Authors: Phoebe Conn,Copyright Paperback Collection (Library of Congress) DLC
"It was late when I got home. The house was dark except for the lamp in the study. I've no idea what Belle was doing there, but I stopped to say hello. I had a drink of Uncle Byron's brandy, and—"
Falcon wiped his sweaty palms on his pant legs but it didn't erase the memory of the creamy smoothness of Belle's skin. He still thought of her as a pretty child, but she had been all woman last night. A very passionate woman, he recalled in much too painful detail. His guilt compounding, he crossed his arms over his chest and shifted his weight from one moccasined foot to the other.
"Well, I was in such a good mood, I kissed her good night. She dashed upstairs, so I feared I'd offended her. That's why I wanted to apologize." He had described the encounter as being as innocent as he possibly could, but when he caught the disgusted glance passing between his mother and aunt, he knew they hadn't believed a word of
it. He covered a nervous cough, and tried again. "We were only together a few minutes."
His story sounded ridiculous even in his own ears but Falcon sincerely doubted he and Belle had been together long at the pace he was moving. Not even the James River was that swift, but it had been long enough for him to dip into the moist, hot sweetness of her. He winced. "Belle and I have always been close," he offered, his voice trailing off to a whisper.
Arielle left her chair and came within a step of her nephew. As attractive as her daughters, she was delightfully feminine and extremely perceptive. She had never seen Falcon blush, but even as deeply tanned as he was, there was a definite burgundy tinge to his cheeks. She could not recall ever seeing a man look so pathetically guilty; protective of her daughter, she pressed him for more details of what had transpired between them.
"I have the impression there's more to this than you described. Would you care to begin again?"
Falcon turned toward his mother for help, but she looked as deeply offended as his aunt. "No, ma'am. I thought it was just a friendly kiss. Belle obviously mistook it for more."
Alanna scoffed aloud. "If there were even a hint of truth to your tale, after a single kiss Belle would have bade you a good night rather than run upstairs, and you would have had no need to apologize to her this morning. From the great bunch of flowers you carried in here, it's clear you have a very guilty conscience."
Caught in his own web, Falcon fought to break free. "I kissed her. She ran off. I wanted to do what was right."
"Like the rest of the men in this family, you may know what's right, but when it comes to women, that doesn't mean you always do it," Alanna countered.
"Please," Arielle cajoled, "rather than torture Falcon with his relatives' mistakes, let's concentrate on solving today's
problem. Besides, the Barclay men, and Hunter as well, have always behaved admirably."
Clearly unimpressed by that statement, Alanna cocked a brow, forcing Arielle to make a mild concession. "I suppose it's all in your point of view. The French expect men to have passionate natures; it's a great pity the English do not." In a gesture Dominique often copied, she reached out to touch Falcon's sleeve.
"Belle has adored you since you were children. She tagged along after you while Dominique preferred to remain with me and play with her dolls. You taught Belle how to fish, climb trees, and hunt with a bow and arrow."
Falcon smiled at the memory of those far more innocent days, but being reminded of how Belle had always looked up to him made him feel even worse and he had not thought that possible. His chest tightened, creating a painful ache. "I think I ought to be having this conversation with Belle."
"Yes, you should," Arielle agreed. "You've been home so seldom the last few years, perhaps you've not noticed that Belle is no longer a child who's happy to trail in your shadow. She's a lovely young woman, and she's never shown the slightest bit of interest in any man but you. I think you took advantage of that fact last night. An apology won't be nearly enough, Falcon. You owe my daughter a proposal."
Falcon could already feel the horsewhip biting into his back. His aunt was right. He had taken advantage of Belle's affection for him, but a forced marriage was harsh punishment. Still unwilling to admit to more than a kiss, he tried another argument. "How can I offer marriage when none of us is certain we'll survive the war? I don't want to risk leaving Belle a widow."
Arielle promptly dismissed that objection. "I lost my first husband, but I'd not trade a minute of the joy we shared to be spared the pain of his death. Bernard's love will always be a part of me. We'd all be devastated if anything happened
to you, but Belle would mourn you forever whether you were her husband, or simply her cousin."
