SynopsisIn the third in Katharine Ashe's Prince Catchers series, the eldest of three very different sisters must fulfill a prophecy to discover their birthright. But if Eleanor is destined to marry a prince, why can't she resist the scoundrel who seduced her? She can pour tea, manage a household, and sew a modest gown. In short, Eleanor Caulfield is the perfect vicar's daughter. Yet there was a time when she'd risked everything for a black-eyed gypsy who left her brokenhearted. Now he stands before her—dark, virile, and ready to escort her on a journey to find the truth about her heritage. Leaving eleven years ago should have given Taliesin freedom. Instead he's returned to Eleanor, determined to have her all to himself, tempting her with kisses and promising her a passion she's so long denied herself. But if he was infatuated before, he's utterly unprepared for what will happen when Eleanor decides to abandon convention—and truly live . . .
The Prodigal Son
Home of the Duke and Duchess of Lycombe
“You’re a ghost.”
This comment came at Eleanor Caulfield’s shoulder, quietly. Eleanor ignored it and tried to concentrate on the echoing glory of the pipe organ, whose music filled the chapel.
“A living human’s cheeks cannot be so pale,” her youngest sister insisted below the hymn. Not whispered. Ravenna didn’t know how to whisper. “Yours are chalk.”
“They aren’t.” Eleanor did whisper. She’d nearly perfected the art. “Now, hush.” But she lifted a hand to her face. Clad in silk-lined kidskin fastened with tiny buttons fashioned from oyster shells—gloves borrowed from her other sister, Arabella, the Duchess of Lycombe—her fingertips pressed at her cheeks.
Cold. Like death.
The death of life as she knew it.
“Really, Ellie. You look like a princess,” Ravenna stripped off her shawl and covered Eleanor’s shoulders. “But you’ll catch a chill in this frigid sepulcher.”
The ducal chapel was hardly a sepulcher, rather, a lovely little space of honey-colored limestone and clear windows that allowed the winter sunlight to warm the assembled wedding guests one pale ray at a time. Still, she pulled Ravenna’s shawl over her bosom. With her hair cascading about her shoulders, Ravenna didn’t need it, and everyone always assumed Eleanor did. Thirteen years had not yet erased from her family’s memory the time when every wisp of air stealing through an open door had tipped her closer to death. The inflammation of the lungs she’d taken in her fourteenth year had lingered so long that no one ever thought she would fully recover.
No one, except one.
Today her bloodless cheeks had nothing to do with ill health or the February chill. At the foot of the chancel her beloved papa appeared sublimely happy as he wed a woman ideally suited to him.
Neat and subdued in a modest gown of dove gray cotton, the Reverend Martin Caulfield’s bride lifted a serene face to her groom. Intelligent, interested in theology, moved by his sermons, and honestly pious, the widowed Mrs. Agnes Coyne was the perfect wife for the long-widowed vicar of St. Petroc. The moment she had moved into the village everybody agreed.
Eleanor rejoiced that her papa would find happiness in marriage again; his first wife had perished even before he discovered her and her sisters in the foundling home. But Agnes’s willingness to assist him with his work and her experience running a gentleman’s household pointed to one damning certainty: Eleanor was now superfluous.
Her heart beat at too quick a tempo, and so hard it seemed to drown out the hymn rolling from the pipes. Her papa’s newfound happiness did not cause this. That her life was upon the verge of changing dramatically did.
After years of silence on the issue, Papa had spoken: his eldest daughter should marry. Joy! Happiness! He was to find contentment in wedded bliss, and he wished for her the same blessing.
Agnes had concurred, compassionately, so that Eleanor could not but love her for it. No woman grown wished to live in another woman’s house, she’d said. “My son admires you quite sincerely,” she added, then with a smile: “How could he not?”
Now Mr. Frederick Coyne stood behind Papa on the opposite side of the chancel steps, ogling her without subtlety. Subtle ogling wouldn’t have impressed her either. His coat buttons as large as tea plates made her giggle. But his brilliantly orange spotted waistcoat and matching stockings actually turned her stomach. How sensible Agnes had spawned this specimen of ostentatious exuberance, Eleanor couldn’t fathom.
Frederick waggled his brows, then shifted his eyes to the exit, suggesting . . . what? That she steal off with him for a quick assignation in the middle of their parents’ wedding? Or perhaps he intended for them to elope entirely.
He’d said as much that morning when he found her alone at breakfast. “ ’Spect you’re at wit’s end now that Mum’s taking over the roost, m’dear. Nothing to do for it but get leg shackled right away. Now, there’s an idea!
