Few men dared enter the old part of the Castle Leger. The light of a thousand candles would not have been enough to dispel the darkness of the great medieval hall with its lurking shadows and ancient secrets that had gathered for centuries, thick as dust on the rough, uneven floor.
The present master of Castle Leger did not fear the old hall as much as he despised it, the cold stone walls littered with portraits of ancestors that no sane man would ever claim as his own. But it was a good place to come if a man desired to be alone, to conduct business of a most private nature. That is, if one didn't mind the sensation of being watched by a dozen pairs of painted eyes, the feeling that a specter might glide out from a portrait as soon as one's back was turned.
Anatole St. Leger was accustomed to it. Sometimes he felt as though he had been haunted from the hour of his birth. Stripped down to the white linen of his shirt, the leather breeches that clung to his powerful thighs and his heavy country boots, he inched the carved armchair closer to the oak banqueting table.
Beyond the narrow arched windows, the gray evening of another winter's day faded into night. The fire that blazed on the hearth cast an almost demonic glow over Anatole's angular cheekbones and sent the shadow of his muscular frame looming up the vast stone wall.
He appeared like some warrior king as he contemplated the medieval sword placed before him, the weapon that he had sworn never to touch again. His mouth twisted into an expression of self-contempt.
Anatole resisted temptation for a moment more, then drew the sword closer. The wrought gold hilt gleamed even in the soft light, but it was the sparkling stone embedded in the pommel that caught and held the eye. A crystal of remarkable beauty and clarity, it was all that remained of the sorcery of some long-dead ancestor, Lord Prospero. But it was enough, even that small piece of crystal providing a window to the future as much as if all of Castle Leger had been made entirely of glass.
Anatole cradled the pommel in his hands, annoyed by the way his leather-toughened fingers trembled. Staring into the crystal, at first all he could see was his own image reflected back to him, the high forehead, square jaw, and hawklike nose he'd inherited from his English ancestors. His midnight eyes, swarthy skin, and mane of ebony hair that flowed wild to his shoulders came from his Spanish blood, along with stranger, darker gifts.
But the scar that slashed across one temple, that was all his own, Anatole often thought bitterly, a recent legacy of hate and fear.
Gripping the sword in one hand, he pressed the fingertips of the other to his brow, attempting to delve deeper into the crystal, past his own image.
"Concentrate. Damn you, concentrate," he chanted to himself. He felt the familiar tingling sensation begin, painful at first as though a hundred white-hot needles pricked at the back of his eyes. His body seemed to be dwindling, telescoping into the crystal.
The shard of glass clouded. Then through the swirling haze, the vision began to take shape.... The shape of a woman. It was her again, the woman with the flowing mass of hair, blown into a witchlike tangle by the wind, hair so red-gold, it appeared to be on fire.
"The woman of flame," Anatole murmured. He strained harder to make out the lines of her face, all but crushing his fingers against his temple, the pain behind his eyes waxing more intense. As in the previous times he'd consulted the glass, her features continued to elude him. And yet he had the inexplicable sensation that she was drawing closer.
The hairs at the nape of his neck prickled, and he was seized with foreboding, a premonition of impending disaster, that whoever and whatever this creature was, she was going to prove the undoing of Anatole St. Leger.
"Beware the woman of flame. She comes...."
Anatole was scarce aware of murmuring the words aloud. The vision began to fade. He was losing it, no matter how he struggled, until he felt as though his skull would split in twain. The fiery-haired woman vanished into mist, and Anatole was left staring at nothing more than an elegant wrought sword.
He exhaled deeply, closing his eyes until the searing pain in his head began to subside. Only then was he able to think, to consider what he'd just seen.
Beware the woman of flame. Exactly what the devil did it mean? Anatole's heavy dark brows knit together in a scowl. It was a fine premonition to keep having when he'd recently made up his mind to take a wife. Visions of some witch-woman, dark, disturbing, promising nothing but trouble. But then, when had his future held promise of anything else?
Replacing the sword back in its scabbard, he rose and returned the weapon to its mounting upon the wall. Of course, there was one simple solution to the whole thing.
Continue to live behind the walls of his fortresslike home, as he'd done these past twenty-nine years, barring entrance to all members of the fair sex. Forget about taking a bride.
