemed to close about his heart and squeeze. In truth, his brother's death was something Gabriel had never once considered. He and Stuart had never been truly close, and the years had found them drifting further and further apart. Gabriel had left Farleigh the day of his mother's funeral, and he'd not been back. In truth, he had turned his back on his father and set about building a successful shipping business of his own. And in so doing, Gabriel had turned his back on all that he was.

Bitter remembrance seared his heart. Needless, his father had not sought him out, even when he'd left to march with the English forces against Napoleon. No, not once in nearly five years had his father deigned to call upon him. Indeed, it was as if he never existed ...

But all that had changed with Stuart's death.

It was inevitable, perhaps ... Gabriel's mind slid back in time, back to his last meeting in his father's London study when he'd learned his brother was dead.

His father had not changed. He was as arrogant, as imperious ... as cold as ever.

"You are now the earl of Wakefield, the next duke of Farleigh," his father said in that frigid, formal tone Gabriel remembered so well‑‑and hated so intensely. "'Tis your duty to marry, to give me a grandson that our family name does not die out."

Duty. God, but the word was suddenly vile. In truth, Gabriel had known precious little of duty, for that was the role for which Stuart had been groomed.

He forced himself to relax, then let a lazy smile creep across his lips. "Oh, I've many uses for women, Father, both in the bedroom and without." He paused, taking a perverse delight at his father's expression, visible proof of his displeasure. He gave a short laugh and continued. "Fortunately, none of them have ever included marriage."

Brows the color of iron drew together over Edmund Sinclair's eyes. His hair, still well in abundance, was streaked with the same iron‑gray. Gabriel did not flinch from such piercing regard, the way he had done so often as a child. "Ah, yes, so it would seem." The duke's tone was icily distant. "I've been kept apprised of your ... activities. It seems you've had many a mistress yet never a wife."

Gabriel's smile vanished. The man had dared to spy upon him! He glared at his father, only barely able to conceal his temper.

"With a title comes responsibility, Gabriel, as well as respectability. In light of your ... behavior, I believe the first step should be to remedy the situation. You must take a wife. Now. From your own lips, you've indicated no preference. I therefore propose a solution. Since Stuart can no longer wed Lady Evelyn, it seems only logical that you take his place."

Gabriel had known, of course, of Stuart's betrothal to Lady Evelyn, only child of the duke of Warrenton, whose estate bordered Farleigh in Kent.

"Indeed," his father had gone on, "I see no reason why the wedding should not take place as planned."

For an instant, Gabriel had been too stunned to reply. It was only later that he realized he should have expected such haughty presumption‑‑after all, this was his father he was dealing with.

The urge to walk away was almost overpowering. Lord, he'd been tempted to do exactly that‑‑to shirk his so‑called duty and to hell with his father. Yet something stopped him ...

Gabriel was many things, but never a fool. Farleigh was a grand estate, and a future dukedom was a powerful lure indeed...

Perhaps, he decided grimly, this was Fate's way of seeking to erase those miserable years of his youth.

"Well?" Oh, but his father's note of impatience was far too familiar. "Have you nothing to say, Gabriel? If so, then I must assume you have no objection to wedding Lady Evelyn."

Gabriel clenched his fists at his sides. "Father," he said evenly, "the years have not changed you. You possess no will but your own. You acknowledge no will but your own. Would it truly matter to you if I harbored some objection?" Even as he spoke, his mind was otherwise encumbered. He needed time to consider, time to decide one way or the other ...

One thing stood out high in his mind. If he chose to wed Lady Evelyn, it would be done not to please his father, but himself.

As Gabriel expected, the duke chose to ignore his jibe. "Very well, then. Warrenton and his daughter have already agreed to the match. Therefore, we shall share this news immediately‑‑"

"No. I have business in America. My ship leaves at dawn tomorrow. I fear I must insist we wait until my return."

