A Kiss of Fate Excerpt
The skies wept with autumn rain, perfect for burying the dead. Gwyneth Owens was grateful that custom banned females from the graveside, for she would have been unable to maintain her composure as her father was laid beneath the damp sod.
As always, she sought refuge in Lord Brecon’s library. Her father, Robert Owens, had been his lordship’s librarian for almost thirty years, and Gwynne had grown up among these treasured volumes.
As she moved along the south wall, she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror above the fireplace. She turned away, avoiding the sight of her too tall figure and garish, unfashionable hair. Such a pity that she had inherited neither her father’s power nor her mother’s beauty.
Perhaps riding breakneck across Harlowe’s hills would relieve her restless tension, but that wasn’t possible since soon she would be summoned downstairs to act as chief mourner at the solemn gathering that would be held in her father’s honor. Needing to be active, she unlocked the adjacent gallery, which contained the private library as well as her father’s office.
A faint, almost indiscernible frisson of energy flickered over her skin when she stepped inside. The long, high-ceilinged chamber contained Britain’s finest collection of books and manuscripts about magic. The volumes also represented the history and wisdom of the ancient Guardian families of the British Isles.
The Guardians, her father’s clan. Human but gifted with magical powers, they had lived clandestinely among mundanes since time immemorial. Gwynne had been raised as a Guardian by virtue of her father’s blood though she had no power of her own.
Guardians took their name from the oath all swore to use their power to protect and serve their fellow man as best they could. Because of that mission, Guardians revered history in the hopes that it would prevent them from repeating earlier mistakes.
Occasionally, it did.
As Keeper of the Lore, the Earl of Brecon was responsible for these precious books and manuscripts. At the age of six, Gwynne had started to assist her father in maintaining the books. She had started with dusting, handling the volumes as carefully as if they were fine porcelain. Later she had copied crumbling texts onto new parchment and learned the secrets of preservation.
She scanned the collection with regret, knowing she would miss the books fiercely if she left the estate. Given the importance of the collection, a new librarian would be engaged soon, so she must prepare for the change by removing her father’s personal possessions.
With a soft feline sound, her plump tabby, Athena, jumped onto the desk and curled into a ball. Comforted by the cat’s presence, Gwynne settled at her father’s desk and began searching the drawers for personal items. Keeping busy was essential if she was to prevent herself from mourning the past or brooding about her future.
A reserved, scholarly man, Robert Owens had lived a quiet life at Harlowe Place. His one act of rebellion had been to marry Anna Wells against the wishes of both families. Her family had disowned her. The Owenses had accepted the match, though reluctantly. Guardians were encouraged to marry other Guardians, and Anna had been a mundane. Though beautiful and amiable, she had no magic in her soul.
But the marriage had been a happy one, and Anna’s death of a fever two years before had devastated her small family. Now Robert was gone as well, and Gwynne was alone. A pity she had no brother or sister to mourn with her.
The last drawer was almost empty when the door opened. The tapping of a cane told her that Emery, Lord Brecon was approaching. She rose at the sight of his spare, splendidly garbed figure. Tall and distinguished, he had hair so thick and naturally white there was no need for powder. The earl’s courtesy and learning were legendary, and he had always been kind to a little girl who loved books.
Seeing her, he said quietly, “It is done, my dear.”
“My parents are together now, and at peace.” As Gwynne spoke, the truth of her words resonated inside her. Occasionally she had such flashes of absolute knowledge, her only trace of Guardian power. It was not the same as calling the winds or scrying the future or healing the sick.
“We are both expected in the blue drawing room, but I hope you don’t mind if I rest here for a few minutes before we go down. A bitter wind was blowing.” Wearily the earl settled into the leather wing chair by the coal fire.
“I’m glad for the rain. A beautiful day would have been wrong for a funeral.”
“There are no good days for funerals.” His gaze touched the willow basket that she had filled with her father’s eclectic mix of notes and objects. “You’ve been diligent, I see. The library will be the poorer when you leave.”
