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Meggie Sherbrooke Walked out of the church in the wake of her stepmother, Mary Rose Sherbrooke, Alec on her left side and Rory on her right side, holding her hand. She pulled him back so they could take their place in the vicar's receiving line. Rory's little arm was dry, his face flushed with joy and health, thank God. Just his hands were sticky.
It was a difficult time for the town. Three children had died of a fever during the past week, the cause unknown, and all three funerals had taken place at the same time, three days before. Tysen had spent a great deal of his time with the grieving parents. And today, Sunday morning, every parent was worried sick. They'd all come to church today because they needed reassurance. Her father's ser~mon had been both moving and practical, which had brought every parent in the congregation a measure of peace and a sense of control, which was desperately needed.
He'd said in his deep, reaching voice, ''I know that all of you are afraid that your own children will be struck down. I know that I look at my own boys and pray devoutly that God will spare them. Then I realized that I am not helpless in this, that God has given me a brain and good measure of common sense and the determination to face what I must. Naturally I, as well as you, want to guard my children as best I can. I have spoken at length with Dr. Dreyfus. He believes that we must all be vigilant, that the fever could strike again. He wants us all to keep our children at home during this next week, keep them warm and calm and quiet. They will probably grow bored and you will want to strangle them, but you must endure.'' He smiled as there was a bit of laughter from his congregation. ''I would only add that we must pray to God that it will be enough.
“God has given us all the strength, the fortitude, the ability to face illness, to face death, when need be. None of us are alone in this. Dr. Dreyfus will be visiting each family beginning this afternoon, to examine each child. As a congregation, as a town, we will survive this.''
His closing prayer had made Meggie's heart ache and gave her a measure of hope.
The congregation spoke in low voices as they passed the vicar and his family, who stood in a line, shaking everyone's hand as they passed, and patted each child.
Leo was home for several days, down from Oxford to visit with his family for the first time in over two months. He was still horse mad and he had plans to join his cousin Jeremy Stanton-Greville at his racing stud in Fowey, to learn the business, which, Jeremy had written, put them in a somewhat unusual situation, since he was still learning the business as well. Leo had also told them that Jeremy's wife, Charlotte, was expecting Jeremy's heir.
Meggie had said nothing upon hearing that. Nor did she say anything about her brother's plans, not that Leo had asked her for her opinion.
As for Max Sherbrooke, their Latin scholar, who had finally surpassed his stepmother in his knowledge of everyday Latin, he'd announced that he planned to become a man of the cloth, like his father. There was, Tysen said, and blessedly so, a very big difference between father and sonMax brought laughter into the room with him, just like his uncle Ryder, and laughter was a won~derful thing, only discovered by Tysen after he'd met Mary Rose. Tysen was very pleased, knowing his son would bring joy to his future congregation from his very first sermon.
Meggie looked up at the sound of a stranger's voice, a man's voice that she'd never before heard, and she saw that indeed, she had never seen him before either. He was young, perhaps in his mid-twenties, and he was tall, taller than her father, possibly as tall as Uncle Douglas, and he was dark as a bandit on a midnight raid, dark hair, dark eyes, his complexion swarthy. There was no question that he'd spent a lot of his recent time at sea.
He was also taller and darker than Jeremy, whose wife was going to have a baby. No, no, put away that lump full of pain.
Rory tugged on her skirt. She looked down to see him holding the remains of a stick of candy Mary Rose had given him to keep him quiet during his father's sermon in his left hand, no longer in his right, as was always the instruction from his mother. His left hand was now as sticky as his right hand and now so was the skirt of her beautiful new gown.
''Oh, no. Rory, just look at my skirt. How could you?'' Rory shook his head, big eyes ready to weep. He whis~pered that he didn't know how he could have done that. He began frantically sucking his fingers, saying between his fingers and licks, &'grave;I'm sorry, Meggie,'' then he gripped her skirt and brought it to his mouth. He began sucking hard on the sticky material.
Meggie couldn't help herself. Her irritation with him evaporated. She burst into laughter, swung Rory up in her arms, and said, ''You little sweetheart, how can I ever be upset with you when you are so cute?''