Simple, but quite impossible, for the decision to marry was not exactly of his choosing. In fact, he had no real choice in the matter at all. It was but another facet of the family curse. St. Leger men always knew when the time had come to mate.
It was a hunger that went bone deep, far beyond mere lusts of the flesh. An instinct ages old, a longing as wild and powerful as the sea crashing below the cliffs of his castle, a desperate loneliness that made Anatole want to range out onto the moors at night, like some great black wolf, baying out his soul to the moon.
To resist was agony. Anatole had tried hard enough these past months to deny the stirring in his blood, but like all St. Legers before him, he'd been forced to yield. Curse and rail though he might, he'd finally done the unthinkable. He'd sent for the Bride Finder.
The old man was likely on his way to the castle even now. Anatole awaited the Reverend Septimus Fitzleger's arrival with a mixture of sullen resignation and impatience. Impatience that had led him into the mischief of consulting that damned crystal again.
Shoving back from the table, Anatole rose to his feet. He paced to one of the windows as though by staring outward he could hasten Fitzleger, have this unpleasant business over and done with.
The old hall was built away from the seaward side of the castle, the narrow window facing toward the night-darkened hills. A hunter's moon shimmered over the wild and barren landscape, making it a place of legend. Cornwall, the land of King Arthur, of the star-crossed Tristan and Isolde, of ancient priestesses buried beneath mounds of earth, of mysterious rings of stone. A land of magic.
Anatole loved the land, but he could have done without the magic. He had too damned much of that in his life. A weariness stole over him, and he wished he could live out his days as other men did. No crystal-adorned swords, no women of flame, no parts of his ancestral home lost in shadow, and most of all no Bride Finder. He longed for the freedom to choose his own bride as it took his fancy, to breed fine sons noted for their horsemanship not their strangeness, to die a contented old man, not broken and embittered as his own father had done before him.
Futile wishes, indeed, if your name was St. Leger.
He could already feel himself tensing, his senses coming more fully alert. Fitzleger had arrived at the castle. Anatole would have liked to have believed his hearing was just unusually acute, but he knew better.
He was sensing Fitzleger shuffling through the cloisters that joined the new part of the castle with the old. Turning from the window, Anatole focused on the heavy connecting door.
He felt a flash of pain, and at that precise moment the door creaked open. It was a power that Anatole was usually careful not to display, but the old man who stood framed in the threshold was too familiar with the secrets of the St. Leger family to be disturbed by anything so trivial as a door apparently opening itself.
Huddled in the depths of a long brown cloak and hood, Reverend Fitzleger shuffled into the great hall. It gave him a sinister monklike appearance until he threw back the hood. There the illusion ended.
Fitzleger's hair was thin in the middle, but flowed back at the sides in two pure white wings, his weathered cheeks reddened by the cold winter air. The lines of his face bespoke a gentle patience, his pale blue eyes bearing the look of one who grieved over the ills he saw in the world, but remained ever hopeful of its improvement.
"Good evening, Reverend," Anatole said.
Fitzleger bowed. "Good evening, my lord." Like many of the people from the village, he still accorded Anatole the courtesy of the old title, even though it had been lost to his family generations ago.
Noting that the old man was shivering, Anatole made haste to invite him closer to the fire. Holding out his delicate blue-veined hands to the blaze, Fitzleger sighed.
"Ah, that is much better. 'Tis a bitter cold night."
He handed off his cloak to Anatole, and Anatole noted the clergyman had dressed almost regally for the occasion, in his best wool coat, waistcoat, and knee breeches, a simple white cravat knotted around his throat.
It made Anatole conscious of his own state of undress. He should likely have demonstrated a little more respect for the man who had once been his tutor, his guardian, who would have been his friend.
But who could be friends with a blasted saint?
Almost in defiance, Anatole shoved back his shirtsleeves as he dragged a chair closer to the fire for Fitzleger. It often amazed him to think that he and the fragile old man were distantly related, like trying to reconcile the spawn of Satan with the herald of the angels. They bore no likeness in common, except for the infamous St. Leger nose. And yet they shared the same ancestor, the wicked Lord Prospero St. Leger, who had merrily scattered his seed about the countryside.
