Read The Windflower Online

Authors: Laura London

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Romance, #Erotica, #Regency, #General

The Windflower

HE WAS HER ENEMY, HER LOVE . . .

 

Merry forced herself to look into his eyes. "Please let me go. Please."

"Love, I can't." Devon brought his hand to tilt her face, his broad palm at the base of her throat; his lips were warm and dry on hers, and a few strands of her hair were caught as stinging silk in the kiss. The blood began to pound in her throat.

"You kiss," he said softly into her curls, "as though each time were your first." He lifted his hands to her shoulders, feeling their soft graceful swell beneath his palms. She turned her face away, her lips throbbing, not wanting him to see as she slipped her tongue over them, trying to soothe the unfamiliar sensations she felt there.

"You've had your revenge," she whispered. "Now let me go."

"No, my dear, no. Let us see if we can make your body turn traitor. Kiss me again, and you can tell me afterward if it was worse than dying."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By the author of:

BAD BARON'S DAUGHTER

A HEART TOO PROUD

MOONLIGHT MIST

LOVE'S A STAGE

GYPSY HEIRESS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE WINDFLOWER

 

Laura London

 

 

 

 

A DELL BOOK

 

 

 

 

Published by

Dell Publishing Co., Inc.

1 Dag Hammarskjold Plaza

New York
,
New York
10017

Copyright © 1984 by Thomas Dale Curtis and Sharon Curtis

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced

or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,

including photocopying, recording or by any information storage

and retrieval system, without the written permission of

the Publisher, except where permitted by law.

Dell ® TM 681510, Dell Publishing Co., Inc.

ISBN: 0-440-19534-9

Printed in the
United States of America

First printing—June 1984

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dedicated fondly to

Vivien Lee
Jennings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

Fairfield
,
Virginia
. August 1813.

Merry Patricia Wilding was sitting on a cobblestone wall, sketching three rutabagas and daydreaming about the unicorn. A spray of shade from the swelling branches of the walnut tree covered her and most of the kitchen garden, but even so, it was hotter here than it had been inside. A large taffy-colored dog with thick fur stole past the fence; she noticed it as a flicker of movement in the corner of her vision. Light dust floated in the air and settled on the helpless leaves. The breeze brought the scent of baking ground and sun-burnt greens.

There was no one about to disturb her solitary concentration, or to mark the intriguing contrast she made with the homey products of the earth that grew freely near her soft-shod feet. Her appearance suggested a fragile, pale icon: lace and frail blossoms rather than fallen leaves and parsley plants. She was a slender girl, with delicate cheekbones set high in an oval face, and dark-lashed eyes, lazy from the day. Early that morning she had put up her heavy hair in anticipation of the heat, but the ivory combs and brass hairpins were working loose and silky red-gold strands had begun to collapse on the back of her neck. It never occurred to her that some might find the effect charming; it merely made her feel hot, untidy, and vaguely guilty, as though she ought to return to her bedroom and wind her hair back up. She would have been so much more comfortable, she thought, if she dared sit as the housemaids did on the back stoop in the evening, with the hems of their skirts pulled up past their knees, laps open, bare heels dug into the cool dirt. A slight smile touched her lips as she imagined her aunt's reaction, should that lady discover her niece, Merry Patricia, in such a posture.

Setting down her pencil, Merry spread and flexed her fingers and watched as a tiny yellow butterfly skimmed her shoulder to light on the ground, its thin wings fluttering against the flushing bulge of a carrot. The beans were heavy with plump rods, and there would be good eating from the sturdy ruby stalks of the rhubarb. Merry looked back to her drawing and lifted her pencil.

The rutabagas weren't coming out right. The front one had a hairy, trailing root that jutted upward at an awkwardly foreshortened angle. Though she had corrected the drawing several times, the result remained an unhappy one. It would make a better exercise to continue reworking the picture until she had captured the very essence of the vegetable, in all its humble, mottled-purple symmetry. . . . Merry was disappointed to discover in herself a flagging interest in the rutabagas . . . discipline, discipline.

Discipline and a hot afternoon sun are the poorest allies, and while Merry forced her pencil back to its labor the dream invaded her mind once more.

Last night the unicorn had come again.

Ten years ago she had had the first unicorn dream, after seeing an impression of the creature fixed into the sealing wax of a letter to her aunt from
England
. Merry had been eight years old then, and as she slept the unicorn had come to her, like a tiny toy with great soft eyes, and she could pull it after her on a string. As she grew the dream had altered. She would dream of meeting with the unicorn in an enchanted wood, and they would run between the trees, a race which neither won, and afterward they would drink from a secret spring. She wasn't allowed to have pets; but her dream unicorn was satisfying, exclusively hers, and would always come again if she went to the edge of the woods and called. Her aunt would never find out about it because it lived in the wild and was only tame for her.