''I wonder,'' the man said slowly, his voice pensive, looking at her directly now, ''if my mother ever held me like that and told me I was a sweetheart and cute. Some~how, I doubt it.''
Meggie turned, still laughing, and said, &'grave;I'm not his mother and that, I believe, saves his adorable self from a hiding.''
Tysen said easily, ''Lord Lancaster, this is my daughter, Meggie, and one of my sons, Rory. The candy does work to keep him quiet during the service, but occasionally he forgets, and this is the result. Meggie, my dear, this is Lord Lancaster. He has just returned to England to assume his responsibilities and see to his property.''
''Oh,'' Meggie said, ''Lord Lancasterhow odd that sounds. Your father was an old man, you see, and quite deaf toward the end of his life. I am sorry that your father died, my lord.'' She paused a moment, and added as she hugged Rory closer, &'grave;However, he died some seven months ago, and you weren't here then.''
''No, I was not.''
And no explanation forthcoming, she thought, because it was none of her business. He'd put her very nicely in her place. But it was strange nonetheless. She'd never even heard Lord Lancaster himself mention that he had a son, although she remembered now that there had been an occasional mention of an heir by a servant. To the best of her knowledge, the new Lord Lancaster had never even lived with his father at Bowden Close. It was a pity that such things happened in families.
''Welcome home, my lord,'' she said, gave him an ab~sent nod, and carried Rory away, back to the vicarage, Rory's mother on his other side, wiping his hands with a handkerchief dampened from the well that stood on the edge of the cemetery. When Old Lord Lancaster had fi~nally shucked off his mortal coil, a heart seizure Dr. Drey~fus had said, Meggie had mourned him perfunctorily since she'd known him all her life. Why, she wondered, had the son never visited his father?
She turned her attention back to Rory, whose mother was playing hide-and-seek between his now clean fingers. She chanced to turn around some twenty steps later to see Lord Lancaster standing quite still, his arms folded over his chest, staring after her.
He was tall, she thought again, and darker than a moon~less night, and there was an edge to that darkness of his. It was as if he were seeing all them clearly but he himself was masked, hiding in the shadows. She was succumbing to fancies, not a very appealing thing for a lady who would doubtless become the village spinster.
Meggie saw Thomas Malcombe, Lord Lancaster, again the following Friday evening when the Strapthorpes held a small musical soir-;aaeepronounced quite in the French waythe name Mrs. Sturbridge stubbornly held to de~spite her spouse's contempt.
Mrs. Strapthorpe, far more voluble now that her daugh~ter, Glenda, had married and left home, immediately pulled Mary Rose and Meggie aside and said in a rush, bristling with complacency and pride, &'grave;He doesn't accept invitations, Mrs. Bittley told me, a recluse he is, she assured me, possibly he's now ashamed he never visited his dear father in a good twenty years. Some folk remember a little boy and Lady Lancaster, but they were both gone very quickly.'' She lowered her voice. &'grave;I heard it said that the earl divorced his wife. What do you think of that? But now this splendid young manan earlis here, at my invitation, because, and so I told Mr. Strapthorpe, I wrote an ever-so-elegant note to him and he accepted my invitation with an ever-so-elegant note of his ownah, his hand is quite refined, let me assure youand now Lord Lancaster is coming, can you imagine? Yes, I snagged him. He is ever so handsome and obviously quite proud. No, don't mistake me, he isn't at all standoffish, he simply knows his own worth and expects others to know it, too. Yes, he is coming and I believe it is because of my elegant invitation and my brilliant idea to hold a musical soir-;aaee. A gentleman of his distinction would most assuredly be drawn to an elegant offering. Yes, this evening is tailor-made for his tastes. I have brought in a soprano, all the way from Bathshe last performed at Lord Laver's mag-nificent town house on the Royal Crescentand she strikes a high C with great regularity and astounding verve. Such a pity Glenda is wed and far away, and only ~to a viscount, more's the pity, but she wouldn't wait, par-ticularly since our dear Reverend Sherbrooke was gobbled right up by dear Mary Rose, so there it is. Of course she couldn't have waited for Lord Lancaster since she is nearly his own age, because, for a lady, unmarried at such an advanced age would announce to the world that there were serious problems with either her father's purse or her face.''
