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The bride & the beast, p.1
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       The Bride & the Beast, p.1

           Teresa Medeiros
 
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The Bride & the Beast


  TREAT YOURSELF TO A WORLD OF

  ROMANCE AND ENCHANTMENT

  The Bride and the Beast

  “Pure pleasure! Teresa Medeiros never fails to delight me with her heartbreaking characters and offbeat sense of humor. The Bride and the Beast, like all of her stories, pulses with life and takes me away to a place where romance is paramount and fairy tales come true. This is one author who always has the magic touch.”

  —New York Times bestselling author Iris Johansen

  Charming the Prince

  “From the opening page, the reader knows the fun has just begun…. If you’re looking for a humorous and entertaining book, you’ll be charmed by Charming the Prince.”

  —Rocky Mountain News

  Lady of Conquest

  “Enjoyable… Ms. Medeiros brings to life a thrilling legend.”

  —Romantic Times

  Nobody’s Darling

  “There is so much joy, so much magic, and just the right amount of poignancy that you’ll find tears mixed with your laughter…. This is a book you’ll reread simply to relive the pleasure.”

  —Romantic Times

  Touch of Enchantment

  “Medeiros has created a fine and funny combination of Jude Deveraux and Erma Bombeck.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  Breath of Magic

  “Wondrous and brimming over with the love and laughter of Teresa Medeiros’ enchanting style, Breath of Magic steals your heart.”

  —Romantic Times

  Fairest of Them All

  “Medeiros pens the ultimate romantic fantasy.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  Thief of Hearts

  “Emotional, funny, sensual, and spellbinding, this is a marvelous read!”

  —Romantic Times

  A Whisper of Roses

  “Ms. Medeiros casts a spell with her poignant writing…. An outstanding reading adventure from cover to cover. Great!”

  —Rendezvous

  Once an Angel

  “An enthralling love story that grabs hold of your heart.”

  —Romantic Times

  Heather and Velvet

  “Fast-paced, exciting… a terrific tale… thrilling romance.”

  —Amanda Quick, New York Times bestselling author

  To the memory of Debbie Dunn,

  who not only loved romance but lived

  one of the sweetest ones I’ll ever see.

  And to her steadfast hero, Phil.

  You keep those angels organized,

  honey, until we get there.

  To Michael and the good Lord,

  for loving me whether I’m

  a beauty or a beast.

  Prologue

  Scotland, the Highlands

  1746

  GWENDOLYN WAS NINE years old the day she almost killed the future chieftain of Clan MacCullough.

  She was hauling herself up a sturdy young oak, carefully testing each branch to make sure it would bear her weight, when his shaggy pony came into view.

  She settled her backside into a well-worn hollow in the trunk and peered through the minty green veil of leaves, her heart skipping a beat. Aye, it was he. There was no mistaking Bernard MacCullough’s regal bearing or the shock of dark hair that tumbled across his brow. He wore a scarlet and black tartan draped over his saffron shirt. A silver badge emblazoned with the MacCullough dragon secured the tartan, drawing her attention to shoulders that seemed to grow broader with each passing day. Below his short kilt, his long, tanned legs hugged the pony’s flanks.

  Gwendolyn rested her chin on her hand and sighed, content simply to drink in the sight of him as he guided the pony down the rocky path with a grace and mastery beyond his fifteen years. Although he rode through this pass every day, she never tired of watching him. Never tired of dreaming that one day he would look up and catch a glimpse of her.

  “Who goes there?” he would call out, reining his pony to a halt. “Could it be an angel fallen from the heavens?”

  “ ‘Tis only I, m’laird,” she would reply, “the fair Lady Gwendolyn.”

  Then he would flash his white teeth in a tender smile and she would gently float to the ground. (In her dreams, she always had a pretty pair of gossamer wings.) Using only one hand, he would sweep her up before him on the pony and they would ride through the village, basking beneath the proud smiles of her mama and papa, the slack-jawed gazes of the villagers, and the envious stares of her two older sisters.