The duke's dislike of Yankees was known far and wide, and little wonder, considering the fate that had befallen his first wife, and now Stuart ... The duke's lips tightened. "I see no reason to delay‑‑" he began.

"Ah, but I do. Surely a wait of several months would be more appropriate in light of Stuart's demise. Besides, I hardly think it proper that the ton be apprised of such an event without my presence in the flesh." Gabriel shrugged, his tone one of reason and utter calm. "Surely a few months will make little difference."

The duke's jaw clamped tight. His eyes were a cool, pale reflection of his son's. "You are right, of course," he said at length. "We will make the formal announcement as soon as you have concluded your business and returned to London."

His father was furious; Gabriel smiled tightly. The victory was a small one, but a victory nonetheless. As such, he would do well to enjoy it.

A heaving guffaw from behind Gabriel brought him back to the present. What was it Christopher had said? To the Earl of Wakefield and his future bride. Recalling the toast, Gabriel raised a darkly slanted brow in lieu of his tankard. The way he felt right now, he'd just as soon take as his wife an ugly hag than do as his father wanted.

"We've only just arrived," he said lightly. "Are you so anxious then to depart without sampling all Charleston has to offer?" One corner of his hard mouth came up. "As I recall, our last visit to Charleston left nearly every maid in the town yearning for the thrust of an English blade!"

Though Gabriel was sometimes distant, often remote, Christopher had known his friend far too long to overlook his brittle smile. "Something," Christopher said slowly, "is troubling you."

Troubling him? Why, what should he care that Fate had cast him back into his father's path? A mocking smile twisted Gabriel's lips.

"I will soon be wed to a woman whose lineage is among the oldest in all of England. You are right, Christopher. Let us toast the alliance between the House of Warrenton and the House of Farleigh." He raised his glass high. "To the mighty and the damned!"

This time it was Christopher who looked on as Gabriel proceeded to drain his tankard of every drop of ale. He pictured in his mind the pale ethereal blonde who would wed his friend. He sighed. What he wouldn't give to be in Gabriel's shoes! But to a lowly baronet, the lovely Evelyn was as far out of reach as the stars.

"Lady Evelyn is hardly a troll, Gabriel. Faith, she is as comely as any! Were I you," he chided, "I'd find marriage to her no hardship at all."

Gabriel said nothing. He had already inherited Stuart's title, he thought blackly. Why not his wife as well?

In truth, it was not the marriage itself that Gabriel found so distasteful. Christopher was right, he realized. He supposed Evelyn was pretty enough. And perhaps it was well and good that she was quiet and mousy and half‑terrified of him. She would do as she was told, and would not dare to question him. And did it truly matter that he would soon have a wife? Marriage and fidelity were hardly synonymous. Society accepted that a man slept where he chose, and with whom he chose. No, his life need not be any different than before.

Nonetheless, a seething resentment seized hold of him. What grated was that his father had commanded he marry. And it was just like his father to expect that his every wish be obeyed, blast his arrogant, autocratic hide!

For a moment his brooding silence lingered. "I did not expect to have to marry out of duty," he said at last. "Indeed‑‑" he did not bother to hide his annoyance "‑‑I did not expect to have to marry at all."

When the innkeeper hurried over to serve them a sumptuous round of beef swimming in gravy, baked yams and honeyed ham, Christopher silently studied his friend. From the time they'd met at Cambridge, Gabriel had been wild and reckless, ever the rebel. Even then the state of affairs between Gabriel and his father had been bleak. But there was now a hardness within him, a brooding hardness that had not been there until his mother had died.

Indeed, Christopher could have sworn that Gabriel blamed his father for his mother's death ... Yet Caroline had died of an accident‑‑a tragic one, to be sure‑‑but an accident nonetheless.

But Christopher did not ask why Gabriel might hold his father accountable. For there were some boundaries even he dared not cross.

Christopher shook his head. "Few of us eagerly enter the marriage market, my friend. I fear 'tis usually a case of needs must."