So she was to be sent away. The shock of that made her dare to make a request that was her only chance to achieve her secret dream. “I have always loved working in the library. Indeed, my lord, I…I have hoped that you might engage me to act as librarian in my father’s place. Though I have not his formal education, he tutored me well. I have worked with the books my whole life. My father said that no one was better at preservation, and I write a fine clear hand when copying fragile manuscripts. Or if not as the chief librarian, perhaps I might continue here as an assistant?”
“You are only seventeen, child,” the earl said, startled. “Too young to bury yourself among books. Life must be lived as well as studied between dusty pages. You will never marry if your beaux can’t find you.”
She almost laughed aloud. His lordship could not have looked at her closely if he thought her marriageable. She had neither fortune nor beauty, and few of the local lads even noticed her existence. “I’ve met no young men who interest me as much as a good book or a good horse, my lord.”
His bushy brows drew together. “I had thought to have this discussion with you later, but apparently now is the time. What are your plans and desires for your future?”
She raised her chin a fraction. “Nothing is set yet, but don’t worry, I shan’t stay and be a burden to you.”
“As if you could be. Harlowe is your home, Gwynne, and you are always welcome here. Though if you prefer to leave…?”
“A cousin of my father has written to offer me a home.” She hesitated, then decided it behooved her to be honest, since she was determining the course of her whole future. “I don’t mind working for my keep, but I would rather assist your new librarian than be an unpaid nursery maid to my cousin’s children.”
“You deserve more than to be a servant or to bury yourself in books.” His pale blue eyes studied her with uncomfortable intensity. “Yet you are not yet ready for marriage. It is too soon.”
Hearing his deeper meaning, she asked eagerly. “You have seen my future?”
“Only in the most general terms. Your path is clouded, with many possibilities. But Bethany and I both sense that a great destiny awaits you. Great, and difficult.”
A great destiny. “How can that be true when I have no power?”
“Destiny is quite separate from power—mundanes without a particle of magic have created most of the world’s history. Not that you are without magic, Gwynne. Like a winter rose, you are merely slow in developing.”
“I hope you are right, my lord.” She closed her eyes for a moment, blinking back the tears that were near the surface today. As a child she had dreamed of being a great mage, a wielder of magic. When she reached womanhood, she awoke each day eager to see if power had blossomed within her, but in vain. She had only the kind of intuition that any mundane might claim.
“With or without magic, you are a rare and precious being. Never forget that.”
As a man past seventy, he idealized youth, she guessed. But his words were warming. “You have taught me that all human life is rare and precious, Guardian and mundane alike. I shall not forget.”
He linked his hands over the golden head of his cane, frowning with an uncertainty she’d never seen before. “There is a possibility that will not leave my mind no matter how I try to dismiss it. At first glance it seems absurd—and yet it feels right.”
“Yes?” she said encouragingly. The idea that the lord of Harlowe had been thinking about Gwynne and her future was gratifying.
“I have considered asking you to become my wife.”
She gasped, stunned speechless.
“The thought shocks you.” He smiled wryly. “And well it should. Over fifty years of age lie between us. Marriage would be scandalous. Women would despise me for taking advantage of your innocence, and many men would be envious, and with justice. If the idea disgusts you….” He reached for his cane to stand, and she realized that he was embarrassed, even shy.
“No!” She stopped him with a quick gesture. “The idea is startling, but not…not disgusting.” She studied his familiar face with fresh, amazed eyes. “You have been like the sun, stars, and skies over Harlowe, and I no more than a sparrow. I have trouble believing that you are not jesting.”
“This is no jest. You need to learn more of the world before destiny sweeps you up.” He fidgeted with his cane again. “I will not live many more years, so you would soon become a young widow of fortune and independence.”
“Surely your children will object to you remarrying. They will consider it an insult to their mother, and they’ll resent any legacy you might bequeath me.”
“I am still the master of Harlowe House and may do what I choose,” he said dryly. “But after I have spoken to them, they will not object. Marrying you would serve Guardian interests, if you would be willing to accept me.”
She tried to conceal her disappointment. “You are proposing because it is your duty to the Families, Lord Brecon?”
