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About the Author
Jo Ann Ferguson is a lifelong storyteller and the author of numerous romantic novels. She also writes as Jo Ann Brown and Mary Jo Kim. A former US Army officer, she has served as the president of the national board of the Romance Writers of America and taught creative writing at Brown University. She currently lives in Nevada with her family, which includes one very spoiled cat.
Read an Excerpt
A Guardian's Angel
A Regency Romance
By Jo Ann Ferguson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 Jo Ann Ferguson
All rights reserved.
Certainly nothing else could go amiss today.
Angela Needham brushed away a nagging bee that seemed to believe the flowers on the brim of her straw bonnet were real. Frustration narrowed her eyes as she looked back at her carriage, tilting at an odd angle in the middle of the road. Although she knew well the dangers of wandering alone down an unfamiliar country lane, she had to get away from the carriage, which had hit a chuckhole and broken a wheel. She could not blame the driver. This road was rife with holes. They were only a few miles from her destination of Oslington Court, but too far to walk unless she wished to meet the duke looking as dusty as the coachee, who was trying to fix the carriage.
She let her exasperation sift away as she recalled how startled and excited she had been when she received the note from His Grace, the Duke of Oslington, with a request that she act as a companion for his ward. As her mother had been a companion to His Grace's mother before the duchess's marriage, it seemed somehow meet to be coming to Oslington Court three decades later.
Tears burned in her eyes as she thought of how impossible it would have been for her to accept the duke's offer if Mama had still been alive. Dear Mama, whose most obvious legacy to Angela had been her pale blond hair and dark-blue eyes. Since her mother's death during the winter, Angela had been living with her older brother and his wife in London. That uncomfortable existence—where her sister-in-law made Angela feel like an unworthy and unwanted petitioner—had been put to a blissful end with the duke's letter. Her brother had entreated her not to accept the offer, because he appreciated her deflecting his wife's fierce temper.
But that life was over, and a new one was about to begin.
Putting her hand on the brim of her poke bonnet, Angela shaded her eyes as she looked across a lushly green meadow. The scene was picture perfect. The rolling hills of Northumberland needed nothing more than a fine mahogany frame to hold the scene like a favored memory. She smiled as she imagined how luscious it would be to have the hot sunshine now dripping through the trees and the scent of freshly cut hay captured and hung over a mantel for a wintry eve. The birds were hushed with the afternoon heat, but insects buzzed eagerly along the stone wall by the road.
Touching her reticule, which hung from her wrist by a green cord, Angela listened for the crinkle of the duke's letter. Rodney Abernathy, Duke of Oslington, had recently returned from his service with the East India Company. With him, he had brought the obligation of being the guardian for a fellow officer's daughter.
The details in the letter were sketchy, but he had written that the girl had lost her mother years ago and that her father had died in India just before the duke's return to England. Miss Leonia Sutton, at nearly 18 years, was ready to leave the schoolroom, and she needed a companion to prepare her to enter the Polite World.
When she paused to examine some brightly colored flowers by the wall, Angela was careful not to let any twigs or briars catch on her gown of light green muslin. It was her best traveling dress and was decorated with a trio of flounces at the hem. Matching rows edged her short sleeves, but they were barely visible beneath the lacy shawl she had thrown over her shoulders to protect her from the summer sun.
Carefully, she tipped a pink blossom toward her. She loved flowers. She hoped Oslington Court still had the luxurious gardens her mother had spoken of.
A voice drifted toward her on the slight breeze. Angela started to straighten at the excitement in the boyish voice. Something struck her—hard—and she choked back a gasp of pain and shock. Rocking backward, she feared a sudden fog had enfolded her, for her eyes blurred. She almost strangled on the scream battering her throat.
Her panic lasted but a moment. It was replaced by vexation. Catching sight of a redheaded, gangly form running away at top speed, she sighed. She was not the victim of some knight of the road unless one of them had taken to capturing their victims in a net, for that was what surrounded her.
She fought the fine netting, but it was caught on the stiff brim of her bonnet. Hearing a muffled laugh, Angela whirled. Wood clunked against wood, and the netting tangled more tightly about her.
Her eyes widened as, through the mesh, she saw a dark-haired man standing on the other side of the stone wall. He wore a red riding coat over a waistcoat as black as his hat. The cravat tying the white collar of his shirt shook when he laughed, his eyes crinkling closed.
"This is hardly amusing," Angela said with what composure she could scavenge. She batted at the netting, which was clinging to her face. "Is it too much to ask that you help me get free?"
The man leapt over the low wall and pushed through the briars, not pausing when sharp twigs caught at his dark breeches. "Do stand still," he ordered in a voice as deep as his laugh. "You are making a complete muddle of this."
"Me? I was taking a walk along the road, enjoying the flowers, when—"
The man laughed again.
