The Scilly Islands
The castle servants had warned him that he would pay for ignoring the girl. On the very night he took possession of the ancient keep, the domestic prophets of doom surrounded him in the hallway. They assured him that the girl possessed some vague magical powers which she would use against him for turning her away.
"And what sort of magical powers might those be?" he had asked out of amused curiosity.
"She brings rainbows to the sky after a storm," the castle housekeeper said proudly.
The coachman nodded. "She causes flowers to bloom where nary a weed could grow before."
"Oh, my goodness, Anthony said, hiding a grin. "These are terrifying powers, indeed. Is it safe to leave my room?"
"And she's under the protection of the sorceress Morgan le Fay, King Arthur's own sister," a chambermaid piped in ominously.
"Not the same King Arthur who lived in Saxon times?" Anthony walked the small group of servants into the bronze umbrella stand, his voice rising. "Who probably never lived at all and, if he did live, would have banished the lot of you to the dungeon for aggravation?"
"The one and only Arthur," the housekeeper said, adding under her breath as she hid behind the coachman, "and old Annie Jenkins has had a vision that you and Miss Halliwell are destined to marry."
"Marry?" Anthony muttered to himself as he waved the absurd little group away. Now, that is a terrifying thought."
Still, inspiring his own brand of terror in the much-beloved Miss Halliwell was probably what he needed to do to get rid of the girl once and for all. Ignoring her for a week obviously had not worked. In fact, the thunderous echo that resounded through the walls this very moment could have been caused by the brutal Atlantic breakers that pounded at the foundations of the castle. Or they could have been her again.
The persistent young woman had demanded, and been denied, an audience with him for more than a week.
Anthony Hartstone, third Earl of Pentargon, sat unmoving in his balloon-back chair, his brandy untouched. The coal fire highlighted the cynical humor on his angular face as passionate voices rose from the bailey. Ah, yes. One oclock. His feminine tormentor had arrived right on time.
Foolish girl. Brave girl indeed to beard the lion in his den. It sounded from the fracas as if she had finally brought reinforcements to plead her case. Which, of course, was a waste of time. Anthony could not have helped her even had he so desired.
His lips curled at the corners as a man shouted, "Over my dead body! You are not to disturb his lordship!"
Vincent, his valet, butler, and former butcher, was apparently losing his temper, which never boded well for the object of his annoyance. Under different circumstances, Anthony might have enjoyed watching the spectacle between the Cornish Titan and the infamous Miss Halliwell. Vincent would not raise a finger to the lady; one shake of his meaty fist would probably send her scurrying.
A belch of thunder broke overhead, portending another storm. The waves below the cliffs threw white flecks of spume high against the mullioned windows. The room darkened.
Anthony put aside the letters of condolence hed received at the same moment the door behind him flew open. "My lord." Vincent's bulky frame shook with indignation. "The tethers of my patience are stretched to the breaking point."
"Admittedly thin threads to begin with." Vincent's cheeks reddened under his bushy whiskers. "The woman refused to take no for an answer."
"Until you escorted her back to the beach. In the most polite way possible, of course."
"She poked me, my lord."
Anthony sat forward, his face delighted. "She what?"
"With a parasol. In the -- the hindquarters." Clearly distraught, Vincent pressed his intimidating bulk against the door panels. Prepare to defend yourself, he managed to shout seconds before a petite bundle of gray-blue muslin burst into the room. We are besieged."
Anthony shot to his feet, frowning in displeasure at the intrusion. The bold invaders, three in all, stormed into the library, defiling his male sanctuary and mood of private mourning for his recently departed brother.
Actually, it was their female leader, face concealed by the intriguing shadows of a bonnet, who stormed the room. Her two male escorts more wisely crept behind her, darting apologetic glances his way. They, at least, possessed the sense to be afraid of him.
The young woman was either too spoiled or too thick-headed to recognize her social limitations.