Gabriel gave a harsh laugh and reached for his fork. "On that, you are right. Women complain that 'tis men who possess all the freedom. But marriages are made to acquire that which one does not hold. 'Tis ironic, is it not, that if a woman possesses much in the way of beauty, she usually manages to marry a fortune. And if she already has a fortune, she needn't marry at all. But a man ... well, if a man wishes to produce an heir, he must find himself a wife!"

Christopher's blue eyes filled with mirth. "Perhaps the lady‑‑and marriage‑‑will tame you." His friend chuckled. "Indeed, I find the possibility rather intriguing!"

Gabriel smiled, his first, genuine display of humor. "Intriguing, yes," he drawled. "But likely?" He shook his head. "I think not." Gabriel was well aware his reputation as a rakehell was hardly undeserved. Of vice he knew much, of virtue, precious little.

"In fact," he continued lightly, "I suggest we occupy ourselves with the pursuit of far more pleasant matters. Why, who knows what new fields have bloomed in our absence?"

His gaze swept the taproom, his meaning unmistakable. Christopher was only too glad for the diversion. A barmaid had just moved to clear the tankards from a table recently vacated. Generous‑hipped and raw‑boned, she had round brown eyes and plump red cheeks. On seeing she had captured their attention, she flashed a beaming smile and leaned forward across the table. Her bodice gaped wide, offering an unimpeded view of bare, ample breasts.

"Ah," Christopher murmured. "A display of female charms that is hardly platonic, wouldn't you say?"

"Indeed." Gabriel was mildly amused by the barmaid's ploy. Clearly the wench was willing. She was young, and appeared to have good teeth. But she was a bit ungainly ... "I fear," he murmured, "she's rather clumsily made for my tastes."

Christopher laughed. "No doubt she'll make some man a good farmer's wife."

It was then that Gabriel saw her‑‑the other barmaid. She was hurrying from the kitchen, tying an apron about her waist.

And this one was far from ungainly. Her hair seemed the same rich color as the firelight, amber and gold. But it was caught up in a knot on her nape, pulled so severely tight that the skin on her forehead was stretched taut. He found himself possessed of the notion she sought to hide her beauty.

Christopher's gaze trailed his. On seeing where Gabriel's had settled, he raised a thick chestnut brow. "Ah," he murmured, rubbing his chin. "Ah, now there's a maid I vow is as pleasant to kiss as to look upon. Nature has not failed her, my friend? Why, I daresay such beauty could carry her far ... no farmer's wife, this one, eh? No doubt she could aim far higher."

Gabriel was not disposed to answer. Nor did he need to, Christopher decided. His intense scrutiny of the girl told all he needed to know‑‑that his friend was very much taken with the maid. He heaved a silent sigh of regret, for the thought of pursuing a dalliance with the wench was captivating indeed.

Gabriel's gaze had yet to leave the girl. She was dressed much the same as the other, in a worn, muslin gown that might have once been green. The square bodice was cut low. She carried a heavily laden tray and had begun to serve frothy tankards of ale at the table across the room.

Gabriel couldn't help but note the way her hand fluttered to the lowcut neckline every so often; the merest hint of creamy roundness was revealed. He gave a cynical half‑smile, for oddly enough, he found himself far more fascinated by what this last humbly concealed than what he the first barmaid brazenly displayed.

Small‑boned and unearthly slender beneath that wretched gown, it slipped through his mind she seemed strangely out of place here, like a frail pink blossom among thorns ... He was abruptly irritated with himself. What nonsense was this? Comparing the wench with roses?! He was suddenly both angry and annoyed, yet buried beneath his self‑derisive scorn was the realization that he could scarcely escape the reminder ...

His mother had loved flowers.

Beside him there was a swish of skirts. The first maid sidled up between him and Christopher. "Hope you enjoyed your meal, gents." She glanced between them, her eyes dark and suggestive.