“While preparing you for your destiny benefits our people, I could do that without wedding you. I…I have always found pleasure in your company, Gwynne,” he said haltingly. “The years since Charlotte died have been lonely. Your wit and warmth and grace would be a blessing beyond what an old man deserves. I would be honored and grateful if you would become my wife.”
He meant it, she realized. This wonderful man of power and wisdom truly wanted her to marry him. For the first time in her life, she felt the presence of power—not the power of magic, but the even more ancient power of a woman to please a man.
Glowing with delight, she rose and offered him her hands. “You do me honor beyond anything I’ve ever imagined, my lord. If you truly wish it, I will gladly be your bride.”
With a smile that took her breath away, he clasped her hands. “This is right for both of us, Gwynne, I know it.”
So did she, with a certainty beyond reason. She raised their joined hands and pressed a kiss on his gnarled knuckles. Already she was saddened to know how short their time together would be. But she would make sure that he didn’t regret this decision.
Destiny could take care of itself. For now, she would concern herself with being a good wife.
Duncan Macrae inhaled deeply, intoxicated by the rampant scents of summer. Having arrived in London the night before after a long, grueling tour of the Continent, he would have preferred to spend the day sleeping, but his friend Lord Falconer had insisted on dragging him from London to Richmond. Now Duncan was glad he had come. He glanced at the sky. “Lady Bethany chose her day well. Britain at its best.”
“As you know, she has some Macrae blood. Enough to always choose a fine day for her entertainments despite our chancy English weather.” Simon lovingly smoothed a wrinkle from his blue brocade sleeve. “If rain threatened, I’d not have worn this new coat. It was damnably expensive.”
Duncan grinned. His friend mimicked the manners of a fop so perfectly that even Duncan, who had known him since the nursery, sometimes had trouble remembering that Simon was the most dangerous mage in Britain. Except, perhaps, for Duncan himself. “Where is Lady Bethany? I should pay my respects to our hostess. It’s been years since I’ve seen her.”
Simon shaded his eyes to scan the crowd. “Over there, below the gazebo.”
The men turned their steps toward their hostess. As they neared the gazebo, he heard a string quartet inside, playing music as lighthearted as the day. “It’s hard to believe that the shadow of civil war lies over Britain,” he said softly.
“That’s why you’re here,” Simon said with equal softness. “And it’s why I and others have spent so much time in Scotland. The future isn’t fixed. If we Guardians build enough bridges between our nations, perhaps war can be averted.”
“Perhaps, but the Scots and the English have been fighting for centuries, and such bloody habits are not easily broken.”
The group they were approaching included half a dozen men and women, with the rounded figure and silver hair of Lady Bethany Fox in the center. Though past her seventieth year, she had the posture and fine bones that had made her an acclaimed Beauty her entire life. She was a passionate gardener, a doting grandmother, and the most powerful sorceress in Britain.
Lady Bethany laughed at something said by the woman at her side. Duncan shifted his gaze, and stopped dead in his tracks, entranced by Lady Beth’s companion. Tall and elegant, she wore a creamy gown of modest cut, yet her demure garb couldn’t disguise a lushly curving figure designed to drive men mad. As if that wasn’t alluring enough, under her straw bonnet was a classically featured face that sparkled with humor and intelligence. This was a dangerous woman.
“Dear God,” he breathed as thunder cracked in the distance. “Helen of Troy.”
“I beg your pardon?” Following Duncan’s gaze, Simon said, “Ah, Lady Brecon. A lovely lass, but launch a thousand ships? I think not. Five or six at the most.”
“Ten thousand ships. More. She is like an ancient enchantress whose glance could drive men to madness.” Duncan gave thanks that Lady Brecon was unaware of his devouring gaze. In the full flower of her womanhood, she was so compelling that he could not have looked away to save his life. “Lord Brecon’s wife you say? The earl has good taste.”
“She’s not wife to the present Brecon, but widow to the old one. You were on the Continent when they married, but it was something of a scandal since she was only seventeen and Brecon was over seventy. She seemed rather a plain girl at the time.”