"Forgive us, my lord, the eldest of the intruders said, a portly man in his sixties with a trim white beard. The other man was in his early thirties. Tall, dark-haired, and blinking nervously behind gold-rimmed spectacles, he stammered a sheepish apology. We shouldnt have come. We shall return at a better time -- "
"Do be quiet, Elliott." The young woman tapped her parasol on the floor for emphasis. "He's intimidating you, and he hasn't said a single word. For all we know, his lordship is the kindest man in the world. For all we know, we shall be warmly received."
Anthony pointed to the door, no hint of the hoped-for warmth or kindness on his lean face. "I do not have time for this nonsense." He peered into the shadowed cavern of her bonnet. "Good-bye, Miss Hollywell."
"That is Halliwell, Lord Pendragon. Morwenna Halliwell."
He smiled coldly. "Pentargon."
"Oh. She gave him an insincere smile. Sorry."
"Sir Dunstan Halliwell." The older man extended his hand in a gesture so patently humble that Anthony could hardly refuse. "An honor to meet you, my lord. A rare honor."
"Elliott Winleigh." The slender man with ink-stained fingers turned from examining the watercolors on the wall. "At your service, my lord," he said, bowing.
Anthony nodded. "At any other time, I should be glad to receive you, but my day -- my entire week -- is filled with business."
"But that's why we've come," Miss Halliwell said in exasperation. "On a business matter."
Then, with an ingenious flick of her hand, she pushed the bonnet down onto her nape, revealing herself with artlessness that was more disarming than a frontal attack. His frown deepened as he stared at her. His thoughts seemed to collide one upon another like an avalanche of boulders at the bottom of a hill, faster than he could hold them at bay.
She was beautiful, he could not deny that.
Green eyes that gazed at him with irresistible innocence and struck a chord in his distant memory. Chestnut-gold hair too heavy for the twisted knot at her nape. Features so clean and fragile she might have been carved from ice -- if he breathed on her, would she melt, he wondered? Most alarming was the fact that she looked so familiar.
"Have we met?" he said in confusion. She looked at him as if he were a bit of an idiot. "I just introduced myself a few moments ago. I have begged an audience with you every morning for a week and been refused by Jack the Giant Killer at your door."
"Morwenna." Her uncle gave a discreet cough. "His lordship is a busy man. Get to the point, my dear."
"There is no point." Anthony turned back to his escritoire, his voice dismissive. "There is no point in any of us wasting our time. I know what you want. It is impossible."
Morwenna stared at him; heat rose to his neck at the intensity of emotion in her eyes. "Perhaps you knew my father, Sir Roland Halliwell," she said. "He was a great scholar and antiquarian whose books a learned person such as yourself may even have in your library. Passage to the Land of the Little People."
"Excalibur in England," Elliott added helpfully.
Morwenna swept her parasol across his desk in a burst of enthusiasm. "In fact, your own dear brother said he was reading one of Papa's books a fortnight before his tragic death." Anthony swore softly, watching the bottle of ink she had knocked over saturate his letters. "Damnation."
"We are sorry about your brother, my lord," she whispered, staring in chagrin at the slow-moving stain on his desk as Elliott rushed forward with his handkerchief to sop up the mess.
Anthony turned and tugged at the bellpull for his housekeeper. "I cannot help you, Miss Halliwell. I understand why you are here. However, the contracts for the sale of the island have already been drawn up by an army of lawyers."
"Is your behavior not rather impulsive, my lord? she said. You have hardly left this castle since your arrival. Your brother adored Abandon."
His blue-gray eyes darkened in warning. And perhaps if he had not secluded himself on this godforsaken pile of granite, investigating ridiculous phenomena such as mermaids, he would still be alive today."
"He seemed happy here," she said in surprise. "Although I did not know him well, the islanders liked him very much, and I believe he would not have wanted even one stone to be removed from its place."