Ever the gentleman, Christopher proclaimed heartily, "Why, thank you, mistress. Indeed, you may pass our compliments on to the cook. The bread was fragrant and warm, the round of beef tender and well‑seasoned."

She smiled and wet her lips. "My name's Nell," she offered. "Yer English, the two of you, aren't ye?"

"Aye, we certainly are." Christopher rose and gave a mock bow. "I am Sir Christopher Marley, and this is Gabriel Sinclair, the newly titled Earl of Wakefield."

Nell's eyes widened. She dipped a curtsy‑‑but not without another display of bountiful flesh‑‑a calculated move, Gabriel thought, nodding in acknowledgement.

Gabriel's Bride"Well, just so ye know, Nell here don't hold a grudge against ye Englishmen. We've had a few put up here at Black Jack's since the war ended. And real gents they were, not like some we get around here."

Gabriel smiled politely. He inclined his head toward the other barmaid. "Who is the other girl?"

Nell's smile faded. "Oh, that's Cassie. Her mum was one of the barmaids here years back." She winked. "All o' Charleston knew her mum was a lightskirt‑‑and not one for the same man two nights in a row, if ye know what I mean. Wasn't long before she ran off and left her brat here. And still the girl's got the nerve to put on airs, she does!‑‑just 'cause she talks better 'n me. But that's only 'cause Bess taught her. Bess was once a lady's maid, y'know."

Gabriel nodded. "I see. And who is Bess?"

"Was," Nell corrected. "Died a month past birthin' her babe, she did. Why, she and Cassie were tight as a babe on a mother's tit!"

Her mouth turned down when she saw Gabriel's eyes still fastened on the subject in question. She sniffed disdainfully. "Not enough arse to keep a man's backside warm. And not much topside either, if you ask me."

So saying, she tossed her head. Boldly she ran a fingertip along the collar of Christopher's waistcoast. "In case ye be wantin' anythin' else, just ask for Nell."

When she was gone, Christopher gave a dry laugh. "Dear Lord. Never say she is not eager."

Gabriel quirked a brow. "Or particular, it would seem." He nodded; Christopher turned his head just in time to see Nell snared about the waist by a heavy‑jowled man near the entrance. He pulled her down hard onto his lap. Nell laughed and twined her arms about his neck. The man plunged his hand into her bodice, openly fondling her breast. For some reason he couldn't quite fathom, Gabriel found the display oddly distasteful.

Just then the girl called Cassie emerged from the kitchen. Christopher's gaze flitted to her as well. His smile faded. "Can you imagine? Her mother left her on her own? A child yet?" He shook his head, his expression suddenly very somber.

Gabriel stretched out his long legs beneath the rough planked table. This part of Charleston was hardly a pretty place. There were cows and horses everywhere, even in the narrow alleys; the residents had no qualms about dumping garbage wherever they pleased. It was no wonder the streets were slimy and stinking. If what Nell had said was true, the girl was one of Charleston's own, the product of a hard life.

"Her plight is regrettable, aye," he agreed. "But we've children living in the streets of London, too, poor and starving with nowhere to go in the cold of winter or dead of night."

Christopher clapped him on the shoulder, saying lightly, "Why, Gabriel, I'd no idea you were even aware of such things. Perhaps there's hope for you yet."

Nearby there was a gust of laughter. Gabriel turned his head slightly. It appeared the men at the next table had decided to have a bit of fun with the girl Cassie, who was attempting to refill their tankards of ale while trying to avoid their grasping hands.

"Aw, come on now, girlie. Let's have a look at what yer hidin' in there!"

Another snorted. "Why bother? 'Tis plain there's not nearly so much there as Nell‑‑

"But I vow what's there is a tad prettier than Nell. Aye, as round as a plump peach, with cherry‑red nipples ... " The man made squeezing motions with his fingers.

