If all the young men of England leapt off a cliff, Madeline St. James wouldn't care. Then she'd have peace. Her nightmares of courtship would end,and she'd cozy up with a Psalm in her aunt's quiet sculpture garden. Yet, a chance meeting and a bullet wound change everything, and Madeline must trust the Good Shepherd has led her to the altar to marry a dashing stranger, Lord Devonshire.
Death and pain are no strangers to Justain Delveaux, Lord Devonshire, and he vows his dutiful bride will be kept safe and in her place. Though this compromised marriage is in-name-only, his wife and her unwavering faith both intrigue and allure him. Perchance when he thwarts his brother's killer, Justain will tempt the unpredictable Madeline with the comfort of his arms.
But can Madeline and the stubborn earl forge a true bond before the next disaster strikes?
Shropshire, England, Iron Country, August 5, 1821
“Stop, thief!” Madeline St. James grabbed the coarse sleeve of the man who stole her guineas, but he shook free and dashed away.
“Give those back, this instant.” Mouth open, pulse racing, she stopped her pursuit. A scream bubbled in the pit of her stomach, but she pursed her lips. A St. James never made a public scene or conceded defeat.
The thief reached the other side of the vacant courtyard, well ahead of a wagon rumbling up the cobblestone lane. He shot her a toothless grin and traipsed to the main building of Tilford Coaching Inn.
The dray and its lumbering horse team swerved closer, but if she waited one more second, the thief would escape her view. Another man would’ve taken advantage of her. Not again.
Picking up her weighty skirts, she sprinted onto the slick rocks of the road. The silver hem of her long carriage dress slapped at the mud. Better to be dirty than a victim. Cupping her palm to her eyes, she scanned for the thief.
The man bounded up the stone entree. He’d vanish like her driver, amongst the sea of gaming travellers.
She lengthened her stride to intercept him.
One high step too many, her boot heel caught in the sagging silk, tripping her. The air pushed from her lungs as she fell flat. The soggy earth saturated her layers to the shift and petticoat. Her injured elbow stung anew.
Wheels squealed. Hooves clomped the cobbles. Soon the horses would be on top of her, stomping and kicking.
A couple of tugs and yanks couldn’t fish her boot free. No escape this time. Abba Father, forgive. She turned her head and braced for the onslaught.
A band of iron gripped her stomach and hauled her from the muck. She went limp, sprawled against the hard chest of a rescuer. He pulled her off the lane and under one of the overhanging galleries of the inn.
Wind slapped her cheek as the horses swept past. No one held the reins. The wagon swung wide, crashed into the inn’s main building, and flipped to the ground. Ejected barrels hit the whitewashed wall and sprayed foamy liquid.
Madeline’s breath came in heaves, and she clutched the titan arm sheltering her. No fainting. No need to lose more dignity.
One of the draught horses loosed from its tether and galloped to the emerald pines scalloping the surrounding hills. The other roan remained with the wreck, lifting its crooked leg. Poor lame creature.
An old man rushed out of the inn and cut at the horse’s strap. “Bring my gun. This one needs to be put down.”
With an awkward hold on her middle, her rescuer spun her, perhaps to keep her from seeing the cruelty. He needn’t be concerned.
The past two weeks had numbed her to violence. Yet, God kept her as He did again today. “Thank you, Providence, but please…spare the roan.”
“You’re welcome, but it’s Devonshire, Lord Devonshire.” The low voice kissed her ear, heated the pulsing vein along her throat.
How could this man sound calm? They both could’ve died.
He flung open the door to an onyx carriage and eased her onto the floorboards. “Are you injured, miss?”
“No.” She rubbed her arms and gazed at her rescuer. He was very tall, enough to make her feel dainty even at her Amazon height. With broad shoulders and a solid chin, she couldn’t have sculpted a more perfect hero. “The horse, sir? Can you help it?”
“Stay put. This mere mortal will see what can be done.” He grabbed his top hat from the seat and marched away. His elegant form, straight posture, disappeared into the growing crowd.
It didn’t matter she sat on the floor, chilled in her clothes, imposing demands of a stranger. Even against this errant horse, Death shouldn’t win. She’d seen its victories too often, with Mama’s passing seven years ago and Cousin Thomas dying this past spring.
She squeezed her throbbing elbow. Falling aggravated the sprain.
