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.
Last Excerpt: Madeline awoke in a strange inn under Lord Devonshire's protection. Madeline's aunt, Lady Glaston, arrived with a different plan to keep her niece safe.
What was keeping Glaston? Justain retied his cravat, but the cotton trifle thinned in his fingers and made him look like a country baron, not a peer to Lady Glaston. From what he remembered, the old man always decried the showy opulence of the House of Glaston, but his father secretly coveted it.
That desire for fine things would be the only thing Justain willingly admitted he shared with the man. He fluffed the cravat as much as possible.
The door pushed open.
He stood as Lady Glaston entered.
The woman wore a cranberry walking gown. Military gold fobs ran from the collar to the floor. Justain didn't know whether to sit or salute.
"Sorry to keep you waiting. I had a late tea with Dr. White. The dear man likes to run on. Please be seated, Lord Devonshire."
She kept standing as he flopped into his chair. "I should thank you for saving my niece's life." Her pert nose pushed higher in the air. "But I won't. It's customary for a gentleman to protect someone in his care. Instead, I want to know why you hid her away in this quaint little inn." Her tone sharpened. "Didn't have enough romancing her in the Severn Gorge?"
Justain stared at the cold grey eyes. What did Madeline tell her?
She gripped the back of a chair. The jewels upon her fingers knocked against the pine. "What other conclusion can I deduce? You knew who she was and where she was going. Yet, I'm notified by an innkeeper more than two weeks after the date of my niece being shot."
He balled his fists under the table. "I sent word to her father. I've been following his instructions," Justain retorted.
Her gaze narrowed upon him. "Did you tell him you compromised Madeline?"
He didn't believe his ears.
Her lips flattened to a thin line. "No, you didn't. The duke would be here to gut you with his hunting knife, if he knew what you did."
"I've done everything in my power to protect Miss St. James." Justain pounded the table. "No one knew if she'd ever awaken. I had my family doctor expedited from Devon to see to her care."
She lifted her chin. "You'd rather her die among strangers."
Justain shook his head. He wanted to turn over the table. "What you are accusing me of, Madam, is unconscionable."
She tightened her grip on the wood. The faceted sapphires of her rings glimmered. "You compromised my niece with your private stay in the Gorge, and you sought to hide her from her family. I demand satisfaction. What will you do to make this right?"
"She'd been badly hurt. Marauders were hunting us. If we'd left the mineshaft to maintain your sensibilities, we'd be dead. Is that what you want?"
The matron's beautiful face twisted, filled with venom. "Death seems to follow you, Devonshire."
"What?" Justain leaned back in his chair.
"Between the bloodbath in Dorset and the Peninsula war, maybe you like death." Her sarcastic tone was deafening. "Is it safe for people to be around you? Have you learned to be more careful since you got your brother killed?"
She might as well have kicked him in his stomach. He hadn't expected the dressing down. "I cannot change the past."
"Right now Cheshire is all ablaze about a nobleman being caught red-handed in the Gorge. I even laughed at the story at a garden party last week."
Malicious gossip. Someone's life reduced to dust.
"It will only be a matter of time," she continued, "when the story possesses names. It won't be funny hearing my niece disgraced, run down by the Ton."
Justain squared his shoulders. "You have a solution. Say it, Madam."
"Marry my niece!" Lady Glaston commanded.
"That's your game?" He chuckled. "Did Madeline put you up to this?"
"You know marriage is the only solution." She released the chair. "That's why you've been secretive."
"Why sentence Miss St. James to a dangerous existence?" He folded his arms. "As you attest, my life's not stable."
"Well, you'll have to settle down and protect her." Lady Glaston marched to his side of the table. "And that queer inheritance on the males will be satisfied with your sudden marriage."
He looked up at the woman in surprise. Lady Glaston should play cards. She'd be a master.
"Yes, I'm familiar with the business. My Cecil and his brother, the Duke of Lancashire, delighted in the odd ritual."
