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 tended to a wounded Madeline while hiding out from highwayman. Madeline has lost a lot of blood from her bullet wound, but Lord Devonshire kept her alive and safe until they were rescued. She hasn't awakened from her high fever.
The evidence weighed on the grim doctor's face. He didn't need to say the words. Another innocent death stained Justain's fingers. He pulled at his collar. The coarse Nankeen fabric of the shirt itched and bound to his skin. During the wait his steward loaned him the trifle, perhaps as punishment.
Lord Devonshire." Dr. Gemmel's hands smelled of sweet liniment, prep for the grave.
Justain smoothed every muscle in his face and peered upward.
You saved the young woman's life by removing the bullet and controlling the bleeding." The man patted his large stomach. "But, between the blood loss and infection-"
She passed. Say it. I've killed her."
His jowls hardened, his mouth thinning to a spot. "No, the young woman still clings to life."
She lives? Death lost a victory? Justain almost smiled.
But she hasn't regained full consciousness," the doctor continued. "Do you have any idea what she means by coins? She mumbled that once or twice. "
Must be referring to the thief she chased." Justain cleared his throat. "Is there anything I can do?"
The next few hours are critical." The doctor mopped his wide brow. "Can you get her parents here?"
No, they're in Hampshire. It's at least three days hard ride or a week or two by carriage."
Then let's wait. It'll be easier if they know the status of their daughter's health before they make the journey." Dr. Gemmel clasped his hands together with a resounding slap. "I must find a way to break the fever."
Another day passed. Madeline hadn't awakened yet, but at least she wasn't delirious anymore. One more outburst and Justain was sure they'd hang him. He slouched in his chair outside Madeline's room
Jonathan Winton rushed the steps.
A smile almost bloomed within Justain, thankful it wasn't the flirtatious innkeeper, Mrs. Blakeney. She was far too eager to attend to his wounded shoulder.
Sir, I'm ready to return to Devon. I'll bring back help," his steward said.
Justain leaned back further. The chair tilted against the wall. "Gather a few of my tenants, people I trust to tear up the countryside looking for my attackers. And send these dispatches to Dr. White and Reverend Delveaux."
The steward took the offered parchments and placed them in his satchel. "Shall I wait for you to finish the other notes?"
Justain's chair slammed forward. "What others, Mr. Winton?"
Jonathan's copper gaze turned to the threadbare carpet. "The ones to her father or the aunt in Cheshire?" His steward never missed a detail or the absence of one.
I'll inform them when the girl is better. We must keep this quiet until Miss St. James is able to vouch for my character. I won't have the Ton accusing me of despicable behaviour or an angry duke dictating my next course of action."
Jonathan shoulders sagged, but he nodded his agreement. "My lord, is there anything else you require?"
No." Justain waved him away.
The young man started down the stairs.
Wait, Winton." Justain stood and moved a step in his direction. "You are my conscience sometimes. I'll send an express post to her father tomorrow. Stay safe as you travel. There's been enough bloodshed."
All shall be done as you've requested. For what it's worth, I know you to be a man of honour." Jonathan smiled. "I'll have a trunk of clothes sent here as well. Starched cravats are one of your few pleasures." He left Justain outside Madeline's door.
Mrs. Blakeney approached from the other end of the hall. He adjusted his collar again. "Ma'am, is Miss St. James any better?"
Her fever's broken, but the poor girl hasn't revived." The large woman stretched over his head to dust a carving before moving further down the hall. "You should know. The bruising on her arm has begun to recede."
Justain rubbed his neck. "The lass suffered horribly down that hill."
You wouldn't have done anything untoward." Mrs. Blakeney sighed at him. "You've kind eyes, and you take good care watching over her, paying all her expenses."
Ma'am, I don't suppose that I could see her?"
The woman shook her head. "Only a relative should see the lady in this state." She trudged down the stairs.
This is ridiculous." Mrs. Blakeney tied his innocence to his looks and fortune. Justain needed to go find a horse and flee, but a soldier doesn't desert, no matter how tempting. The mere possibility of Barrow's involvement kept his guard high. He wouldn't let Madeline fall into the clutches of the devil that killed Richard.
Constable Smythe arrived at the top of the landing. His clunky heels dug into the carpet, thumping the wood beneath. "Lord Devonshire, the service for Mr. Mason and Mrs. Wilkins is ready to begin."
The reminder of death extinguished Justain's ire. "Thank you." He'd represent both houses, the Delveauxes and the St. Jameses for the proceedings. "Lead the way, Smythe."
Hearing the local vicar mumble mystical words of forgiveness and a happy hereafter would be the perfect way to end this miserable day.
The poor light of the room obscured the surroundings. Madeline rubbed sleep from her eyes and tried to focus. A brown dresser towered near the foot of her bed. It wasn't her white dresser. No spot of gilded trim. Where was she?
A pretty girl with dark braids napped in the corner. Who was she, one of Aunt's maids?
Madeline glanced to the window. A straight-shift curtain hung in its proper mount, but it wasn't Aunt Tiffany's residence. No, Aunt dressed a window with great embellishments.
Madeline turned her head to the ceiling. The smell of ointment wafted to her nose. A horrid mustard wrap banded her chest. She resettled her blanket to contain the smells and moved her stiff neck to the right.
A man leaned over her and grabbed her wrist.
She slapped at him. "Help!"
Madeline cried out again as the beast's fingers clamped her mouth. She forwent useless screams and bit him. She'd have to protect herself with no more Mrs. Wilkins to shield her. The bald man lunged and grabbed her shoulder. She willed her fatigued limbs to obey but fought with paper strength.
With ease, the tart-smelling monster overpowered her and pinned Madeline's arms against the mattress. Her caged spirit awakened. Madeline wriggled, freed a hand, and slapped the beast's face. "He'll have your head. The dukeó"
The door to the room crashed open. It was Lord Devonshire. Had he come to save her again?
Miss St. James! Doctor, what the devil is going on in here?" The earl flung the animal away from the bed. "Doctor Gemmel, start explaining!"
She's gone mad. I tried to calm her down before she injured herself." He tried to break away, but Lord Devonshire's powerful arms held him at a distance.
Keep him away from me." Madeline turned her head as tears flooded her cheeks. She tried to move but found her leg too stiff to bend. "Keep them all away from me."
The earl blocked the man from returning, and marched to the footboard. He opened his large palms in a defenceless manner. "Miss St. James, I won't let anyone hurt you. You do recognize me?"