There was a burst of ribald laughter. Grasping fingers plucked at the pointed thrust of her breast. "Aye, that's the way!" came a voice from still yet another table. "Give a little twist and see what she's got!" Someone slid a hand over the roundness of her buttocks, giving her a pinch. When she jumped, three of them roared while another leered in avid anticipation.

Gabriel started to lift his tankard to his lips, still a silent observer. Certainly he was not offended, for such bawdiness was commonplace in places such as this. Indeed, the banter was sometimes far worse at his club in London. As for the girl, certainly she was no stranger to it either. Aye, no doubt she liked it. Most of her kind did ...

No. He was wrong. A burly sailor caught a fistful of her skirt. She yanked it away and whirled around. Though she said not a word, for an instant hate blazed keenly in her eyes. Hate? Slowly Gabriel lowered his tankard to the table. No. Surely not. Surely he'd been mistaken, he thought with a faint curl of his lip. Likely as not, the girl was a doxy just like the other ...

Cassie McClellan jammed the tray down on the long worktable in the kitchen. God, but she hated this! The smell of sweat and ale. Groping male hands and wet lips. She shuddered. It was disgusting, the way they pawed and grabbed. She'd far rather peel and chop onions, scald her fingers fetching hot kettles, even scrub the floors until her hands were raw and burning than return to that noisy hell‑hole. The very thought made her belly clench in dread.

But Black Jack was ever determined to please his customers‑‑no matter their treatment of his barmaids. She shuddered, experiencing anew the feel of grasping hands and pinching fingers. Lord, but she hated them! They sought respite from their troubles in drink‑‑and sport from those who served it.

And then there was him, the dark‑haired one in the corner. Staring at her. Watching her.

Oddly, it was that she hated most. Knowing he watched while those awful men pinched and fondled her only deepened her shame and humiliation ... and her anger. The soft line of her lips compressed. Had he been amused by it? Had he secretly laughed? Oh, but the nerve of the man!

Still, she could not help but wonder who he was, he and his friend. A wealthy captain and mate of a vessel berthed in the harbor? Low‑country planters? Well‑to‑do merchants traveling through Charleston? Black Jack himself had seen to the supper preparations and served them their meal, a rare occurrence. That alone proclaimed them men of some stature.

Wiping her hands on a length of rag, she cast a furtive glance through the swinging double doors into the taproom. It was hard to see through the smoky haze, but sure enough, Black Jack was again at their table.

The double doors opened with a swish. Nell sauntered in, her braid askew, the shoulders of her dress rumpled and sagging from her shoulders. Cassie hastily averted her gaze. Nell looked as if she'd just crawled from someone's bed.

She gave a tittering laugh. "Sakes, can you imagine? An English earl stayin' here at Black Jack's! Ye saw him, didn't ye, girl, the two gents in the far corner? The black‑haired one, 'e's the earl. Wickedly handsome, he is. Gives me shivers right down to me very toes, he does."

She dumped half a dozen dirty tankards into the washbasin. "I've never seen such hands on a man‑‑so clean, even his nails, mind ye! And that coat he's wearin'... did you see it, Cassie? Made of velvet, it is! 'Course I don't know why I'm rattlin' on so about his clothes‑‑it's what's beneath that interests me far more!" She let out a gusty laugh.

Cassie said nothing, but inside she winced. Nell was one such as her mother had been; she oft loved unwisely and too well. But while her mother had been far too free with her favors, Cassie had long ago vowed she'd not make the same mistake. Ducking the sides of ham and beef curing from the beam, she stepped before the pantry. With her back to Nell, she did her best to ignore her, placing several clean tankards back into the cupboard.

Nell paid no heed. "And the other one‑‑Sir Christopher Marley, he called himself‑‑why, he's almost as handsome as the earl! In fact, I'm feeling very generous tonight, Cassie. Sir Christopher Marley is yours!" She gave a cackling laugh. "Ah, but you wouldn't know what to do with a man such as he, would ye now, love?"

