Read an Excerpt
Courting An Angel
By Patricia Grasso
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Patricia H. Grasso
All rights reserved.
Devereux House, London, 1586
Autumn wore its most serene expression that final day of October. Clear blue skies kissed the distant horizon, and gentle breezes caressed the land.
The changing season painted vivid colors within the perfect setting of the Earl of Basildon's garden. In addition to nature's orange, gold, and red-leafed trees, an army of gardeners had landscaped the grounds in a rainbow of autumnal shades. Chrysanthemums in a variety of hues adorned the manicured lawns along with flowering cabbage, marigold, and sweet alyssum.
A shining white birch tree, an evergreen yew, and a majestic oak stood together like old friends in the rear of the earl's garden. The earl's five daughters, ranging in age from three to ten, and his countess circled the yew tree and stared up at the ebony-haired woman perched comfortably on its thickest branch.
"Are you listening?" called the eight-month-pregnant Countess of Basildon.
Rob MacArthur inhaled deeply of the mingling scents of the garden's flowers and then looked down at her audience. "I hear ye, Aunt Keely."
The countess turned to her daughters and asked, "Are you listening?"
Rob smiled at the sight of the five young girls nodding their heads with exaggerated vigor, their ebony braids bobbing up and down with the movement. Having passed the previous year in England with Uncle Richard and his family, Rob loved her younger cousins and considered them the sisters she'd never had.
"All the participants around the bonfire tonight will receive a sprig of yew," Lady Keely instructed. "Samhuinn — known in England as Halloween — is the festival of our ancestors, and the yew tree symbolizes death and rebirth. These sprigs of yew represent our ability to commune with those loved ones who have gone before us into the Great Adventure. Do you understand?"
"Yes," the five little girls chorused.
The countess looked up at her niece and asked, "Do you understand?"
"I ken what yer sayin', Aunt Keely." Rob dropped a handful of yew sprigs, and her cousins scrambled to pick them up. She glanced toward the mansion and saw her uncle headed in their direction.
"Here comes yer father," she announced.
In the distance behind the earl, Henry Talbot walked onto the Devereux estate. Spying the family gathering in the rear of the garden, the twenty-five-year-old Marquess of Ludlow sauntered in their direction.
Rob sighed when she saw him. "Isna he the handsomest man ye've ever seen?"
"'Tis one of the many reasons why I married him," the countess replied.
"I dinna mean Uncle Richard." Rob giggled at the absurd notion that her uncle was the handsomest man. "I meant yer brother Henry."
"Rob loves Henry," eight-year-old Bliss Devereux chanted in a singsong voice. "Rob loves Henry."
"Quiet, Lady Blister," Rob hushed her. "He'll hear ye."
"I'm no blister," Bliss replied.
"You're a terrible pain in the arse," ten-year-old Blythe Devereux told her sister.
"'Tis unkind of you to say that," Lady Keely chided her eldest.
"Cousin Blythe, lyin' is sometimes kinder than the truth," Rob called, then smiled at her aunt's reproving frown.
"How are the Halloween preparations progressing?" asked the earl, reaching the yew tree.
"Fine." The countess smiled and patted her swollen belly. "As ordered, I refrained from climbing the tree this year."
Richard Devereux looked down at six-year-old Aurora, usually as silent as the hushed moments for which she'd been named. When the child offered him a sprig of yew, the earl smiled and crouched down to be eye level with her.
"Thank you, sweetlin'," he said, accepting the sprig.
"Daddy," two voices chimed together.
Richard glanced first to the left and then to the right. On either side of him stood his three-year-old twins, Summer and Autumn.
"What do you call an Englishman who eats ants?" Summer asked.
"Uncle," Autumn shouted.
Everyone but the earl laughed. "Who told you that?" Richard demanded.
"Uncle Henry," Blythe, Bliss, and Aurora answered at the same time.
