Fire Dragon's Angel
Can a hero ever live up to his reputation? For seven years, Ceressa Quarles has secretly admired Latimer Kirkleigh. Latimer has spent those same seven years disappointing everyone he loves. When they reunite, she finds him jaded, arrogant...and still irresistible. He finds her disconcerting, headstrong...and beautiful. As responsibility and tragedy intertwine, Ceressa and Latimer are set upon a course that neither is prepared to travel. Forced to flee her English home, Ceressa accepts a marriage proposal from Latimer and finds herself living in a savage, colonial wilderness embroiled in rebellion. With their lives at risk and any chance at love hidden deep within their precarious marriage of convenience, Ceressa and Latimer battle for the stability of a new world and peace within their own hearts.
“The problem, cherie, is that your father is determined to marry you off to some ghastly, gouty nobleman whom he deems safe and fatherly. How positively abhorrent.”
Had it not been the declaration of the flamboyant and outspoken Reva Kirkleigh, Ceressa Quarles would have been angered by the comment. As it was, she had to laugh at her godfather’s sister, renowned for her uncontrollable tongue and opinions. It was also well known that Reva possessed an insatiable wanderlust, though somehow she’d managed to remain in London for nearly a month, a record to the best of Ceressa’s knowledge. “Lady Kirkleigh, you know how protective Father is.”
The two walked arm in arm toward the glittering ballroom of Sir Geoffrey Kirkleigh’s London residence, filled with the city’s most fascinating and wealthiest citizens. Ceressa’s godfather’s celebrations were spectacular, the unexpected and exciting sure to happen.
As they entered the lofty hall decorated with intricately woven tapestries, Reva opened her mouth to reply, but a hearty greeting issued by several members of a group prevented her from uttering so much as a word.
As Lady Kirkleigh hugged and kissed them, Ceressa stood to the side, politely waiting while her eyes scanned those present. There was no other woman as exotic or as envied as Sir Geoffrey’s sister. Ceressa wished she could be like Reva Kirkleigh—an independent woman happily unmarried who fearlessly sought adventure and travel. As it was, Ceressa was happiest at home with her books, writing poetry, teaching the servants’ children, and doing the things a dutiful daughter did for parents who were absolutely adored. But was Reva right? Did her father really intend to marry her off to someone he considered solid and honorable and of an age greatly beyond the flush of youth?
There had been talk between her parents of gentlemen suitable for marriage. Though they had never indicated they would pledge her to someone not of her choosing, Ceressa shuddered at the thought of wedding a gouty noble. Having turned a score and one three months ago, a restlessness teased the fringes of her consciousness. She diligently sought God’s will and was certain that if God directed her path, she would know true contentment. Admittedly, such was proving more and more difficult.
Ceressa banished her troubling thoughts by observing the audience, so captivated by Reva’s animated conversation and natural élan. Backing away from the friends, Reva turned to Ceressa. “Cherie, do forgive me.” She linked arms with Ceressa, and they resumed their journey to the ballroom. “I haven’t seen them for years. When I’m in the city, they are in the country on holiday. Or they are in the city and I’m on the Continent—you know how it is.”
No, Ceressa thought enviously, I don’t know how that is. They stepped within the ballroom, and though she’d been there countless times, a breathless wonder filled Ceressa. The walls painted blue and gold displayed many of the ancient tapestries that Sir Geoffrey collected. Beside them hung paintings, equally as aged and miraculously spared during the great fire years before. One wing of the mansion had burned but was now restored to its original grandeur. The furnishings were richly upholstered in dark blue brocade and at least a hundred years in age; the ornate backs gleamed from recent polishing. Three chandeliers hung suspended above, their shapes reminding Ceressa of intricate golden webs.
“But enough talk of my affairs. It is you who concerns me.”
“There’s no need to be concerned. I’m perfectly content.”
“Ummph!” Lady Kirkleigh snorted improperly as she stepped around a male guest whose unsteadiness told them he had stopped somewhere before arriving at the soirée and had a bit too much to drink.
Sir Geoffrey never served spirits but did provide coffees, teas, and a delicious fruity punch that Ceressa loved. In fact, she was desirous of a cup at that very moment.
