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Merline Lovelace

BOOK: Merline Lovelace

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The Tiger’s Bride
Merline Lovelace

To Al, my own rogue-hearted adventurer. Who could have imagined that our honeymoon in Hong Kong twenty-nine years ago would have been the start of something so wonderful?

“A damned unusual missionary’s daughter,”

Jamie muttered, as much to himself as to her.

“Well, yes,” Sarah answered, her smile fading at his uncivil tone. “I suppose I am or I wouldn’t be here, would I?”

“No, you wouldn’t.”

Tired of word games, Jamie decided it was time to rid himself of this audacious female. “I assume your presence has something to do with the notes you sent me, and not any desire to learn the intricacies of the Fluttering Butterfly.”

“The fluttering…?”

With a mocking grin, he gestured to one of the painted panels decorating the bed.

A wave of color washed up her neck. Lifting her chin, she glared at him. “Of course not!”

Prompted as much by his pounding, swirling senses as by the way she stuck her nose in the air, Jamie couldn’t resist taunting her.

“You might find it enlightening,” he suggested provocatively…

Also available from Harlequin Historicals and MERLINE LOVELACE


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The Tiger’s Bride

Destiny’s Women Series

Other Harlequin works include:

—“The Rogue Knight”

Chapter One

arah Abernathy had never visited a brothel before.

Nor, if her family’s situation had been less desperate, would she have dreamed of setting foot inside the House of the Dancing Blossoms. But her father had been missing for almost three weeks now, and her only hope of finding him lay with the man who, according to the gossipmongers, made nightly visits to the most notorious pleasure palace in Macao.

Since James Kerrick, Third Viscount Straithe, and captain of the schooner
had ignored Sarah’s urgent and repeated requests to present himself at the Presbyterian Mission House, she was left with no choice but to accost him in his chosen den. Setting her mouth in a way that would have made her father extremely nervous had he seen it, his eldest daughter bent to tie a wooden clog on one stockinged foot.

“Do you really think you should venture out dressed like that, Sarah?” a soft voice asked worriedly. “I can’t help feeling that Papa might object if he were here.”

Wiping the grim determination from her expression, Sarah lifted her head and gave her younger sister an
affectionate smile. “If Papa were here to object, I wouldn’t be going out at all, would I?”

Abigail pursed her pink lips. “No, I suppose not.”

It wasn’t in Abby’s nature to argue or challenge her adored older sister. Still, her sense of propriety led her to one more protest.

“Perhaps you should wait. I’m sure we’ll hear from Papa soon. He’s gone off like this before. Remember the time in the Punjab, when he trekked into the mountains to find that hermit?”

“I remember,” Sarah replied dryly, reaching for the other high-platformed shoe. “I also remember the disasters that occurred as a result.”

“But Sarah,” the young boy at Abby’s side piped up. “It wasn’t Papa’s fault that the village well became foul the day he brought the hermit down from the mountain.”

“That’s true, Charlie. Nor was it his fault that lightning stampeded a herd of sacred cows through the fields that same afternoon. Still, the villagers blamed him for the disasters.”

The six-year-old gave her a gap-toothed grin. “Because he lured their holy man down from his cave, instead of letting him stay up there to protect them with his prayers.”

Charlie loved the oft-repeated tale. Although he’d been a babe in arms at the time of the Punjab incident, he could recite from memory the scriptures Papa had thundered at the villagers from the swine hut where he’d barricaded himself against their attack. Miraculously, Papa had held off the angry villagers until the raja’s personal guard swooped to the rescue.

“That was when we left India to come to China, wasn’t it?” the boy asked gleefully.

“That’s when we came to Macao,” Sarah confirmed, neglecting to add that the raja had sternly advised the unrepentant missionary never to set foot in India again. Neither Charlie nor his two older brothers knew that part of the tale, and they certainly wouldn’t hear it from Sarah.

She was well aware that Charlie often endowed their father with heroic and wholly unrealistic traits. The boy himself possessed the most adventurous little soul. With his older brothers away at school, he was often restless and into mischief. Unfortunately, The Reverend Mr. Abernathy, when he noticed his youngest at all, no longer possessed the patience to indulge his lively offspring. Charlie needed to be in school with other boys his age, Sarah knew, where his energy and daring would find kindred spirits.

She sighed, wondering for the thousandth time where she’d find the funds to send Charlie back to England to join his brothers at the Barrowgate School for Young Gentlemen. He should have gone last year, but her mama’s legacy had barely stretched to cover the older two boys. There wasn’t even enough left to provide Abigail, sweet, lovely Abigail, with the dowry she deserved.