The earl stood and faced his wife, saying, "Tell your brother to refrain from spreading his wickedness to our daughters."
"Great Bruce's ghost," Rob cried indignantly from her perch in the tree. "Henry isna wicked."
"Thank you for defending me, my lady," said a husky voice behind the earl.
Rob smiled at Henry Talbot, and all of the tender affection she felt for him shone in her expression. Noting the grim set to her uncle's jaw, Rob prevented his intended tirade by calling, "Henry, will you help me down?"
"With pleasure." Henry stood beneath the yew tree, and when she leaped off the branch, his arms were there to steady her. They stood so close their bodies touched.
The masculine feel and the clean scent of him made Rob's senses reel. Staring up into his sky-blue eyes, Rob became mesmerized by the tender emotion mirrored in them.
Silently refusing to relinquish her. Henry dipped his head toward her. His face inched closer, and his lips sought to claim hers.
Rob turned her head at the very last moment. Her heart pounded frantically within her breast at the near contact of their lips. How she wished she were free to succumb to his kiss.
Henry chuckled and planted a kiss on her cheek. "I almost had you that time," he teased.
"Almost doesna count," Rob replied. She glanced at her frowning uncle and blushed with embarrassment.
Richard Devereux turned away from his niece and his brother-in-law who were still clinging to each other like a couple of vines. He looked down at Aurora.
"Yesterday I seen Uncle Henry trying to kiss Cousin Rob," the little girl told him. "She wouldn't let him."
"Daughters, let your cousin's behavior be an example to you," Richard said, beginning his favorite lecture on the inherent evil in men. "All men — like Uncle Henry — have wicked intentions. Never let them near you."
"You're a man," the ten-year-old observed. "Do you have wicked intentions too?"
Henry and Rob burst out laughing while the countess covered her smile with one hand. The earl cast them a quelling look, which only served to make Rob giggle even more.
"Daughters, if a man tries to kiss you," Richard asked, "what are you going to say to him?"
"Yuch-yuch-yuch," the five little girls chorused.
The earl cast the three watching adults a look of triumph and then asked his daughters, "If a man does kiss you, what are you going to do?"
"Slap his face," they shouted.
"Daddy, Uncle Odo told us —" Blythe began.
"— to kick the gent's balls," Bliss finished.
"What balls?" Aurora asked.
"Never mind," the earl answered.
"Daughters, if you plan to celebrate tonight," Lady Keely spoke up, "you must nap this afternoon. Mrs. Ashemole is waiting inside for you."
The earl knelt in front of his three-year-old twins and put an arm around each. "Give Daddy a kiss good-bye," he said.
"Yuch-yuch-yuch," Summer and Autumn shouted.
Lady Keely, Rob, and Henry burst out laughing. Even the earl smiled.
Henry turned to Rob and asked, "Would you care to ride with me this afternoon?"
"There's nothin' I'd love more," she answered, "but Isabelle will be here soon. Ye know she's comin' for an extended visit."
"Then I'll wait with you at the quay," Henry said.
Hand in hand, the two walked in the direction of the quay. The earl and the countess stared after them for a moment.
Richard and Keely exchanged concerned glances. The earl raised his brows at his wife in a silent question. She shrugged in answer and smiled.
"Henry fancies himself in love with her," Lady Keely said. "Rob will have him if her parents can manage to win her an annulment."
"Does your brother know about her previous marriage?" Richard asked.
Keely shook her head. "'Tisn't my place to tell him, and I doubt Rob has shared it. She's hoping for good news from Scotland."
Both the earl and his lady watched the retreating couple. Appearing very much in love, Henry and Rob strolled across the lawns to the quay. At one point, the marquess tried to kiss her, but she managed to elude his lips and giggled at her victory.
"Send Henry to court for a few weeks," Keely suggested, looping her arm through her husband's. "By the time he returns, we shall have heard if an annulment is possible."
"You're very wise, dearest," Richard said, escorting her to the house.
