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The Wicked One
By ELIZABETH KEYS
Kensington Publishing Corp.Copyright © 2006 Mary Lou Frank and Susan C. Stevenson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCounty Kildare, Ireland 1855
The Wicked One.
The reputation he'd been saddled with for the past decade clawed at Connal Delaney with fresh bitterness as he watched the sun fade behind the indigo and green of Kildare's distant hills.
He took a deep breath. The Wicked One, and now, the Only One.
His lips twisted over both labels. The scattered pages behind him on his desk delivered neither the enlightenment nor the satisfaction he had anticipated when he began his enquiries so many years ago. Instead, they contained only the barest of facts, a few tattered news clippings and a surprising sense of loss.
He took another swallow from the glass he'd kept filled since his solicitor's boy delivered the packet from Boston, and continued to stare across the paddocks and meadows of Glenmeade Stables. His home. His future.
The heavy tread of boots in the hall reminded him he was not quite alone. A moment later, Jack flung open the study door and strode into the office without knocking.
"How went things with the farrier?" Connal asked, not turning away from the window casement and the soothing colors in the distance. He was not ready to face the last remaining relative he possessed in this world. Not yet.
"Well enough, though I expected ye ta be through with the accounts and down ta see fer yerself at some point before he departed."
The chink of crystal on glass signaled Jack's pouring his own dram from the decanter. Connal smiled, though his lips felt stiff. Jack had never been one to stand on social niceties like knocking or waiting to be offered refreshment. Honesty, brashness, those were the trademark characteristics Connal counted on from his mother's brother. And loyalty, that most of all. A rare familial commodity in his experience.
"I can see ye've yet to finish the accounts to any degree," Jack observed tartly.
The ledgers Connal had been so eager to reconcile were still spread on the broad desk behind him. They had long ago left his thoughts. He shook his head. He felt like a year had passed since he'd risen this morning.
"What's this about big news from yer solicitor?" his uncle continued in a falsely jovial tone after a few moments of joint silence. "It couldn't be too big, I said to Jenna O'Toole, else ye'd have sent fer me down in the stables."
Connal took another sip from the tumbler he clutched and continued staring into the distant shadows of his homeland. The crosscuts in the glass dug into his fingers as the burn of the whiskey registered through the numbness still encasing him. He doubted his housekeeper had any true idea of just how big the news he'd received had been. Questions answered at long last. Ambition realized. Where was the satisfaction he'd anticipated all these years?
"That letter's from America, lad?" Jack's question was less inquiry than statement of fact. "About Finn. From Finn?"
Connal nodded, but held his peace.
"I've more than a few words I'd like to say to him." Jack dropped all pretense of casual interest. "And a visit he'll not soon forget. Ye cannot allow him to assert his claims here. He gave them up the day he cuckolded ye and shot ye in the back. After hanging ye with the stench of his deeds all these years even he cannot possess the brass to try and rob ye of the fruits of yer labors."
"Nay," Connal shook his head, trying to clear some of the wool he'd gathered while perusing the paddocks and lawns. He turned and met his uncle's piercing gaze. More gray hairs than black covered Black Jack Branigan's temples these days, but a decade had not dimmed the fierce allegiance that shook his voice. "That is one offence he will never commit."
Connal ran a hand through his hair and blew out a long breath. There was no need to soften the news for Jack's sake. "Finn's claims are quit forever. He was shot dead by the husband of the woman whose bed he occupied. Several months ago. After all these years, Glenmeade is mine alone."
Silence held for the space of a dozen heartbeats.
"Praise be." Jack didn't bother to feign sorrow over the news as satisfaction glinted in his eyes. He took a long swallow of whiskey before raising it in an empty salute.
"May the Devil give his spit an extra turn fer every day ye've faced since he left ye ta shoulder the prácás he created." Jack sighed the words out with the reverence of a long-awaited prayer.
"It took more than one to create that mess," Connal reminded him before tossing back the dregs from his own glass. The whiskey did little to burn away the resentment and regrets still lashing him despite the passage of time.
Connal waved a hand to still the hot protest forming on his uncle's lips. "I am not excusing Finn. But there were two of them trysting behind my back."
"There's plenty of blame to spread around, that's fer sure." Jack's voice tightened with indignation. "Brennan Delaney and his libelous misdealings, fer one. Heaping the blame on ye while helping his own son to escape the hangman and start a new life with a clean slate. Why ye've never so much as tried to clear yer name, I've yet to understand ..."
"I will not fail Rosleen a second time." Connal closed his eyes and swallowed hard, leaning his head back against the casement. "Her death was an overpayment. Adultery does not need to be added to her sins."