A quick shake of her foot didn’t release her trapped kid boot but tore the lace trim on her gown, Mama’s carriage dress. A lump formed in Madeline’s throat. She missed Mama so much.
A few choice words shouted from the crowd and a round of loud snickers interrupted her woolgathering.
Lord Devonshire returned and rubbed the scruff of his neck. “It cost three guineas, but your nag will be kept by the innkeeper’s daughter.”
“I’ll repay you, sir. My abigail has my reticule.” She swallowed gall. The thief took most of her money, but surely three coins were left.
He waved his hand. “I’d rather not be a paid fool.” Leaning along the door, he stared at her with irises bluer than a summer day.
What could Lord Devonshire learn from her disheveled appearance? She didn’t mind his gaze. Since travelling to Shropshire, grey ash painted the clouds, no doubt from the ore foundries. No sunny skies like Hampshire.
“Now to be of true assistance.” He reached under her hem, gripped above her ankle, and freed her boot from the tangle of silk. The warmth arising from his gloved hands seared her thin stockings. “Not broken.” He released her foot to dangle through the entrance.
Shocking and bold. Though dressed as a gentleman in buff buckskins and an azure tailcoat, this definitely wasn’t someone with whom to be alone.
Her wits returned, and she bounced out of the carriage. “I’ll get your payment.”
“Wait.” Deep and commanding like Father’s voice, his words stopped her. “I saw you trip trailing the miner.”
She pivoted and clasped her hands across her ruined pelisse. Mud covered the delicate puce rosettes embroidered on the bodice.
“You were very brave to run after him.”
“Bacon-brained would be a more apt description.” A raindrop splashed her forehead. Her bonnet must have fallen in the commotion. She wiped her brow. The cold balm of mud smoothed against her skin. Her heart sunk, and she wrenched off her soiled gloves. If her cheeks weren’t already scarlet, they should be.
He shortened the distance between them, a smile tugging at his full lips. “In mining country, the strikes have set everyone on edge. Some resort to crime. There’s a would-be highwayman on every corner. You must take care around Tilford.”
A fortnight ago, his concern might’ve warmed her, but not now.
“Father of Heav’n!” Mrs. Elsie Wilkins, Madeline’s abigail, ran to her.
“Y’ weren’t to leave the livery.” The good woman wrapped her stubby arms about Madeline’s hips. “Too much for m’ heart.”
In vain, Madeline pushed at Mrs. Wilkins’s indigo redingote to keep it from soiling, but no force could stop the woman’s bear-like embrace.
Madeline’s trampled bonnet peeked from the motherly woman’s reticule. Dredged in dirt, the hat’s ostrich plume lay crooked. Even in haste, her abigail took care of Madeline.
With another clench, Mrs. Wilkins finally let go. “Y’ face?” She yanked from her pocket a crimson cloth and scrubbed Madeline’s chin.
Madeline clasped her friend’s wrist. “Dear, hand me my scarf. I’ll do it.”
Mrs. Wilkins shook her head and kept swatting the mud. She didn’t want to come on this adventure, but how could Madeline be without her strongest ally? It must be the Irish blood bubbling in the abigail’s veins, making her so loyal.
“First a broken wheel, now this.” Mrs. Wilkins added a spit shine to Madeline’s cheek then pivoted to Lord Devonshire. “The stable boys said ye saved her. Bless ye.”
“I…I saw the lass fall in the path of the wagon. I am the Earl of Devonshire. Very glad to be of assistance.” An unreadable expression set on his countenance as he flicked a rain droplet from his sleeve. “Are there others in your party?”
“There’s me—Mrs. Wilkins—and my lady, Miss Madeline St. James.” She stretched on tiptoes and picked at Madeline’s unraveling chignon, reseating pins and tucking tresses. “And m’ lady’s driver, but he disappeared, the no good lout.”
Great. Mrs. Wilkins just confirmed they were alone. Now he’d be obliged to help. Indebted to a man. Could this day get any worse?
The earl rubbed his jaw. His gaze seemed locked on the colourful scarf.
Another drip from the overcast skies splattered and curled into the sable-brown hair peeking beneath Lord Devonshire’s brim. He was too fine looking, too virile to be trusted. Step-mother’s nephew, the handsome Mr. Kent, imparted that lesson before Madeline left home.
“Mrs. Wilkins, hand me my coins. I need to repay his lordship.”