Why don’t we skip this dull hash, El, and show the parents how to do it right? Border’s only three or four days’ ride, if the weather holds. What say you?” Perusing her bodice, he’d waggled his brows then too.
If he looked at her breasts now, in church, she might laugh aloud.
And there was the trouble of it. Her palms were sticky-cold with nerves but she wanted to laugh.
She wanted to sing. Not as she sang on Sundays in church, but as loud as the lark that woke her each morning through her bedchamber window with its abandoned song.
She wanted to dance. Not decorously like she had danced at her sisters’ weddings attended by ladies and lords, but freely, wildly, gloriously, like the Gypsies who camped each winter in St. Petroc danced at the May Day festival.
She wanted to tear off her bonnet and feel the dangerous joy of wind in her hair and blazing sunshine upon her face while she galloped her horse along the edge of the cliffs. To suck the cold, salty air into her nostrils and fill her hungry lungs.
Quite simply, she wanted an adventure.
She had always wanted an adventure. Ever since as a girl she’d first read the books in her papa’s library, curled up in a window seat as the Cornwall winters blustered and batted the windowpanes, she’d made herself the heroine in the tales of knights and dragons and demons. Dreaming, always dreaming, while the world beyond the cozy safety of the vicarage—a world of workhouses and blisters and cruelties and starvation—no longer touched her.
Now she could have it. Finally, nothing held her back. Not the vicarage, or the needs of the parish, or her papa. Agnes would care for those.
Nothing stood in her way. Accustomed as she was to quiet, studious restraint, this abrupt freedom to abandon herself to the unknown both terrified and excited Eleanor.
Frederick adjusted his wide lapels and smiled invasively.
She should be flattered. Poor vicars’ spinster daughters weren’t often ogled by fashionable young gentlemen, or proposed to, even offhandedly, she suspected. Frederick wasn’t a trial to look at, with that thick swipe of hair over his forehead and hooded eyes. She’d even seen him reading a few of times. She could bear a husband’s fashion excesses if he read good books.
It was tempting . . .
His gaze slithered down her bodice.
Not tempting enough.
Then again, she’d never been tempted by any man. Not by any man. Only a boy. Young and naïve at the time, she would have left the comfort and safety of the vicarage for him. She would have gone anywhere for him.
But that was ages ago and didn’t bear recalling, except that he had helped her to learn the inconstancy of the male heart.
Not her papa’s, though. Papa would never demand that she leave the vicarage. Neither would Agnes. If she remained in St. Petroc, she would settle into a life of their endless kindnesses, and her own pathetic superfluity would choke her to death. She had lived modestly for years. But she had never been a milksop. The one moment in her life when she had been on the cusp of becoming so, a wild Gypsy boy had shown her a much better alternative. An adventure.
Then he’d broken her heart.
The medieval tales she loved were full of unexpected pitfalls and disasters, of course. That was to be expected. She could have an adventure now, only different in one crucial detail. An adventure that did not involve a man could be ideal.
Drawing a slow breath to bank the fledgling excitement that curled through her now, fire licking at kindling, Eleanor turned her eyes away from the happy couple to the chill winter day beyond the chapel window.
And ceased to breathe entirely.
A horseman rode up the drive from the house toward the chapel. The great black beast, powerful in neck and legs, thundered forward, its hooves marking the earth upon impact. The rider controlled the animal with ease, his greatcoat flaring out over the horse’s haunches. Eleanor could not see his entire face; his hat brim masked it. But she knew him from the confident grasp of his gloved hands upon the reins and from the manner in which he rode, as though he might command the world from that horse, and could.
She knew him because every day from September through April for seven years of her young life she had watched him ride. She had memorized him.
The co-author of the single real adventure of her life.
Long ago she had trained her heart to take no notice of anything concerning him, not the infrequent letters he sent to Papa, nor her sisters’ accounts of seeing him in London occasionally. Now that heart betrayed her: it leaped into a gallop faster than his horse’s.
Beside the chapel he dismounted. A groomsman appeared and took the reins, but the beast swung its head around and bared its teeth, and the groom stumbled back. Taliesin placed his hand upon the thick ebony neck and the animal swiveled its face to him. With horses he had always had a rare magic; a natural wisdom and potent touch, like the wizard of Arthurian legend after whom he had been named: Taliesin the Merlin. This magic still seemed to be his. Lowering its head, the mighty beast went docilely with the groom.