Then it left her dreams and hadn't returned for years—until last night. It had burst through the window in a frightening rush of energy, glass flying everywhere, and it had reared in the corner of the room, pawing and snorting, looking bigger than it had been before, its muscles white and glistening beneath its creamy hide, its chest broad and heaving, its horn poised and thick. She had cowered beneath the covers, but curiosity caused her to look in small peeps and then long gazes. Its eyes were different now, still big, but there was knowledge there, a frightening intelligence, and it tossed its head, beckoning to her.

He wants me to ride him,
she had thought in her dream.
Am I too afraid?
She was going to leave her bed and go closer, but before she moved, it turned in a sudden dash and leaped through the window, hooves flashing in the moonlight.

The fantasy hoofbeats faded slowly from her daydream, slipping away into the dimly lit part of the mind where dreams lie in safekeeping. Merry came back to reality as the soft walking rhythm of a flesh-and-blood horse prosaically replaced her
midnight
creature.

She had been expecting no visitors, so she looked up quickly toward the sound, toward the narrow pebbled carriageway that split her aunt's two-story red-brick house from the old frame barn. From behind the potent green of a ridge of lilac bushes, she saw her only brother emerge and watched with unbelieving elation as he worked his sweaty animal over to the shaded wall beside her.

"Carl! Oh, Carl, hello! Hail! Salutations!
Guten Morgen!"

Leaning forward in the saddle, her brother said, "I take that to mean I haven't arrived at an unwelcome moment? Who's been teaching you German?"

Henry Cork—but that's all he knows, so it was a
short
lesson." Grinning her delight in a way she was sure must look foolish, Merry set down her sketch pad and extended her hand. Three months it had been since she had seen him, a comparatively short interval. Heroes, it seemed, didn't make the most attentive brothers. "How did you know to find me back here?"

"One of your abigails told me—Bess, I think. She's sitting around front, shelling peas and dickering with a trunk-peddler over a card of buttons," he said, taking her offered hand. "I imagine it will ruffle April's feathers that I didn't have myself announced."

It was clear from the unemotional tone of his observation that this was not a circumstance that would trouble him overmuch, but because her brother's casual dislike of their aunt made Merry uncomfortable, she sidestepped the ramifications of his remark and said, "Not at all, Carl. Family needn't stand on ceremony. How glad I am to see you. But I'm surprised! I thought you were in the capital with Father." Her expression changed. "Has something happened? Father—is he . . ."

"He's well. Same as always. Tough as a horseshoe, although Mrs. Madison says he doesn't get enough rest. I don't know. I didn't come to talk to you about him." He gave her hand a brief squeeze before he released it, and then removed his hat, brushed back his hair, which was red-gold like hers but not as thick, and put his hat back on. He was gray with road dust and had tired, fine lines on his lean face, around his eyes, unusual lines on one so young, mapping the intensity within. She could tell he'd ridden hard. He was wearing civilian clothes, riding clothes which flattered him less than his officer's uniform, making him look more like the young adult of twenty-one he was and less like a man used to drilling recruits.

He glanced around with shaded eyes. "Can we talk here?"

"Of course." She lifted her feet to the top of the wall and hugged her knees, looking up at him with a slight tilt to her lashes. "The only ears here are on the sweet corn."

"But the potatoes have eyes," he answered with a reluctant smile. "Is that what you've been doing, sketching vegetables?"

"Trying," she said. "There are riches in shape and shading under the leaves, but I've a poor hand this afternoon." She held up her sketch pad for him to see.

"Hmm. Amazing. Like life. 1 can't see what you find amiss with it."

Merry only smiled and closed the sketchbook. "Will you come in the house, Carl? It's almost teatime, and we've got cider cooling on ice chips."

"Later." He waved his hand impatiently, as though dismissing an inane courtesy. "1 need you again, my girl."

Her heart quickened. "To draw, do you mean?"

It was the pride of her life that twice before she had been able to help him and the American cause. He had taken her once to a coaching inn and once to market day at
Richmond
, where he had quietly pointed out men suspected of collaborating with the British. She would make her best effort to watch them without seeming to and later had rendered the faces in detailed sketches. Carl saw to it that the drawings were reproduced and circulated, which neutralized the British agents as effectively as if they'd been captured or hanged.