“Plain?” Duncan watched as the lady turned her attention to a languid young fop in gold brocade. The pure curve of her throat mesmerized him, and that luminous skin begged to be caressed. “Her?”
“She blossomed during the marriage—a wealthy husband often has that effect. But she and Brecon seemed most sincerely devoted.”
Absurdly grateful to learn she was a widow, Duncan tried to remember when the fifth Lord Brecon had died. A little over a year ago, he thought. “She must have legions of suitors now that she’s out of mourning.”
“She has many admirers, me among them, but I’ve never seen her favor any in particular.” Simon cocked one brow. “I haven’t seen you like this since we went to the gypsy horse fair and you spotted that gray hunter.”
His friend was right. Duncan had been sixteen when he saw that horse, and his reaction was the same as today when he saw Lady Brecon: he had to have them.
He drew a slow breath, reminding himself that he wasn’t sixteen anymore, the lady might be a shrew, or she might find him as alarming as most women did. One might purchase a desirable horse, but women were more difficult. “If she was Brecon’s wife, she must be a Guardian?”
“Yes, one of the Owenses. She has no power to speak of, but she grew up in the library at Harlowe and is a notable scholar of Guardian lore. Since her husband died, she lives here in Richmond with Lady Bethany.” Simon grinned. “Hard to believe they’re sisters-in-law. The dowager countess looks like Lady Bethany’s granddaughter.”
If the lady was bookish, it didn’t show. From her powdered hair to her dainty slippers, she was an exquisite confection designed to ornament the highest social circles.
Thunder sounded again, this time closer. Duncan’s eyes narrowed. Directness was out of place in aristocratic London, but it was the only way he knew. “Introduce me to the lady, Simon, so I can learn if she is as perfect as she appears.”
Gwynne smiled at the appallingly bad sonnet Sir Anselm White had recited to her. Though his heart was in the right place, his verses were leagues away in the wrong direction. “You flatter me, Sir Anselm. My eyes are light brown, not ‘sapphires bluer than the summer sky.’”
His languid gaze came briefly into focus as he studied the color of her eyes. “Golden coins that outshine the sun!”
She guessed that a metaphor had fallen on the poor man’s head when he was an infant and he had never recovered. Since a small amount of Sir Anselm’s poetry went a long way, she was glad to hear Bethany say, “Lord Falconer, how good to see you again.”
Giving Sir Anselm a last smile before turning away, Gwynne greeted the newcomer warmly. “Simon, my favorite fop!” She extended her hand. “You’ve been neglecting me, you rogue.”
“A fop?” He sighed dramatically. “You wound me, my lady.” He bowed over her hand with consummate grace, looking not at all wounded. “Allow me to present my friend Lord Ballister. You’ll have heard of him, I think, but he’s been traveling abroad for some time and says you’ve never had the opportunity to meet.”
All Guardians had heard of Lord Ballister. Chieftain of the Macraes of Dunrath, among the Families he was known as Britain’s finest weather mage. Some said he was even more powerful than his ancestor, Adam Macrae, who had conjured the great gale that destroyed the Spanish Armada. Since he stood with the sun behind him, she could see little except the silhouette of a powerful, commanding figure. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lord Ballister.”
“The pleasure is mine.” Ballister bowed.
A cloud darkened the sun as he straightened, enabling Gwynne to see his face clearly. His storm gray gaze struck her like lightning. Destiny… The word echoed in her mind, along with a dizzying sense that the world had changed irrevocably.
She scolded herself for too much imagination. The world was exactly as it had been. The sun was shining, Bethany was composed, and Falconer his usual exquisite self. As for Ballister, he looked normal enough. Though his height and broad shoulders drew attention, his face was too craggy to be called handsome, and his navy blue coat and buff waistcoat were plain by the standards of aristocratic London.
Only his intense gray eyes were remarkable. She remembered a natural history demonstration she had once witnessed. The lecturer had said that electricity was a wild, mysterious force that could not be controlled and which no one understood. Surely that was electricity in Ballister’s eyes, and in the very air that danced between them….