  “Look! There’s Gwennie at the top of that tree. And they say pigs can’t fly!” A burst of raucous laughter jerked Gwendolyn out of her reverie.

  As she looked down and saw the circle of children gathered around the tree, her skin began to crawl with an all too familiar dread. Perhaps if she ignored their taunts, they would just go away.

  “I don’t know why ye’re wastin’ yer time up there. All the acorns are down here on the ground.” Ross, the burly son of the village blacksmith, slapped his knee, howling with mirth.

  “Oh, do stop it, Ross,” laughed Glynnis, Gwendolyn’s twelve-year-old sister. She twined an arm through his and tossed her flowing auburn curls. “If you’ll leave the poor creature alone, I’ll let you steal a kiss later.”

  Gwendolyn’s eleven-year-old sister, Nessa, whose silky straight hair was a shade more gold than red, captured his other arm, pouting prettily. “Keep your lips to yourself, wench. He’s already promised his kisses to me.”

  “Don’t fret, lasses.” Ross squeezed them both until they squealed. “I’ve kisses enough to go ‘round. Although ‘twould take more kisses than I’ve got to go ‘round that sister of yers.”

  Gwendolyn couldn’t stop herself from replying. “Go away, Ross, and leave me alone!”

  “And what will you do if I don’t? Sit on me? “

  Glynnis and Nessa made a halfhearted attempt to smother their giggles with their hands. The rest of Ross’s companions roared with laughter.

  Then an unfamiliar voice sliced through their merriment. “You heard the lady. Leave her be.”

  Bernard MacCullough’s voice was both smoother and deeper than Gwendolyn had imagined. And he’d called her a lady! But her wonder over that was quickly overtaken by mortification as she realized he must have heard the entire exchange. As she looked through the branches, all she could see of her defender was the top of his head and the polished toes of his boots.

  Ross turned to face the interloper. “And who the bloody hell are ye to—?” His snarl died on a croak as he went red, then white. “I d-didn’t realize ‘twas ye, m’laird,” he stammered. “F-f-forgive me.” He dropped to one knee at the feet of his chieftain’s son.

  Bernard seized the front of his shirt and hauled him to his feet. Ross might have outweighed the boy by at least a stone, but he still had to crane his neck to look Bernard in the eye. “I’m not your laird, yet,” Bernard pointed out. “ But I will be someday. And I should warn you that I never forget an injustice done to one of my own.”

  Gwendolyn bit her lip to still its trembling, amazed that their taunts couldn’t make her cry, but that his kindness could.

  Ross swallowed hard. “Aye, m’laird. Nor will I forget the warnin’.”

  “See that you don’t.”

  Although Ross was subdued as he led his companions from the clearing, Gwendolyn caught the smoldering look he shot the top of the tree. She would pay later for his humiliation.

  Her ragged nails bit into the bark as she realized they’d done exactly as she’d demanded. They’d left her alone.

  With him.

  She pressed her cheek against the trunk of the tree, praying she would disappear right into it like some bashful wood sprite.

  A matter-of-fact voice dashed her hopes.
They’re gone. You can come down now.”

  She closed her eyes, dreading the contempt that would darken his face if she accepted his invitation. “I’m really quite comfortable where I am.”

  He sighed. “ ‘Tisn’t every day I have the privilege of rescuing a damsel in distress. I should think you’d want to thank me.”

  “Thank you. Now would you please just go away and leave me be?”

  Defying him was her first mistake. “I’ll not do it. ‘Tis my land, and therefore my tree. If you don’t come down, I’ll come up after you.” He planted one boot in the lowest crook of the trunk and reached for a dangling limb.

  Already imagining how fast he could scale the tree with those long, limber legs of his, Gwendolyn then made her second mistake. She began to scramble higher. But in her haste she forgot to test each bough before she put her weight on it. There was a creak, then a crack, then she went plummeting toward the earth. Her last coherent thought was Please, God, let me land on my head and break my neck. But the fickle branches betrayed her once again by breaking her fall instead.

