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
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
The title changed only a little.
My first title was LORD GABRIEL'S
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 ...
not incapable of loving‑‑‑how
much easier to bear were it so!
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
The boy remained
where he was, still and silent.
Small and alone. Forgiven ...
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.
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.
the taproom of Black Jack's Inn,
the air fairly seethed with the
pulse of life and raucous, masculine
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.
safe trip back to England‑‑and
to the earl of Wakefield and
his future bride!"
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.
dead, a casualty of the battle
of New Orleans.
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
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
had not changed. He was as arrogant,
as imperious ... as cold as ever.
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."
but the word was suddenly vile.
In truth, Gabriel had known precious
little of duty, for that was
the role for which Stuart had
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
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."
vanished. The man had dared to
spy upon him! He glared at his
father, only barely able to conceal
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
known, of course, of Stuart's
betrothal to Lady Evelyn, only
child of the duke of Warrenton,
whose estate bordered Farleigh
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
The urge to
walk away was almost overpowering.
Lord, he'd been tempted to do
shirk his so‑called duty and
to hell with his father. Yet
something stopped him ...
many things, but never a fool.
Farleigh was a grand estate,
and a future dukedom was a powerful
he decided grimly, this was Fate's
way of seeking to erase those
miserable years of his youth.
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
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,
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
have business in America. My
ship leaves at dawn tomorrow.
I fear I must insist we wait
until my return."
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
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
was furious; Gabriel smiled tightly.
The victory was a small one,
but a victory nonetheless. As
such, he would do well to enjoy
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
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
was sometimes distant, often
remote, Christopher had known
his friend far too long to overlook
his brittle smile. "Something," Christopher
said slowly, "is troubling
Why, what should he care that
Fate had cast him back into his
father's path? A mocking smile
twisted Gabriel's lips.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
did not ask why Gabriel might
hold his father accountable.
For there were some boundaries
even he dared not cross.
shook his head. "Few of
us eagerly enter the marriage
market, my friend. I fear 'tis
usually a case of needs must."
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!"
blue eyes filled with mirth. "Perhaps
the lady‑‑and marriage‑‑will
tame you." His friend chuckled. "Indeed,
I find the possibility rather
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
"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
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
murmured. "A display of
female charms that is hardly
platonic, wouldn't you say?"
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."
laughed. "No doubt she'll
make some man a good farmer's
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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
had loved flowers.
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."
and wet her lips. "My name's
Nell," she offered. "Yer
English, the two of you, aren't
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."
widened. She dipped a curtsy‑‑but
not without another display of
calculated move, Gabriel thought,
nodding in acknowledgement.
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."
politely. He inclined his head
toward the other barmaid. "Who
is the other girl?"
faded. "Oh, that's Cassie.
Her mum was one of the barmaids
here years back." She winked. "All
o' Charleston knew her mum was
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,
Gabriel nodded. "I
see. And who is Bess?"
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."
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."
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
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
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.
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."
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."
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.
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‑‑
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.
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 ...
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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
what's beneath that interests
me far more!" She let out
a gusty laugh.
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
paid no heed. "And the other
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?"
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!
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
about eagerly. "Oh, there's
no need for Cassie to burden
herself," she said brightly. "I'll
Nell. Her." He jerked
his head toward Cassie.
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.
wet her lips. "It matters
little to me if Nell‑‑"
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!"
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
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
Her steps slowed
as she approached. She was but
a few paces distant when the
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
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.
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.
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
Marley smiled up at her. "You
are Cassie, are you not?"
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
is Cassie short for Cassandra?"
nodded. "But no one has
ever called me anything but Cassie." Feeling
more at ease, she ventured a
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,
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.
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
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
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.
popped free. To Cassie, the loud pop! was
like the blast of a gun.
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
the present," he drawled
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.
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.
wench, I do believe you've no
experience as a barmaid." The
earl glared at her, his voice
stripped free of any indulgence.
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
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!"
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!"
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.
bit fiercely into her arm. "Tell
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.
sorry." Her lips barely
moved as she spoke.
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
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
"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!"
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.
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
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...
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 ...
sum, is it not? Ah, but if you
want it, Yank, I'm afraid you'll
have to earn it."