Authors: Anna Campbell
For my beloved mother, Dagmar.
Good God, what have we here?”
Horrific images haunted Charis’s dreams. An endless replaying of Hubert’s…
Guvnor, we got trouble.”
Through the suffocating miasma, Gideon knew he’d frightened the girl.
Gideon expected Miss Watson to demur. After all, only yesterday…
Over the next days, Gideon saw little of Sarah. With…
Sarah!” Gideon whirled and lashed out to grab her before…
After so many hours in Sarah’s company, Gideon inevitably dreamt…
What the devil happened to the men watching the road?”…
Her stomach somersaulting with nerves, Charis approached the library. This…
Charis stood in the prow of the sleek little boat…
Gideon held himself together until he closed the door behind…
Even in the dimness, Charis saw the blood drain from…
Wearing only her shift, Charis waited alone in the big…
The afternoon wind off the sea was so icy, even…
Since Rangapindhi, horror and pain had poisoned Gideon’s dreams. This…
Aghast, Gideon stiffened. Bloody, bloody, bloody hell. Why in the…
Across the remains of the meal he’d ordered in their…
Charis’s heart crashed to a halt. At last she saw…
Gideon’s guarded expression as he stared at her outstretched hand…
It’s midnight,” Gideon said softly, his breath ruffling the hair…
Gideon turned the hired gig onto the lonely road that…
Up on the moor, the wind roared like an angry…
There was a sickening, distant thud, then silence descended like…
Early February 1821
ood God, what have we here?”
The man’s deep voice pierced Charis’s pain-ridden doze. She flinched, stirring from her cramped position. For one dazed moment, she wondered why she was shivering in fetid straw instead of snuggled in her bed at Holcombe Hall.
Blazing agony struck, and she stifled an involuntary moan. And a curse for her rank stupidity.
How could she forget the danger long enough to fall asleep?
But she’d been blind with exhaustion when she’d stumbled into the stable behind the sprawling inn. Unable to manage another step, even though she hadn’t come far enough to be safe.
Now she wasn’t safe at all.
The light from the man’s lantern dazzled her bleary eyes. She discerned little more than a tall shape looming outside
the stall. Choking with panic, she clawed upright until she huddled against the rough planking. Blood pulsed like thunder in her ears.
Muffling a whimper as she moved her injured left arm, Charis crossed shaking hands over her torn bodice. Scenting her terror, the big chestnut horse that filled most of the space shifted restively.
As the man lifted the lantern to illuminate Charis’s corner, she shied away. Beyond the ring of yellow light that surrounded him, menacing shadows thickened and multiplied up to the high-pitched ceiling.
“Please don’t be frightened.” The stranger made a curiously truncated gesture with one black-gloved hand. “I mean you no harm.”
The rich baritone was sheathed in warm concern. He made no overt movement toward her. Charis’s crippling fear didn’t subside. Men, she’d learned from cruel experience, lied. Even men with velvet voices, smooth and cultured.
A sharp twinge in her chest reminded her she hadn’t drawn breath since he’d found her. The air she sucked into her starved lungs reeked of horse manure, hay dust, and the sour stink of her own fear.
She turned her head and really looked at the man. Her throat jammed with shock.
He was utterly beautiful.
Beautiful. A word she’d never before associated with a male. In this case, no other description sprang to her churning mind.
Beauty as stark and perfect as this only stoked her alarm. He embodied the elegant world she must relinquish to survive.
Despite her terror, her attention clung to the slashing planes of forehead and cheekbones and jaw, the straight arrogant prow of his nose. He was tanned, unusual in February.
With his intense, compelling features and ruffled hair, black as a gypsy’s, he looked like a prince from a fairy tale.
Charis no longer believed in fairy tales.
Her eyes darted around the narrow stall. But he blocked the only exit. Again, she cursed her idiocy. With her good hand, she fumbled beneath her for a rock, a rusty nail, anything she could use to defend herself. Her trembling fingers met nothing but prickly straw.
Unblinking, she watched him set the lantern on the ground. His movements were slow and easy, openly reassuring. But if he wanted to snatch her, he now had both hands free. Her sinews tautened as she prepared to scratch and punch her way out.
In the charged silence, the rattle of her breathing deafened her. It even masked the wind’s constant wail. The powerful horse shifted again and gave a worried whicker, tossing its head against the rope that tied it facing toward the corridor.
What if the nervous beast started to kick or buck in this confined space? The horse’s hooves looked huge, sharp, deadly. Dread settled like a stone in her empty belly. With every moment, her refuge’s unsuitability became more apparent.
Why, oh, why hadn’t she kept going, no matter how tired and hurt? Even sheltering in a hedgerow, she’d be safer than here.