What a boorish cad! As he walked around her while he carefully dislodged her bonnet from the mesh, she stared straight ahead. He laughed again, but she clamped her teeth together to restrain her tongue from forming a retort. Speaking harshly would do no good, for she needed his assistance. She did not wish to return to the carriage with the net's handle dragging behind her like a well-whipped cur's tail.
"There, miss," the man said, the humor still in his voice as he lifted the last of the netting from over her head. "You are quite free of our inadvertent trap. Are you all right?"
"As well as can be expected," she said as she settled her bonnet back on her hair. A sharp pain throbbed across her head. "I vow you scared nearly a year off my life."
"You look young enough to be able to afford it."
Angela faced him. She must have moved too quickly, because the world twirled around her. She forced her eyes to focus. As she looked past her bonnet's brim, she discovered the man was quite tall. He rolled the netting around the long handle, and she noted his broad hands ended in tapered fingers that should belong to an artist or a musician.
"You had no idea of my age before you swept that horrible thing—" She pointed at the net he propped against the wall "—over my head."
He shaded his green eyes as he peered along the road. "I believe your shrieks frightened my young friend out of a year of his life. The poor lad is nowhere to be seen. I can assure you that he had no idea you were lurking behind this wall. You should be more considerate, miss."
"Yes, you should think twice before squealing like a banshee. The lad must be quite distressed at the thought of having hurt you."
"He could have stayed to ascertain that I was unhurt."
"He would have." The man's eyes twinkled brighter. "I sent him on his way, for I suspected, from watching you thrash about with the net, that you would be in an infernal mood upon your release."
Tucking strands of her hair back beneath her bonnet, she winced as her head pulsed with the bone-deep ache. "Then I must prove you mistaken. As you can see, I am quite composed."
"It would be admirable as well for you to teach your son to take responsibility for his mistakes."
"Thomas is my friend, not my son. I find him a boy of unusually keen mind and wit, so I suspect he has learned his manners well."
With her throbbing head and her nerves strung tightly as she anticipated her first meeting with the Duke of Oslington, Angela was anxious to put an end to this aimless conversation. "I thank you for your assistance, sir. Now if you would be so kind as to excuse me, I am in a hurry. I must—"
He leaned his hand against a tree at the edge of the lane. "You need be in no hurry if that is your carriage back there. Your coachee and his helper are still struggling to get it repaired."
Angela sighed and looked at the sun, which was heading toward the horizon. She would be late in arriving at Oslington Court. Being tardy would not make a positive impression on the duke. He might send her back to London. She prayed he would not, for she had no wish to return where she was as wanted as yesterday's garbage.
"Your coachman looks as if he is making slow progress," the man went on. "You need have no fear of being left on this road overnight. I suspect you shall be on your way within the hour, Miss ..."
"Needham." With her head feeling disconnected, she did not want to share pleasantries with this abruptly sympathetic stranger.
"Do you have far to go?"
Not only was he discourteous, Angela decided, but unbelievably presumptuous to ask her such a personal question. Reminding herself that he might be trying to engage her in conversation in an effort to redeem himself, she struggled to think. Her brain seemed to take an eternally long time to form the simplest thought. "Not far. Our journey was to have come to an end before nightfall."
"That should be no trouble if your coachee is competent."
"I was assured he was when we left the Black Dove."
The man's dark brows arched almost to the ebony hair falling across his forehead. "The Black Dove? Then you must have come from London." His smile returned. "Well, well, you have put me quite to the stare. I must say we seldom have ladies coming to visit the shire during the whirl of the Season's end, Miss Needham. This quiet life here in the north of England offers little in comparison with Town."
Angela was about to retort when another painful pulse scored her head from temple to temple. The green meadow contracted into darkness, and her knees wobbled. Hearing a soft gasp, she realized it had come from her lips. She did not want to succumb to vapors, but her head was as light as dandelion fluff.
A hand beneath her elbow kept her from collapsing. She was guided to her right and pushed gently to sit. The firmness of a stile stair welcomed her.
She leaned back against it and closed her eyes. Softly she said, "Forgive me for being—"
"Forgive you?" He held her trembling hand between his as he sat beside her as she waited for the world to right itself. "You have nothing to apologize for," he said softly so his words did not resonate in her tender skull. "We gave you quite a scare and, I fear, a blow against the head. How are you faring?"
"I shall be fine," Angela answered, hoping she was speaking the truth. When she blinked her eyes, the pain began to diminish. Looking up at the man, she saw his smile return. "Why do you have that net with you?"
"Isn't it quite obvious, Miss Needham? We were hoping to catch something."
"What?" she asked, although she was being brazen.
"Butterflies?" In spite of her aching head, she laughed. He did not join her, and she halted, realizing that this was not a joke. Looking from the long-handled net to his intense gaze, she bit back her questions about what a grown man, who was dressed in high kick, was doing chasing butterflies across a field.