It had been a small thing to do for her country, especially compared to the ultimate sacrifice American soldiers were prepared to make on the field of battle; the smallness of it had stirred within her embers of dissatisfaction with the useless gentility of her life. These yearnings would surely have wounded her staunchly pro-British Aunt April, so Merry kept them to herself and tried to find solace in painting watercolor portraits of heroines like the courageous Mrs. Penelope Barker, who, thirty years ago in the First War of Independence, had stopped the British from commandeering her carriage horses by pulling her absent husband's sword from the wall and slicing to ribbons the reins in the British officer's hands. Inevitably Merry had tried to daydream herself into Mrs. Barker's shoes, but even if she'd possessed a sword, Aunt April would never have allowed such a gruesome object to hang on the wall, and the only horse they had was poor old swaybacked, buck-kneed Jacob, whom no one would want to steal. Furthermore, if enemy troops came within a hundred miles, Aunt April would undoubtedly whisk Merry away to a place of safety.

Carl shoved his hat back over his sweat-lacquered curls. "If you'll do it. Want to work with me again?"

"1
dearly
want to draw for you again, Carl." She stretched out a hand to stroke the horse's soft, damp muzzle, smiling at her older brother. Motherless, they had been reared separately; he by their austere, unloving father, she by Aunt April, their mother's sister. If she had seen Carl twice a year as a child, that was often. His boyhood had seemed to her an entrancing miracle of kite string and fishhooks, Latin tutors and wooden boats that really sailed. Unaware that she herself had become anything more than the awkward, overprotected girl-child who knitted mittens in the winter and stitched samplers in the summer, she watched as Carl grew taller, more clever, more self-confident. He was not an affectionate man. He hadn't once remembered her on her birthday. He rarely offered himself as a confidant or a protector, and yet, through his patriotic activities he had brought into her life a rare and precious dimension. Teasingly she told him, "You're my only chance to grab a little glory, you know. I suppose I'm not to tell Aunt April, again?"

"Not unless you want her to forbid you to go. Anyway, that's been taken care of. Father wrote a letter to cover us. saying that he'll be in
Alexandria
this Thursday on government business and wants you to meet him there for a visit." He jumped from the horse's sweating back. "Come with me while 1 walk the horse."

She slid from the stone wall and put her hand self-consciously to her hair. "I ought to fetch my bonnet, I suppose. 1 imagine 1 look all scraggly."

He looked surprised and irritated. "We're just going down the lane a bit. Does it matter so much?"

Instantly she shook her head and joined him in the bright, battering sunlight, embarrassed that she had been so petty. "Then Father knows about it," she said.

He glanced down at her as she caught up to him and tried to match his stride, her eyes blinking out the sun's stinging rays. "He knows you're going to draw for me again. Merry, but-—" A bee, attracted by the sweating horse, buzzed around their heads, and he swatted at it. "But he doesn't know where. Truth is, I lied."

Shocked and honored at once by his confession, she said, "You lied to Father?" Her father had been forty-five when she was born, and now his wreath of white hair, long hooked nose, and still eagle vision made lying to him seem futile. He appeared to be looking for the lie in the face of every man he met. "Why?"

"Because it's not a place I should take you. 1 wouldn't either, if it wasn't such a rare opportunity. There's a man who is going to be there at
nine o'clock
Thursday who-—no, I'll tell you about it later. But it's important. I would never take you to such a rough place if it wasn't important."

"A rough place? Do you mean a prize fight?"

He gave a rueful grin. "Is that the roughest place you can think of, Merry?"

The lane angled away from the kitchen garden, into a green meadow dappled with pink clover and birdsong. Merry had been holding her skirt carefully above the path's red dust, but at Carl's words she let it drop and snatched up the silver-seeded head of a thistle. She held it before her, flourished a hand over it, and said in an important voice, "This, my dear brother, is a crystal ball."

He had no particular taste for whimsy, but because she was young and female and his sister, he said indulgently, "Is it? Divine for me then, ma'am."

"Let me see!" A soft breath of air from her pink lips sent a powdery cloud of feathered seeds spinning off across the high June grass. Staring with comical intensity into the thistle globe, she said, "Yes, it's becoming clearer now! I see—a room. A rough place! There are men there, some of them unshaven, and they are—horrors, they're setting great flagons of ale upon a maple-wood table and leaving dreadful water rings! The high corners are dripping with spider webs, and the side tables beg to be dusted." She glanced at her brother. "How am I doing?"

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