The man stepped into the stall, his black greatcoat swirling around his booted ankles. Shrinking back, Charis prepared to wrench free of grabbing hands. Fresh sweat chilled her already icy skin. He was so much bigger and stronger than she.
But he merely snagged the animal’s halter with a firm grip that brooked no rebellion. “Hush, Khan.” He stroked the gelding’s nose as his voice softened into alluring music. The man’s tall body conveyed an assured confidence that was almost tangible. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
The complex mixture of authority and care in his tone should have calmed Charis. Instead, it slipped down her spine like glacial ice. She knew all about men who believed they ruled the universe. She knew how they reacted when
their wishes were thwarted. Her furtive search for a weapon grew more frantic.
Khan, foolish, trusting creature, quieted under his master’s murmured promises. For the man must own the beast if he knew its name. Nobody could mistake the stranger for a groom. His manner was too effortlessly aristocratic, his clothing too fine.
She found no weapon.
She’d have to make a dash for freedom and hope her stiff, tired legs carried her. Surreptitiously, she pushed upward. Even this small movement sparked agony. Every muscle ached, and her arm felt like it was on fire. She locked her teeth to muffle her whimpers.
“There’s no need to run away.” He didn’t glance up from the now docile horse.
“Yes, there is,” she surprised herself by saying, although she’d resolved not to address him. Her swollen face thickened her voice into unfamiliarity. But her upper-class diction marked her as an object of interest. Memorable. Noticeable.
Clumsily, she struggled to her feet. She felt less vulnerable standing. In her awkward rise, she bumped the wall and bit back a sharp cry. Battling dizzying pain, she cradled her throbbing arm against her.
Her ungainly lurch spooked Khan, who sidled and snorted. Her father had been a connoisseur of horseflesh. Charis had immediately recognized Khan for the highbred aristocrat he was.
Much like the man holding the beast’s head.
“I know you’re afraid.” At first, she thought he spoke to Khan. His attention remained on the horse. “I know you need help.”
Help to hand her over to the law, she thought bitterly. “Why should you care? You’re a stranger.”
“That’s true. Although when you chose my horse’s stall, you also chose me.”
“That was just chance.”
At last, he looked directly at her. Surely it was only a trick of the lamplight that his eyes shone so dark and brilliant above those dramatic cheekbones. “All things in life are chance.”
Charis shivered under that appraising ebony gaze. The moment seemed to hold a significance it couldn’t possibly have. Shaking off the strange preternatural sensation, she raised her chin. She had enough problems in the here and now without taking on the metaphysical.
“Kindly step aside, sir. I must be on my way.”
“It’s not safe for a lady to travel by herself.” He didn’t budge, and while his voice remained quiet, it was implacable.
To underline his warning, a burst of carousing came from the inn across the yard. On such a cold night, the taproom must be packed. The freezing weather was one of her few strokes of luck—the grooms had left their posts to seek the fire’s warmth. Otherwise, they’d have discovered her hiding place immediately. Why wasn’t this stranger equally eager to stay inside like any sensible man instead of wandering around this cavernous stable?
“That is none of your concern.” How on earth could she escape? Again, she berated herself for not struggling on.
“Won’t you trust me with your story?” His voice dropped into sweet persuasion. The tone wasn’t far different from the one he’d used to settle Khan. And like Khan, she felt the insidious lure of that mellifluous baritone. “I can see you’re in trouble. I swear…”
He broke off abruptly and tilted his head toward the main doors, far down the long corridor. Then Charis caught the shuffle of approaching footsteps. What inhumanly acute hearing he must possess to discern anyone’s arrival over the creaking roof and the whistle of the wind.
“Aught amiss here, my lord?” a rough male voice, she guessed belonging to a groom, asked from several yards away.
She’d been right about his social status. With a frightened whimper, Charis shrank into the shadows as the
man shifted the lantern so darkness shrouded her. As she retreated, each rustle of straw sounded loud as a gunshot.
“Just seeing to my horse, my good man.” With a casual air, he wandered out of sight toward the newcomer.
“Can I aid thee?” The groom’s voice grew clearer as he approached.
Charis’s breath caught in her throat and she hunched as far from the light as she could. Her arm protested the movement, but she ignored the shooting pain.
“No. All’s well.”
Charis buried damp palms in the tattered, stained skirts of her once-elegant day gown and silently prayed that she remain undetected. Her heart banged so frenetically against her ribs, she was surprised the groom didn’t hear it and come to investigate.
“It’s a cold night for man and beast, that’s for certain sure.”