Glancing at her sister, Sarah told herself once again that the girl’s exquisite face and gentle nature should be a sufficient bride gift for any husband. She understood the ways of the world well enough, however, to know that wealth begat wealth, and dowerless young missionary’s daughters generally married penniless young clerks. To this point, Abigail hadn’t shown the slightest interest in any of the moonstruck young men who fell all over their feet whenever she entered a room. Sarah still had hopes that her sister might attract
a more mature suitor…one with the means to provide generously for the delicate Abigail’s comfort and perhaps for Charlie’s schooling, as well.

Sighing, Sarah forced herself to put aside the familiar worries about the siblings for whom she’d long ago assumed responsibility. The Lord would provide, or so her papa always promised. Now, if only the good Lord would provide her papa!

Reaching for a large, conical straw hat, she struggled to tuck her thick, unruly hair inside it. Abigail quickly came to her assistance.

“Here, let me help.”

The younger girl took the heavy reddish mass in gentle hands and held it in place while Sarah anchored it with the hat. Charlie’s merry laugh filled the small room.

“You lookee much Chin-Chin.”

Sarah couldn’t bring herself to scold him for his lapse into lilting, singsong cant. Some long-ago emperor had decreed that, upon pain of death, no Chinese except licensed interpreters could learn the tongue of barbarians. As a method of controlling contacts between his subjects and the Outsiders, the decree had failed dismally in its intent. It did, however, force everyone who wished to communicate without interpreters to do so in Pidgin, a lamentable mix of English and Chinese that made all who used it sound foolish in the extreme. In this instance, though, Sarah thought Pidgin fit the situation exactly. She did indeed lookee much Chin-Chin.

She glanced down at herself, more than pleased with her disguise. Her high-collared blue cotton robe draped her from neck to knees. Under the loose-fitting robe she wore the baggy trousers favored by Chinese
men and women alike. With her distinctive gingercolored hair and most of her face covered by the straw hat, she hoped to pass unnoticed through the streets of Macao.

“Dressed like this, I daresay even Lady Blair wouldn’t recognize me,” Sarah said with some satisfaction.

“Lady Blair!” Paling, Abigail put her fingertips to her cheeks. “Oh, Sarah, do you think there’s a chance you might meet her? You mustn’t, you really mustn’t, go out if that’s the case. If she sees you or learns where you’re going, she’ll withdraw the invitations to her Venetian breakfast and spread the most awful gossip about you!”

It wouldn’t be the first time, Sarah thought wryly. The wife of the British East India Company’s Chief Factor did not approve of the elder Miss Abernathy. More than once, Lady Blair had dropped pointed hints that Sarah went too far in assisting her father with his work, particularly when that assistance involved carrying food to lepers or speaking out against the torturous practice of binding young girls’ feet. The formidable matron had been kind to Abigail, though, and invited her and the sister who acted as her chaperone to all the important social functions. For Abby’s sake, Sarah generally avoided crossing the overbearing woman.

“Abigail, pet, I was just funning you. Lady Blair won’t be about at this time of night, nor will she be in this part of the city.”

“But what if someone else should see you? Or learn where you’re going?” The beauty wrung her hands. “It would quite ruin your chances with that new clerk
who’s just arrived from home, the one we met on the Praya Grande.”

Remembering the besotted young man who had trailed behind the two sisters like a lost puppy for most of their afternoon stroll along Macao’s wide, bayside boulevard, Sarah laughed.

“Mr. Silverthorne wasn’t the least interested in me, you goose. His gaze never left your face the whole time you walked with him.”

“Oh, no, never say so!” Tears sheened Abigail’s aquamarine eyes. “Truly, I only walked with him because he wished to speak to me about you.”

Charlie shook his head in disgust. “You’re not going to turn on the waterworks again, are you?”

Sarah sent her brother a stern look as she soothed the agitated Abigail. Despite Sarah’s every effort to discourage her foolish dreams, Abby still cherished fond hopes for her older sibling. In her sweet, unselfish way, she sang Sarah’s praises to the men who flocked to her side and refused to admit that her beloved sister was firmly and irrevocably on the shelf, an acknowledged spinster at the advanced age of twenty-four.

Sarah herself had long since accepted the fact that her lack of dowry and unremarkable face would win her no husband. She considered herself fortunate to have been given the responsibility of raising three lively brothers and a loving sister, thus fulfilling her maternal instincts most satisfactorily. If on occasion she tossed and turned at night, kept awake by less maternal urges, she accepted that as an inescapable fact of life. She was a woman, after all, but an eminently practical one. With time, those strange, unspecified longings would pass. Meanwhile, she had her family to care for and her papa to look after.

Assuming she could find him!

At the thought of her missing parent, Sarah patted Abigail’s shoulder a final time. “I must go now. Cook said Number Five Nephew will be waiting for me.”