“No, miss. ’Tis my duty to escort you to your destination.”
Madeline shook her head. “‘Unnecessary.”
“Cheshire. Please take us there.” Mrs. Wilkins dabbed at her coat. “Like a divine appointm’nt, the earl being here.”
“I can’t speak for divinity, but you might say I’ve been waiting on a sign.” He slipped the cloth from Mrs. Wilkins and waved it like a flag. “Someone brave to show me the way.”
“I suppose we have no choice.” Madeline snatched it from him with trembling fingers. She may be bacon-brained but not helpless or a plaything.
“There’s always a choice. Like should I chase a scoundrel or let you freeze?”
She stilled her shaking palms.
He stepped near, removed his tailcoat, and draped it onto her shoulders. With his thick thumbs, he flipped the collar’s revers to cradle her neck. His touch was gentle. “This should stop your shivers. I’ll have my Mason get blankets.”
Hugging herself beneath the weighty wool, Madeline gaped at Lord Devonshire. “Sir, we haven’t agreed.”
“The drizzle will get worse.” He rotated to Mrs. Wilkins. “The young lady was just in my Berlin. Perhaps the visit was too short to attest to its comfort.”
Trimmed in gold, the carriage could overshadow her father’s. Either the earl possessed great wealth or liked the appearance of it. In her experience, both conditions made men pompous or cruel. She rubbed her elbow again.
Mrs. Wilkins curtsied. “My lord, we’ve two trunks in the stables with our brok’n carriage.”
The earl nodded, opened the door to his Berlin, and then plodded the long lane toward the livery of the coaching inn. Was it confidence or arrogance squaring his shoulders?
He didn’t pivot to check on them, not once. Arrogance.
“Come along, Lady Maddie. Don’t get stubborn. Remember your plan.”
Madeline raised her chin, grasped Mrs. Wilkins’s forearm, and lumbered toward Lord Devonshire’s carriage. “Another obstacle to peace.”
Her friend’s cheeks glowed. “The beginning of peace, child. It’s the beginning.”
If only Mrs. Wilkins could be right. The unease in Madeline’s spirit disagreed.
The temptation to look back almost overtook Justain Delveaux, the Earl of Devonshire. He strode faster to the livery. The girl had been spooked. If he seemed anxious, she’d run.
A fire of independence burned in her jade eyes. He’d have to placate Miss St. James and win her trust. Then she’d lead him to the killer.
At the entry of the hay-filled livery, his driver brushed Athena, Justain’s filly. “Sir, are you ready to give up? The informant isn’t going to show.”
Justain stroked Athena’s thick ebony coat, a shade lighter than Miss St. James’s raven locks. “He didn’t. She did. Look behind me. Are ladies entering my Berlin?”
Mason squinted. “Yes.”
“The young one possesses the red cloth signal. She’s the informant.”
Furrowing his brows, Mason shrugged. “You and your jokes, sir.”
“I’m serious. We’re taking them to Cheshire, probably a clandestine meeting. Never thought to look for a woman. Well, not for an informant. The lass will lead me to lynch—”
“Must you wax poetic?” Mason chortled. “Genteel women shouldn’t be left here, but…”
“Just say it.”
“We need to leave, sir. Something’s afoot.” Mason wiped water from the brim of his tricorn. “The miners say a blood vengeance rides tonight.”
“We’ll leave soon, with my new acquaintances.” Why was Mason hedging his words? Since Justain was knee-high, the man never held his tongue.
Rain fell in buckets. Justain moved under the stable’s roof.
Mason and Athena followed. He searched his blue-black flap coat and retrieved his treasured silver flask and Justain’s bottle of tincture. “The filly’s cut is sealed.”
“Superb, but no more of this.” Justain pocketed the tincture. “Put away your spirits and say your peace.”
“This chase won’t bring Lord Richard back.” His driver’s voice grated like a rebuke from the old man, Justain’s father. “You’ve other things to contend.”
Justain concentrated on the steady rhythm of the shower. It blocked the memory of Richard’s last breath and Justain’s mounting guilt. He was to blame for Richard dying. Nothing took precedence over avenging his brother.
“Send blankets to my guests. Have the stable grooms load Miss St. James’s trunks.” He trudged toward the Berlin. This couldn’t be a fool’s errand. He hated being a fool.