  She had only a mercifully brief glimpse of Bernard’s shocked face before she slammed into him, knocking him flat.

  It took Gwendolyn a moment to catch her breath. When she opened her eyes Bernard was stretched out beneath her, his face only an inch from her own.

  His eyes were closed, his stubby, dark lashes fanned out against the masculine curve of his sun-bronzed cheeks. Gwendolyn was so close she could even make out a hint of the whiskers that would soon shadow his jaw.

  “M’laird? “ she whispered.

  He neither groaned nor stirred.

  She moaned. “Oh, God, I’ve gone and killed him!”

  If only the fall had killed her as well! Then the villagers could find them here, her body draped protectively across his, united in death as they’d never been in life. Unable to resist the heartbreaking pathos of the image, Gwendolyn buried her face against his breastbone and snuffled back a sob.

  “Are you hurt, lass?” came a smoky whisper.

  Gwendolyn slowly lifted her head. Bernard’s eyes were open now, but not in the death stare she’d feared. They were a rich green, the color of emeralds spilling across a cache of hidden treasure.

  As he gently brushed a leaf from her hair, Gwendolyn scrambled off of him.

  “I’ve bruised naught but my pride,” she said. “And you? Are you hurt?”

  “I should say not.” He climbed to his feet, swiping leaves and dirt from his backside. “ ‘Twould take more than a child landing in my lap to knock the wind from me.”

  A child? Gwendolyn could almost feel her braids begin to bristle.

  He brushed a twig from his hair, eyeing her from beneath that wayward lock across his brow. “I’ve seen you at the castle before, haven’t I? You live at the manor in the village. You’re the daughter of my father’s steward.”

  “One of them,” she replied tersely, not wanting him to suspect that she lived for those days when her papa would take her to the castle while he conducted his business simply because she might catch a glimpse of Bernard bounding down the stairs or playing chess with the chieftain or sneaking up behind his mother to give her a teasing kiss on the cheek. To Gwendolyn, Castle Weyrcraig had always been a castle of dreams, a place of pure enchantment where even the most unlikely of wishes might come true.

  “You’ve a baby sister, haven’t you? And another on the way. I’ve met your two older sisters,” he said. “A cheeky pair, aren’t they? Always batting their eyelashes and wiggling hips they don’t yet have.” A bemused smile softened his lips as he took in her rumpled tunic and the faded knee breeches she’d pilfered from her papa’s laundry. “You’re not like them, are you?”

  Gwendolyn folded her arms over her chest. “No, I’m not. I’m fat.”

  He looked her up and down in frank assessment. “You’ve a bit of extra flesh on your bones, but ‘tis not unbecoming on a child your age.”

  A child! Somehow it galled her more that he’d called her a child again than that he’d agreed she was fat. How could she have ever thought she loved this arrogant lad? Why, she loathed him!

  She drew herself up to her full four feet three inches. “I suppose just because you live in a grand castle and ride a pretty pony, you fancy yourself a man full grown.”

  “I’ve still got some growing to do. As do you.” He wrapped one of her flaxen braids around his hand, drawing her nearer so he could lean down and whisper, “But my father believes me man enough to escort a most esteemed guest to our castle on this very night.”

  Gwendolyn jerked the braid out of his hand and tossed it over her shoulder, terrified he was going to tweak her nose or pat her on the head as if she were some drooling puppy. “And just who would that guest be?”

  He straightened and folded his arms over his chest, looking smug. “Oh, that’s one secret I could never trust to a mere slip of a girl.”

  Horrid boy. Wretched boy. “Then I’d best be on my way, hadn’t I, so you can attend to your manly duties.”

  She started up the hill, absurdly pleased that he actually looked taken aback by her desertion. “If you’d like, I can give you a hint,” he called after her.

  She refused to flatter him with a reply. She simply stopped and waited in stony silence.

  “He’s a true hero!” Bernard exclaimed. “A prince among men.”

  Since Gwendolyn had thought the same thing about him only a few minutes ago, she was none too impressed. She started walking again.

