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?
Excerpt 1. Excerpt 2. Excerpt 3. Excerpt 4. Excerpt 5.
Let's set the stage for today's excerpt:
Last Excerpt: Justain saves Madeline St. James from the path of a runaway wagon and intends to escort her to her next destination. With a flirtatious interrogation, Justain determined Miss St. James had no news of his brother's killer. Attacked, Justain's carriage careened over a cliff. He rescued the only other survivor and hid from the bandits in a cave.
Justain sat, propping along the cavern wall. The continuous belting of the storm sounded too familiar, like the routing of an enemy encampment. The fiends had to have given up by now. "Your frankness is refreshing. I guess I'm not used to women speaking this boldly in my presence."
She closed her eyes for a second. "No more about your harem."
Justain chuckled again and cleaned his fingers on scraps of his vest. Steeped in bits of cloth, hiding in a mineshaft, tending to wounds. This wasn't how he pictured his interrogation would end. He gathered up the stained fabric and covered it with soil scuffed by his boot. Madeline didn't need to see any more of the rags.
At least this girl had fire and brains. Caroline would shriek from the dust, let alone the pain and loss Madeline endured. The marauders would've strung him up by now, with Caroline's yowling leading the way.
He glanced at the bullet. He and his patient would make it out of this mine alive.
The lass tilted her countenance away from him. She must be exhausted, but it was too soon to let her rest. She might never awaken.
"Let's talk for a while. Tell me a Hampshire secret, Miss St. James. Lady Madeline. Madeline?"
The glow of a lantern rimmed the mouth of the cave.
"Did someone check these two?" The shout came from outside.
Justain scooped up the unresponsive girl and fled deeper into the mineshaft. Justain lunged behind a turn in the cavern's throat and pressed into a musty corner.
The unconscious woman lay bundled in his jacket, tucked in his arms. A lone set of hard steps, boot treads, echoed from the entrance. If only Justain had more time. Mason's flask? What if he missed a piece of cloth?
Footsteps approached his hiding spot.
How could he save the girl now, let alone himself? Justain crouched lower, drawing deeper into the shadows. The fishy stench of cheap whale oil torches burned his nose. Light circles whipped along the walls.
Madeline still hadn't moved. Her cold cheek lay plastered against his bare chest. "No more deaths on my watch," Justain murmured into her curls, and lowered her to the ground. He slipped the blade from his jacket pocket.
The enemy drew close. The man's scarred hand whipped the lit torch inches from Justain's.
A hot ore scar. The bandits are miners? Justain heard striking miners in these parts found time for mischief, but this was too much.
Hefting his knife, Justain prepared to thrust it if the man inched closer.
"Over here!" grunted the other vermin.
The heavy footfalls retreated. Another lucky hand for the card player. Justain waited until only the calls of grasshoppers sounded. He dropped the weapon and slid down the cavern wall. "Madeline." He picked her up, setting her in his lap. Justain stroked her forehead. "All is well, lass. Stir."
He wove his fingers into her thick raven tresses. "Can you hear me?" The locks were satin, but this wasn't the time for indulgence. The girl could slip away, never awakening. Justain traced her cheek with his thumb. "Madeline."
A small patch of air skirted his shoulder.
"Lass, open your eyes."
Her damp bodice rose slowly, barely filling her lungs. He tugged at her hem to recheck the bandages. His knots held fast; she hadn't sprung a leak. "All for naught. Not today, lass." He slipped beneath her jacket and felt for the stays of her corset; undoing it would aid her breathing. He tugged the silk of her dress and loosened the toughened cotton loops, a world of hedonistic knowledge finally put to good use. "Come back to me."
Only the grasshoppers answered him. He laid her flat on her back and planted his palms upon her stomach to pump air. "Lady Madeline."
Justain took his cloak and propped up her neck.
Her eyelids fluttered open.
"Whisper that you can hear me, that you understand my words?"
She touched his face, tracing the crevice of his chin. "You well?" she mumbled.
"Yes, but I asked you not to sleep. Do the people of Hampshire keep their word?"
Her gaze flew to the opening as if someone stood behind him. "Kent? I heard his voice."
