Coryn, Earl of Ardeth, has spent an eternity in Hell. Fed up, he gambles with the Devil and wins a second chance: if he can find his heart, his soul, and his hourglass in six months, he can return to life. Then he meets Genie, a disgraced water-girl at the Battle of Waterloo. Now, her only hope is this crazy stranger-and she's half-terrified of and half-in-love with the eccentric earl. Together they have to find his humanity, her social acceptance, and overcome someone bent on destroying their lives.
“No, you shall not faint. I have seen you under fire. You are strong.”
Strong? Genie did not think her legs would hold her up. Her brains and her body alike were turned to blanc-mange. As if he understood, Lord Ardeth led her to a bench outside headquarters. She sank down, because she could not run. If she could not faint, perhaps she should just throw herself under a passing cart. Here she was, alone in a foreign city, and her only…friend was this tall stranger of commanding presence and unknown past. He was handsome, for certain, in a dark, brooding, serious way, far unlike Elgin with his fair boyish looks and ready laugh. Lord Ardeth appeared to be older, perhaps thirty, or perhaps forty with his weary eyes, or twenty with his smooth skin. He was a puzzle, one Genie had no interest in solving. He had shown her nothing but kindness, yet she still feared him. With just cause, it seemed, for the earl had to be a madman.
“I must have misunderstood, my lord.”
“No, you heard correctly. I am proposing marriage. Awkwardly, obviously, but marriage all the same.” He was pacing in front of the bench in long, athletic strides. The crow took up a perch on a nearby railing, his head cocked to one side as if the creature was as confused as Genie.
“I realize that a maiden wishes to be wooed, but we have no time for ballads and bouquets.”
Ballads and bouquets? Maidens? He definitely had been out of England too long, Genie decided, unless he had been locked in his family’s attics, where no one could see their demented disgrace.
“It is the best solution,” Lord Ardeth continued. “No one shuns a countess.”
Genie was no longer worried about being ostracized by polite society. Now she feared for her very life. Thank goodness enough officers and soldiers were entering and exiting the building that she did not have to consider herself alone with a lunatic. The men were looking at them with curiosity, but surely one would come to her aid if she cried out. “Forgive me, my lord, but you do not even know me.”
“Nor you me.” Lord Ardeth waved one long hand in the air in dismissal. He had never met his first wife until the day of the wedding. “That does not matter.”
He was worse than crazy. Wed a total stranger after a day or two of acquaintance? How could he think that a marriage could succeed that way? Genie had had a hard enough time accommodating herself to Elgin’s quirks, and she had known him nearly her entire life. She firmly believed that women should know what they were getting when they gave their hands and their lives into some man’s keeping. She stood up, hoping her feet were ready to carry her away. She would worry about her future later. “Thank you for the, ah, honor, my lord. But I am afraid—”
“Do not be. I would not hurt you. No one else would, were you my wife. Think on it, lady. What other choices have you? You said your family will not take you in, nor your dead husband’s relatives. Would you seek a position, in your condition? No one would hire you, were you able to keep working. Or do you believe the British government will pay you a pension? Ha! My wife would still be waiting for six hun—”
“You have a wife?”
“If I had a wife, I meant. She would be long dead before the government thought to look after her. You and the babe would starve waiting for official promises to turn to gold.”
He was right and Genie knew it. Still, marriage? She shook her head.
Ardeth watched the sunlight flicker through the reddish curls that were not hidden by her black bonnet. “Do not say no. Sit. Hear me out.”
Against her better judgment, Genie sat again, clutching her reticule as if the paltry contents could bash in the earl’s skull if he turned dangerous.
“I am rich,” he began as if his apparel, to say nothing of the funds he had already expended on her behalf, did not proclaim his wealth and his generosity. “And I am titled. It means naught to me except that I will have entree to all levels of society. As my wife you will be welcomed also.”
If not welcomed, his countess would be tolerated, Genie knew, for such was the power of an earldom and money.
“I do not know if I can make your son heir to the earldom. Too many people will know the circumstances of your previous marriage and the dates.”
“I might have a daughter,” Genie put in, for the sake of argument in this absurd conversation.
“No, your child is a son.”
Both the crow and Genie shook their heads. The irrational man believed he could read the stars, or whatever addled, impossible notion it was that made him so confident.
He was going on, as if there were nothing unusual about predicting births or proposing marriage to lost widows. “Someone would be sure to contest such an effort, although I believe he is legally my son if I am married to his mother at the time of his birth and I acknowledge him as mine. I will have to look into the law. Either way, he can bear my name with whatever authority it carries. I shall settle a goodly sum on him, and on you, of course. You would be left a wealthy widow this time, and soon.”
“Soon?” The attics-to-let earl was not consulting any crystal ball, but again he sounded certain. She had seen him lifting the wounded soldiers, staying awake for hours with little sustenance or rest, yet she felt a pang at the thought of his weakness. “Have you a wasting disease, then?”
“Yes. That is, no.”
The crow gave a loud squawk. The earl glared at him, on the railing. “No, I am not ailing, but my time is measured, in all-too-short hours and weeks.” Reminded that his time was flying, he ordered the crow to fly, too, to keep looking.
Which did not reassure Genie in the least of his soundness, his mental soundness, anyway. “Um, how old are you?”
“In years or experience?” He turned and stared at her with his dark eyes, willing her to understand, knowing she could not. Now Ardeth was the one to shake his head. “I was one and thirty when I passed on—that is, when I passed my last birthday. It is enough that I am ancient in wisdom and I know marriage is the right thing for both of us.”
“For both of us? I do not see how you can benefit.”
“For one thing, I would gain the honor of a deed well-done, if only in my eyes. I could not leave a damsel unprotected, you see. That would be forsaking my vows.”
“Are you a holy man, then?” That might explain his steadfast beliefs, Genie decided, and his selfless helping of the wounded soldiers when no other gentleman of his rank would attend to them. “I did not think such religious orders permitted marriage, though.”
“I belong to neither cult nor congregation, yet my vows are no less sacred and binding.”
“To whom? You made me no promises.”
“To myself, like an oath of chivalry.”
“Chivalry belongs in storybooks, with knights and white chargers.”
“I always preferred black horses.”