The Angel and St. Clair by Diana Hussey
sweet regency historical novel (approx 90K)
Cover art by Winterheart Design
His mission to France doomed to failure unless he finds someone suitable to pose as his wife, Lord Lynton is quick to turn his discovery of a barely conscious woman to his advantage. An appealing waif, whose amnesia he counts as his good fortune, she is perfect for the role.
Haunted by an unknown danger, injured and penniless, Juliette Deveneau agrees to accompany the compelling English lord to France. She needs his protection but she has only his word that he will explore the mystery of her past—and that he has no knowledge of her prior to this fateful night.
Hunted by the traitorous Frenchman who abducted her, the unraveling secrets in Juliette’s past put more than her life at risk; they could tear her from Lord Lynton’s arms forever. Fate has thrown them together, but can this staged marriage turn into something real once she regains her memory?
Hampshire, England, 1803
The deep voice of the tall case clock struck the hour with an unwelcome insistence. Devlin St. Clair, 9th Earl of Lynton, glared at the thing, stalked over to the fireplace, and snatched up the poker to jab at the burning logs. Another hour gone and the tide would not wait. He should have been on the road an hour ago. What was keeping Strathmere? If his uncle meant to ring a peal over his head, which he didn’t doubt for a moment, he wanted to get on with it.
A dog howled in the distance and St. Clair grimaced, about ready to howl himself. The poker still in his hand, he walked to the window and peered out. The shadows cast by the trees on the moonlit grounds made it difficult to see little more than the wide swath of lawn running down to the woods, though for an instant he thought he saw a cloaked figure outlined against the edge of the trees. He leaned closer to the windowpane, but of course there was nothing there.
“Next you’ll be seeing ghosts dancing around on the grass, you nod cock,” he muttered. He glanced at the clock yet again and frowned. Midnight. At this rate, the night would be wasted away and no progress made at all. It was a relief to see Strathmere come into the room, even if he did look as stern as St. Clair had ever seen him.
“Lynton.” The tone was cordial, but St. Clair knew well that steely look in the Viscount’s eye and being addressed as “Lynton” did not bode well. Resisting the urge to loosen his neck cloth, St. Clair leaned the poker against the wall and returned the greeting with equal cordiality.
“You wanted to see me, sir?”
“Surely you expected I would? Knowing this mission is of the utmost importance to your country? Can you deny your actions have jeopardized our plans and may well result in the failure of this entire operation?” The Viscount spoke with deceptive calm, always a sign of displeasure, and St. Clair winced inwardly.
“It was not my choice,” he responded, without excuse or explanation; his face set in an expression he hoped betrayed none of the disquiet he felt.
“Was it not? You continue to flaunt your mistresses and play so deeply even the ton is shocked. Yes, I have heard the stories. You indulge in every wild start any fool suggests and are surprised your fiancée has the good sense to prefer another? You amaze me, nephew.”
The hissing fire sounded loud in the tense silence. St. Clair stirred under his uncle’s hard stare and shrugged his wide shoulders, a thin smile on his lips.
“It seems there is little left to say, sir, since you have obviously made your judgment. You have said no more than the truth, in any case, though I might remind you that Amanda was your choice of bride. Nevertheless, I would have done my duty, as I will also complete this mission. Whatever you have heard, I do not turn from my responsibilities.” His eyes met his uncle’s and now Strathmere stirred, under what St. Clair suspected was a cool gaze tinged with a bitterness he couldn’t hide.
“No one would say such a thing of you, lad,” Strathmere stated, his voice suddenly gruff. “It was not my intent to impugn your character thusly. If I’ve misjudged the matter between you and Amanda I ask your pardon. However…” he paused, and returned St. Clair’s hard look with one just as cold. “There is no gainsaying the importance of this undertaking and it will be next to impossible to recruit anyone else at this late date. I can hold you responsible for that failure, St. Clair, and so I shall.”
Noting he was no longer “Lynton”, St. Clair knew the worst was over and some of the tension seeped from his shoulders. Perhaps he was too quick to judge as well and unduly defensive. “I have no intention of failing to accomplish your mission, sir. The coach is prepared, as you directed, and the ship lies ready.”
“If you think to carry it through on your own, I must forbid it,” the Viscount replied, his expression grim. “Naught but harm can come of it. My sources are very clear on that point. It must be a woman who meets with la Comtesse in Amiens.”