Mrs. Strapthorpe, after this outpouring, took a long overdue breath, shook out her purple satin skirts, and marched to the punch bowl, to guard it from her spouse, who was fat, sported three chins, and loved to drink until he was snoring too loudly in his chair. ''So distracting for guests,'' Mrs. Strapthorpe was wont to say.
''She has always amazed me,'' Meggie said, staring after their hostess. Then she giggled. ''She spoke nearly a com~plete chapter in a book, Mary Rose, and she never lost herself between commas. Remember when you and Papa were first married and he brought you here for a visit?''
Mary Rose shuddered.
''And Glenda ordered him to take her to the conserva~torythat miserably hot smelly roomand demanded to know how it had happened that he had wed you and not her?''
''I wanted, actually, to dance at her wedding,'' Mary Rose said, smiling now at the memory. ''At last she would no longer send her sloe-eyed looks at your father. Do you know that she has three children now?''
''These things happen,'' Meggie said, grinning. ''After all, you and Papa have given me Alec and Rory.'' She remembered that Jeremy would be a father soon. But not the father of her child. No, she wasn't about to think about that, she wasn't.
&'grave;Ah, the musical soir;aaee begins. There is your poor papa, trapped by Squire Bittley, whose wife didn't man-age to snag his lordship for her very refined dinner party last week.''
Meggie said, ''Smart man. Now, Mrs. Bittleythat old ~battle-axehas, thank the good Lord, quite come around where you are concerned.''
''Yes, she is even pleasant to me most of the time now, unlike my own dear mother-in-law, your blessed grand-mother, who still roundly tells Tysen he is wedded to a savage with vulgar hair. And then she looks at Alec, whose hair is also red.'' Mary Rose was still grinning as she lightly touched her fingertips to her husband's sleeve. Tysen turned immediately to take her hand.
Meggie sat beside her stepmother, in an aisle chair. She hated it when a singer pumped her lungs up to blast out a high C. If need be, if the high notes rattled her too much, she would simply slip out and walk in the gardens.
She did slip out after the sixth high C nearly burst her eardrums and made her toes cramp from quivering so much. She knew the Strapthorpe house very well and walked down the main corridor into the conservatory, Mr. Strapthorpe's pride and joy, the only room that everyone avoided because of the heat and the overpowering scent of the wildly blooming flowers. She imagined the garden was nearly full of escapees by now.
She was totally taken aback when he said from behind her, ''I assume this is your sanctuary?''
Meggie turned so quickly she nearly tripped over her gown. She grabbed hold of a rose stem to steady herself, then yipped when a thorn punctured the pad of her finger.
'What a clever way of putting it, my lord. Oh dear, I have stabbed myself.''
&'grave;The soprano drove me away as well. I'm sorry to star-tle you. Let me see what you did to yourself.''
Lord Lancaster pulled a white handkerchief from his pocket, but he didn't hand it to her, he just picked up her hand, saw a fat drop of blood welling up, and lifted the finger to his mouth. He sucked away the blood.
Meggie didn't move, didn't breathe. He'd actually sucked the blood off her finger? Then licked her finger? How very odd that was. It felt very strange. Not bad, just very strange.
She stared up at him, still silent, as he then wrapped his handkerchief tightly around her finger, and pressed his thumb against the wound. She was very tall for a woman, but still, she had to look up, a very goodly distance. Was he as handsome as Mrs. Strapthorpe had said? He could have been, she supposed, but the point was that he wasn't Jeremy.
She said, frowning slightly, &'grave;I have read that vampires suck blood. Usually, in the novels I have read, it's fangs sunk in a person's neck at midnight and there is a good deal of drama involved.''
He laughed, a warm deep sound that sounded dark as his midnight hair. ''Yes, I have read about vampires as well. However, since you met me at a church during the day, then you know that I cannot be one.'' He gave her a big grin. &'grave;See, no fangs either. There, that should do it. I'm sorry I startled you, Miss Sherbrooke.''
Lovely white teeth, just like Jeremy's. No, she had to stop thinking about him. She shook her head as she said, ''I will be fine. I did manage to hold on until that final high C nearly knocked me out of my chair.''
&'grave;Such impressive lungs are fashionable, I'm told.''