One such had borne fruit, becoming a bastard branch of the St. Leger line, eventually known by the name Fitzleger. No doubt it would have amused that devil Prospero to know that the descendants of his by-blow had evolved into a family of respected clergymen.
But then, everything had apparently amused Prospero. Anatole glanced with disgust toward the portrait that dominated the end of the hall, a knight garbed in tunic and cloak, his black eyes twinkling, the full lips twisted in a mocking smile, half concealed by his beard.
The cursed man always appeared on the verge of laughter. Legend had it that he'd even laughed on his way to the stake to be burned for sorcery....
Wrenching his eyes from the portrait, Anatole became aware that an uncomfortable silence had settled between himself and Fitzleger. Although not close to the old man, he usually never had any difficulty talking to him. Perhaps it was his remembering that Fitzleger did not come here tonight to discuss tithes for the church or to solicit aid for the village poor.
He came in his more ancient role of Bride Finder. That put Anatole at a disadvantage, thrust him into the role of supplicant. He hated it.
While he searched his mind for a way to begin, it was Fitzleger who cleared his throat, breaking the silence.
"I am sorry to be so late in answering your summons, my lord. But I was detained after supper. Young Bess Kennack came to consult me about the baptism of her sister."
Anatole tensed at the name. He did not want to ask but could not seem to help himself.
"And how fare the Kennack children?"
"As well as any young ones can who have so recently lost their mother. Bess takes it the hardest. She is still most embittered."
"Against me? That is ... understandable."
"Understandable, perhaps, but wrong."
"Why is it?" Anatole stared moodily into the fire. "Marie Kennack braved her terrors to consult the dread lord of Castle Leger because she was worried about the future of the child she carried in her womb. I gave her the bitter comfort that her daughter would be born in safety, but that Marie would not live to see her."
Fitzleger leaned forward in his chair, and Anatole felt the gentle touch of a hand upon his sleeve. "Having visions of a tragedy is not the same as causing it, my lord."
Anatole knew that. It didn't help. He pulled away from the old man's touch with a rough impatience.
"You did all that you could, my lord. Sent your own cousin to attend her. Marius is the most skilled physician in all of Cornwall, perhaps all of England"
"But it wasn't enough, was it? It never is. What's the cursed good of having these visions if I never can" Anatole heard the anger rise in his voice and struggled to check it, along with the burning sensations of helplessness and frustration.
Taking a deep breath, he managed to say in milder tones, "But I did not summon you here to discuss the Kennacks."
"I know that, my lord."
"Of course, you would. Sharing the same peculiar heritage as myself." Anatole whipped around to face the old man. "Tell me, Fitzleger. I've often wondered. How do you reconcile our devil's gifts with your more spiritual calling?"
"I believe any gifts a man possesses come from God, my lord. It is only when they are misused, they become the product of the devil."
Anatole gave something approaching a snort. It was easy enough for Fitzleger to talk. He didn't possess the strange powers that were Anatole's torments. Fitzleger's gift consisted of a simple basic one, the unerring ability to select the right bride for a St. Leger male, to find the mate for his soul.
Anatole doubted such a woman existed for him, but he lacked the courage to fly in the face of family tradition. His father had, and Anatole had seen what tragedy that had produced. If he was ever tempted to forget, he had his scar to remind him. He started to trace the age-old wound with his fingertips, but stopped, the gesture alone was enough to release a flood of painful memories. He paced off a few brisk steps in front of the fire.
"Fine. We both know what we are here for. Let us get down to business. My requirements in a wife are simple and few. I will list them off for you.
"I want a sturdy woman with sound limbs. Since I am tall, I would prefer a female that stood this many hands high." Anatole indicated a height just above his shoulder level. "She should be prudent, practical, a good rider, and possess some knowledge of hunting and horses. It will give us something sensible to talk about at dinner."
"My lord confuses me," Fitzleger complained. "What exactly is it you wish for me to find for you: a horse, a bride, or a new groom for your stables?"
Ignoring him, Anatole continued, "She should be a woman of courage, with nerves of iron."
"Why? Besides the hunting and riding, does my lord also plan to have the lady help guard the castle?"
Anatole glared. "I don't require she be a beauty. It would be better if she was plain, not some useless creature forever primping in front of a mirror, providing a temptation to other men to make me a cuckold."
