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Jayne A. Krentz

Desire

For Stella Cameron? another one of the sisters whom I never had.

PROLOGUE

It is extremely unlikely that the lady of Desire is still a virgin,'

Thurston of Landry said. 'But under the circumstances, I'm certain you'll find yourself able to overlook that aspect of the situation.'

Gareth looked at his father impassively. His reaction to the news that his future bride had already dishonored herself with another man was virtually undetectable, a mere tightening of his fingers around his wine cup.

As a bastard son who'd been obliged to make his way in the world with his sword, he'd had years of experience concealing his emotions. In truth, he had become so skilled at the business that most people concluded that he possessed no strong feeling of any kind.

'You say she is an heiress?' Gareth forced himself to concentrate on the most important element of the matter. 'She holds an estate?'

'Aye.'

'In that case, she'll do as a wife.' Gareth hid his intense satisfaction.

His father was right. As long as the lady was not pregnant with another man's babe, Gareth was prepared to overlook the issue of his bride's honor or lack of same for the sake of gaining lands of his own.

Lands of his own. The words shimmered with promise.

A place where he belonged; a place where he was not just the bastard son whose presence must be tolerated; a place where he was welcomed and needed not merely because his skill with a sword made him temporarily useful. He wanted to live in a place where he had a right to sit in front of his own hearth.

Gareth was thirty-one years old and he knew that he might never again be granted this opportunity.

He was a man who had long since learned to seize whatever chance fate brought his way. It was a philosophy which had served him well in the past.

'She is now sole mistress of the Isle of Desire.' Thurston sipped wine from his finely crafted silver cup and gazed thoughtfully into the fire.

'Her father, Sir Humphrey, favored travel and intellectual pursuits over working the land. Unfortunately, word has reached me that he died? several months ago while on a journey in Spain. Murdered by bandits.'

'There are no male heirs?'

'Nay. Two years ago, Humphrey's only son, Edmund, broke his fool neck in a tournament. Clare, the daughter, is the only one left. She inherits the manor.'

'And as Sir Humphrey's liege lord, you have wardship of his daughter.

She will marry at your command.'

Thurston's mouth twitched. 'That remains to be seen.'

Gareth realized that his father was barely restraining a grin. The knowledge made him uneasy.

As a man whose own natural temperament had always been of a profoundly serious and deeply restrained nature, Gareth was not much given to mirth. He rarely esponded with even mild amusement to the jests and japes that made others laugh aloud.

His unsmiling countenance nicely complemented his reputation as a ruthless man who could be exceedingly dangerous to cross, but it was not deliberate. He had no particular objection to smiles and laughter; he simply was not often inclined to indulge in either.

Now he waited warily to learn what it was that Thurston found so amusing in what should have been a straightforward matter of business.

He studied his father's lean, elegant profile in the light of the flames on the hearth. Thurston was in his mid-fifties. His thick, dark hair was streaked with silver, but he still captured the attention of every female who came within his sphere.

It was not only the power Thurston wielded as one of Henry II's favored barons that made him an object of merest to the female of the species, Gareth knew. It was also Thurston's handsome face and form that made him attractive to women.

Thurston's skill at seduction, employed quite freely in his younger days both before and after his arranged marriage, had been legendary.

Gareth's mother, the youngest daughter of a noble family in the south, had been one of his many conquests. As far as Gareth knew, he was his father's only adult illegitimate offspring. If there had been others over the years, none had survived infancy.

To Thurston's credit and his wife's thinly disguised displeasure, he had done his duty by his bastard son. He had acknowledged Gareth from the start.

Gareth had been raised by his mother until the age of eight. During those years Thurston had been a frequent visitor to the quiet manor house where Gareth and his mother had gone to live. But when Gareth had turned eight, the age when the sons of nobles went into training for knighthood, his mother had announced that she intended to take the veil.

There had been a fierce argument. Gareth would never forget his father's rage. But his mother had been adamant and in the end she had won.

Thurston had even provided the magnificent dowry that had made the convent more than happy to accept Gareth's mother as a novitiate.

Thurston had taken his bastard son home to Beckworth Castle. He had seen to Gareth's education as a knight with the same care and diligence that he had applied to the rearing of his legitimate sons and his heir, Simon.

Thurston's wife, Lady Lorice, beautiful, cold, and proud, had had no option but to tolerate the situation.

Perhaps not unnaturally, however, she had not gone out of her way to make young Gareth welcome in the household.

Deeply aware of his status as an outsider, missing the studious, contemplative atmosphere of his mother's household, Gareth had poured all his energies into his training with lance and sword. He had practiced endlessly, seeking an elusive satisfaction in a quest for perfection.

When he was not honing his fighting skills, he had sought out the solitude of the library of the local Benedictine monastery. There he had read anything and everything that Brother Andrew, the librarian, had given him.

By the time he was seventeen, Gareth had studied a wide variety of subjects. He had delved into treatises on mathematics and optics that had been translated from the Greek and Arabic by Gerard of Cremona. He had pondered Aristotle's theories of the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. He was fascinated by Plato's writings on astronomy, light, and matter.

Gareth's interests in scholarly subjects had never proven to be of much practical use, but his skills as a knight and as a commander of men had enabled him to carve out a lucrative career for himself.

Many a powerful lord, including his own father, had considerable use for a man who knew how to hunt the thieves and marauding, renegade knights who were a constant threat to their remote estates and manors.

The business of snaring outlaws paid well and Gareth was adept at it. He had never been particularly enamored of the profession, but he was a man of means, thanks to his talent with a sword. He could not,

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