He laughed again, then paused, as if surprised that he'd laughed. &'grave;Why, do you know that I'm not really sure? I haven't lived much in England in the past five years. I suppose I believed that the ninnies in London lauded such performances.''
''I spent just one Season in London, my lord. As far as I could see, there were very few true devot;aaees of Italian sopranos. Most people I saw on those evenings were po-lite enough to endure in stoic silence. Ah, but Mrs. Strap-thorpe believed that her musical soir;aaee was just the thing to induce you to attend, that and her elegant invitation to you. She is very pleased with herself.''
''Good Lord. Actually, though, I wished to attend.''
''But not for the wailing soprano?''
&'grave;No, I didn't attend because of the music.''
“Meggie hoisted up an eyebrow.
''My name is Thomas Malcombe.''
The eyebrow remained hoisted.
He laughed, couldn't help himself. She appeared to be utterly uninterested in him. Without conceit, he realized she was the first female to be indifferent to him since he'd come to manhood. It was a rather appalling realization, this unconscious conceit, and one that made him want to laugh at himself.
''All right. I came because I wanted to meet my neigh~bors, people who had known my father.''
&'grave;I'm Meggie Sherbrooke,'' she said finally, and hoisted her left eyebrow again. &'grave;You aren't telling the truth, my lord. If I may risk offending you, I daresay you don't care a fig about anyone in Glenclose-on-Rowan.''
&'grave;Meggie, it's a nice name. You're quite wrong.''
&'grave;It's short for Margaret. No one has ever called me Margaret, thank goodness. That's a Mother Superior's name. I would have preferred something exotic, like Mai~gret, but it was not to be. No, I really don't think I'm wrong. If I am wrong, then I have offended you, and I apologize.''
''You really are a Meggie, never a Margaret. I accept your apology, for it is merited. I understand you train racing cats.''
''Yes.'' She saw a glass sitting beside an orchid that looked overwatered. Its leaves were suddenly trembling. Probably the soprano had hit more high notes. ''Actually, my little brother Alec is a cat whisperer.''
''I have never known of a cat whisperer.''
&'grave;It is a very rare occurrence, and all agree that Alec is blessed. It still remains to be seen if the gift will mature with him. But ever since he was a very small boy, the cats in our mews would gather around him, very happy to just sit and listen to him talk, which he did, all the time. He is at present assisting my brother Leo train our calico racer, Cleopatra, to improve her leaps. Alec be-lieves she doesn't yet have the proper motivation. As a cat whisperer, he will determine what it is she wants and provide it, if possible.''
''I should like to see him in action. How old is he?''
''Alec is seven now.''
''Cat racing is an amazing thing, really unknown out-side of England. I understand that some French devotees of the sport introduced cat races there, but the French were, evidently, too emotional, too uncontrolled, and so the cats never could get the hang of what was expected of them.''
Meggie laughed, then shrugged her shoulders as if to say, what can you expect? He smiled again. She said, ''At the McCaulty racetrack, all the cats would desert their owners in a moment if Alec called to them. He must be very careful not to unwittingly seduce them.''
''When are the cat races held? Surely now it is too cold.''
''They begin again in April and run through October.''
''And you are a trainer.''
''Oh yes, for a long time now. You can call me the boss.''
&'grave;Ah, you're the one who makes all final decisions, de-cides which techniques are the most efficacious, the over-lord trainer?''
''I like the sound of that. I will tell my brothers that my new title is overlord. They can drop the trainer part. I will demand that they use my new title or I will make them very sorry.'' He looked very interested, and so Meggie added, &'grave;As a matter of fact, I did spend one entire summer at Lord Mountvale's racing mews being tutored by the Harker brothers.'' She lowered her voice into a confidence. ''They are the ones who developed the technique of the Flying Feather.''
''I have heard of the Harker brothers. I understand they have a special intuition when it comes to selecting cham-pion racers. What is the Flying Feather technique?''
&'grave;Curled feathers are tied to the end of a three-foot pole. It is waved in a clockwise motionit must always be clockwise, at no less than a six-foot distance. It evidently has a mesmerizing effect. Goodness, I hadn't intended to tell you all about the Flying Feather technique; it is still ~supposed to be a secret. I am considering adopting it when I have a proper candidate. Ah, listen, I don't hear any-thing. It is a good sign,'' she added, pointing to the orchid, ''its leaves are no longer quivering from the vibrations of her voice.''