"My lord" Fitzleger tried to interrupt again, but this time Anatole refused to let him.
"And I don't want any woman with flame-colored hair. It can be black, brown, blond, even gray. Anything but red."
"But, my lord"
"She shouldn't be delicate. I prefer a full-figured woman, a little plump with wide hips and ample breasts."
"Shall I take a string with me to measure?" Fitzleger managed to break in at last. His soft laughter irritated Anatole. "My lord, this is not how it works."
"Then, would you mind explaining to me just how the devil it does work?"
"I work by an instinct as unexplainable as your own abilities. When I am in the presence of your bride, I will just know her. Like the magic of a divining rod being attracted to a precious metal."
"My own divining rod has attracted me to the beds of some of the wenches in the village. But that doesn't mean any of them would make me a suitable wife."
"That is lust, my lord. We are talking something far different here, and you know that. You must place your trust in me. I will find you your one true bride."
"If she is my true bride, she will be all the things I listed off for you."
"That's as may be, my lord."
"That's as it will be, curse it!" Anatole smacked his fist against his palm. "I am free to choose the horse, the gun, even the dog that suits me. Am I to have no say in the selection of my wife? Damnation!"
"I understand how hard this must be," Fitzleger soothed. "To relinquish control of such a personal matter to another man. But I have done well for your family in the past. I found your grandmother for your grandfather when I was scarce more than a lad. And they enjoyed a long, happy union. Likewise your uncles and cousins. The only bride in this family I did not select was"
Fitzleger broke off. Looking uncomfortable, he cleared his throat.
"You did not select my mother," Anatole finished for him. "I need no reminder of that."
The image of his mother was indelibly burned in his mind even though it had been nineteen years since her death. He could still clearly see her pale face with its fine bone structure, her faery gold hair, but it was her eyes that he thought would haunt him forever.
A boy should see only love in his mother's eyes, not terror.
"I am sorry, my lord." Fitzleger's voice snapped Anatole back to the present. "I did not mean to distress you by raising up ghosts from the past."
"No one has to raise the ghosts around here, Fitzleger. They manage quite well on their own."
Anatole forced his mind back to the subject at hand. "There has to be more than one woman in England that comes close to meeting the requirements I listed for you. I see no reason you can't confine your divining amongst them."
"But, my lord" Fitzleger shot Anatole a pained glance, though he seemed to realize the futility of further argument. Heaving a long sigh, he said, "Very well, my lord. I shall do the best I can to find you such a woman."
"Good. When will you commence your search? I want this matter settled before next summer is out."
"My lord is that eager?"
"No, my lord merely doesn't want to be plagued with a wedding when the shooting is good."
Fitzleger's mouth quirked in a wry smile. "Of course not. One would not wish your lordship to be inconvenienced. I can see I'd best commence my search immediately. I shall set out for London tomorrow."
"London!" Anatole fairly spat the word. "You'll find no bride for me there! Amongst a parcel of town-bred chits who want to do nothing but shop and gossip the livelong day."
"I am sure there are women of good sense to be found in London as well as anywhere else, and that is where my instinct tells me to go." Setting aside his wineglass, Fitzleger struggled to his feet. "Fortunately my eldest daughter is married to a city merchant. I will stay with her while I seek out your bride. Then when I have found her, I will send for you."
"That you bloody well won't. I've never set foot in London, and I don't intend to. That city has always proved a curse to St. Legers."
"It is true that unfortunate things have happened to some of your ancestors"
"Our ancestors," Anatole reminded him with a certain grim relish.
Fitzleger's gaze shifted involuntarily to the portrait of Lord Prospero, as did Anatole's. The old rogue seemed to smirk at them, and both men were quick to look away.
"But I don't believe in any sort of a London curse," Fitzleger continued. "If you don't come to the city, how will you court your bride?"
"You woo her for me. We can have the wedding by proxy."
"What!" Fitzleger's jaw dropped open in dismay.
"If I don't get to select the blasted chit, I don't see any reason why I should court her."
"My lord, you cannot possibly mean to marry without meeting the lady first."
"Why not? You said I could place all my trust in you, Bride Finder."