He gripped the back of his chair, assessing her face with a ruthless scrutiny that would have reduced most men to powder. "My brother is gone. The sooner I am shed of this island, the better."
"How can you be so callous? There are entire families at stake."
"I do not need to explain my actions to you," he said in astonishment.
"I think you do, she said quietly. The clatter of china from the doorway broke the dangerous silence that had fallen. Outside, even the storm seemed suspended as if nature held its breath, awaiting the outcome of a battle this bold girl could not win. "You wished for tea for our guests, my lord?" Tillie Treffry, the castle's pretty Cornish housekeeper, entered the room with an approving smile, elbowing Anthony's brandy decanter aside on the table to lower her tray. "Scones fresh from the oven and clotted cream." She cast a covert glance at Miss Halliwell, which Anthony interpreted to mean a conspiracy was afoot.
"I did not ring for refreshments," Mrs. Treffry, he said. "I would like you to clean my desk. Our guests are not staying."
"Not staying? But how can they row back to the other side of the island in the rain, my lord?"
"The same way they rowed here, I imagine." He looked directly at Sir Dunstan. "Please understand I am obligated to supervise certain improvements on the island. They were promised as a condition of the sale."
Sir Dunstan moved to the door, frowning at his niece. "Come, Morwenna. We should perhaps have stated our case to his lordship in a letter."
Morwenna refused to move. "If you sell Abandon to a stranger, Lord Pentargon, you are condemning the islanders to a fate as awful as the Highland Clearances."
Her eyes reminded him of oil upon the surface of the dark green Cornish sea, changing with emotion. "The Marquess of Camelbourne is hardly a monster. No one will be smoked out of a cottage or sent to Canada."
"Lord Heart of Stone," she said. "That is what you are called. I discounted the warnings. I did not believe it fair to judge you until we had met."
He laughed shortly. "One can hardly fend off progress with the parasol."
"Perhaps not," she said, her eyes narrowing," but one can certainly make a few good dents."
"I can attest to the truth of that," Vincent muttered from the hall where he evidently stood eavesdropping.
Anthony had a sudden insane urge to scoop Miss Halliwell into his arms, drop her on the sofa, and -- well, he refused to let his imagination go any farther. He was a gentleman, after all, even if this slip of a girl did arouse the barbaric undercurrents of behavior that lurked beneath the surface of every red-blooded male. He gave her a stare designed to crush her spirit. "I have made a bargain, Miss Halliwell."
"With the devil, I do not doubt," she retorted.
"That is enough, Morwenna." Her uncle took firm hold of her arm, dragging her toward the door.
"I won't leave until he listens to me," she said, continuing to stare at Anthony as if she could not believe what an evil entity she had encountered.
"Then I shall leave," he said simply.
Silence fell as he moved past them. He wondered if she noticed that his gait was slightly uneven, and he wondered why he should care. Then he caught the faintest hint of lilies on her skin. The fragrance was so elusive he barely identified it as he glanced back at her.
Their eyes met. He thought for an instant she might bash him on the skull with her umbrella, the bent tip of which had no doubt left one of her aforementioned dents in Vincent's tough flesh.
But it was the shy-looking Elliott who stopped him, with the most outrageous remark Anthony had ever heard.
"I -- I should like to sketch you, my lord."
Anthony stilled. "Excuse me?"
Elliott flushed. He still held one of Anthony's ink-stained letters in his hand where the housekeeper covertly cleaned up the mess on the desk. "I should like to sketch you in costume for the book I am illustrating, to be published at the beginning of next year. It is about Arthurian legends and their connection to Cornwall. Miss Halliwell's papa had almost completed it before his untimely death, and I w-would be honored to use you as a model."
"A sketch. Of me. I am flattered, Mr. Winleigh," he said wryly. Stunned
was more accurate. Having overcome a handicap in his childhood, Anthony did not think of himself as a handsome man, although women seemed to find him reasonably attractive. "But I hardly have the time, nor do I see myself in such a heroic role."
