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Sullivan Cane's mount thundered through the night, responding to the imperceptible touch of rein that urged the steed to abandon the beach for the tangle of underbrush beyond. Bending low over the animal's neck, Sullivan dodged the branches that whipped at his head and snagged in the streaming waves of his hair. Squinting his eyes against the darkness, he ignored the destruction caused by his horse as the animal's hooves trampled flowers and foliage, pummeling the greenery into the moist earth beneath.
Keeping a close watch for vines and pockmarked surfaces, Sullivan prayed that his headlong flight into darkness would not be met with disaster. He knew he should slow the stallion and pay heed to the shadows that bled like tripping fingers across the narrow path. But there wasn't time. His innate caution had been shattered by a haste born of desperation.
After several minutes of hard riding, he saw his goal. Behind the main road, tucked amongst the trees, stood a small thatched cottage. The scent of exotic orchids thickened the tropical breeze, but the unusual dwelling brought to mind visions of bleaker climes — rolling moors and heather. Imported timber supports had been interspersed with pale clay that seemed blurred in the moonlight. A spindly white rosebush struggled to climb up to the eaves; a split rock path led from the front gate to the threshold.
"Rupert?" Drawing his animal to a halt, Sullivan swung his leg over the horse's bare back, then dropped to the ground. "Rupert!"
The huge shape of his brother loomed in one of the windows, then reappeared in the doorway. "Great bloody hell, man! What's the rush?"
"I've just come from the beach." Sullivan's hazel eyes gleamed as he stepped into the wedge of candleshine spilling out of the house. His hair fell thick and dark to a point past his shoulders. This, combined with the scowl creasing his features, gave him the appearance of an avenging privateer.
"Where's Gregory?" he asked.
Rupert shrugged. "Who knows? Since Lydia's death ..." He didn't finish the statement. There was no need.
Sullivan stifled his impatience at Gregory's disappearance. Right now, there were more important issues to consider than their other brother's whereabouts. "A small clipper dropped anchor in the cove an hour ago. A pair of sailors brought two men ashore in a skiff. I heard them talking amongst themselves. They are looking for Richard Sutherland IV, seventh Earl of Lindon."
Rupert limped backward to let him enter, and Sullivan walked past, his expression growing even more fierce. "This time, I think they are determined enough to find him."
Wasting no more time, Sullivan strode to the far side of the low- ceilinged room and flung open the lid to a tin trunk. Inside lay a pile of carefully folded shirts and breeches. "We haven't got time to carry all of our belongings. Pack a few of Richard's things, and take him to another island — Isla Santa Maria or Nossa Senhora should be far enough away. Leave a message for Gregory. I'll see if I can't keep the two English bloodhounds occupied while you make your escape."
When Rupert didn't reply immediately, Sullivan glanced up. "Well?"
Rupert's jaw hardened into a stubborn line. "No."
Dropping the items he'd begun to gather, Sullivan frowned. "What do you mean, no?"
"Damn it, man, look at him!"
For the first time, Sullivan noted the strident breathing coming from the cot in the corner. He straightened, then couldn't seem to move toward the bed, dreading what he might find there. Two weeks had passed since he'd last visited the tiny island which was completely uninhabited save for a few dozen natives and Sullivan's family. Richard had been so ill then; evidently he had not improved in the intervening time. His raspy respiration was not a good sign.
"I've kept him covered and spoon-fed him broth, but he hasn't improved." Rupert's impressive size became so overshadowed by his concern that the gentle giant appeared to shrink within himself. "The fire's been roaring all day, but I can't chase the chill from his skin."
It wasn't until Rupert spoke that Sullivan realized the air in the common room was stifling. The monsoon season had come and with it the rains and cool winds. Normally, the fireplace would have been considered an oddity here on the island — a cause for good-natured jesting on the part of the architect. Presently, a driftwood blaze filled the confines of the dwelling with a cloying warmth.
Forcing himself to move forward, Sullivan resolutely pushed images of another invalid from his mind. His father had died in this room, this cot. He'd died cursing his enemies. Richard's enemies.
Sullivan tried to tell himself that Richard was young — that he couldn't possibly die — but his hopes sank when he saw how gaunt Richard had grown. "He's so pale." This was the only thing he could manage to say as a very real fear began to twine around his heart.
"I'd hoped he would have grown stronger in the last fortnight." Disappointment lay bare in the tone of his voice.
"The damp steals his strength."
Sullivan lifted his gaze to meet that of his older brother. "He's not well enough to travel." It was not a question.
"Nor well enough to hide."
The crackling of the flames merely underscored the worried silence that followed.