"Besides, I'm not a man formed by nature or temperament for wooing."
"But, my lord, these are not medieval times. No gently bred lady of good family will consent to marry you, sight unseen."
"Why not, if she is already destined to be my bride?"
"Even destiny must be helped along a little, my son."
"That is your task, is it not? I don't doubt you'll wax eloquent enough on my behalf, and I am prepared to offer a very generous settlement."
Fitzleger looked shocked. "You cannot buy a wife, my lord."
"Of course you can. It is done all the time. Just find some female of little fortune, and you can dazzle her with the size of my estates and income. You may even appall her with a description of my appearance and delightful disposition. But there is one thing you will not tell her."
"And what is that, my lord?"
"Anything about my rather unique heritage."
"Do you think such concealment wise, my lord? I mean" Fitzleger hesitated, then said diffidently, "I fear that is the same mistake your father made."
"No, my father was very frank with my mother before they wed. Since my father possessed so little of the family gifts, I believe my mother found the whole St. Leger history rather romantic ... at least until I was born.
"But we aren't discussing my mother. We are talking about my own wife. Do you think any woman in her right mind would marry me, knowing who and what I am? No! My bride shall remain in ignorance until I determine the best time to enlighten her."
"But how will you keep such a secret? She will be bound to hear some rumors from people in the village or your own servants."
"None will dare if I command otherwise," Anatole said fiercely.
"But there is one here that you don't command." Fitzleger gestured uneasily toward the portrait that dominated the hall.
Anatole grimaced. "Yes, well, fortunately that one will confine his whispering to this part of the castle. I will simply forbid my bride ever to come here."
"My lord, this is not good. To begin a marriage cloaked in such secrecy."
"Nonetheless it shall be as I say." Anatole folded his arms across his chest. "We do it my way, or we don't do it at all."
Anatole had rarely seen signs of distress in the placid Fitzleger. But now the little clergyman raked his hands back through his snowy tufts of hair. When he tried to don his cloak, he appeared so agitated, Anatole had to move to help him.
"Not good. Not good," Fitzleger murmured over and over again. "These are hard conditions you set, my lord. Very hard. I don't even know how I shall remember all your instructions."
"Ah, that is why I had the forethought to set them down on paper." Bending down, Anatole reached inside his boot and produced the small roll of parchment he had tucked there hours before.
Unfurling it, he checked it himself one last time before handing it over to Fitzleger. Of course, since he had inked out his commands earlier that afternoon, it said nothing about his ban against the chit having red hair. But Fitzleger could surely remember that much.
The rest was all there ... the sturdy limbs, the ample bosom, the good horsemanship, the plain face, the practical mind, the courage. Yes, most of all the courage.
Lest she be frightened to death.
The thought no sooner entered Anatole's mind than, as if on cue, a chill passed through him, an icy blast of air that caused the candles to flicker.
The parchment flew out of his hand, snatched away by invisible fingers. Anatole heard a soft mocking laugh. He tensed for a moment, then cursed. Pursuing the fluttering paper, he tromped down upon it with his boot just in time to save it from being whisked into the blazing hearth.
As suddenly as it had come, the wind stopped. The candles resumed their normal, steady glow. Compressing his lips together, Anatole bent down to retrieve the parchment.
He straightened to find Fitzleger staring about him with wide eyes. The old man did not look frightened, only a little unnerved.
"Was that him?" he asked in hushed tones.
"That devil Prospero. Who else?" Anatole glared at the rogue's portrait. Prospero's black eyes mocked him back. Anatole let out a mouth-filling oath. "It would be a wonderful thing, Fitzleger. To have ancestors that when one bid them 'rest in peace,' they had the courtesy to do so."
That silky taunting laughter echoed through the hall again.
Fitzleger sighed and laid his hand upon Anatole's sleeve. "My poor boy. You are the one I wish I could offer some peace from all of this."
"Peace?" Anatole gave a bitter laugh. "I don't expect that until I die. And given that I'm a St. Leger, probably not even then."
Taking Fitzleger's hand, he upended the clergyman's palm and slapped the parchment into it. "No, old man. There's only one thing you can do for me."
With a single flash of his eyes, Anatole opened the cloister door.
"Go," he commanded. "Find me a bride."