“If you don’t change,” Reva continued, “you’ll find yourself married to that insipid viscount who plods about carrying his book of poetry and marveling at how lily-white is your skin. I should think that would be reason enough to seek change.”
“Lady Kirkleigh.” Ceressa hoped to sound stern even though she was about to laugh. “I am certain my parents will allow me to choose the man I marry. If they knew you were carrying on like this, they would forbid me to visit you.”
“Perhaps I should take you under my wing while your parents are away.”
“They asked Sir Geoffrey to keep an eye on me, not you.” The two fell silent as they slipped through a small opening between a short baron, who was fumbling with his diamond encrusted pocket watch, and a table laden with delicacies. Lady Kirkleigh snapped open her Spanish fan and began to wave it slowly as her gaze roved the assembly.
“Ceressa, surely you have thoughts on whom you wish to marry. Given your age I would think you’d have put some effort into this.”
Ceressa averted her eyes, fearful the woman could see truth lurking in them. She did dream of a man—none other than Reva and Sir Geoffrey’s nephew, Latimer Kirkleigh. Earlier, she had overheard the servants whisper that Latimer had returned to London and trouble was brewing between nephew and uncle. But Ceressa doubted she would see him. Their last encounter had been several years ago when she’d been in that awkward state of adolescence.
Ceressa knew the story of how Sir Geoffrey had taken in Latimer and his sister, Constance, when they’d been orphaned. He’d raised them as his own and seen to it that they were properly educated. But seven years ago, Latimer and Sir Geoffrey had a hostile parting of ways, and the rift remained. In order to keep a sufficient distance, Latimer had chosen to build a plantation on land inherited from his father in Virginia Colony. Constance journeyed to Virginia with Latimer, and it was gossiped that the girl had married a native man. Ceressa gave scant credence to such talk, aware that it was not anyone’s right to judge the girl or question her choice of a husband.
Two years ago, Sir Geoffrey received word that Constance had died, and Ceressa clearly recalled his devastation. As the young woman had left this earthly existence to be with the Lord, Ceressa reasoned that Constance should no longer be a topic of conversation.
Sighing, Ceressa plucked at the tufted gold satin of her billowing sleeve.
“Why the deep sigh, cherie?”
“No reason. I can’t say that I have romantic notions about any man with whom I am currently acquainted.” She wasn’t lying; her childish infatuation was merely fantasy. And Latimer couldn’t be counted as one of her current acquaintances. “The Viscount Montvale is a good friend, nothing more. I could never marry him.”
“See that you hold firm to that decision,” Reva cautioned as she took hold of Ceressa’s chin, “or you could find yourself wed to either an impractical man like the viscount or an old man too feeble to make a true wife of you.”
Ceressa reddened, but Reva seemed impervious to her discomfort.
“Even worse, you could wither and grow ancient in that drafty old abbey reading poems about a love you will never know.” Lady Kirkleigh released her hold and straightened. She was three inches taller than Ceressa, as graceful as a gazelle with a regal bearing that drew men of all ages.
How Ceressa wished she could be half as intriguing and mysterious. She was acutely conscious of her rounded figure made more noticeable by her small waist and legs that were a bit short. Fortunately, Sir Geoffrey chose to join them, ending her distressing dissection of her less-than-perfect body.
“I can’t understand why the two most beautiful women here are hiding in the corner. Ceressa, my child, you look lovely.” Geoffrey Kirkleigh leaned toward her and kissed her cheek. Sir Geoffrey was her father’s oldest and most trusted friend and was like a second father to her. It was impossible not to be fascinated by him, for though he was well past two score and ten, his bearing was erect, his dark eyes vibrant, and his hair thick, its natural reddish-brown shade marred by a bit of gray. Ceressa preferred the way he wore his hair, foregoing the perukes so favored by male nobility. Geoffrey Kirkleigh was undoubtedly handsome, and he and his sister were both striking. She wondered what the other sibling—Latimer and Constance’s father—had looked like. He’d probably been just as attractive.
“I believe I see the duke and duchess, Geoffrey. I shall speak to them and give you time to chat. I’m afraid I’ve unsettled your goddaughter with warnings to beware of any matchmaking efforts on the part of Jonathan.” Reva glided across the room, no small feat given the crowd. Sir Geoffrey tucked Ceressa’s arm within his, leading her into the heart of the room. Magic was in the air—Ceressa could ever feel it when she visited her godfather—and it promised to be a night filled with beauty and adventure like the fairy tales her father had so often read to her as a child.