Cassie flushed, which made Nell laugh all the harder. Would she never get used to Nell making light of her? Oh, if only she could walk through the door and never return! And as for the earl, it mattered little to her whether he was the king of England, or master of a dung heap!

Black Jack hammered the doors open with beefy fists. Big, burly and shaggy‑haired, Cassie had long ago decided his sour disposition had earned him his name. "What the blazes are the two of ye doin'?" he demanded. "Get yer lazy bums back where ye belong! We've customers waitin'!" His eyes lit on Cassie. "You," he growled. "Take a bottle of brandy to the two gents at the back table. Use the best crystal."

Nell wheeled about eagerly. "Oh, there's no need for Cassie to burden herself," she said brightly. "I'll serve it‑‑"

"Not you, Nell. Her." He jerked his head toward Cassie.

Cassie had gone utterly still. A flash of alarm surged within her. Serve him? The one who stared so boldly? Cassie was well aware Nell had not made the offer out of any good will on her part‑‑indeed, she was undoubtedly looking forward to warming the gent's bed tonight, which was just fine with Cassie.

Nervously she wet her lips. "It matters little to me if Nell‑‑"

"Ah, but it does to me!" There was a long row of copper pans and utensils hanging from a beam. Cassie flinched when he grabbed a wooden spoon and shook it threateningly. "I said you, missy, not her! Now get to it 'fore I lose my patience. Smile and be nice to the gents‑‑and stop trying to hide your bosom!"

Scalding tears burned the back of Cassie's throat. She damned Black Jack, even as she damned herself for her weakness. Blindly she reached for a bottle of brandy and Black Jack's best crystal goblets from the pantry. She tried to assure herself it was foolish to be so reluctant; after all, it wasn't as if she hadn't done this a thousand times before. And surely these two could be no worse than any of the others.

Mustering her courage, she pushed through the double doors and back out into the noisy taproom. Boisterous shouts hailed her return. Ignoring the coarse shouts and snatching hands, she weaved her way through and around tables toward her destination.

Her steps slowed as she approached. She was but a few paces distant when the black‑haired one‑‑the earl‑‑turned his head.

Their eyes locked.

For Cassie, it was as if a bolt of lightning zigzagged through her. Rampant in her mind was the urge to turn and run, as far and fast as she could. Why it was so, she did not know.

But for a timeless instant, she could not move. What was it Nell had said? Wickedly handsome, he is. But of the two, wicked was the one etched sharply in her brain.

Oh, there was no denying his handsomeness, by far and away. In all her days, Cassie had never seen a man's face so arrestingly pleasing to the eye. High cheekbones slanted above clean‑shaven cheeks; his jaw was flawlessly chiseled, and all in perfect proportion. His hair was black as a crow's wing, and cropped rather short; dark, tousled curls fell across his forehead in a style unlike any Cassie had ever seen before. Yet for all its perfection, his was a face of supreme masculinity.

Yet she sensed a harshness within him, a harshness borne out by the unsmiling cast of his mouth. Set beneath winged black brows, his eyes were like pale frost, as cold and piercing as frozen glass.

Cassie was the first to look away. She swallowed, forcing her feet to do her bidding and close the remaining distance between them. All the while he stared at her through eyes of burning silver, as if he chose to see all that she would keep hidden. Nell was right, she thought on a note of panic. He gave her the shivers, but it was scarcely a pleasant sensation.

"Here you are, sirs." It was by no means an accident that she stationed herself next to the fair‑haired gent Nell had called Christopher Marley. Quickly she set the crystal goblets before them.

Christopher Marley smiled up at her. "You are Cassie, are you not?"

Cassie reluctantly met his gaze, only to breathe a silent but profound sigh of relief. Instinct alone told her that his was a presence not nearly so threatening as his friend's. He had kind eyes, and a warm and gentle smile. "Yes, sir," she murmured. "Cassie McClellan."