Even after all this time, his emotions for the girl he had once planned to wed still created havoc. He could not forgive her. He could not abandon her again. He wouldn't blacken her name more to save his own. That final protection he owed her for his failures. Although the county might have the details of their story wrong, he deserved the reputation he'd been saddled with since Rose's death, if only for not protecting her from Finn's attentions.
"She made her choices, lad." Jack's voice gentled. "Ye cannot hold yerself responsible. Ye deserve better. If people knew the truth-"
"Enough, Jack. People believe what they choose." Connal cut off Jack's favorite litany. "I am the last Delaney of Glenmeade. The last there will ever be. Deserve it or not, at least my title here is finally clear. Once the papers are filed, I will be able to pursue the expansion of the Stables free of any possible impediment."
"Ye cannot mean ta take James Carey up on his offer to help ye refinance Brennan's loan? Not when ye're so nearly out from under." Jack peered at him through the thickening shadows in the study. Connal reached for the decanter and refilled both his and Jack's glasses.
"The Stables are mine to do with as I see fit, Uncle." He stoppered the decanter with a decisive clink and tipped his glass against Jack's. "The risks and the benefits will be mine to shoulder."
Jack nodded, his lips pressed in a thin line as he held his peace, then he downed the whiskey without further comment.
The weeks following the news of Finn's death passed with barely a ripple in the day-to-day routines at Glenmeade. Still, change was in the wind and Connal needed to blow away his doubts. The temptation to continue racing through the green hills and shallow valleys long into the night rose as Teagan, one of Glenmeade's finest stallions, stamped and pawed the ground beneath him.
Shadows lengthened on the dirt path ahead, matching Connal's darkened thoughts. His first meaningful act as sole owner of Glenmeade would be to sign away a good portion of it, even if it was only for a few years. A galling reality, but the payoff was too tempting to pass up. The stock he was purchasing, along with the added outbuildings to house them, would advance his breeding program several generations, and perhaps a decade sooner than he could afford on his own. The risk was surely worth the benefit. If only his misgivings did not sound so similar to the ones Jack had voiced before departing for England.
"Ye need ta be wary when something appears too easy, too good. There's a price ta be paid fer everything. Either before or after, the piper always gets his due." The old adage one of their nursery maids had lectured Finn with when he'd been caught in some mischief surfaced now from the depths. Also eerily similar to Jack's warnings.
He pulled his mount to a halt. James Carey's steadfast friendship through the years, especially after the tragedy forever linking their names, should have mitigated Jack's doubts about Connal accepting James's help in securing financial backing to expand Glenmeade's business. Still, now that he was committed, Connal found he could not quite escape a nagging feeling that the course he'd chosen held unseen pitfalls, or that events were about to spiral out of his control.
"Enough," he warned himself. The entire matter was a sensible arrangement between gentlemen. Advantageous to both Connal and the group of investors James had found to back him. The die had been cast the minute he'd accepted their offer, second-guessing himself at this juncture was fruitless. Jack was likely on his way back from England with the new herd even now.
Connal patted his mount and turned back toward Glenmeade Stables and the papers awaiting his signature.
He cantered up the lane and into the yard to find his neighbor's black mare tethered near the front entrance. "Best get this over."
Perhaps he would feel better once the deed was done. He slid from Teagan's back and tossed the reins to the stable lad who'd rushed forward to greet him. His commitment to advance Glenmeade Stables was all he had to hold on to.
A small collection of valises and trunks piled on the far side of the front portico caught his attention as he strode across the yard. Had James brought one of the principals to look over his investment? Connal slowed his steps long enough to peruse the mismatched collection of luggage. They were battered and covered with dust-not the sort of items any man of James Carey's acquaintance was likely to possess. So what were these doing here?
Jenna's earlier mutterings about mice and clearing out the storage room echoed back to Connal. Apparently she'd found lads to help her accomplish the task after all. Not surprising, considering his housekeeper's determination when she set her mind to something. These had likely moldered in some corner for too many years. He'd have to speak to her about airing such things in the front drive when she knew they were expecting a guest, even a guest she did not care for. But that could wait until after he'd dealt with James and their business.
Straightening his shoulders, Connal flung open the oak door to the Manor.
"James?" The gloom of the entrance hall swallowed his call.
The faint hum of voices coming from the drawing room opposite his study was his only answer. Good, Jenna was seeing to his guest's comfort. The difficulties of a bachelor managing both a thriving business and a household on his own needled him at times, but no decent woman would ever consent to wed him and take management of the Manor into her delicate hands. Actually, he and Jenna muddled along quite comfortably, she was more than capable of handling the few social niceties she was called upon to supply-rarely more than a full decanter and a dust-free room for him to conduct his business meetings in.