"The tincture can jumble things, Madeline."
She brushed his ear. Her fingers stroked his hair. "Dust."
"It's everywhere in a mine." Justain caught her hand as the buttery-soft skin swept across his collarbone. He moved it aside. No need to complicate his new role as her protector. "How can you sleep and deprive me of conversation?"
Her pale face held much pain.
"What about a parable, Lady Madeline? Every steward of the Good Book can't miss an opportunity for witness." Justain put more space between them.
She nodded but closed her eyes again. He must've given her too much of the tincture mix.
"A parable for the prof…profl-" He punched at his ribs, to steady himself. This was no time for anxiety to take the reins. "A parable for a profligate. Seems a small sum for saving your life, twice."
Her jaw tensed. "A parable?" A shallow cough rattled within her throat. "Must be desperate for entertainment."
"Very desperate." He picked up Mason's silver flask and dusted it on his breeches. He was thankful it wasn't detected. "Let me get you some water." He crept to the entrance and captured rainwater.
He returned to the girl's side, putting the silver to her mouth. "Make the tale something to keep my interest."
She sipped the water. "The courtesan and the prophet."
He spilt it across her cheek. "Sorry." Justain raised the container. "That's a parable?"
"I wouldn't invent that." An element of humour laced her choppy voice.
Amazing. The lass was special. He propped against the cavern wall, sitting close to her. "I'm ready to be entertained."
"Prophet, Hosea and wife, Gomer." She took great care forming her words. "Gomer went from high Ton, a distinguished family, to being sold as common demimonde."
"Vanilla milk," he interjected. "Mother had the cook put vanilla in my buttermilk to make it more
palatable. It just made it vanilla buttermilk."
She turned her head toward the cavern's ceiling.
"You must do a better job with the descriptions." He reached for Madeline's hand and leaned back, half-closing his eyes. "Feed me an image, something to stoke my imagination, not vanilla milk."
"I'm not Scheherazade, though it's warm enough for an Arabian night." Her fingers relaxed in his palm, seeming to welcome his touch. "Gomer means complete. She must've been a flawless beauty. Her colouring was red, with hair like the heat of flames."
Madeline tugged her arms about her. She was both cold and hot. Her leg felt like a huge stone. For one solitary second, she snuggled against the secure chest and welcomed the strong arms surrounding her. Then awareness filtered into her skull, and she tried to slip away.
"Settle down, jittery miss." The earl straightened his neck against the cave wall.
"I can't stay like this." Her palms slipped from the lining of his jacket to the hard sinews of his ribcage. She snapped her wrists away.
"You can't help flirting with me." He sealed his lids as if succumbing to the weight of the day. He looked tired with shadows on his countenance. "You're safe, Madeline."
"Safe?" She pushed at his shoulder.
"Whatever tormented you in the past, I won't hurt you." Though the earl teased her seconds earlier, his voice now possessed a sombre tone. "You could tell me what upset you."
Her mind flashed to the horrid maze on the grounds of Avington Manor. Her elbow had wrenched from its socket as she fought Mr. Kent. She nearly suffocated from the odour of the evil man's tobacco snuff.
Madeline shuddered and threw her arm about the earl's neck.
"There, there." Lord Devonshire tightened his hold. "I'll protect you with my life."
He caressed the curve of her back.
Her beloved companion should've stayed safe in Hampshire. If she hadn't flaunted the money as a measure of her independence, Mrs. Wilkins would be alive. Madeline couldn't contain her storm of emotions anymore. Her face drenched as her soul wrung with remorse.
"Silent tears come from practice. I know." The earl stroked her hair and whispered. "All will be well again."
She didn't want to become maudlin on Lord Devonshire, but a deluge stung her eyes. Madeline stiffened and wiped her face. Everyone she ever depended upon went away. She couldn't draw strength from the earl. He'd disappoint her, too. She pressed her fingers together and sought true peace. "Thank You, Abba Father, for Your provisions. Your servant has returned to You. Please grant her a shawl for the clouds. Mrs. Wilkins is given to drafts."
The earl said nothing but repeated his hypnotic massage along her spine. His hands spoke their own language, caressing her, convincing her he understood.