Gabriel's Bride"And is Cassie short for Cassandra?"

"Aye," she nodded. "But no one has ever called me anything but Cassie." Feeling more at ease, she ventured a faint smile.

His own deepened. "I must admit, Cassie does suit you." He leaned back in his chair, surveying her curiously. "Has Charleston always been your home, Cassie?"

Cassie's smile withered. Home? She had no home, for she scarcely considered the cramped, tiny room in the attic where she slept with Nell her home. In truth, it was the one great wish that preyed longingly on her mind. She and Bess had oft dreamed of saving their coin that they might buy a cottage of their own; there they would sew for fine ladies since they were both well skilled with a needle. It needn't matter if it were but a single room; what mattered was that they need not answer to anyone but themselves.

Bess, she thought with a pang. Dear, sweet Bess. Though not so very much older than herself, Bess had been far more mother to her than her own. She had taken her in, protected her and watched out for her when no one else had wanted to.

A bitter darkness stole into her heart. No, she thought again. She had no home of her own, nor was it likely she ever would.

Her lashes dropped. She set her attention to removing the stopper from the bottle of brandy. "Aye," she said quietly. "I've lived in Charleston all my life." She smiled slightly. "Indeed, I've never been outside of the city."

He seemed to sense something was wrong. An awkward silence prevailed as she struggled with the bottle‑stopper; uppermost in her mind was awareness that the earl still watched and had yet to say a word. Nervousness made her fingers clumsy. She plucked almost frantically at the stopper.

It was then that the earl finally spoke, a hint of barely restrained impatience in his voice. "Allow me." Cassie's eyes flew to his. Her lips parted. What she intended to say or do, she would never know. Strong fingers had already curled around the neck of the bottle. For the space of a heartbeat, the back of his knuckles lay cradled against the softness of her breast. It was all Cassie could do not to cry out aloud, not out of shock, but from the reaction his touch evoked. Like fire it was, clear through to the core of her body.

The stopper popped free. To Cassie, the loud pop! was like the blast of a gun.

She flushed as he proceeded to fill the two goblets. "Thank you, sir." The urge to flee was upon her again, but she'd caught a glimpse of Black Jack across the floor. He was looking her way, his expression as frigid as a sea wind in winter. Badly shaken and praying it did not show, she bobbed a curtsy, eyes downcast. "Will you be needing anything else, sirs?"

She had no desire to look at the earl, yet he drew her gaze with a force more powerful than she. His eyes were cool and assessing. They wandered at will, over her neckline before settling, she was certain, with calculated deliberation on the swell of her flesh visible above the frayed lace‑edged bodice.

"Not at the present," he drawled at last.

Both angry and anxious at his brazenly thorough study, she gave a nod. "I'll just clear the table for you, then." Eager to be quit of the pair, no matter how pleasant his companion might be, she reached across the table for the tankards they'd set aside. But in her haste to replace them on her tray, she withdrew her elbow just a little too quickly.

The bottle of brandy tipped over with a crash. The dark‑red liquid inside pursued a straight and unerring path across the table and over the side. Both men leaped to their feet. By some miracle both emerged unscathed.

"By God, wench, I do believe you've no experience as a barmaid." The earl glared at her, his voice stripped free of any indulgence.

Cassie had already begun swiping at the sodden mess. She paused long enough to return his glare in full measure. "'Tis hardly my first night‑‑indeed I've been here nearly as long as Nell!"

"I wonder, then," came his grim response, "that Black Jack has any wine left in his cellars."

It was too much! Who was he to call her inept? She straightened indignantly. "And who are you to criticize me?" she cried. "Perhaps if you'd ever done an honest day's work in your life, you'd not be so quick to judge others who are but trying their best!"

Cassie did not see Black Jack approach. She gasped as her arm was suddenly seized in a grip she knew from experience would cause bruises. "How dare ye talk to 'is lordship that way! Tell 'im ye're sorry!"