Alanna stepped aside and opened the door. "We'll not begin planning the wedding until Belle says she'll have you, but you'd best offer marriage before your father hears news of this and uses his fists to insist that you must."
Falcon nodded, and considering himself lucky to have escaped any further interrogation, strode from the room. When he found Dominique waiting for him just outside the back door, he flashed a quick grin, but the seriousness of her expression stopped him cold. "Don't you start on me, too," he warned.
Dominique took his arm and walked with him to make certain they would not be overheard. "This concerns a whole lot more than a kiss doesn't it, Falcon?"
Falcon patted her hand, then slipped out of her grasp. "That's going to remain between Belle and me. Now excuse me, I've got to find her."
"SheIs probably down by the river."
Falcon already knew that, and turned away with a wave. He and Belle used to get up early and go fishing together. She had never been squeamish about slipping worms on her hook the way other girls were. They had sat on the dock and waited for the sun to come up on more mornings than he could count. She had been his best friend and the silence of dawn had never been lonely with her by his side.
He had always thought she was awfully pretty, but he had been more impressed by the fact that she would hike up her dress and climb trees even easier than he could. She wore lace-trimmed caps, but they were always askew, and more often than not she had small twigs and dried leaves caught in her fair curls. He had thought her a swell friend, but usually had not even remembered that she was a girl.
She had turned thirteen and he had been sixteen the year the war had begun. Wanting to fight with the Virginia militia, he had grown up fast, while she had remained at home
WILD LEGACY 19
to linger over the last joys of childhood. Well, after last night, there was no mistaking the fact that Belle was most definitely a grown woman. She had always been so independent he knew she wouldn't take to the idea of marriage any more than he had. At least he hoped she wouldn't. The only trick would be in convincing her to tell her mother that.
Belle hadn't spent more than a few anguished minutes at the docks before going on to the Scott plantation, which bordered the Barclays' on the south. Falcon's elder brother, Christian, had married Liana Scott, but that had worsened rather than healed the twenty-year rift between the two families. When the colonies had declared their independence, Ian Scott, a staunch Loyalist, had freed their slaves and taken his wife and two sons home to England to wait out the war.
The land surrounding the once-prosperous plantation lay fallow, but Liana went home every week to check the house, so Belle didn't feel as though she were trespassing when she crossed over onto Scott land. She followed the trail along the river, and while sorely tempted to keep on walking clear to Florida, she turned off on the path leading up to the house. A Georgian mansion as imposing as her own home, she thought it a shame it had stood vacant so long, but today she was glad for a place to be alone.
She sat down at the top of the marble steps and looped her arms around her knees. The day was beautiful, warm and bright. A ladybug landed on her hand, and she shooed it away.
When she had come downstairs that morning, she had actually believed she could pretend the day was like all others. Then Falcon had walked into the sitting room carrying half the garden in his arms and the pretense had not only become absurd, but impossible. He never stayed home
for long, and she would strive to avoid him, but she did not even want to be home the next time he returned.
There were hospitals in desperate need of nurses to care for injured soldiers so she could provide service to others, but her heart would never mend. Not after last night, it wouldn't. She wiped her eyes on her apron and took a deep breath, but when Falcon came around the corner of the house, she was so sick at heart she quickly looked away.
"How did you find me?"
Shocked by the pain he had glimpsed in her eyes, Falcon drew to a halt several steps away. "Fm a scout," he reminded her proudly. "I could track you down anywhere."
Still not looking his way, Belle smoothed the damp wrinkles from her apron. "Why would you want to?"
Grateful she was speaking to him, Falcon sat down on the bottom step and turned toward her. He could see she had been crying, and it had made her blue eyes all the more vivid. "I won't give you the sorry excuse that I was drunk last night," he began with the sincerity he wished he had shown in their last conversation, "because I was still responsible for my actions."
