So Wild A Heart – Candace Camp

She reached up toward him, arms outstretched, eyes wide and pleading, mouth contorted in a death grimace. She was pale, her skin white with an undertone of gray, and water coated her skin and clothes. Dark seaweed wrapped around her chest, seemingly pulling her down into the roiling water. “Dev! Help me! Save me!” Her shrill words echoed through the darkness. He reached out for her, but her hand was inches from his, and he could not move forward. He stretched, straining every fiber of his being but she remained frustratingly beyond his reach. She was sinking into the black water, her eyes closing. “Don’t!” he yelled, grabbing futilely for her. “Don’t! Let me help you!” * * * Devin’s eyes flew open, blank at first, then slowly gaining understanding. He had dreamed about her again. “Christ!” He shivered, feeling cold to the bone, and lanced around. It took a moment for him to realize where he was. He had fallen asleep sitting up in his bedroom, dressing gown wrapped around him. A bottle of brandy and a gracefully curved snifter sat on the small table beside his chair. He picked up the bottle and poured some into the glass, his hand trembling so hard that the bottle clinked against the rim.

He took a quick gulp of the drink, warming as the fiery liquid rushed down his throat and exploded in his stomach. He ran his hand back through his thick black hair and took another drink. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he murmured. “I would have helped.” He was still cold, despite the aid of the brandy, and he stood up and walked over to the bed, his gait a trifle unsteady. How much had he had to drink last night? He couldn’t remember. Clearly it had been enough that he had fallen asleep sitting up instead of crossing the few feet to his bed. It was no wonder, he told himself, that he had had bad dreams. He crawled into bed, the covers having been neatly turned back by his valet before he left last night, and wrapped the blankets around him. Slowly, between the brandy and the warmth of the bedspread, his shivers slowed down, then stopped.

It was June, not really that cold, even for sleeping in only one’s dressing gown, but Devin knew that his bone-chilling coldness had less to do with the temperature than with his most persistent and discomfiting nightmare. It had been years. He had thought the dream would have stopped recurring by now. But he could depend on it popping up here and there throughout the months, at least two or three times a year. Devin grimaced. He could not seem to keep a farthing in his pocket, but a bad dream he could hold on to for years. The shivering ceased, and his eyes drifted closed. At least, after all these years, he could sleep after the dream. When he’d first had it, he had stayed awake all night. Time might not heal all wounds, but apparently, with a little help from brandy, it could make them more easily forgotten.

With a faint sigh, he slid into sleep. * * * It was several hours later and the sun was well up when his valet shook his arm gently and whispered, “My lord. My lord. I am sorry to awaken you, sir, but Lady Ravenscar and Lady Westhampton are below, asking for you.” Devin opened one eye and rolled it up to focus with bloodshot malevolence on his servant, hovering at the side of his bed. “Go away,” he muttered succinctly. “Yes, my lord, I quite understand. ‘Tis a dreadfully early hour. The thing is, her ladyship is threatening to come up here and wake you herself. And one feels it beyond one’s duties to physically restrain your lordship’s mother.

” Devin sighed, closing his eye, and rolled onto his back. “Is she weeping or warlike?” “No sign of tears, my lord,” his valet responded, furrowing his brow in thought. “I would say more…determined. And she brought Lady Westhampton with her.” “Mmm. Makes it harder when my sister joins forces with her.” “Just so, my lord. Shall I lay out your clothes?” Devin groaned. He felt like hell. His head was pounding, his body ached, and the inside of his mouth tasted as foul as a trash bin.

“Where was I last night, Carson?” “I’m sure I couldn’t say, sir,” his valet replied blandly. “I believe that Mr. Mickleston was with you.” “Stuart?” Devin summoned up a faint memory of a visit from his longtime friend. It seemed that Stuart had been uncharacteristically flush in the pocket. That explained the hangover. They had probably visited half the hellholes in London last night, celebrating his good fortune—and no doubt disposing of at least half of it. He sat up gingerly, swinging his legs out of the bed, and waited for the rush of nausea to subside. “All right, Carson. Lay out my clothes and ring for shaving water.

Did my mother indicate what she wanted?” “No, sir. I spoke to her myself, but she was quite reticent as to the object of her visit. She would say only that it was imperative that she see you.” “No doubt.” He looked at his valet. “I think a cup of strong tea would be in order.” “Indeed, sir. I will fetch it myself.” * * * Thirty minutes later, shaved, impeccably dressed in the plain black suit and crisp white shirt that he favored, cravat knotted fashionably under his chin, Devin Aincourt made his way downstairs, looking every inch the sixth Earl of Ravenscar. He walked into the drawing room, decorated tastefully in masculine tones of beige and brown by the selfsame sister who sat there now.