Stripping off his gloves and hat, he tossed them on the hall table he passed on his way to join them.
A dark blue velvet-trimmed cloak and traveling bonnet flung across the arm of the settee inside snagged his gaze before he cleared the drawing room doorway. Obviously not the sort of items James would wear. Traces of cinnamon and vanilla twined together to halt him just outside the entrance to what looked to be an empty room. He could have sworn the voices he'd heard had come from here.
"Thank you, sir-" A woman's voice as warm as sunlight on grass flowed through the vacant drawing room, confirming he was not imagining phantom conversations at least.
Just phantoms, it would seem, as the disembodied voice continued, "-I am quite certain I would have been unable to coax even the barest spark for another half hour at least."
Whoever was speaking was definitely not Jenna O'Toole. Her accent seemed oddly familiar, yet utterly alien at one and the same time. Smooth dips and hollows in tone and a flowing lilt gave her words softly rounded edges. Languid heat inexplicably curled through his middle.
"My pleasure entirely, I assure you." James Carey's reply confirmed their location, hidden behind a sofa on the far side of the drawing room by the fireplace. "Peat is not easily lit if one is unfamiliar with it."
Who in all Ireland did not know the difficulties lighting peat could present? And why had James brought her to today's meeting? He had not mentioned any guests when they had made their arrangements.
Caution kept Connal in the hall. He leaned forward far enough to catch sight of James straightening from a crouch by the hearth. Delicate fingers lingered in his grasp as his companion rose to stand beside him in a genteel rustle of skirts. James was not an overly tall man, but his guest barely cleared his shoulder. For a moment they were silhouetted against the fire's blaze, their features indistinguishable.
"We have little need of fires at home," she spoke ruefully. "The whole process is something I never quite mastered. We would both be quite cold if the task were left to me."
Who was she?
Firelight danced in her auburn tresses bound in a simple chignon. Her plaid dress-blue crossed with black-though a little worse for wear, suited her nonetheless, showing off her attributes. Despite her diminutive stature, her figure proved alluring enough to warm the room without the aid of the fire. From the soft curve of her cheek to the pale skin of her throat, and across the regal set of slender shoulders he could almost feel beneath his hands, she made an attractive package.
"I am in your debt," she continued, looking up at James with a soft smile.
No gentle females had called at Glenmeade Manor in well over a decade-James was as aware of that harsh fact as he. Could she be his mistress? Connal rejected the thought out of hand. Beautiful as she might be, she hardly had the look of a plaything. There was an aura of decency, of honesty, about her he had not seen in a long time and certainly not in the kind of woman who allowed herself to be kept by any man other than her husband. So what then was she doing here with James Carey?
He'd tarried too long already pondering a mystery that would be solved as soon as introductions could be made. Whatever intentions either of them held behind this visit, whether James had lost a bet or she had accepted a dare to come and meet The Wicked One, it was time for him to greet his guests.
Connal stepped out of the shadowy hall and into the drawing room. "Hullo, James. I see you were able to make yourself comfortable."
Damnation. Despite himself, his last word held more than a hint of censure. He'd spent too many years away from polite society to handle this with ease.
They both swiveled their heads in his direction. James lifted one brow as he released his companion's hand at last.
The gentle smile on the woman's lips for James and his gallantry died away as her gaze focused on Connal. Her mouth parted in surprise. Face-to-face with The Wicked One her shocked expression mirrored the standard response of women countywide. He might as easily have been sporting two horns and a devil's tail.
"Our host has arrived at last." James shifted his gaze from his companion to Connal and back. Awkward silence thickened the air.
"I hope I am not intruding." Connal dangled his brusque observation as more barb than apology for his lateness.
To her credit, his unknown guest did not flinch in the face of his rudeness, although her fair skin paled another shade. Her chin raised a fraction as she closed her lips. She took a deep breath and stepped forward across the figured Persian carpet, her shoulders set as though resolved to face a firing squad. "We simply were not aware of your arrival ... Mister ... Delaney."
Her pronunciation of his name came with a hesitance at odds with her determined advance. He was not sure if he should step back out of her way or forward to meet her. The scents of cinnamon and vanilla lanced him anew as he drew in a quick breath. He had never been so swiftly conflicted about any woman, attracted and leery at the same time.
Excerpted from The Wicked One by ELIZABETH KEYS Copyright © 2006 by Mary Lou Frank and Susan C. Stevenson. Excerpted by permission.
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