"Yes, Miss Needham," he replied, his voice as frigid as hers had been, while he set himself on his feet, "I was hoping to catch butterflies."
"Oh." Angela was unsure what else to say. Deciding the best thing would be to end this conversation, she stood and clasped her hands in front of her. She waited for the man to speak, but he said nothing as he retrieved his butterfly net. She thought he might walk away, but he faced her. The stern lines of his face seemed to belong to someone other than the man who had been laughing minutes ago.
He tipped his hat. "It seems that you are quite yourself again, Miss Needham. I trust you will accept my apology for any discomfort our outing might have caused you. Please take my advice and return to your coach."
"I was not planning on walking much farther."
"Miss Needham, I must insist you return to your coach."
She was now certain this man must be the most irritating she had ever met. Even her brother, when he behaved like a henpecked husband, was less vexing.
As she began walking back toward the carriage, he fell into step beside her. She was surprised anew when he said nothing. Before, he had been a prattle-box. What a peculiar man! When she stumbled, he put his hands out to steady her. She waved them aside. She could not lurch into Oslington Court for her first meeting with the duke, so she must get her feet firmly beneath her. If only this man and the want-witted lad had opened their eyes and seen her standing by the wall, this whole episode could have been avoided.
Relief raced through Angela when she saw the carriage was on all four wheels. Her delight was muted when her foot caught in a chuckhole, and the man took her arm. His boots awoke the dust on the road on every step, and it cleaved to the flounces on her skirt. The good impression she had hoped to make upon her arrival at Oslington Court was doomed by this man's misguided determination to see that she was safe.
From behind the carriage, the coachee popped out like a puppet pulled by its string. The thin man's clothes were covered with dirt. As he wiped his hand against his filthy cheek, his eyes widened. He tilted his cap and started to speak.
The man beside her cut him off by saying, "You have repaired the carriage, I trust. Miss Needham is anxious to be on her way." Not giving the coachman a chance to answer, he added, "I bid you a good afternoon, Miss Needham, and offer my hopes that the rest of your journey is uneventful."
When she said no more, he nodded politely and, setting the net's handle on his shoulder like a laborer carrying a scythe, walked in the same direction the carriage was headed.
A twinge of dismay cramped her center. Did this strange man live close to Oslington Court? Or worse, did he live within its walls? Mayhap he was a member of the duke's household. His voice suggested he was educated, so he might be an upper servant. Although she knew she was revealing a complete lack of manners to speak so of a stranger, she needed to know more about him before she made an utter cabbage-head of herself again.
"Who was that?" she asked, trying, without much success, to sound nonchalant.
The coachee took off his cap and slapped it against his dusty coat. "That be Lord Harrington, Miss Needham."
"Lord Harrington?" She clamped her lips closed when the coachman's grin became as wide as his eyes had been.
"A viscount, so I hear." Glancing at the repaired wheel, he gave it a tentative poke with his toe. "That's not all they say about him. I hear his lordship's got an odd kick in his gallop. Avoids London." He gave Angela a broken-toothed grin. "Guess he can't go 'bout chasing butterflies in Covent Garden now, can he? That's why he lives here in Harrington Grange."
"Is the carriage set to travel?" she asked. Her questions had been as ill-mannered, so the best thing to do would be to put an end to this.
But that man was Lord Harrington?
The coachman grumbled something, and Angela knew he had hoped to regale her with more stories about the eccentric lord. Although she wished to learn more, she must not listen to gossip. At least, she reminded herself, Lord Harrington did not live within walls of Oslington Court. What was Harrington Grange, and where was it? It could not be far, so she might encounter Lord Harrington again.
When Angela let the coachee hand her up into the carriage, she could not halt from glancing in the direction Lord Harrington had walked. This was not a good beginning. The viscount might be a welcome guest at the duke's home. But which Lord Harrington would call at Oslington Court? The jester? The fiery man who defended his young friend? The gentleman who had worried about her well-being?
Whichever one it might be, she must be ready to deal with him and his loose-screw ways. She wondered if she could be.CHAPTER 2
Angela stared at the grand house as the hired carriage came to a stop beneath a stone porte-cochere. Like an aging queen, Oslington Court sat amid her emerald gardens and waited to be admired. Age and salt from the not-distant sea had stained the brick walls, but the windows marching along its front elevation sparkled back the last rays of the day's sunshine.
No two windows were identical. Unlike the symmetrical façades on London squares, long expanses of glass were set side-by-side with small, stained-glass windows that looked as if they had been taken from a monastery. Flat glass and bay windows marked a tower rising next to the double doors.
Excerpted from A Guardian's Angel by Jo Ann Ferguson. Copyright © 2002 Jo Ann Ferguson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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