An attractive woman in her late twenties, she had the black hair, green eyes and well-modeled features that were characteristic of the Aincourt family’s handsomeness, and was possessed of a charming dimple in her cheek. She looked up at his entrance and smiled. “Dev!” “Rachel.” He smiled back at her despite the low-grade pounding in his head. She was one of the few people who was dear to him. The smile faded as he turned toward his mother, a slender blond woman whose exquisite taste in clothes and regal carriage elevated her looks above an ordinary prettiness. He bowed formally toward her. “Mother. An unexpected pleasure.” “Ravenscar.

” His mother nodded to him. She had always preferred formality even in dealings with her own family, believing that to behave otherwise would undermine one’s importance—and whatever had befallen the Aincourt family over the years, they were important. “I am relieved to see you alive,” Lady Ravenscar went on dryly. “Given the reaction of your servants to the thought of your receiving us, I was beginning to wonder whether you were.” “I was still asleep. My servants are understandably reluctant to pull me out of bed.” His mother raised her eyebrows. “It is almost one o’-clock in the afternoon.” “Exactly.” The older lady sighed resignedly.

“You are a heathen. But that is not the issue at hand.” She waved the matter away. “I presumed not. Precisely what matter has brought you into this den of iniquity? It must be of great urgency.” Lady Ravenscar made a little moue of distaste. “I suppose that is your idea of a jest.” “Very faint, I will admit,” Ravenscar said in a bored tone. “What brings me here is your marriage.” His eyebrows rose.

“My marriage? I am afraid that I have no knowledge of any marriage.” “You should,” his mother retorted bluntly. “You are desperately in need of one. You should have been casting about for a suitable girl these ages past. But since you have not made the slightest push in that regard, I have found one for you.” Devin cast a look at his sister and murmured, “Et tu, Rachel?” “Dev…” Rachel began in an unhappy voice, looking abashed. “Don’t be nonsensical,” Lady Ravenscar interrupted crisply. “I am serious, Devin. You must marry—and soon—or you shall find yourself in debtors’ prison.” “I am not run off my legs yet,” he said mildly.

“You are not far from it, if I understand your vulgar expression correctly. Your estate is in dreadful shape, and Darkwater is literally falling down about our heads. As you would know if you ever made the least effort to visit your lands.” “It is very far away, and I am not fond of visiting places that are about to come down around my head.” “Oh, yes, it is easy for you to jest about it,” Lady Ravenscar returned feelingly. “You are not the one who has to live there.” “You do not have to live there,” he pointed out. “Indeed, I believe you are residing in London right now, are you not?” “Renting a house for the Season,” his mother said in the tone of one suffering the utmost humiliation. “We once had a house in Town, a lovely place where we could hold the most elegant parties. Now I can rent a house for only two months, and it’s of such a size that I can barely have a dinner for over eight people.

I haven’t thrown a decent rout in years.” “You could live with me,” Rachel told her. “I already live on your husband’s charity enough. I have him and Richard to thank for the clothes on my back. That is enough without making Westhampton put me up, as well. It is Devin’s responsibility. He is the Earl of Ravenscar.” “So I must marry to give you a house in Town?” “Don’t be obtuse, Devin. It doesn’t become you. You have a duty—to me, to your name—to yourself, for that matter.

What is to happen to Darkwater? To the Aincourt name? It is your duty to marry and produce heirs—how else are the name and title to continue? And what about the house? It’s been standing since Queen Elizabeth was a child. Are you going to let it fall into complete ruin?” “I am sure the title will go on.” “Oh, yes, if you don’t mind that rat-faced little Edward March succeeding to your title. A third cousin, I ask you—and he hasn’t the least idea how to conduct himself, I assure you.” “I would have said that you thought I hadn’t the least idea how to conduct myself, either.” His mother cast him a long, pointed look. “You haven’t. But at least you are direct in line. And you don’t resemble a weasel.” She sighed.

“It pains me to think of a rodenty Ravenscar. Whatever else one might say about them, at least the Earls of Ravenscar were always handsome creatures.” “So I am to be the sacrificial lamb on the altar of family, is that it?” “There is no need to be dramatic. It isn’t as if it isn’t done every day. Love matches are for the lower classes. People like us make alliances. It is what your father and I did. And look at your sisters. They married as they should. They didn’t whine, they just did what the family needed.