Belle could barely stifle her anger. He had been drinking, so nothing that happened had mattered to him, while every caress had been precious to her. That wasn 'tfair! "The last thing I want to hear are excuses. Please go away."
"No, not until you hear me out."
Belle got up, walked right on by him, and started down toward the river. Not about to leave things in the dreadful mess they were, Falcon refused to let her escape him again and went after her. "You may have gotten away from me last night, but there's no use trying to outrun me now," he called. In a few quick strides he caught up with her. He reached out to catch her elbow and turn her back toward him but the instant his hand brushed her arm, a jolt of pleasure shot clear through him.
"My God," he moaned, but he didn't release her. He
couldn't. Why hadn't he noticed how long her lashes were, or the way the pretty pout to her lips invited kisses? Why hadn't he noticed that his best friend had become a desirable woman long before now? Dominique had taken his arm, but he hadn't felt anything even approaching the excitement that filled him now.
"I had intended to do a better job of apologizing for last night, but now that I've found you, the only thing I regret is that you stopped me."
Astounded by that remark, Belle could only watch as he lowered his head. She knew he was going to kiss her, and even fearing she would be no more than a casual diversion to him, she couldn't turn away. His lips met hers in a tentative caress, but as the tip of his tongue traced her lower lip, she opened her mouth to welcome his kiss as wantonly as she had last night. The same delicious magic flowed through him as before, and Belle drank it in before finally finding the courage to pull away.
"No, stop," she begged. She took a step backward, but he moved forward and the distance between them remained much too close. "Please, let's not repeat last night's near-tragic mistake."
Falcon groaned in frustration. "My only mistake was having too much to drink before I got home, not what happened between us after I got there."
Belle turned her back on him, but he was standing so close she could still feel his heat radiating clear through her. "The last time you were home, you didn't kiss me like that. Apparently I didn't appeal to you until you saw me through a haze of spirits."
Falcon had not kept count of how many women he had slept with during the course of the war, and while he had certainly enjoyed every one, none had ever affected him as strongly as Belle. He wanted to hold her and never let go, but left his arms hanging limp at his sides. "I don't even remember the last time I was home, but I'm sorry if I dis-
appointed you. I don't want you doubting me, Belle, so I'll make you a promise I intend to keep. I won't touch liquor ever again," he swore.
Belle chanced a glance over her shoulder, and when she found Falcon's expression as pained as her own, she turned back toward him. "Had you been sober last night, what would you have said when I asked you to say that you loved me?"
Falcon reached out to touch a curl that peeked from beneath her snowy cap. It was the color of sunshine and he remembered how beautiful her hair had looked last night tumbling loose over her shoulders. "I wanted you so badly, I would have said anything you wanted to hear." Too late, he realized how awful his confession had sounded. "What I mean is—" He saw Belle raise her hand, but knowing he deserved it, didn't try to dodge the resounding slap she whipped across his cheek.
Again she tried to run away, but Falcon was too quick for her and caught her around the waist. He pulled her back against his chest and crossing his arms over her bosom, held her wrists so she couldn't scratch or hit him again. "Do you have any idea what I do when I'm away?"
"It's enough that I know what you do when you're home!"
Falcon knew he deserved that insult, too, but he kept after her. "Listen to me! I don't serve with the regular militia anymore. I fight with guerilla bands that strike the British from ambush. We steal supply wagons, weapons, ammunition. When I'm not doing that, I take my rifle, get as close as I can to the enemy's camp, and start shooting the officers. I'm the best marksman in Virginia, and I can shoot a man in the heart from 200 yards. If I'm just as dangerous when I get home, I can't help it."
Belle closed her eyes, but she couldn't shut out his stirring words, or the fiery warmth of his embrace. She leaned
her head back against his shoulder, and remembering last night, wondered why he thought he was the only one who could be described as wild.
affection last night, and had become far more cautious as a result. "Would you have come looking for me this morning if I hadn't been in the study last night?" she inquired softly. " Would you have still said you thought of me if you weren't burdened by guilt?"