Alone on the drive, Taliesin stood still for a moment as he removed his gloves, his black hat and dark overcoat making him a roguish shadow against the pale gray day. He seemed entirely out of place and yet perfectly at ease. As always.
Any moment he would look to the window and see her gaping. She must look away. As he’d always done as a boy, he would sense her attention upon him and he would—
He didn’t. With the loping grace that had characterized his movements as a youth, he went forward and out of her sight. She’d barely time to register the raucous thud of her heartbeats before the door to the chapel opened and he entered.
In the building.
Mere yards away.
After eleven years.
The brisk chill of the day seemed to cling to him in the high color upon his cheeks and the tousle of his satiny black hair.
And the kindling within Eleanor burst into flame. Eleven years of modesty. Eleven years of careful reserve. Eleven years of regretting the only adventure she’d ever had. Now he stood before her again, dark and lean and staggeringly virile. And like a sleeping princess in a fairy tale brought back to life by magic, every morsel of her maidenly body awoke.
“Tali!” Ravenna exclaimed below the swell of the organ.
“I told you he would come,” Arabella murmured from her other side.
“Good heavens, Ellie,” Ravenna said in her ear. “Now you look positively fevered. Are you sure you’re well?”
The music ended on a single, dramatic chord. In the sudden silence the prodigal Gypsy’s boots clunked on the church floor. Eleanor’s papa turned his head around, and his face opened in happiness.
“In the name of God above,” the priest began, and everybody looked at him. But to Eleanor, even the impact of her papa entering into marital bliss could not now compare to the sudden appearance after so many years of Taliesin Wolfe.
In the last of several rows of empty pews, he stood imposingly erect, still, and dark, his presence making shadows where none had been before. With a lift of lashes, dark and thick like a starless night, he met her gaze directly. Slowly, the corner of his mouth tilted up. Confusion. Indignation. Anger.
All tangling together in the pit of her stomach and down to her fingertips. He had always done this to her—turned her insides out and her outsides quivering. Now after years of absence he was doing it again with no more than a mocking semi-smile.
She refused to succumb. The years had taught her. They had changed her.
Clearly they had changed him too. All sharp jaw, long limbs, sunken cheeks, and deep eyes as a boy, when he began to grow into his bones he had become an impossibly handsome youth. Watching him at a distance or walking beside him, she had found it difficult not to look too long at him, like a hunger that refused to be satisfied.
In appearance he was no longer that boy. His taut jaw and too-long hair and the silver rings in his ears were the same, but all else had changed. Fine clothing, broader shoulders, and the hardness in his black eyes marked him as a stranger now. And yet still she could not look away.
When had he learned how to bow? When had he thrown off the urchin who teased her and competed with her and made her crazy? When had he become this gentleman? And when had God decided that after a life of maidenly quietude she had sinned so greatly that she deserved to again meet the single person who could make her sin again?
Her cheeks flowered with pink and fire lit her eyes as she returned his stare as though he’d no business in this place.
Taliesin had not expected this. He should have. Just as he should have expected the grinding ache in his gut now. Her pull on him.
Golden, like a summer morning, with a quick glimmer in her eyes. That’s what he had remembered about her, the contrast between her fragile body and strong mind. As a boy, it had enthralled him. Often he’d goaded her only to see her ivory cheeks turn rosy and her golden green eyes flash. Always he’d sought to draw her gaze, to command her attention even if only to scold him for impertinence or arrogance or any of the other sins of which she believed him guilty. He would have done anything then to secure her notice. Anything.
Now he had merely walked through a door and she gave it to him. Voluntarily, thoroughly. She hadn’t ceased staring since he crossed the threshold. He hadn’t craved the touch of her gaze in years. But, God’s blood, he liked having it now.
A cool mist of displeasure slipped over her features, rain shrouding a spring garden. She turned her attention to the vicar and his new wife.
Satisfaction. Already he’d gotten under her skin. She hadn’t changed in that manner. Nor in loveliness. As a girl Eleanor had never been a blatant beauty like Arabella nor naturally vibrant like Ravenna. But she had been graceful and quick-witted and so lovely that for years she had commanded his waking thoughts, and sleeping.
Not only his thoughts.
“Before God I declare you husband and wife,” the churchman pronounced to the pair before him. “Go and make fruit of your union.”
A muffled chuckle from Ravenna—the vicar taking his bride upon his arm but his gaze coming swiftly to the back of the chapel again—applause from everyone—organ pipes exploding into sound—Arabella smiling at him, diamonds around her neck. And Eleanor’s averted profile, pure and perfect, with cheeks abloom like roses.
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