"I think you would make the perfect Sir Gawain for the book, my lord, Elliott said. You have the physique of a knight, and a face...a face that not only brings to mind a warrior but which reveals a remarkable depth of character."
"Oh, Elliott, the girl said in an angry whisper. You carry artistic obsession too far. How could you? Besides," she added a little spitefully, ""he would make a better Mordred than Gawain, and Gawain was fair."
Anthony almost laughed. He knew just enough of Arthurian lore to remember that Mordred was the archvillain in the legend, the treasonous nephew who had delivered a deathblow to the king.
"You are too kind, Mr. Winleigh, he murmured, closing the door on the trio of apprehensive faces. "Far too kind."
The girl had made a muffled sound behind him, a combined huff of dismay, indignation, and disbelief. He had laughed then, chuckled all the way up the tower stairs to the battlements where he and Vincent stood in the rain for several minutes as the unsuccessful party took its leave.
"Why should I care what she thinks, Vincent?"
"You should not, my lord. Not a jot."
"I have only done what needed to be done, and the matter was decided a month ago."
"Indeed it was, my lord."
"Look at us, Vincent, standing here in the rain. Blast that silly creature for raking me over the coals of my own conscience when my motives are pure. I am not selling this damn island for profit."
"Of course you are not, my lord."
Anthony frowned. His younger brother, Ethan, had died several months ago, leaving Abandon, a tiny isle off the Cornish coast, to Anthony. Ethan had fallen off a cliff one morning and drowned, presumably during his absurd search for mermaids. In Anthony's opinion, a man like Ethan, disabled by an army injury, should never have come to this wretched place to begin with, and the sooner it was sold, the better.
In fact, Anthony was amazed when he received the offer, ecstatic when he discovered the buyer was an old acquaintance, the politically powerful Marquess of Camelbourne, a master statesman and personal friend to Prince Albert. For two years Anthony had been trying to find a political ally to ensure that his child labor reform measures would be passed. A deal was struck. Abandon would be sold to Camelbourne in exchange for political support, and countless innocent children would be protected from inhumane conditions.
"Has the girl never been taught that one must make sacrifices for the greater good?" Anthony asked himself aloud. "Does she not understand that one does not always have a choice?"
This time Vincent did not respond. He was too busy watching the sturdy rowboat that had just taken to the sea. A small cluster of servants also stood watching on the castle causeway. The girl in the bonnet bobbed up and down in the boat. Her profile seemed pure even at this distance.
Vincent lifted his spyglass. "The staff accused us of sending them to their deaths, my lord."
"The storm appears to be passing," Anthony said, secretly relieved that he could see a mass of thunderheads moving away from the castle. "They might have stayed in the drawing room until the rain stopped, I suppose."
"I suppose we could have suggested it, my lord."
Anthony looked at him. "Except that Jack the Giant Killer and Mordred the King Slayer could hardly be expected to play the perfect hosts."
"Still, we would not want them to be drowned, my lord."
"No," Anthony murmured, "we would not."
The rain had died to a drizzling mist; the sea below still churned, the green waves so glassy one could see the ocean bottom. Anthony gazed across the sea at the girl in the boat and felt a sudden stab of concern for her. Nuisance she might be, but he did not wish her harm.
Then, suddenly, she looked up at him. She looked at him, and the wind carried the scent of lilies, lilies and a rush of images from the past so poignant and overpowering that he felt himself carried away by their spell.
Children's voices clamored in his mind, excited and impatient with anticipation. "Bring me a sword, Ethan! We're playing King Arthur in the forest, and last one there has to be his dwarf."
He heard his brother Ethan's voice. "Well, wait for Anthony, you idiots. He can't go as fast as us."
"Do we have to bring him, Ethan? He's always falling down."
"We have to bring him. He's my brother." Then, in an annoyed undertone, Ethan said, "Get up, Anthony. Make an effort to climb over the wall. I'll push you from below."