Sullivan was the first to break the stillness. "I heard the Englishmen telling their escorts that they mean to find Richard and take him home. To his legacy." His words held a bitter cast that left no doubt that Sullivan thought an English title worth little to a man accustomed to the freedom of the islands. "They will not be content with half-baked tales and misinformation. They will find him eventually."
Richard moaned and stirred.
"What if these strangers were to ... disappear?" Rupert queried with an apparently idle interest, but Sullivan absorbed the way his brother's thumb stroked the knife sheathed against his side.
"They seem most adamant. I have no doubt that they're being handsomely rewarded to uncover the truth. If they were to ... disappear, as you say, more of their kind would come in their place."
Rupert's brows creased in thought. Hesitantly, he offered, "Perhaps it's time we finished the game."
Finally. For years, Sullivan had been trying to persuade Rupert into facing their enemies instead of dodging them. His eyes sparkled with cool green shards as he measured Rupert's acceptance of the inevitable. Then he took two slender tapers from a tarnished ale mug resting on the center of the hearth. "You know what needs to be done?"
"One of us will have to draw the English bastards away from the area before they catch sight of the cottage. After adopting Richard's identity, he must then unearth the names of those who mean to harm him."
"As well as his allies," Rupert reminded him.
Sullivan ignored the automatic protest. They spoke guardedly of their predicament, but the words they exchanged were not the result of some half-formed idea. Gregory, Rupert, and Sullivan had discussed their options over and over in the past few years — after the Sutherland clipper, The Seeker, had first been sighted in the cove nearly three years ago. They had eluded those bloodhounds as well as those that followed. But with each year that passed, those who sought them grew more cunning, coming closer and closer to the truth.
After breaking one of the candles, Sullivan held the pieces partially hidden in his fist. "Choose."
Rather than studying the waxy nubs, Rupert measured Sullivan. His brother gave no hint of his thoughts as Rupert made his selection and drew the taper free.
"Then it's settled." Sullivan tossed the stub he held into the fire. Offering no explanation, he unbuttoned his shirt and stripped the bright red-orange garment from his shoulders, quickly following with his trousers.
Rupert displayed little more than mild surprise. When Sullivan proceeded to tear a strip of fabric from his shirttail and wind it about his hips as a makeshift loincloth, Rupert raised one brow slightly. "What do you intend to do?"
"Play the savage." Sullivan's lips tilted in a grin that was at once infectious and bone-chilling. "If those who seek us have managed to track us here, they must believe that Richard has spent most of his time with the natives and has therefore adopted their customs. I'll ride past the cove on my way to Sutherland's Roost. The shack where Mama and Papa first lived is in such disrepair that it should add credence to my masquerade. I'm hoping that seeing a white man dressed in such an unconventional manner will attract their attention and keep them off-guard until we have a chance to ... chat."
"To what end?"
"If they've been sent by the old woman in an attempt to bring Richard back to reclaim his titles, the entire situation will prove harmless enough. I'll speak with them and convince them to tell dear Grandmama Sutherland that I'm a heathen and a savage — a man ill fit for any claim to the holdings and titles given to the Earl of Lindon. In an hour or two, they'll leave this place in a fit of disgust."
When Sullivan began to walk away, Rupert touched his arm, forcing him to acknowledge his concern. "What if these men have been sent by Nigel Sutherland? He went to great lengths to betray our father and ruin his name. Since the rumors began, he has hunted a legitimate Sutherland heir in every corner. He won't take kindly to finally finding one alive, heathen or otherwise."
Sullivan's expression grew icy. "Nigel Sutherland can rot in hell for what he's done. I swear to you by all that's holy, if these men are his employees, I'll send the bastards to perdition."
"Wait for Gregory first. He'll —"
"He'll what? He's been so numbed with grief since his wife died, he doesn't even know where he is most of the time. If we delay, Richard could be harmed."
The muggy atmosphere of the tiny cottage pulsed with Sullivan's threat. Rupert grew more glum.
Attempting to lighten the mood and allay his brother's fears, Sullivan cuffed him affectionately on the shoulder. "All will be well, Rupert. You'll see. With luck, I should return by dawn."
Rupert wasn't convinced. The natives of the island had once accused him of having "the inner eye," of seeing events before they actually occurred, but if half-digested impressions flitted through his mind, he made no attempt to dissuade Sullivan from his task. "You will be careful."
"Aye, Rupert. I promise."
Rupert scrutinized him long and hard. A note of warning feathered his words as he said, "These men may try to seduce you into considering the numerous pleasures to be found in England, Sully."
"England has already betrayed me and my family. It can offer no enticements to tempt me away from what I already have. All we need are some answers. Who sent these trackers? How much do they know? Then we can decide how to deal with the situation."
Sullivan cast one last look at the figure on the cot, enduring the pang he felt at Richard's ill health. He had to be protected, at all costs. But Sullivan was not stupid. He might reassure Rupert that the task he intended to perform was a simple one, but he knew he would be walking straight into a den of wolves.
