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THE BONDED HEART

 

Betsy Page

 

 

Sara partially blamed her brother for her predicament — she had nowhere to live. So when he tried to prevent her from working as a live-in housekeeper for Brad Garwood, she took the job to spite him.

It would have been better if her employer hadn’t been such a disturbingly virile male. But it was an honest living. Besides, rumor had it that Brad would soon marry possessive Monica Fallon.

In fact, rumors surrounded Brad’s affairs... and Sara had the strangest notion that some of them were true.

“I suppose I’ll have to marry you.”

“I’ll have to marry you to save you from the gossipmongers,” Brad mused, leaning against the counter, obviously enjoying her discomfort.

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Sara used anger to hide the sharp pain his mockingly delivered solution had produced. “I’m sure I can live down one off-color episode.”

“First you find me ridiculous, and now I’m an off-color episode,” he growled, green fire flashing in his eyes. “There are moments ”

Sara found herself pulled hard against his solid form. Her lips were parted in the beginning of a protest when his mouth found hers, giving the contact an immediate sense of intimacy. Her senses reeled, then sanity was lost in a whirlwind of emotion.

How could she possibly be in love with a man she had known for only a few days?

 

CHAPTER ONE

With
difficulty, Sara Manderly guided her car into a parking space nearly two blocks from her desired destination. Her dress, a full skirted, many-petticoated replica of mid-1800s design, flooded the front seat, crowding the steering wheel and making it impossible for her to see her feet.

While her lower body was being so fully covered by what seemed like acres of pale blue satin and lace, her upper half was not nearly so well protected. The neckline of the voluminous creation plunged dangerously low, leaving moon-shaped crescents of her firmly rounded breasts exposed. A tiny pout appeared on her face as she wondered why people put so much material into a skirt and so little into the bodice. Then recalling that it was the exposed ankle or leg which had been taboo in those times long past, she shrugged a lightly-tanned shoulder at human nature and carefully manoeuvred herself out of the car.

The pout hardened into a frown as she stood in the street arranging her skirt and petticoats. How had she allowed Steve to talk her into this charade? Maybe it had been the crack about her sedate lifestyle.

‘You’re becoming boring, Sis,’ he had chided affectionately, his long legs stretched out in front of him as he lounged on the couch in her apartment. ‘Whatever happened to your sense of adventure?’

‘I focus all of it into my canvases,’ she had returned, her observant artist’s eye noting the tenseness behind the relaxed façade.
‘I’ll pay you time and a half,’ he offered.

Sara hesitated momentarily. She could use the money. Because of budget cuts at the school where she had been an art teacher, she had lost her job at the end of the last term. Unwilling to leave Charleston, she was now living on what she made from selling her paintings and supplementing that from her savings.

‘And you’ve always told me how much you wanted to see the inside of that home,’ he continued, sensing an advantage.

‘As an invited guest, not as a gatecrasher,’ she had stipulated pointedly. ‘And I don’t understand why you can’t use one of your experienced operatives.’

‘Brad Garwood knows all my employees and I don’t dare go outside of my present operation. This has to be done in the utmost secrecy.’

Taking a sip of coffee, she had smiled playfully. ‘If someone had told me that my big, strong, level-headed brother was going to start buying rumours about ghosts and curses in his old age I would have told them they were crazy!’

‘At thirty-five, I do not qualify for the senility category and I do not believe in ghosts or curses. Let’s just say I’m being cautious.’

His brown eyes, twins of Sara’s, had taken on a seriousness which caused her to pause before coming back with another kibitzing response. Steve, eleven years her senior, had always been twice as protective of her as their father, and since Ralph Manderly’s death two years earlier had become even more so. For him to ask this kind of a favour was out of character and she found it impossible to flatly refuse. ‘Provided I can crash this high society party, what then?'

'All I want you to do is to keep an eye on Brad Garwood.’

'I'm not trained,’ she warned.

‘You’re an artist. Who else could be better trained in the art of observation?’ he countered her protest.

‘And exactly what am I supposed to be observing?’ she sighed resignedly, knowing that she was going to give in sooner or later and it might as well be sooner.

‘That I can’t tell you.’ His eyebrows had come together in a look of perplexity. ‘But if you see anything that strikes you as odd or threatening, leave the house immediately. Once you’re on the street, pretend you’ve turned your ankle. Sam will be close by and he’ll come running.’

‘What with? Garlic and a cross?’ she had chided.

‘Those are only good for vampires.’ Steve’s laugh held a hint of embarrassment. ‘And remember, you’re supposed to remain inconspicuous, so try not to look too pretty.’

Sara had not been able to suppress a smile. Big brothers were great for the morale. It wasn’t that she was ugly or plain. But an honest self-appraisal had told her that she was an average-looking young woman who could very easily blend into a crowd. However, there was always the chance that something could go wrong. ‘What if I get caught?’

‘Lie!’ he had commanded.

Lie! The urgency that had been present in his voice when he delivered this order was still with her as she finished arranging her costume. Then, with her stomach churning nervously, she clutched handfuls of satin and petticoats and, attempting to keep the masses of material off the ground, moved swiftly along the dark, deserted side street.