“I wish you would not go,” Abigail whispered, valiantly battling her tears as she and Charlie trailed their sister out of the small bedroom.

“Don’t worry so. I’m just going to talk to Lord Straithe.”

“But Sarah, must you do so in a…” Abby caught herself just in time, glancing down at Charlie’s bright, inquisitive face. “Must you do so in
particular place?”

“Yes, I must. Since he refused to come to the Mission House, I have no choice but to beard him in his favorite den.”

“Sarah!” Charlie danced on one foot in excitement. “Never say you’re going to an opium den! Can I go with you?”

She ruffled his brown curls. “Of course I’m not going to such a disgusting place. And you may not go with me. You must stay and keep Abigail from worrying until I return.”

Charlie heaved a sigh, but even at his tender years he’d developed the family’s protective air for the overly sensitive Abigail. Nobly, he offered to hunt down a set of spillikins. The childish game would keep his sister occupied during Sarah’s absence.

“Thank you, Charlie,” she said gratefully.

At that moment, a slight, pigtailed figure glided into the room on silent feet. Bowing, he addressed Sarah by the honorary title he’d accorded her years ago.

“You go quick quick, Big Sister. Number Five Nephew no can waitchee long.”

Over Charlie’s head, Sarah met the impassive gaze of the man known to the Abernathys only as Cook. As usual, she couldn’t read the expression in his black eyes, shielded as they were by folded lids and beetling white brows. Sarah was never quite sure what Cook thought of the family of “foreign devils” he’d taken charge of. She knew only that she relied on this slender, graying servant far more than on her own father to keep the Abernathy household functioning.

“I’ll go at once,” she replied.

“Youngest granddaughter, Little One With A Limp, takes you.”

Sarah nodded to the youngster waiting respectfully behind her grandfather. The girl bobbed her head, clearly too overcome by shyness or too awed by her proximity to the Outer Barbarians to speak. After a few final instructions to Abigail and Charlie, Sarah pulled her hat brim down farther over her face, tucked her hands in her sleeves and followed the tiny girl out the back door of the Presbyterian Mission House.

Situated as it was on a steep hill in the shadow of the old Portuguese fort, the Mission enjoyed a spectacular view of Macao’s busy harbor during the day. Even now, as dusk settled in a velvet haze over the narrow peninsula, Sarah caught her breath at the vista below her.

In late July, the southwest monsoons brought traders from all over the world to the vast bay east of Macao. Hundreds of ships now lay at anchor, waiting for passes and Chinese pilots to guide them up the Pearl River to Canton, where all trading officially took place. Lantern lights winked from hulking, many-gunned East Indiamen far out in the bay. Closer in, frigates and sleek, two-masted schooners rocked on
the waves. Junks and sampans of every size darted among the foreign ships, sculled by the boat girls who made their living catering to the needs of the sailors.

Sarah frowned at the thought of the boat girls, several of whom numbered among Cook’s many relatives. The Reverend Mr. Abernathy had launched a vigorous campaign during last year’s trading season to save these unfortunates from the sailors’ unbridled lusts. His efforts had proved spectacularly unsuccessful. Not only had the boat girls objected to this interference with their trade, but the sailors had grown most vociferous in their protests. Lord Blair, Britain’s senior representative, had been forced to step in to quell several near-riots. Closer to home, Cook had placed a series of inedible and highly suspicious dishes before the Reverend for weeks as a signal of his personal displeasure.

Sarah shook her head as she followed her guide through the twisting streets, wondering if life was as complicated for the families of other men of the cloth. She didn’t think so. She still held dim, distant memories of a quiet vicarage in Kent. The Abernathys had left the vicarage when Sarah was still in short skirts. Since then, Papa’s fervor to spread the word of God had taken them to a series of exotic overseas posts. In the early years, Sarah remembered, the dedicated missionary had scored some successes and could take pride in a goodly number of converts.

It was only since her mama’s death, just weeks after Charlie’s birth, that papa had grown so…eccentric…in his pursuit of the Lord’s work. There was no other word for it, Sarah acknowledged ruefully. Nowadays, his family faded from his mind completely when the call took him. So did common sense.

The Presbyterian Board of Elders had already written him twice, warning him to temper his zeal. Lord Blair had added his approbation to the board’s. Another incident could well cause Papa’s recall from China and the loss of the Abernathy family’s meager income. Yet he’d thrown those cautions to the winds when he’d heard of a mandarin in Fukien province who wanted to learn more of the Barbarian’s God. Disregarding his own safety, his family’s worry, and the Emperor’s edict against foreigners traveling inside China, the Reverend Mr. Abernathy had stolen up the coast. Sarah had to find him and bring him home before Lord Blair heard of his unauthorized excursion. And to find him, she had to enlist the aid of the most notorious captain sailing the South China Sea.

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