A kiss of fate, p.1
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       A Kiss of Fate, p.1

           Mary Jo Putney
 
A Kiss of Fate


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  PROLOGUE

  Harlowe Place

  Hertfordshire, England

  November 1737

  T he 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.

  Lightly she skimmed her fingertips over tooled leather and stamped gold titles in the travel memoir section. Her father had always said that a well-furnished mind was proof against loneliness. She hoped he was right, for she needed that comfort now.

  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. She was grateful to be part of the Families since women had a degree of equality unheard of among mundanes. That custom had evolved early since in the realms of magic, females could wield powers that matched or surpassed those of men.

  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 shelves 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.

  At least she would not be turned penniless into the worldthe Guardians took care of their own. A position of some sort would be found for Robert Owens's unimpressive daughter. With luck, that position would be at Harlowe, the only home she had ever known. More than that, she scarcely dared hope for.

  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.

  She blinked back tears when she discovered her mother's locket in the small central drawer. Inside the oval case were miniatures of her parents painted at the time of their betrothal. They looked young and very much in love. Her father must have kept the locket here so he could study the picture of his wife and dream of happier times.

  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 sweet natured, 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 was the center around which Harlowe revolved. His courtesy and learning were legenday, 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 ready for marriage. It is too soon.

  Hearing the deeper meaning in his words, she said eagerly, You have seen my future?

  Only in the most general terms. Your path is clouded, with many possibilities. But my sister, 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 powermundanes 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 absurdand 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. 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. It would not be a conventional marriage. 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. She thought of the earl's three grown children. They were pleasant enough to her as a minor member of the household, but the idea of young Gwynne Owens as their stepmother was indeed absurd.

  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 powernot 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. Impulsively 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.

 

 

 

 

  ONE

  Summer 1745

  Richmond, England

  D uncan 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.

  As they rounded the corner of their hostess's mansion, he scanned the women in gorgeous gowns who drifted across the emerald grass, flirting outrageously with even more gorgeous gentlemen. The ladies of London are like a bouquet of exotic flowers.

  Simon Malmain smiled lazily. You'll find no females so exquisite in those wild Scottish hills of yours.

  Scottish lassies are just as lovely, and with far less artifice. Duncan 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. Duncan eyed the lavish refreshment tables with interest, but eating must wait upon manners. 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, Duncan 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. Duncan gave his friend a slanting glance. The first time you and I met, we did our best to beat each other unconscious.

  Yes, but that wasn't based on the fact that you were a barbarian Scot, Simon said promptly. I hated you because you were brought to the nursery during my lessons, and immediately proved that your Greek was better than mine.

  Duncan smiled wryly as he remembered that first encounter. I suppose that's better than hating each other for our nationalities.

  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, her straw bonnet accented 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 marriagea wealthy husband often has that effect. But she and Brecon seemed most sincerely devoted.

  Trust Simon to know all the gossip. 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 her.

  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.

 
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