Nigel Sutherland had gone to great lengths to extinguish all blood ties to the Lindon titles except those of his own lineage. He had trapped their father in a web of lies and treason which had all of England afire with the scandal. The nation had become divided over whether or not Richard Albert Sutherland's guilt had been adequately proven or merely conveniently arranged. Then, amid an inferno of controversy — before even the king himself was completely convinced of the legitimacy of the trial — Nigel had arranged for Richard Albert's exile to a penal colony in Australia.
As the only surviving male heir to the sixth Earl of Lindon, Nigel had thought his position secure — until word returned that Richard Albert, his wife, Julie, and a fellow prisoner had jumped ship during a storm. Their bodies had never been found, and no other solid evidence could determine whether or not they had actually died.
London had been in a furor of speculation for a decade — especially after the old earl died and Nigel took his titles. Nigel had fought to stop the whispers of slander that accused him of supplanting the earldom before his true ascension had been ensured. Meanwhile, he tried to waylay the stories that intermittently spread through England like wildfire when, every year or so, a seaman would return swearing that he had sighted the elusive long-lost Sutherland heir in Rio or Cairo or Milan.
Sullivan's lips thinned. Nigel Sutherland had been correct to grow cautious, because Richard Albert had survived. For two decades, he'd safely hidden himself, his wife, and their fellow escapee, Lyle Morton, on Isla Santiago. He had carved a life for himself, under the name of John Cane, begot sons who could prove to be his heirs. But he had vowed never to go back to the world that had forsaken him in his innocence. Even when the means to travel home to England had become available, he'd refused to advertise his existence and throw his fledgling family into a kettle of danger and deceit. He had kept his true identity a secret for years — until those last few days of his life, when, in the shadow of death, he had drawn his sons about him and begun a detailed series of confessions pertaining to his heritage. He had not wanted to die while trapped in a lie of omission.
Before his sons could comprehend the significance of his tales, Lyle Morton disappeared from Isla Santiago. It was not until a month later that their father admitted he had sent Lyle to England with a packet of letters, small gifts, and miniature portraits of his family he himself had fashioned during his exile. His mother still lived, and he wanted Beatrice Sutherland to know the fate of her son as well as the existence of her heirs.
But Lyle had not reached England alive. During his voyage, he had suffered a stroke. The packet of papers he had so carefully guarded had been pilfered for valuables. The ransacking had been so complete that one elderly seaman, upon entering the room mere hours after Lyle's death, had discovered nothing more than a single portrait and the final page of Richard Albert's letter of introduction. The seaman had been about to cast the trinkets to the seagulls when he caught sight of a name more famous in England than that of the prince royal. Sutherland. Within days of reaching port, he had gone to Beatrice Sutherland, holding the proof in his hands that her son had survived and had left an heir of his own. Richard.
Sullivan grimaced. It had taken years for the brothers to piece together such information. At the time, they had been unaware of the storm of anticipation that had erupted in the British Isles. Or that the seaman who had gone to their grandmother, disappointed at not being rewarded amply for his efforts, had then gone to Nigel Sutherland.
Forewarned by their father, and knowing that the world might soon learn of their existence, the brothers awaited the arrival of some type of envoy from England. What they were not prepared for was the violent nature of the chase that would ensue — and the fact that those who sought them were looking not for all of the Sutherland clan but only for one. Richard.
In the intervening years, both Sullivan and Rupert had infiltrated enough of the taverns frequented by English sailors to understand how such a mess could have occurred. In hindsight, he supposed such a muddle of affairs could have been prevented. But at the time, they had been working blind, wondering why those who came from England to find them were so intent upon seeing Richard dead.
During the past few years, the Sutherland brothers had lived on the brink of discovery, knowing that at any moment their life-style could be shattered and their future endangered. Not wanting any part of the deceit that had ultimately killed their parents, they had struggled to retain their anonymity. But of late, the search for the long-lost heir had intensified threefold. The brothers had been forced to dodge from one place to the next — from the tangled seaports of Jamaica, to the remote outposts of the Jesuit missions on the Brazilian coast.
For a time, the fervor of the hunt had dwindled. Thinking they had succeeded in shaking their pursuers, the brothers had come full circle and returned to the place of their birth. But the men Sullivan had seen at the wharf had proven that the results of their subterfuge had been transitory. Rather than shaking their pursuers, they had inadvertently led them to their home.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Temptation's Kiss"
Copyright © 1992 Lisa Bingham.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The plot was very original, I've never read anything quite like it. Compelling characters, a villian you love to hate, and a plot twist at the end that I didn't see coming...what's not to love? Warning- there are some explict bedroom scenes, but they were tastefully done.