He laughed, just couldn't help himself. He couldn't re-call having laughed so much with one single human be-ing. Life had always been rather difficult.And Meggie thought it was as if he laughed only when he planned to and surely that was rather calculated and cold-blooded. She watched him closely as he said, &'grave;Ac-tually, I set that glass there beside the orchid so I would know when it was safe to return to the drawing room. It isn't trembling either now.'' He smiled down at her. &'grave;Let's see if your finger has stopped bleeding yet.''
He unwound the handkerchief and lifted her hand to inspect the finger. ''Yes, it has.''
Meggie said, &'grave;Thank you, my lord. Perhaps I don't know all the ways of the world, but I have never before had anyone suck my blood. Or lick my finger.''
He felt a lurch in his gut; it was lust and it hit him hard. He looked at her closely, realizing that she didn't understand the teasing promise of her guileless words, didn't realize that they promised, on the surface at least, a woman's very pleasurable skills. No, she was outspo-ken, a vicar's daughter, just turned nineteen. ''No?'' he said slowly, then added, ''Then I have added to your ed-ucation.''
She said abruptly, ''My father will wonder where I am,'' and she turned to go. ''Sharing sanctuary was pleasant, my lord.''
She was just going to leave him? Another blow to his manhood. ''Miss Sherbrooke, a moment please. Will you ride with me tomorrow morning?''
That got her attention, but she didn't hesitate, just said pleasantly, &'grave;I thank you for the invitation, my lord, but no, I don't want to ride with you tomorrow morning.''
He looked as she'd slapped him, as if he simply couldn't believe her gall in turning him down. He looked, quite simply, flummoxed. She wanted to smile at his ob-vious male conceit, but she didn't. She just wanted to leave. She realized now that she shouldn't have remained in here, alone with him. He had gotten the wrong idea about her. She didn't want any attention from him, she didn't want any attention from any man. She wouldn't have stayed in here with him if she'd been in London, but this was her home. No matter, she'd been wrong.
He saw her withdraw completely from him. He didn't understand it. She'd been so confiding, so natural. But no longer. Despite her lack of enthusiasm, he persevered. ''I understand from my steward, a very old man with fingers that tap by themselves when the weather is going to turn bad, that it will be unseasonably warm tomorrow morn-ing, a fine morning for a ride.''
''Mr. Hengis is famed for his weather predictions in these parts. I did not know about the tapping fingers. I hope it will be a fine morning and you will enjoy yourself. As for me, no thank you, my lord. I must go now.'' He said as she turned to leave the conservatory, ''I un-derstand you enjoyed your first Season in London last spring. Do you intend to return to London in April?''
“No,'' she said, not turning to face him. She could feel his frustration, pouring off him in waves, and something else. Why did he wish to be with her so badly? It made no sense. ''Goodbye, my lord.''
“My name is Thomas.'' She would swear she heard a I damn you under his breath.
“Yes,'' she said, ''I know,'' and left the Strapthorpe con-servatory with its dizzying smells and hair-wilting heat.
He stood there, watching the back of her head as she walked quickly out of the overly warm room. Lovely hair, he thought, blondish brownish hair with every color in-between thrown in, the same hair as the vicar's, her father. Their eyes were the same light blue as well. He sighed, then left the conservatory some minutes after her. Truth be told, he was getting nauseated from the overpowering mix of all the flowers.
He met several guests in the large entrance hall. Meggie Sherbrooke wasn't among them. Damn her. He wasn't a troll. What was wrong with her? He was polite and charm-ing to everyone before he took his leave.
Perhaps she didn't ride. Yes, perhaps that was it and she was ashamed to admit it. He would think of something else. She was nineteen years old; for a girl she could have been long married by now, well, at least a year or so. As for himself, he was rich and young and healthy and now he even sported a title. What more could a girl possibly want?
She was a vicar's daughter, for God's sake.
And she trained racing cats.
Reprinted from Pendragon by Catherine Coulter by permission of Berkley, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002 by Catherine Coulter. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.