The people they passed were already eating and sipping their punch while conversing spiritedly. It appeared Sir Geoffrey’s event was to be a success.
“Lady Kirkleigh is so amazing. Look at her. The regal queen entertaining her loyal subjects.”
“Reva does give one that impression.” Sir Geoffrey chuckled, his sister now enveloped by another admiring group. “It’s impossible to ignore her.”
“Lady Kirkleigh seems overly concerned with my marriage prospects, or rather the lack of. She should turn her attentions to you.” Though Ceressa teased, her words extinguished the laughter in her godfather’s eyes, and she regretted having spoken. Sir Geoffrey still mourned the wife lost to him during childbirth thirty years ago. He never spoke of her, and no one in his circle of friends, including her father, ever referred to the woman. Ceressa had never so much as heard her name. It was Sir Geoffrey’s housekeeper who had once mentioned the “great love of his life who died giving birth to his son.” Obviously, the babe had died as well, for there was no child. Ceressa lightly touched his arm. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”
“Think nothing of it, dear.” Geoffrey managed a tight smile. “Believe me, Reva has tried. If and when I fall in love, she’ll be the first to know.”
“Then you’re in capable hands.” Thankfully, the tension between them eased.
“Don’t become overly hopeful. I doubt any woman would fall in love with me. I don’t deserve such joy.” Lonely, unhappy words. Ceressa wished desperately that this man could be filled with joy. He was so very important to her, almost as important as her parents. “Enough of that,” he added, then abruptly changed the subject. “I suppose Jon and Theressa are in Cornwall by now.”
“They should be. They didn’t need to ask you to keep an eye on me. It’s not as though I’m a child.”
“I don’t blame Jon one bit. I’d want to be sure my little girl was safe. As I recall, you’re just recovered from a fever. You know I don’t mind looking in.” He affectionately chucked her beneath the chin and she smiled. “You’re as important as my own daughter would be. Now tell me again what relative passed away in Cornwall?”
“My great aunt, Lady Penhagen, on Mother’s side. She lived with her servants outside Plymouth in a castle that is falling into ruin. Lady Lydia never married and has been a recluse. They say she had her heart broken by an unfaithful lover and never recovered. I met her but once, and I remember that she was a tiny woman and quite kind. She took me to the kitchens and served me the sweetest berries covered in cream. Mother felt it necessary to attend to the details herself as she is Lady Lydia’s closest living relative.”
“Indeed, it’s good of Theressa to go, and it’s exactly what I would expect of her—always putting the needs of others before her own. There was no reason for you to spend days journeying in this chill weather—fever can be a tricky thing. But you’re here and there are things we can do together over the next few weeks. Might I point out there are several eligible young men present tonight that might be worthy of a second look?”
“I hope you’re not playing matchmaker, now, Sir Geoffrey.”
“Surely you’re not adverse to marriage?”
“Of course not, but I’d like to fall in love first.”
“Perhaps tonight you’ll meet the man of your dreams.” Ceressa knew Sir Geoffrey was teasing. If he only knew whom she really loved—and had loved since the age of fourteen. It was utter foolishness, of course, but Ceressa sometimes worried that she discouraged prospective suitors because of her childish infatuation. Latimer Kirkleigh was as unattainable as a star. He lived thousands of miles away in a land that was dangerous and unwelcoming.
Ceressa watched Sir Geoffrey as he addressed a servant clad in the Kirkleigh livery of black and gold and took two cups of punch off the silver tray the man held. As he handed her one, she met her godfather’s thoughtful gaze. He lifted his cup in a toast.
“To the evening. May it reveal your heart’s desire.” Ceressa smiled and then sipped the flavorful, fruity liquid while wondering if his copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets had arrived. Just as she started to ask, her gaze was drawn to the entrance of the ballroom. Shock set her atremble. It was difficult to breathe, and she feared she might faint, though she never had before. Was she imagining what her gaze now beheld?
“Sir Geoffrey, is that…could that be”—Ceressa paused to summon courage—“Latimer?”