"Just go, would you?" Anthony pressed his face into the dirt. "I don't want to play, anyway. There never was a King Arthur, you know. It's a fairy tale for fools."
Ethan stared at him. I am going to help you over the stile, but you have to climb the wall yourself."
"Go to the devil."
"Ethan! Ethan!" The other boys were calling him from the edge of the forest. Your governess is coming -- hide in the trees, or she'll take you in."
He waited until the other boys had vanished before he scaled the wall; flushed with victory, he dropped to the other side only to run three hobbled steps before he stumbled over a shovel.
He heard the boys laughing from the leafy depths of the forest, and he gritted his teeth. The new governess, a determined woman, was scaling the wall in her voluminous skirts to catch her charges.
His chest ached with the effort it took to hold back tears. He was nine years old, the eldest son, a weakling who suffered from a muscular myopathy which made playing sports such a painful challenge that his father had forbidden him to participate. Most people thought that the earl had imposed this restriction because he did not wish his heir to suffer injury. The truth, as Anthony knew it, was that his father was ashamed of his son's clumsiness and contrived to keep him invisible as much as possible.
The governess had found him. He lay facedown in the grass, pretending to ignore her. Humiliation washed over him as he felt her hand on his shoulder. "You are not hurt, my lord."
Strange, only now in retrospect did he hear the words phrased as a statement, not a question. He would die of embarrassment if she tried to help him up with the others watching. He scrambled to his feet, giving her an angry look.
Her gaze scanned the trees. "You're not going to play with your friends?"
par"They're not my friends, and I don't want to play King Arthur. It's a silly game. There was no such person."
She picked up a fallen branch from the grass. Your sword, brave knight." Her hair was hidden beneath a huge bonnet, and her eyes -- had they been green, or was he recalling that other girls remarkable features to fill the gaps in memory?
"No governess stays with us for long, he said confidently, ignoring the proffered branch. My mother is addicted to laudanum, and my father frightens them off with his temper."
"Your papa is going away to conduct some business affairs in China." Her voice was low, hypnotic almost. "He will be gone a long time, my lord, and during his absence you will grow so strong he will not know you when he returns."
She had not put down the branch. Anthony wanted to hit her, or run away, but couldn't seem to move. I'll never be strong. You -- you're stupid."
"You will practice swordplay and become the bravest knight in King Arthur's court. It will be your solemn duty to defend the weak and protect the innocent. Always do what is right, young lord."
"Nobody wants to play with me. Except Ethan."
"You will practice with the fencing master who has been sent for this very morning." She was mocking him, or she was mad. He took a stumbling step back. "Shall I knight you, young lord? she asked. "Kneel, then."
"Me -- kneel before you? You're a servant." Yet when he took another halting step back, his hip locked, and he went down on one knee, blinking in disbelief. The branch touched his shoulder, and he felt a bolt of power go through him, or perhaps only his hope, that with a touch of a magic wand he would arise, whole and unafflicted with his disability, like the other boys who mocked him. He lurched to his feet, filled with bitter disappointment to realize nothing had changed. He was still uncoordinated, half lame, so consumed with despair that the barely heard her speak again.
"That was stupid," he whispered. Only now did Anthony remember that the governess had left the scent of lilies in her wake. At the time he had not cared. He'd wanted to shout at her that she was wrong; he would never be strong, or ride into battle.
She left their Devon house three weeks later, and there was no time to wonder at her mysterious disappearance. The fencing master arrived the day she left, and the following week the earl inexplicably employed a new groom, a half-gypsy former jockey from Wales who gave the boys riding lessons.
Over time, while Anthony's mother languished on laudanum, he developed physical strength, but the change was so gradual he barely noticed it. Then one day he got into a fight with a boy who had blackened Ethan's eye, and his life changed.