As head of the family, I can scarcely see how you can do any less.” “Ah, but doing less is something I am remarkably good at.” “You are not going to divert me with your jests.” His mother pointed her index finger at him. “I can see that,” Devin replied wearily. “You have wasted your entire inheritance since you came into it,” Lady Ravenscar went on relentlessly. “How can you think that you should not be the one to recover it?” “Mother, that’s not fair!” his sister cried. “You know that every Earl in memory has squandered his money. The blame isn’t all to lay at Dev’s door. If you will remember, it was actually Papa who sold the house in Town.

” “I remember it quite well, thank you, Rachel. You are right. The Aincourts have never been good with money. That is why they always married well.” Having made her point, she folded her hands in her lap and waited, watching Devin. He rubbed his temple, where the throbbing had picked up in both speed and intensity. “And who is it you wish me to shackle myself to? Not that gaptoothed Winthorpe girl, I hope.” “Vivian Winthorpe! I should say not. Why, the settlement her father will lay on her would do little more than pay off your debts. Besides, the Winthorpes would never agree to tying their name to yours—they cannot abide scandal.

You can scarcely expect a father to agree to give his daughter to a man who…well, who has had the sort of liaison you have had for years.” Lady Ravenscar’s lip curled expressively. “Who, then? A widow, I suppose.” “I am sure that you could win one of them over if you put your mind to it,” the older woman agreed dispassionately. “But it would require dancing attendance on her, and frankly, I doubt you would carry through on it.” “Your faith in me is astounding.” His mother went on, ignoring his sarcasm. “The girl I am thinking of is perfect. Her fortune is huge, and her father is hot for the match. He fancies his daughter being a countess.

You should have seen the way his eyes lit up when I started talking about Darkwater. It seems there’s nothing he wants more than the chance to restore an old mansion.” “You’re talking about a Cit?” he asked, surprised. “No. An American.” “What?” He stared at her blankly. “You want me to marry an American heiress?” “It is a perfect situation. The fellow made a ludicrous amount of money in furs or some such thing, and he is willing to spend it on the estate. The man is enamored of a title. And because they don’t live here, they don’t know a thing about your reputation.

” “You astound me. You want me to tie myself to some fur trapper’s daughter—someone who cannot speak proper English and probably doesn’t even have any idea which fork to use, and who no doubt looks as if she just stepped out of the backwoods.” “I have no idea how she looks or acts,” Lady Ravenscar replied, “but I am sure that Rachel and I can clean her up. If she’s a complete embarrassment…well, I am sure she will be happy living in Derbyshire with her father putting Darkwater in order. Honestly, Devin, don’t you realize that everyone who is anyone in this country knows that you are steeped in sin? It pains me as a mother to have to say this, but no self-respecting Englishwoman would be willing to marry you.” Devin made no reply. He knew as well as his mother that her words were true. Since adulthood, he had led a life that had scandalized most of the people of his social class. There were several hostesses who would not receive him, and the majority of the others did so only because he was, after all, an earl. Fortunately, he had no desire to mingle with most of the peerage and their disapproval left him unmoved.

He had also years ago accepted the fact that his mother shared Society’s opinion of him—and his father had considered him blacker of soul than everyone else did. “I don’t know why you should worry about the American’s social blunders, anyway,” his mother plowed on. “I am the one whose standing could be ruined by a rustic daughter-in-law.” “Let me remind you that I am the one who would be legally bound to her. I can see her now—too homely to catch a husband back home, even with all her money, wearing clothes ten years out of date, and not an interesting bit of conversation in her head.” “Really, Devin, I am sure you are exaggerating.” “Am I? Why, then, did they come to England for a husband? To find someone with a crumbling estate and a vanished fortune, desperate enough to marry anyone with money! Really, Mother, that is the outside of enough. I won’t do it. I’ll find some way to get along. I always have.

” “Gambling?” his mother retorted. “Pawning your watch and your grandfather’s diamond studs? Oh, yes, I know how you’ve scraped by the last few months. You have sold everything that isn’t encumbered and has any value. We’ve laid off half the staff at Darkwater. You have lived a ruinous, licentious, extravagant lifestyle, Devin, and this is the consequence.” Devin turned toward his sister, who had held her silence through most of the conversation. “Is this what you want for me, Rachel? To marry some chit I’ve never laid eyes on? To have the same sort of happy marriage you do?”

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