St. Clair lifted a brow and bowed. “Why, so it shall be, sir.” He started toward the door. “I must go if I mean to make the tide. Good eve to you, uncle.”
Strathmere lifted a hand in protest. “Go? Where do you mean to go?”
The Earl turned back for a moment and grinned at the look of consternation on his uncle’s face. “Why, I go to find a wife, of course.” He slipped out the door, ignoring the spluttering behind him, and paused in the entrance hall to put on his hat and gloves and toss a thick cloak around his shoulders. The servants long abed as instructed, St. Clair let himself out through the heavy doors and ran down the steps to the waiting coach. The night air felt sharp against his face and he stared up at the sky. Clear, for a change, the stars bright overhead and the moon full. It would be a good night to travel. He gave the somewhat shabby coach a careful inspection before he climbed up on the box to sit beside his coachman and the young groom who would accompany them as far as Portsmouth.
“Not quite what you’re used to, is it, Ned?”
“No, my lord, but then there’s more to this rig than meets the eye, you could say,” the older of the two men answered placidly.
St. Clair’s crack of laughter echoed through the night. “You might say that indeed. The men did a good job on it.”
They drove in companionable silence after that. St. Clair mulled over his hasty words of bravado. Where the devil he was to find a temporary wife he didn’t yet know. He would though, demned if he wouldn’t.
He felt sure not one of his friends would doubt it for as much as a minute. Devlin St. Clair could be counted on to pull off almost anything, they’d declare loudly—and back up their words with a wager besides. Blessed, or cursed, as the high-sticklers said, with a lively sense of the ridiculous and a natural talent for invention, he and his friends tumbled in and out of scrapes that provided the ton with no end of delightful gossip. He may be sporting mad, as accused, which seemed to him to be better than falling into a drunken stupor every night, and might keep a mistress, or two, but it was harmless enough. He grinned into the dark. Perhaps he was the ‘fribble’ they deemed him, but nevertheless, he took his responsibilities seriously. Something the unlamented fair Amanda never understood, for all their long acquaintance.
With a mental shrug, St. Clair wished her joy of her staid, prosy duke. He could even forgive her for unwittingly jeopardizing his mission to France, since it meant he wouldn’t be leg-shackled to a flighty, volatile female. A more dependable lady awaited him now—the Lady Gay should be ready to sail.
St. Clair emerged from his reflections long enough to take note of the village through which they were passing. They were not much more then a few hours from Portsmouth, he judged. He would have enough time to visit a certain house he knew, hard by the harbor, where anything could be found for a price, including a wife.
A gesture to Ned brought the coach to a standstill long enough for him to move his chilled body inside for a respite from the wind. He stretched out as much as the cramped space would allow and groped in the dark for a blanket. His hand closed on a length of scratchy material and he gave a sharp tug.
Shocked into immobility by the low moan, St. Clair sat frozen, arm still outstretched, waiting with indrawn breath for the eerie sound to occur again.
Gad, there it was again. His pent-up breath came out in a long hiss of surprise as his hands touched the unmistakable outline of a human form. Hellfire. Someone was in here with him. No ghostly spectre, either. Cautiously he explored the body under his hands and cursed the inky blackness. He fumbled in his pocket for his flint, finally striking a wavering light on the third attempt. His mind registered a cloud of dark hair and a flash of white skin before burning fingers forced him to extinguish the flame and plunged him back into darkness. Bloody hell, a woman. He banged hard on the coach roof and the vehicle rolled to a halt.
St. Clair jumped to the ground and unhooked a lantern from the side. “Give the reins to Dan and come down here, Ned,” he ordered. “You won’t believe this, but we have a stowaway. … I’m not sure I believe it,” he muttered under his breath as he climbed back into the coach. Ned crowded in beside him, taking the lantern while St. Clair turned back the cloak partially covering the woman’s face.
“Hell’s bells,” he breathed. “Would you look at that?” Stunned, the two men stared at the stranger in the uncertain light.
“Looks to be hurt, she is, my lord,” Ned said after a long silence. “There’s blood on her. You see?”
“I see.” St. Clair said curtly, strangely moved at the sight of the pale, defenseless face. He folded back the cloak to further expose the red stain on her gown. He’d been right about the cloud of hair, he could now see, and he smoothed back the tangled mass of black curls to touch the pulse at her throat. Slow, frighteningly slow, and her skin icy under his hand.
“She ain’t dead, is she, sir?” Ned questioned in a worried voice.