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Kiss of Fate
by Mary Jo Putney
Duncan 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 marriage--a 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."
Gwynne smiled at the appallingly bad sonnet Sir Anselm White had recited to her. Though his heart was in the right place, his verses were leagues away in the wrong direction. "You flatter me, Sir Anselm. My eyes are light brown, not 'sapphires bluer than the summer sky.' "
His languid gaze came briefly into focus as he studied the color of her eyes. "Golden coins that outshine the sun!"
She guessed that a metaphor had fallen on the poor man's head when he was an infant and he had never recovered. Since a small amount of Sir Anselm's poetry went a long way, she was glad to hear Bethany say, "Lord Falconer, how good to see you again."
Giving Sir Anselm a last smile before turning away, Gwynne greeted the newcomer warmly. "Simon, my favorite fop!" She extended her hand. "You've been neglecting me, you rogue."
One of the handsomest men in London, Falconer was always worthy of admiration. Today his fair hair was tied back with a blue riband the same shade as his brocade coat, both an exact match for his azure eyes. That embroidered silver waistcoat was more deserving of sonnets than any part of Gwynne's body. He could give Sir Anselm lessons in languid elegance--and underneath the elegance, he was a glittering blade sheathed in silk.
"A fop?" He sighed dramatically. "You wound me, my lady." He bowed over her hand with consummate grace, looking not at all wounded. "Allow me to present my friend Lord Ballister. You'll have heard of him, I think, but he's been travelling abroad for some time and says you've never had the opportunity to meet."
All Guardians had heard of Lord Ballister. Chieftain of the Macraes of Dunrath, among the Families he was known as Britain's finest weather mage. Some said he was even more powerful than his ancestor, Adam Macrae, who had conjured the great gale that destroyed the Spanish Armada.
Since he stood with the sun behind him, she could see little except the silhouette of a powerful, commanding figure. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Lord Ballister."
"The pleasure is mine." Ballister bowed.
A cloud darkened the sun as he straightened, enabling Gwynne to see his face clearly. His storm gray gaze struck her like lightning. Destiny . . . The word echoed in her mind, along with a dizzying sense that the world had changed irrevocably.
She scolded herself for too much imagination. The world was exactly as it had been. The grass was green, Bethany was composed, and Falconer his usual exquisite self. As for Ballister, he looked normal enough. Though his height and broad shoulders drew attention, his face was too craggy to be called handsome, and his navy blue coat and buff waistcoat were plain by the standards of aristocratic London.
Only his intense gray eyes were remarkable. She remembered a natural history demonstration she had once witnessed. The lecturer had said that electricity was a wild, mysterious force that could not be controlled and which no one understood. Surely that was electricity in Ballister's eyes, and in the very air that danced between them. . . .
She had spent too much time listening to Sir Anselm--his metaphors were contagious. "You have been on the Continent, Lord Ballister?" she asked politely.
"I arrived back in London only yesterday. This morning Falconer dragged me from my bed, swearing that Lady Bethany wouldn't mind if I came uninvited."
"The lad would have been in trouble if he hadn't brought you," Bethany said severely. "I hope you'll be staying in London for a time, Ballister?"
"Yes, though I do long to return home to Scotland." After a moment's hesitation, he said gravely, "I was acquainted with the late Lord Brecon. In learning, wisdom, and gentlemanliness, he was an example to us all. Despite the time that has passed, I hope you will both accept my condolences on your loss."
As Lady Bethany murmured thanks, Gwynne swallowed hard, unexpectedly moved by his sympathy. "Thank you for your kind words. I was very fortunate to have shared my lord's final years."
Ballister inclined his head in respectful agreement before saying, "Lady Bethany, may I steal your lovely companion to show me the gardens?"
"Please do," Bethany said, her expression thoughtful. "That will leave me free to flirt outrageously with Falconer. Gwynne, be sure to show Ballister the parterre."
Glad for the chance to talk more with the Scotsman, she took his arm. Though she was a tall woman, he made her feel small and fragile.
The parterre was lower on the hill, near the river. As they crossed the velvety lawn, he said, "I understand that you live here with Lady Bethany?"
"Yes, she invited me to join her after Brecon's death."
"It was too difficult to stay on at Harlowe?"
Surprised at his understanding, she glanced up, and was caught by his eyes again. The gray was changeable, warm now rather than intense. "Yes, though not because of the new earl and his wife. I have the use of the dower house whenever I wish to be at Harlowe, but Lady Bethany and I were both in need of companionship, so I was pleased to accept her offer." Despite the difference in their ages, they had been new widows together. It had deepened their existing bond.
As Gwynne and her companion entered the parterre, an elaborate pattern of carefully cropped shrubs, Ballister halted and studied the pattern with narrowed eyes. "This isn't only decorative, is it? The pattern is designed to magnify power."
Gwynne automatically glanced around to see if anyone was within earshot. The Families had survived through the centuries by not drawing unwelcome attention to their abilities. To be different was dangerous. One of the first things Guardian children learned was to preserve secrets; never must they mention power in front of outsiders. But Ballister had been well trained, and there was no one near. "Yes, there's a power point here. That's why Lady Bethany and her husband bought this property. The circle in the center of the parterre can be used for rituals."
"I can feel the earth energy tugging at me. Can you?"
She knew what he was asking. "I have no real power. I can sense atmosphere and energy and emotion a little, but no more than any sensitive mundane." Even the happy years of marriage and her acceptance into the Guardian community had not eliminated her wistful regret for what she lacked. "What of you, Lord Ballister? You're called the Lord of Thunder, the Lord of Storms. Did your power manifest early?"
"Not until I was on the brink of manhood, but I always loved weather--the more dramatic, the better. When I was barely old enough to walk, my mother found me on top of the castle tower in the middle of a thunderstorm, my arms flung out to the sky as I howled with laughter." He smiled reminiscently. "I found that a mother's anger was another kind of tempest."
Gwynne laughed. "Since you're a Macrae, I assume your parents recognized early that you were a weather mage."
"Aye, it runs in the family, and where better for us to learn than in Scotland, when the weather changes every five minutes with or without a mage's help?" He smiled wryly. "No one even noticed my successes and failures when I was learning."
"I wonder if the Scottish climate is why the best weather workers are always Macraes?"
"Perhaps. There may be something in the air of Dunrath that enhances that kind of magic." He grimaced. "It enhances our weaknesses, too. The stronger a weather mage, the more we are weakened by the touch of iron, and a damnable nuisance it is. Most of the weapons in our armory have hilts of wood or brass."
"I've read about the connection between weather-working and sensitivity to iron. Does iron produce a general weakness, or does it merely block your power?"
"It varies." Changing the subject, he said, "Falconer told me you're an expert on Guardian lore."
"Since my father was the Harlowe librarian, I learned early to catalog and read the archives and write essays about obscure facts and correlations." She smiled wryly. "I know everything about power except what it feels like to have it."
"Knowledge is as important as power," he said seriously. "It is knowledge of history and of our own mistakes that gives us what wisdom we have. The work of Guardian scholars like you is the framework that helps us fulfill our vows."
Excerpted from Kiss of Fate by Mary Jo Putney.
Copyright © 2004 by Mary Jo Putney. All rights reserved.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without
permission in writing from the publisher.