“Too cold to be out and about.” For all the ring of authority in his voice, the lord sounded relaxed, unworried. “Find your place by the hearth and have a drink on me.”
Charis edged as far behind Khan’s rump as she dared, keeping a wary eye on those lethal hind legs.
“Very kind of your lordship, I’m sure. I don’t mind if I do.” The groom’s reply rang with surprised gratitude. “Sure I can’t assist?”
“Quite sure.” The lord’s voice indicated dismissal, and whatever coin changed hands ensured immediate compliance.
“Good e’en to your lordship.”
With excruciating slowness, the groom shambled away. It seemed to take forever before his lordship appeared at the stall’s entrance. He raised the lantern to reveal her trembling form against the back wall.
“Thank heaven.” In a relieved gasp, Charis released the breath she’d held for what felt like an hour. She didn’t know why the man had helped conceal her. All that mattered right now was that he had.
He surveyed her with a troubled expression on his strik
ing features. “You can’t stay here. The inn is crawling with people. You’ve been lucky to stay undisturbed this long. At least come out where I can see you.”
“I don’t…” she started uncertainly. Although the man made no attempt to drag her out, she pressed against the boards. The movement cramped her aching muscles with fresh pain.
The man stepped away to indicate he presented no danger. At last she saw her way clear to take to her heels.
She bit her lower lip, then wished she hadn’t when the torn flesh stung. The stranger was right. What chance her making it past the inn yard? This close to home, someone would surely recognize her.
As if he read her thoughts, the watchfulness faded from his eyes. “My name is Gideon.”
Even as Charis limped past Khan into the aisle, she remained poised for flight if the man—Gideon—made a move. But his stance was relaxed, and he left her space. She sucked in a shuddering breath that tested her bruised ribs. With every second he didn’t touch her, she felt safer.
“You’re hurt.” He sounded tranquil, but anger sparked his eyes to black fire as one comprehensive glance swept her from head to toe.
She could imagine what a disreputable slattern she looked. Humiliated heat crawled up her neck, and she lifted her right hand to clutch her ragged bodice. Her stepbrother Hubert had ripped it when he’d held her down. Now the neckline gaped to reveal the lacy edge of her shift.
Her face felt as though a thousand wasps stung it. Her blue dress was torn and filthy and pitifully inadequate on this arctic night. Under capped sleeves, scratches and bruises covered her arms, legacy of the beating and her frantic flight through fields and woods. Her hair was a matted bird’s nest. Most of its pins had shaken loose as she’d fought her way through the hedgerows around Holcombe.
Before Gideon could question her or, worse, express the
pity that lurked like a ghost under his outrage, she launched into the story she’d prepared. “I was traveling to my aunt in Portsmouth when…when footpads set upon me.”
Curse that telltale falter. Lying never came easily. He wouldn’t believe her. Which meant her game was up.
She waited in breathless suspense for him to brand her a sham and a runaway. But he merely whipped off his heavy black coat and stepped closer.
Fear had her backing away at a stumbling run until she slammed into a thick post. She strangled a scream as the impact shot jagged lightning along her arm. Automatically, she jerked forward, and he seized the opportunity to drop the coat around her trembling shoulders.
“Here.” He stepped away again.
Gradually, panic ebbed, and she straightened under the coat’s weight. Its warmth made her feel slightly more human. The garment swamped her, trailing on the ground. The fabric smelled pleasantly of fresh air and something clean and musky that must be its owner.
He was clever enough not to crowd her. Even so, she remained nervously aware of his commanding height and leanly muscled body, now revealed in black jacket, white shirt, and brown breeches that clung lovingly to long, strong legs. From his highly polished boots to his plain white neckcloth, his clothing was simple but of the highest quality.
“Th…thank you,” she said through chattering teeth.
She blinked back stinging tears and clutched the deliciously cozy woolen folds around her like a shield. Strange, but his kindness proved the greatest threat to her fraying control.
“What is your name?”
The loan of the coat seemed to require some gesture of trust in return. “Sarah Watson,” she said in a grudging voice, stealing the identity of her great-aunt’s dour companion in Bath. Remembering her manners, she dropped into a stiff curtsy.
He forestalled her with another of those odd, incomplete
gestures. His intent dark eyes didn’t waver. “May I escort you to some friend or relation in Winchester, Miss Watson? This stable isn’t safe.”
She wasn’t safe anywhere, heaven help her. Fear stirred low in her belly as she remembered what would happen if her stepbrothers caught her.
“I’m…I’m a stranger in this part of the country, sir. I’m from Carlisle.” The most distant town she could think of without actually crossing the border into Scotland. She stiffened the wobbly legs that threatened to buckle beneath her and glared at him, daring him to challenge her story.