She had spent too much time listening to Sir Anselm—his metaphors were contagious. “You have been on the Continent, Lord Ballister?” she asked politely.
“I arrived back in London only yesterday. This morning Falconer dragged me from my bed, swearing that Lady Bethany wouldn’t mind if I came uninvited.”
“The lad would have been in trouble if he hadn’t brought you,” Bethany said severely. “I hope you’ll be staying in London for a time, Ballister?”
“Yes, though I do long to return home to Scotland.” After a moment’s hesitation, he said, “Lady Bethany, may I steal your lovely companion to show me the gardens?”
“Please do,” Bethany said, her expression thoughtful. “That will leave me free to flirt outrageously with Falconer. Gwynne, be sure to show Ballister the parterre.”
Glad for the chance to talk more with the Scotsman, she took his arm. Though she was a tall woman, he made her feel small and fragile.
The parterre was lower on the hill, near the river. As they crossed the velvety lawn, he said, “I understand that you live here with Lady Bethany?”
“Yes, she invited me to join her after Brecon’s death.”
“It was too difficult to stay on at Harlowe?”
Surprised at his understanding, she glanced up, and was caught by his eyes again. The gray was changeable, warm now rather than intense. “Yes, though not because of the new earl and his wife. I have the use of the dower house whenever I wish to be at Harlowe, but Lady Bethany and I were both in need of companionship, so I was pleased to accept her offer.”
As Gwynne and her companion entered the parterre, an elaborate pattern of carefully cropped shrubs, Ballister halted and studied the pattern with narrowed eyes. “This isn’t only decorative, is it? The pattern is designed to magnify power.”
“Yes, there’s a power point here. That’s why Lady Bethany and her husband bought this property. The circle in the center of the parterre can be used for rituals.”
“I can feel the earth energy tugging at me. Can you?”
She knew what he was asking. “I have no real power. I can sense atmosphere and energy and emotion a little, but no more than any sensitive mundane.” Even the happy years of marriage and her acceptance into the Guardian community had not eliminated her wistful regret for what she lacked. “What of you, Lord Ballister? You’re called the Lord of Thunder or the Lord of Storms. Did your power manifest early?”
“Not until I was on the brink of manhood, but I always loved weather, the more dramatic the better. When I was barely old enough to walk, my mother found me on top of the castle tower in the middle of a thunderstorm, my arms flung out to the sky as I howled with laughter.”
Gwynne smiled. “Since you’re a Macrae, I assume your parents recognized early that you were a weather mage.”
“Aye, it runs in the family, and where better for us to learn than in Scotland, when the weather changes every five minutes with or without a mage’s help?” He smiled wryly. “No one even noticed my successes and failures when I was learning.”
“Is the Scottish climate why the best weather workers are always Macraes?”
“Perhaps. There may be something in the air of Dunrath that enhances that kind of magic.” Changing the subject, he said, “Falconer told me you’re an expert on Guardian lore.”
“Since my father was the Harlowe librarian, I learned early to catalogue and read the archives and write essays about obscure facts and correlations.” She smiled wryly. “I know everything about power except what it feels like to have it.”
“Knowledge is as important as power,” he said seriously. “It is knowledge of history and of our own mistakes that gives us what wisdom we have. The work of Guardian scholars like you is the framework that helps us fulfill our vows.”
“What a nice way to think of my work.” Curious about him, she asked, “Do you travel a great deal, Lord Ballister? You have been away from Scotland for some time.”
“Too long.” They had reached the riverbank, where a short pier poked into the Thames. “Three years ago the Council requested that I act as envoy to Families in other nations. My journeys were essential and interesting, but I missed my home.”
“Did experiencing the weather of other lands compensate for being so long from Dunrath?”
“The basic principles of wind and cloud and rain are the same everywhere, but the patterns and nuances are different. The winds sing with different voices.” His voice deepened. “I would like to show you the winds of Italy, my lady. Warm, sensual, soft as a lover’s sigh.”