"You once told me I had no common sense," she reminded him.
Richard smiled. "True, but you proved me wrong when you married me."
Meanwhile, Rob sat beside Henry on a stone bench near the quay. Her right hand clasped his, and her left hand hid inside her pocket. When she peeked at the handsome marquess and found him watching her, Rob blushed and smiled.
"I saved ye from one of my uncle's tongue-lashin's," she teased him. "Why do ye persist in tellin' his daughters vulgar jokes? They canna even understand them."
"'Tis precisely the reason," Henry told her. "For the past ten years, Richard has been obsessed with guarding his daughters' maidenheads. I love sending him into a high dudgeon."
"'Tis cruel of ye to do so," Rob said.
Henry chuckled. "Before he married my sister, your uncle was the wildest and most successful rake at the Tudor court."
"Uncle Richard?" Rob couldn't credit that. "He seems so proper."
"My sister tamed him."
"How did she manage that?"
"By kissing him whenever he wished," Henry lied. "You should strive to emulate her behavior. Besides, you wound me whenever you turn your lips away from mine."
"Disappointment is a part of life, my lord," Rob said, flicking a sidelong glance at him. "Ye'll survive."
"Won't you feel guilty if I expire before your eyes?" he asked with a wicked grin.
"Yer incorrigible," she replied, laughing. "I willna kiss ye until my previous betrothal is annulled. Remember, my lord, those who wait long at the ferry are bound to get across sometime."
Henry slipped his arm around her shoulder and drew her close, so close his well-muscled thigh teased her skirt. When she looked up at him, he gazed deeply and longingly into the fathomless pools of her emerald eyes and whispered in a seductively husky voice, "Darling, you do remind me of a thunderstorm at a picnic."
Rob giggled. "You resemble a waistie wanis."
Henry cocked an ebony brow at her. "What's that?"
"A spoiled child."
"Sorry, darling. Let's kiss and make up."
"Yer forgiven and may kiss my hand." Rob offered him her right hand to kiss in a courtly manner.
Both Rob and Henry looked over their shoulders. Blythe hurried across the lawns toward them.
"Uncle Henry," Blythe called. "Daddy wants to see you. Now."
Henry waved at his niece and then turned back to Rob. "Darling, I fear you only delayed your uncle's tongue-lashing. Will you accompany me to the house?"
Rob glanced toward the Thames River and shook her head. In the distance, a barge had just rounded the bend. "Isabelle is almost here."
"I'll return in a few minutes," Henry said, rising from the bench. "Be warned, my bonny lassie. I plan to steal one of your kisses at the Samhuinn celebration tonight."
"Ye can always try," she countered with a flirtatious smile.
Rob watched Henry and Blythe walk back to Devereux House. With his ebony hair and sky-blue eyes, the Marquess of Ludlow was every maiden's dream man. Rob sighed. She loved him, but why couldn't he understand that she wasn't going to allow him liberties with her person until her annulment was finalized?
Because he doesn't know I'm already married, Rob answered her own question. Guilty remorse coiled itself around her heart. Though she wasn't deceitful by nature, Rob couldn't chance losing Henry's tender regard by telling him the truth of the matter.
Gordon Campbell will welcome the opportunity to dissolve our marriage, Rob told herself. If he even remembers he has a wife. The Marquess of Inverary had never sent her any trinket or letter. When he left Dunridge Castle after their wedding, the man seemed to have fallen off the edge of the world.
Banishing the painful memory, Rob smiled inwardly. She had achieved her goal in life. Like her mother before her, she was a real English lady. Having found happiness in England, she vowed never to return to the Highlands.
Rob pulled her left hand out other pocket and stared at the birthmark shaped like the devil's flower. She ran a finger across it. The mark felt no different from the skin on her right hand, yet it had brought her a lifetime of trouble. Amazing, how an innocuous-looking stain could create so much heartache.