Cassie's face was scarlet. A simmering resentment fired within her. It was bad enough to be chastised in front of the entire taproom, let alone knowing that he stood witness to her shame. Indeed, if it hadn't been for him staring at her, she wouldn't have been so careless in the first place.

Beefy fingers bit fiercely into her arm. "Tell 'im, missy!"

To Cassie's horror, her throat closed with the scalding threat of tears. She hated the earl for bringing her to this wretched point, almost as much as she hated herself for her lack of pride. The only thing that brought her chin up was the certainty that Black Jack would take immense pleasure in seeing her humbled.

"I am sorry." Her lips barely moved as she spoke.

Black Jack leveled a scowl at her and dropped her arm. He turned toward the other two men. "I'll see ye're brought another bottle," he began.

Christopher Marley held up a hand. "Not for me, thank you. I've had quite enough for the night." He turned and gave Cassie's shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "No harm done, lass. Do not worry your pretty head about it another minute."

"No, indeed," the earl echoed coldly. "We cannot have that, can we?"

The earl was forgotten as Black Jack began to drag her toward the kitchens. They were no sooner through the doors than he loosed the full force of his ire. "You've gone too far, girl! I've always held that a girl need not take to her bed a man she does not want, but no more will I put up with your airs and your unwillingness. Ye'll get away with it no longer, do ye hear? Aye, I've often thought if ye once had a man ye'd not be so damned skittish. Well, I think it's time we found out!"

The world around her seemed to spin and swirl. She shuddered. Dear God, surely he was not suggesting ... She looked on numbly as he whirled and loaded another goblet and bottle of brandy onto a tray.

He turned to her and snarled, "Ye'll be making amends to 'is lordship‑‑and to me, girl." He jammed his head toward the tray. "Take that up to the rose chamber‑‑the earl is sleeping there. If a man pays more to spend a night here, by Gawd, he'll get more, and don't pretend ye don't know what I mean! If ye please him, ye please me. I'd keep that in mind if I were you. For if ye don't, I swear I'll see ye turned out in the streets by morning!"

Cassie's head jerked up. As awful as it was here, the streets were even worse. Only yesterday a young woman had been found in an alley, half‑naked, her throat slit.

She waited no longer. His words were like a burr beneath her feet. She snatched up the tray and fled as if the hounds of hell snapped at her heels.

The rose chamber was the best in the inn. Black Jack always put the well‑to‑do guests there. A wide four‑poster with a delicate, rose‑embroidered coverlet dominated the large, spacious room. Matching brocade draperies trimmed the window.

When her mother had first started working for Black Jack, Cassie had often crept inside and let her fantasies take flight. She pretended she was a fine lady and mistress of a huge house with a dozen chambers such as this. She was never hungry and never cold.

Now her only thought was to escape‑‑this horrid inn, the toil, the endless drudgery.

She deposited the tray on the pedestal table near the window. She pressed her cool hands against the fiery heat of her cheeks. Her heart cried out in weary despair. Was it wrong to want more? She didn't want much, just better than what little she had. A one‑room cottage that was truly her own, where she need not worry she might end up on the streets. Enough coin to buy another dress, and maybe a new bonnet.

Dear God, she didn't want to die like Bess, in that stinking attic room that smelled of death and dust.

If only there was a way out. If only...

Gathering herself in hand, she straightened, wiping the dampness from her cheeks. Did Black Jack truly expect her to lay with the earl? Horror clutched her insides. How could she wait here, like a lamb on its way to the slaughterhouse?

She spun around. Her eyes lit on the chest of drawers just inside the doorway. Heaped in a small mound was a handful of silver. Oh, it was scarce a fortune, to be sure. But it was far more than she had seen in all her years.

She had only to reach out a hand, and it would be hers ...

"A tempting sum, is it not? Ah, but if you want it, Yank, I'm afraid you'll have to earn it."

 


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