Read an Excerpt
Ireland, June 1817
Lady Jeannette Rose Brantford gently blew her nose on her handkerchief. Neatly refolding the silk square with its pretty row of embroidered lily of the valley, she dabbed at the fresh pair of tears that slid down her cheeks.
I really need to stop crying, she told herself. This unremitting misery simply has to cease.
On the sea voyage over, she’d thought she had her emo- tions firmly under control. Resigned, as it were, to her ignominious fate. But this morning when the coach set off on the overland journey to her cousins’ estate, the reality of her situation had crashed upon her like one of the great boulders that lay scattered around the wild Irish countryside.
How could my parents have done this to me? she wailed to herself. How could they have been cruel enough to exile her to this godforsaken wilderness? Dear heavens, even Scotland would have been preferable. At least its landmass had the good sense to still be attached to Mother England. Scotland would have been a long carriage ride from home, but in Ireland, she was separated by an entire sea!
Yet Mama and Papa had remained adamant in their decision to send her here. And for the first time in her twenty-one years, she’d been unable to wheedle or cajole or cry her way into persuading them to change their minds.
She didn’t even have her longtime lady’s maid, Jacobs, to offer her comfort and consolation in her time of need. Just because she had told Jacobs a little fib about her identity when she and her twin sister, Violet, had decided to exchange places last summer was no cause for desertion. And just because Jeannette’s parents were punishing her for the scandal with this intolerable banishment to Ireland was no reason for Jacobs to seek out a new post. A loyal servant would have been eager to follow her mistress into exile!
Jeannette wiped away another tear and gazed across the coach at her new maid, Betsy. Despite being a perfectly sweet, pleasant girl, Betsy was a stranger. Not only that, she was woefully inexperienced, still learning about the proper care of clothing and dressing hair and recognizing the latest fashions. Jacobs had known it all.
Oh, well, she thought, training Betsy would give her new life purpose. At the reminder of her new life, tears welled again into her eyes.
Alone. Oh, she was so dreadfully alone.
Abruptly, the coach jerked to a tooth-rattling halt. She slid forward and nearly toppled to the floor in a cloud of skirts.
Betsy caught her; or rather, they caught each other, and slowly settled themselves back into their seats.
“Good heavens, what was that?” Jeannette straightened her hat, barely able to see with the brim half covering her eyes.
“It felt like we hit something, my lady.” Betsy twisted to peer out the small window at the gloomy landscape beyond. “I hope we weren’t in no accident.”
The coach swayed as the coachman and footmen jumped to the ground, the low rumble of male voices filling the air.
Jeannette gripped her handkerchief inside her palm. Drat it, what now? As if things weren’t bad enough already.
A minute later, the coachman’s wizened face and sloped shoulders appeared at the window. “I’m sorry, milady, but it appears we’re stuck.”
Jeannette’s eyebrows rose. “What do you mean, stuck?”
“ ’Tis the weather, my lady. All the rain of late has turned the road back to bog.”
Bog? As in big-wheel-sucking-muddy-hole kind of bog? A wail rose into her throat. She swallowed the cry and firmed her lower lip, refusing to let it so much as quiver.
“Jem and Samuel and me’ll keep trying,” the coachman continued, “but it may be a while afore we’re on our way. Perhaps you’d like to step out while we . . .”
She shot him an appalled look, so appalled obviously that his words trailed abruptly into silence.
What was wrong with the man? she wondered. Was he daft? Or blind, perhaps? Could he not see her beautiful Naccarat traveling dress? The shade bright and pretty as a perfect tangerine. Or the stylish kid leather half boots she’d had dyed especially to match prior to her departure from London? Obviously he had no common sense, nor any appreciation of the latest styles. But mayhap she was being too hard on him, since, after all, what did any man really know about ladies’ fashion.
“Step out to where? Into that mud?” She gave her head a vigorous shake. “I shall wait right where I am.”
“It may get a might rough once we start pushing, my lady. There’s your safety to consider.”
“Don’t worry about my safety. I shall be fine in the coach. If you need to lighten the load, however, you have my leave to remove my trunks. But please be sure not to set them into the mud. I shall be most distressed if they are begrimed or damaged in any manner.” She waved a gloved hand. “And Betsy may step down if she wishes.”
Betsy looked uncertain. “Are you sure, my lady? I don’t think I ought to leave you.”