A gust of wind snapped around them, swirling Gwynne’s skirts. She had learned much about flirtation since her marriage, for many men offered gallantries to the young wife of an old earl. She knew when flirting was a light-hearted game, and when a man had more serious aims.
Lord Ballister was deeply, alarmingly serious.
She released his arm under the pretense of straightening her skirts. “I had hoped that my husband and I would travel, but his health did not permit it.”
“Imagine yourself in Paris or Rome or Athens, Lady Brecon, and perhaps that will help your vision come true.” He gazed at her like a starving man who eyed a feast. Her breathing quickened. Who would have thought that being devoured might be an intriguing prospect….?
The wind gusted again and strands of his raven black hair broke free of their confinement. Gwynne felt an impulse to brush the tendrils back. It would be pleasing to feel the texture of that strong, tanned cheek….
Abruptly she recognized the electric pull between them as desire. She had loved her husband deeply and she was woman enough to appreciate a handsome man, but this hungry urgency was entirely different, and not at all comfortable.
A blast of rain struck her face and half soaked her gown. Breaking away from Ballister’s gaze, she saw that a low storm cloud was sweeping over the river, the leading edge of rain as sharply defined as the wall of a building. “Where did this come from? Lady Bethany said the weather would be fine all afternoon.” She caught up her skirts and prepared to bolt for cover.
“Damnation!” He looked at the sky, rain pouring over his face. “I’m sorry, my lady. I haven’t been paying sufficient attention to our surroundings.”
She almost laughed when she realized that the Lord of Storms hadn’t noticed the change in the weather. The guests further up the hill had seen the advancing rain and were racing for shelter or crowding into the gazebo while servants attempted to cover the food. “Nor have I, and my gown will pay for my carelessness.”
“Don’t leave.” He held up a commanding hand.
On the verge of flight, she hesitated when his eyes closed. Despite his saturated hair and garments, his concentration radiated like heat from a fire.
She caught her breath as the storm cloud split and rolled away to both sides, avoiding the garden. Within seconds the rain stopped. Amazed, she watched as the clouds dissipated. The sun reappeared and for an instant a rainbow arched over Ballister’s head. She caught her breath. This was the Lord of Storms indeed.
The rainbow faded, even more ephemeral than the storm. On the hill guests laughed and stopped retreating, ready to enjoy the party again.
Ballister wiped water from his face. “The weather here is not so chancy as in Scotland, but it’s unpredictable enough that a bit of rain never calls attention to itself.”
His tone was too casual. Making an intuitive leap, she said, “You didn’t overlook that storm. You caused it, didn’t you?”
He looked embarrassed. “If I’m careless, I can attract ill weather when my attention is otherwise engaged.”
Amused, she brushed at her hair, where the wind and rain had pulled a lock loose from her restrained hair style. “What could be so interesting at a lawn party as to attract such a fierce little tempest?”
His gaze darkened. The full force of those eyes was…dangerous. They could make a woman forget herself, and all good sense.
“You, of course. There is power between us. You feel it also, I know you do.” He touched her wet hair where a few bright glints showed through the powder. His fingertips grazed her bare throat as he caressed the errant lock. “What is the natural color of your hair?” he murmured.
Her breathing became difficult, as if the laces of her corset had been drawn too tightly. The sensation was as unnerving as his powerful masculinity. As a widow and a Guardian, she had more independence than most women, and she had developed a taste for it. Ignoring his question, she said, “Power sounds like no more than another name for lust, Lord Ballister.”
Deliberately she turned away, breaking the spell cast by his eyes. “I’ve enjoyed talking with you, but I have no wish for an affair. Good afternoon, sir. It’s time for me to go indoors and change to dry clothing.”
“Wait!” He caught her wrist, and lightning tingled across her skin.
Part of her wanted to turn back, but the part that needed to escape was much stronger. She jerked free of his grip and raced away, skimming up the hill and hoping he would not pursue her.
He didn’t. When she neared the house, she turned and saw that he still stood on the pier, his brooding gaze following her. She had a moment of absolute knowledge that he was not gone from her life.
Destiny. . .