Rob focused on the voice, then leaped off the bench and cried, "Isabelle!"
The boatman helped the blonde disembark, and the two petite women flew into each other's arms. Materializing from nowhere, the earl's footmen carried the young woman's bags to the house.
"I missed you," Rob exclaimed.
"I missed you more," Isabelle Debrett said with a smile.
"'Tis warm today. Let's sit in the garden and chat," Rob suggested, sticking her left hand into her pocket. "Or would ye prefer to rest awhile?"
"I'm too excited to rest," Isabelle admitted. Then ordered, "Get that hand out of your pocket."
"Do as I say."
When Rob reluctantly did as she was told, Isabelle took her blemished hand in hers. Together, they walked to one of the stone benches.
Uncomfortable with the other girl touching her marked hand, Rob sat stiffly beside her on the bench. She itched to yank her hand back and hide it in her pocket, but would never chance offending the other girl.
Without warning, Isabelle reached out with one finger and traced the six-petaled flower stain. "Delicately distinctive," she murmured, then looked up and smiled.
Horrified by the gesture and surprised by the words, Rob turned a stricken expression upon the other girl. Didn't she recognize the mark of the devil? What would she do if Isabelle suddenly made the sign of the cross to ward the evil eye off? How could she bear losing her only friend?
"I'm so glad we're friends," Isabelle said.
Tears welled up in Rob's eyes. "I — I never had a friend before I met ye," she confessed.
"That makes us even," the other girl admitted. "You're the only real friend I ever had."
"Ye've two sisters."
"Stepsisters," Isabelle qualified. "They never considered me their real sister."
"'Tis pure jealousy," Rob replied, indignant for her friend's sake. "Yer so bonny, and whenever Lobelia and Rue go out and aboot, their ugly faces scare wee bairns."
"'Tis unkind of you to say that," Isabelle said with a mischievous grin. "Lobelia and Rue are merely a tad plain."
"Belle, how can ye sit there and defend them?" Rob asked. "They force ye to attend them as if yer their personal servant. Unpaid servant, I might add. Yer stepmother's no better."
Isabelle shrugged. "Delphinia, Lobelia, and Rue are the only family I have now that Papa is gone."
"What aboot yer cousin Roger?"
"I meant immediate family. Besides, accumulating a mountain of gold keeps Roger too busy to bother with me." Isabelle spied the handsome man advancing on them and whispered, "Here comes the Marquess of Ludlow."
Rob yanked her hand out of her friend's and slipped it into her pocket. Masking her abrupt gesture, she said, "I feel a bit chilled. Do ye?"
Isabelle shook her head and cast her friend a curious look. She flicked a glance at the marquess and then the pocket where her friend's blemished hand was hidden.
"Lady Isabelle, welcome to Devereux House." Henry greeted the blonde with an easy smile. Before she could reply, he dismissed her presence just as easily. Turning to Rob, Henry said, "Your uncle needs me to go to court. I won't be here for tonight's celebration. How about an early Samhuinn kiss, sweetheart?"
Rob blushed, embarrassed that he would speak so boldly in front of her guest. "I'll consider givin' ye a welcome-home kiss when ye return," she said, refusing him.
Henry lifted her right hand to his lips, gazed deeply into her eyes, and said, "Darling, you're making me daft."
Isabelle burst out laughing.
Rob giggled and then parried, "My lord, ye already were daft when I met ye."
As she watched the marquess walk toward the quay, a vague sense of relief surged through Rob. She loved him with all of her heart, but needed a bit of breathing space. Rob wanted to savor each moment with the only friend she'd ever had, and Henry's departure would give her that opportunity.
"Ludlow seems smitten," Isabelle remarked.
"So he says," Rob replied, her gaze still fixed on the retreating marquess. "I willna kiss him until I'm free."
Excerpted from Courting An Angel by Patricia Grasso. Copyright © 1995 Patricia H. Grasso. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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