"You almost killed him," Ethan exclaimed as the other boys gathered around the fallen bully in awestruck silence. Anthony cradled his aching wrist. He still walked with a hint of a limp, nothing would change that, but his shoulders and chest had broadened, his face had matured. He stood a foot taller than the rest of them, and nobody could outride him except Leon, the half-gypsy groom, who congratulated him after the fight.
Anthony had not heard from the governess once in all those years. Not when his parents had died and he had inherited the earldom. Not when Ethan had gone off to fight in India and, ironically, had returned to England a partial cripple from a bullet lodged in his spine.
No, Anthony had not even thought of the bold-hearted woman again until the girl today reminded him, with her connection to King Arthur, the elusive perfume of lilies, and her unseemly spirit, which said: "I will not accept the world the way it is."
The spell was broken. Anthony released his breath. "What did my brother find in this dreary place to make him happy?"
Vincent, clearly only half listening, squinted into the spyglass. "Some people find peace in simplicity. Good heavens, the young woman has taken up the oar. How strange."
"Not that strange," Anthony said. "Oarswomen are common enough on the Scilly Islands."
"I don't mean that, my lord. It's this -- " Vincent lowered the spyglass, looking baffled. "There seems to be a small radius around her boat that is immune to the storm."
"What?" Disbelieving, Anthony pried the spyglass from Vincents huge hands. "Let me see."
He narrowed his eyes. From a distance it did appear as if the waves she encountered fell calm while the sea behind her small boat boiled white and angry.
"It is an illusion of light upon the water," he said at last. "Look, the rain has stopped. The wind is dying."
"Is that an illusion up there too?" Vincent gestured skyward to the perfect rainbow that had just materialized from the bruised clouds above Morwenna's boat.
On the causeway below, the servants were clapping and hugging one another in wonder.
Anthony shook his head. "One would think they had never seen a rainbow in their lives."
"There are other rather unusual phenomena associated with the young woman, my lord."
"Aside from her predilection for besieging castles?"
"It seems the rare lady's-fan lily, so highly prized by botanists and flower vendors on the mainland, is in bloom for the first time in more than a decade."
"You, Vincent, believing this balderdash?"
"Not really, my lord."
The two men stood in silence until the rainbow faded from the sky. Miss Halliwell's boat had also disappeared behind the cliffs.
"I have wasted enough time today, Anthony said. "Camelbourne intends to take possession of the island at the end of the month, and I have only begun to pack Ethans personal possessions."
"The staff is afraid theyll be let go when the marquess arrives, my lord."
Anthony frowned. "I suppose we might try to place them on the mainland."
"But not the entire island," Vincent added as Anthony took a step toward the tower door. "That was why she came here today."
"Excuse me, Vincent. Did you want to add something to the annals of the remarkable Miss Halliwell? Did she rise from a seashell while my back was turned?"
The burly manservant looked embarrassed. Not that I noticed. However, I did neglect to warn you about the raven that has been seen haunting the cliffs since her return."
"It appears only to alert the islanders of impending danger, Vincent said. The bird has led a mother to a child stranded on the rocks at high tide, and warned a fishing boat away from one of the lethal undertows that encircle the isle."
"The islanders believe it is the spirit of King Arthur in the form of the raven, appearing to save Abandon from a dire fate."
Anthony laughed. The dire fate appearing in the form of me, I presume." Vincent smoothed his sideburns. The natives claim that Miss Halliwell's entire family is endowed with mystical power."
"Ravens," Anthony said. "Rainbows, rare lilies. Send the housekeeper into the library with a pot of strong coffee. The sooner we leave this island, the better. I do not like the influence it has had on you."
Copyright © 2001 by Maria Hoag
Anthony arrogantly dismisses Morwenna and her litany of complaints against him -- all the while drawn to her beauty and courage. But when danger confronts Morwenna, Anthony knows he must call upon all his power to protect the innocent miss he desires. It is up to him to unmask the villain who threatens her, and also to convince his bride that he is not her opponent -- but her most passionate and devoted admirer.