“It’s fine, Betsy. There is nothing you can do here anyway, so go with John.”
Besides, Jeannette moaned to herself, it will be nothing new, since I am well used to being deserted these days.
The gray-haired man fixed a pair of kindly eyes on the servant girl. “Best you come with me. I’ll see ye to a safe spot.”
Once Betsy was lifted free of the coach and the worst of the mud, the barouche’s door was firmly relatched. The servants set about unloading the baggage, then began the grueling task of trying to dislodge the vehicle’s trapped wheels.
A full half hour passed with no success. Jeannette stubbornly kept her seat, faintly queasy from the vigorous, periodic rocking of the coach as the men and horses strained to force the carriage out of its hole. From the exclamations of annoyed disgust that floated on the air, puncturing the rustic silence, she gathered their attempts had done nothing but sink the wheels even deeper into the mire.
Withdrawing a fresh handkerchief from her reticule, she patted the perspiration from her forehead. Blazing from above, the sun had burned off the clouds but was doing little to dry the muddy morass around her. Afternoon heat ripened the air, turning it sticky with a humidity that was unusual for these parts even in mid-summer, or so she had been informed.
At least she wasn’t crying anymore. A blessing, since it wouldn’t do to arrive at her cousins’ house—assuming she ever did arrive—looking bloated and puffy, her eyes damp and red-rimmed. It was humiliating enough knowing what her cousins must think of her banishment. A far worse ignominy to greet them looking anything but her best.
A fly buzzed into the coach, fat and black and repugnant.
Jeannette’s lip curled with distaste. She shooed at the insect with her handkerchief, hoping it would fly out the opposite window. Instead it turned and raced straight for her head. She let out a sharp squeal and batted at it again.
Buzzing past her nose, it landed on the window frame, its transparent wings glinting in the brilliant sunlight. The insect strolled casually along the painted wooden sill on tensile, hair-thin legs.
With equal nonchalance, Jeannette reached for her fan. She waited, running an assessing thumb over the fine gilded ivory side guard. As soon as the creature paused, Jeannette brought her fan down with an audible thwap.
In a single instant, the big black bug became a big black blob. Gratified by her small victory, she inspected her fan, hoping she had not damaged the delicate staves, since the fan had always been one of her favorites.
Catching a fresh glimpse of the squashed insect, she twisted her lips in revulsion before quickly flicking the carcass out of her sight.
“You’ve a deadly aim, lass,” remarked a mellow male voice, the lilting cadence as rich and lyrical as an Irish ballad. “He didn’t stand a chance, that fly. Are you as handy with a real weapon?”
Startled, she turned her head to find a stranger peering in at her through the opposite window, one strong forearm propped at an impertinent angle atop the frame.
How long had he been standing there? she wondered. Long enough obviously to witness the encounter between her and the fly.
The man was tall and sinewy with close-cropped, wavy dark chestnut hair, fair skin and penetrating eyes of the bluest blue, vivid as gentians at peak bloom. They twinkled at her, those eyes, the man making no effort to conceal his roguish interest. His lips curved upward in silent, unconcealed humor.
The description popped unbidden and unwanted into her mind, his appeal impossible to deny. Her heart flipped then flopped inside her chest, breasts rising and falling beneath the material of her bodice in sudden breathless movement.
She struggled against the involuntary response, forcing herself to notice on closer observation that his features were not precisely perfect. His forehead square and rather ordinary. His nose a bit long, a tad hawkish. His chin blunt and far too stubborn for comfort. His lips a little on the slender side.
Yet when viewed as a whole, his countenance made an undeniably pleasing package, one to which no sane woman could claim indifference. And when coupled with the magnetism that radiated off him in almost visible waves, he looked rather like sin brought to life.
And a sin it was, she mused on a regretful sigh, that he was clearly not a gentleman. His coarse, unfashionable attire—plain linen shirt, neckerchief and rough tan coat—betraying his plebeian origins, along with his obvious lack of manners before a lady. One had only to look at him to know the truth as he leaned against her coach door like some ruffian or thief.
She stiffened at the idea, abruptly realizing that’s exactly what he might be. Well, if he was here to rob her, she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of showing fear. She might burst into tears on occasion but she had never been a vaporish milk and water miss. Never one of the frail sort given to wailing for her smelling salts at the faintest hint of distress.
“I am well able to defend myself,” she declared in a resilient tone, “if that is what you are asking. Be aware I would have no difficulty putting a bullet through you should circumstances require.”