  “If that lad troubles you again, you’ll let me know, won’t you?”

  Gwendolyn squeezed her eyes shut against a rush of longing. Only a short while ago, she would have given her eyeteeth for the privilege of claiming him as her champion. Now, gathering the tatters of her pride around her, she turned stiffly to face him and asked, “Is that a request or a command?”

  As he rested his hands on his lean hips, she realized she’d once again made the mistake of defying him. “Consider it a command, lass. After all, someday I’ll be your laird and master as well as his.”

  Gwendolyn tilted her nose in the air. “ That’s where you’re wrong, Bernard MacCullough. For no man shall ever be my laird and master!”

  She wheeled around and went marching toward the village, missing the smile that played around Bernard’s mouth as he whispered, “I wouldn’t be so sure of that, lass, if I were you.”

  Chapter One

  Scotland, the Highlands

  1761

  THE DRAGON OF WEYRCRAIG prowled the crumbling parapets of his lair, fighting the urge to throw back his head and unleash a savage roar. He’d been a prisoner of the daylight for too long. Only when the shadows of night cloaked Weyrcraig could he cast aside his chains and roam unfettered through the castle’s maze of passages.

  The darkness was his dominion now, the only kingdom left to him.

  As he gazed upon the sea, the salt hanging thick in the air stung his eyes. But the chill bite of the wind failed to penetrate the armor of his skin. Since coming to this place, he’d grown numb to all but the harshest of provocations. A whispered endearment, a tender caress, the silky heat of a woman’s breath against his skin had all become as distant and bittersweet to him as the memory of a dream.

  A storm was breaking over the far horizon. The rising wind whipped the North Sea into a boiling froth, sending the towering waves crashing against the cliffs below. Lightning strung its web from cloud to cloud, shedding little light, but leaving the inky darkness even more impenetrable in its wake.

  The approaching storm reflected his wildness back at him like the shards of a broken mirror. The distant rumble of thunder could have been the ghostly roar of cannons or the growl trapped in his throat. He searched his soul, but could find no trace of humanity. As a child, he had feared the beast that slept beneath his bed, only to come to this place and discover he was that beast.

  He was what they had made of him.

  He bared his teeth in an express
ion few would have mistaken for a smile as he envisioned them cowering in their beds, trembling to imagine his wrath. They believed him to be a monster, without conscience or mercy. He had made it clear to them that his demands were law, his will as irresistible as the siren song of the wind wailing through the lonely glens and rugged mountain passes.

  The cowardly ease of their surrender should have brought him some satisfaction, but it only whetted his hunger, a hunger that gnawed a burning hole in his belly and threatened to devour him from the inside out. Whenever he was caught in its grip, he longed to hurl their meager offerings back in their faces and scorch them to ashes with the searing flame of his breath.

  They were supposed to be cursed, but he was the one who felt the fires of damnation licking at his soul.

  He was the one doomed to wander this shattered ruin of his dreams without even a mate to ease his loneliness.

  As he searched the churning clouds, his gut clenched with a fresh hunger, keener and more piercing than any that had come before. He might never be able to satisfy his insatiable appetites. But on this night, he would no longer deny himself some tasty morsel to take the edge off his longing. On this night, he would seek to satisfy the primal desire that lurked in the belly of every beast—even man.

  On this night, the Dragon would hunt.

  Gwendolyn Wilder did not believe in dragons.

  So when a desperate pounding sounded on the door of the manor, followed by a frantic shout of “ The Dragon’s on the rampage, he is—he’s goin’ to murder us all in our beds!” she simply groaned, rolled onto her stomach, and dragged the pillow over her head. She’d almost rather have been murdered in her bed than snatched from her dreams by the ravings of a blithering idiot.

  She plugged her ears with her fingers, but could still hear Izzy stomping across the hall below, muttering a litany of curses invoking various parts of God’s anatomy, some less holy than others. A nasty thud was followed by a whimper that made Gwendolyn wince. Izzy had undoubtedly kicked the hapless hound who had dared to trip her.

 
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