A child’s face peered at her from a third-storey window and a tense smile flitted across her countenance. Many
of
these classically beautiful old structures dated back almost two centuries. Having survived two wars and the
great earthquake of 1886, nearly every one of them had its ghost story. Considering the manner in which she was dressed, Sara guessed that she had just reinforced her spectator’s belief in the supernatural.

The soft perfume of lilac blooms floated on the quiet night air. But even this gentle scent could not quell her building sense of impending disaster.

Although she would have preferred to seek the shadows along the sidewalks, her fear that her dress would catch and tear on the squat rugged trunks of the palmetto trees lining the avenue kept her in the middle of the street. Originally these chubby palms had been cultivated for defence purposes. Cannonballs were purported to have bounced off their sturdy trunks without causing even the minimum of damage. Now they were grown out of tradition.

Reaching the tip of the Battery, she crossed to the Sea Wall protecting the exclusive homes in this restored section of old Charleston from being flooded. Then with fingers crossed, in the hope that no one would spot her until she was on the wide, flat walking surface, she climbed the short flight of concrete steps to find herself gazing out over the moonlit surface of Charleston Harbour.

Once the waters stretching out before her had been filled with a hundred sailing ships at a time, loading and unloading their cargoes, while their wealthy merchant owners watched from the piazzas of their stately mansions. Now this section of the harbour was mostly a tourist attraction with such historic sites as Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie, Fort Johnson, Castle Pinckney and Morris Island among others to be visited by vacationers. During the day, visitors wandered along the Sea Wall under the warm South Carolina sun admiring the massive homes that spoke of the opulence and luxury of a time long past.

Not actually past, Sara corrected herself. The Fallons, whose party she was to crash, had money enough to live as well as any of the previous generations of Southern aristocracy.

Ahead of her, horsedrawn vehicles of various shapes and sizes stopped in front of a three-storey red brick residence to discharge passengers attired in period clothing similar to her own. The owners of the local carriage tours must be ecstatic, she mused cynically, a terse half-smile giving her mouth a slightly lopsided appearance. Steve had explained that the invitations had specifically requested the guests to approach the house either in horsedrawn carriages or by foot in keeping with the period costumes. Apparently this was a tradition associated with this particular yearly ball, and those invited cherished their welcome deeply enough to comply.

Sara continued forward slowly. Her plan was to pretend that after alighting from one of the carriages, she had chosen to take a quick stroll along the Sea Wall before joining her companions inside. It was a simple ploy, but she had great faith in simplicity.

From afar she had often admired the three-storey structure which was her final destination. Its triple-tiered piazza and ornate door mouldings decorating the front entrance gave it an air of distinction while a high brickwork wall and wrought iron gates protected the privacy of those who dwelled within. If she had been an invited guest to this gathering of some of Charleston’s oldest families, her excitement would have known no bounds. But as it was, she proceeded with a hesitant step.

A breeze blowing in over the water brought a grimace to her face while her hand sought to secure the curls and soft rolls of her carefully styled chestnut hair. Pausing a moment, she arranged her light shawl over her head to prevent any further disarray.

As she came parallel with the house, the palms of her hands began to feel sweaty, and she hoped they would not mark the fabric of her dress. There was a stairway off the wall a few feet ahead of her which she planned to descend and then make her way across the street to the residence. However, as she neared her objective, a carriage which had been obstructing her view of the entrance pulled away, and her heart skipped a beat. Two liveried footmen stood on either side of the iron gate while a very ' formidable butler guarded the front door checking the invitations of those who entered.

With a sigh Sara admitted defeat. Already aware of the very cloistered attitude of this segment of Charleston society, she had entertained serious doubts about being able to move among them undetected even at so large a gathering. The footmen and butler simply confirmed her reservations. Curiously, however, when she should have felt relieved at not having to go through with the charade, a nagging uneasiness persisted.

Unable to resist, she stood for a moment listening to the music floating out on the night air. Through the second floor windows she caught glimpses of couples dancing to waltzes and tunes popular in an era long dead, and for an instant was transported back in time. Then, noticing a man looking in her direction from a corner window, she turned slowly and moving at the same leisurely pace at which she had approached the house, began to retrace her steps. She hated letting Steve down, but knew it was an outside chance.

Hurried footsteps sounded behind her. Her body tensed as she continued forward, feigning ignorance of another presence.

‘You mustn’t be so quick to flee,’ an unfamiliar male voice admonished, as her pursuer reached her side.

Schooling her features into an expression of polite indulgence, she paused and turned to face the slender blond man, not much older than herself, who had joined her on the Sea Wall. He was dressed in the long waistcoat of the 1800s, and intuitively she guessed that he had been the one watching her from the window.

‘I’ve been observing you for some time,’ he smiled, confirming her suspicion. His breath and the slight slur in his speech told her that he was mildly intoxicated, and she hoped he would not create a scene.

‘I wasn’t fleeing,’ she lied. ‘I simply wanted some fresh air.’

Disregarding her response, he continued in an amused vein, ‘I’m certain I’ve been introduced to every eligible female near my age, give or take six years, and yet I know we’ve never met.’

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