What a fib, she mused, deciding it wisest not to mention the fact that she had never fired a gun in her life and had no pistol with her here inside the coach. The coachman was the one with the weapon.
Where was he anyway? She hoped he and the others weren’t, quite literally, tied up.
Surprise brightened the rogue’s eyes. “And why would you think you’ve cause to shoot me?”
“What else am I to imagine when a strange man accosts me in my own carriage?”
“Perhaps you might assume he’s here to help.”
“Help with what? Himself to my belongings?”
His eyes narrowed, glinting with a dangerous combination of irritation and amusement. “You’ve a suspicious mind, lass, painting me immediately as a thief.” He leaned closer, his voice growing faintly husky. “Assuming I were a thief, what is it you possess that I might find of value?”
Her lips parted involuntarily, alarm and something far more treacherous quickening her blood. “I have my clothes and a few jewels, nothing more. If you want them they are in the trunks outside.”
“If I were of a mind to want such things, I’d have them already.” His eyes locked with her own, momentarily holding her prisoner before his gaze lowered slowly to her mouth. “No, there’s only one thing I’m craving . . .”
Her breath caught in her lungs as he paused, leaving his sentence tantalizingly, frustratingly unfinished. Did he want her? she wondered. Did he intend to force his way inside her carriage and steal far more than belongings, perhaps kisses instead, and maybe other intimacies as well? Given the circumstances, she ought to be screaming her lungs out, ought to be terrified beyond measure. Instead she could only wait with her heart thundering in her ears for him to continue.
“Yes?” she prompted on a near whisper. “What is it you crave?”
The corner of his lips curved upward. “You, lass, hauling your fine backside out of this coach so your men and I can free it from the muck.”
A long moment of incomprehension passed as his meaning gradually sank in. Surely she could not have heard him right? Had he actually told her to haul her backside out of the coach?
Her mouth dropped open, her shoulders and spine turning stiff.
Why, the gall of the man! Never in her entire life had she been spoken to in such a disgraceful, disrespectful manner. Just who did he think he was?
“And what is your name, fellow?”
“Oh, my pardon for not introducing myself sooner,” he said, straightening to his full, impressive height. He touched a pair of fingers to his forehead. “Darragh O’Brien at your service.”
“Darr-ah?” She crinkled her brow. “Rather an odd-sounding name.”
He frowned back. “ ’Tisn’t odd, ’tis Irish. Which you’d know if you hadn’t just made the crossing over from En-gland.”
“And how can you tell that?”
“Well, you haven’t a sign on your forehead but you might as well, since it’s plain as the nose on your pretty face that you’re English and new to this land.”
He could discern all that from a couple minutes’ conversation, could he? Well, at least he had the grace to offer her a small compliment even if it was wrapped around a criticism.
“Now then, lass, you know my name, so what’s yours? And where is it you’re bound? Your men didn’t say.”
“Nor should they have, since my plans are really none of your affair, most particularly if you are indeed some sort of rogue.”
“Ah, a rogue, am I now? No longer a thief?”
“That remains to be seen.”
He barked out a laugh. “You’ve got a wicked tongue in your head. One that could slice a brigand to the bone and leave him fleeing in terror.”
“If that is true,” she asked with a teasing half smile, “then why are you still here?”
He flashed her an irreverent grin, obviously amused by her words. “Well now, I’ve never been one to run from danger. And I don’t mind dipping my toe into an interesting spot of trouble when I chance upon one every now and again.”
Up went her eyebrow at his salvo. Was he implying that she was just such a spot of trouble? Come to think of it, maybe she was at that.
“I stopped to offer my help, as I tried to tell you before,” he explained. “I was riding past when I noticed the sorry state of your vehicle. Thought you and your men could do with an extra hand.”
His words reminded her of her servants’ conspicuous absence, some of her earlier suspicions returning. “And where exactly are my men?”
“Right there.” He gestured with a hand. “Where they’ve been all this while.”
She leaned forward and shifted on the seat, then looked over her shoulder through the window. And there they were, all four of them—coachman, two footmen and her maid—grouped around her luggage on a patch of dry road. She thought they resembled castaways on a small, deserted island, looking hot, bored and in absolutely no fear for their lives.
“Satisfied?” he questioned.
Clicking her tongue with a barely audible tsk, she settled back into her seat.