Justain rubbed his neck. "And if I refuse?"
"I'll make sure that your name is in tatters. No one in polite society will want anything to do with you. Your family will be held as a blight upon the land. I will-"
He waved his hand. "You've made your point."
"That ring you now bear comes with responsibilities. Madeline is beautiful. She's fond of you. She'll be a dutiful wife. When she's better, take her to elope."
"If I do this I won't slink away to Gretna Green as if I've something to hide. It'll be with her father's approval. I'll write him right away."
"Then you agree?" The heart-shaped face-so like Madeline's-glowed with victory.
"It's up to the Duke of Hampshire." He arose. Anger boiled in his veins. "Enjoy your dinner, Lady Glaston. My appetite's gone."
He left without a bow and shoved the door open. He caught it from slamming behind him, wouldn't give her that victory, too.
Justain thrust her door open.
"Lord Devonshire, what has occurred? You look pale." Miss St. James sat up in her bed.
He gritted his teeth. "Maid, please step outside. I'd like to have a moment alone with Miss St. James."
The servant looked at the vixen for permission.
"It's all right. Please, wait outside."
The moppet curtsied and left the room.
"Now, sir, tell me what's amiss." Miss St. James's dark hair had been coiffed into ringlet curls and brushed until it shined. A pale green robe draped her long neck and shapely form.
He approached the bed. "What makes you think something's the matter, Miss-"
"Madeline. You don't have lightness in your step. Why so formal?" Her eyes grew wide. "You have bad news?" Her voice took a breathless tone. "Or have you found the killer? Please, tell."
"No." It would calm the angst in his gut if that were true. His gaze descended upon her, slipping across her nightgown.
Fading bruises covered her arm. The spacing, finger-sized splotches looked as if she'd been manhandled. He balled his fist behind his back. Some blackguard had forced himself upon her. The poor lass.
Her lips pressed into a line. "Lord Devonshire?
You don't look well."
Would Lady Glaston force a marriage, if she thought Justain capable of such a despicable act? The aunt couldn't believe it wasn't his doing. Justain rubbed his tight jaw. Perhaps the woman tried to pass off tampered goods. Great, a by-blow. And the bastard child would become his heir.
"I've not seen you sleeveless before." He stepped closer.
"Aunt says that I've nothing to be ashamed of." She bit her lip, seeming to wince at her own words. She cleared her throat. "The air will help the bruises go away."
"I see why someone thought…The marks are mere shadows but odd injuries for the accident." His temper seethed, but from indignation. Romance was one thing, but no one had a right to force himself upon a woman. Soothing his battered ego wouldn't be at Madeline's expense. "You should rest. Good evening, Miss…Madeline."
"Wait." She pulled the sheet up over her arm. "Anyone who's seen your bravery would never accuse you of a cowardly act." There was fight in her voice.
"How do you know what I'm capable of? You hardly know me."
"I know enough." Madeline softened her tone. "You've renewed my hope in men. You're not all intemperate and odious." She motioned him to sit. "Something's upset you."
He dropped on to the edge of the mattress.
"Whew." She put a hand to her forehead to steady herself. "Are you thinking of Mason? Missing his counsel?"
"Forgive me." He searched her perfect jade eyes.
She held his gaze for a second then looked down. Her manner was demure, innocent. Manhandled, yes, but not tainted, not carnally abused.
Justain was a man of the world, and his gut guided him. He sighed with relief. If he must wed her, at least her virtue remained true. "I should be more careful."
"Not going to answer me." Her pert chin lifted. A quiet strength, a subtle dignity set in her countenance. "At least you don't treat me like broken china."
"I don't make you nervous." He lifted an errant strand of hair from her face and tucked it behind her ear. One stroke, then another, he caressed her lobe. Her breath caught. Her strawberry lips looked soft, almost parting in invitation.
"Why? Should I be?" she whispered.
Justain laughed. "If you had more common sense, you would be. Goodnight, Madeline."