WHAT USE ARE DRAWING-ROOM MANNERS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DESERT?
Falling unconscious in the Egyptian sand at Cleo Valsac's feet is not part of Lord Quintus Bredon Deverall's plan. He's supposed to be whisking this young widow away from her father's dusty camp and back to Englandto her aristocratic grandfather and a respectable husband.
Despite Cleo's strong-willed nature, she can't help but feel comforted by Quin's protective presence. But she has no idea of this wounded stranger's true identity or of the passion that will begin to burn between them under the heat of the desert sun!
"Allen reaches into readers' hearts." RT Book Reviews on Married to a Stranger
About the Author
Louise Allen has been immersing herself in history for as long as she can remember. She finds landscapes and places evoke powerful images of the past - Venice, Burgundy and the Greek islands are favourite destinations. Louise lives on the Norfolk coast. She spends her spare time gardening, researching family history or travelling in search of inspiration. Please visit Louise's website – www.louiseallenregency.co.uk, or find her on Twitter @LouiseRegency and on Facebook.
Read an Excerpt
Early April 1801Upper Egypt
There was shade down there and water jars sweating themselves cool and the start of the green growth that ran from the desert edge into the banks of the Nile. Too soon. Quin lay flat on the hot sand of the dune's crest and distracted himself from thirst, heat and the throbbing pain in his left arm by concentrating on the tent below.
Tent was perhaps too modest a word. It seemed to consist of several interior rooms surrounded by shaded areas formed by poles and flaps of fabric which, he supposed, would collapse to make outer walls at night.
It was an immaculately neat and wellorganised encampment, although there were no servants to be seen. To one side was an animal shelter with hitching rail and trough, on the other a reed roof covered a cooking area. A thin wisp of smoke rose from the banked fire, there was no donkey tied to the rail and the only occupant appeared to be the man in shirtsleeves who sat at a table in the deep shade of an awning, his pen moving steadily across the paper in front of him.
Quin narrowed his eyes against the dusty sunlight. Mid-fifties, burly, salt-and-pepper brown hair: that was certainly his quarry, or one of them at least. Sir Philip Woodward, baronet, antiquarian and scholar, neglectful husband, selfish widower and father and, very possibly, traitor.
A flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye betrayed robes caught in the light breeze. Someone was approaching. Quin shifted his gaze to where the monumental columns of the temple of Koum Ombo rose from the enshrouding sand, dwarfing the mud-walled huts of the little village of fishermen and farmers beyond it. The person leading a donkey must be familiar with the area, for they spared no glance for the great ruins as they passed them by. It was a woman, he saw as she came closer, clad in the enveloping folds of a dark blue tob sebleh, but like most of the country women of Upper Egypt, unveiled. A servantor the other person he had been sent to find?
Madame Valsac, widow of Capitaine Thierry Val-sac of Napoleon's Army of the East, daughter of Sir Philip Woodward and, maybe, another traitor. But unlike her father, whose safety was of little concern to the hard-faced men who had briefed Quin, Madame Valsac was to be extracted from Egypt and restored to the custody of her grandfather whether she liked it or not, and regardless of where her loyalties might lie.
That this might prove troublesome, hundreds of miles from the coast and the invading British army, in the path of France's fearsome Mameluke allies who were believed to be heading north at that moment, and in the midst of one of Egypt's periodic outbreaks of plague, had not concerned the gentlemen in Gibraltar. Quin was a diplomat who spoke French and Arabic and knew enough of antiquities to pass as one of the French savants, the scholars left by Napoleon to explore Egypt under the protection of his underpaid, diseased, poorly resourced army. That, so far as they were concerned, was sufficient qualification.
''Classical antiquities, my lord,' Quin had pointed out. 'My knowledge of Egypt is virtually non-existent.' Nor am I qualified in kidnapping females, he might have added, but did not.
'Plenty of time to read it up on board ship between here and Alexandria,' his unsympathetic superior had retorted. 'Just remember, the Duke of St Osyth wants his granddaughter back, never mind if she's taken an entire French regiment to her bed. Her father no one wants, but if he's a traitor, then we need to know the ins and outs of it. Then you can dispose of him.'
'I am not an assassin, my lord.' Quin had said it with an edge missing from the protest about his lack of knowledge of Egypt. He might be ambitious, but he drew the line at murder.
'Then introduce him to a hungry crocodile or lose him in the desert.'
Quin blinked to clear his vision and realised that the black dots swimming before his eyes were not flies.
The woman and the donkey were close now. She spoke as she passed the man sitting under the awning, but he made no reply. A servant, then.
She halted the donkey and began to heave the water jars from its back with the economical strength of someone accustomed to manual labour. She filled the donkey's bucket, poured more water into the large storage jars and finally carried a pitcher to one of the open-sided shaded spaces facing the dune where Quin lay.
Through the insistent throbbing in his head it took him a minute to realise what she was about. The woman pulled the cotton folds of the tob sebleh over her head, removed the twisted cloth that tied up her hair and was unfastening the sash around her waist before he assimilated not only the colour of her hairhoney-brown, waving and most decidedly not Egyptianbut the fact that she was about to strip off her under-tunic and bathe.
He did not ogle women in their bath like some Peeping Tom, any more than he fed inconvenient baronets to the crocodiles. Quin rose to his feet, surprised at how unstable the shifting sands were. Now was the time to put his plan, such as it was, into effect.
One step down the slope and he knew it was not the surface that was making him so unsteady. Hell, I'm sick, he thought, getting his legs under precarious control as he half-slid, half-ran. He hit the flat ground at the foot with a force that jarred his spine and took six weaving steps towards the woman. She made no move and no sound, simply stood there, her hands arrested on the knot of her sash, staring at him.
Quin halted a yard from her. 'Bonjour,' he managed before his knees gave out and the ground came up to meet him. 'Mada'
Cleo regarded the sprawled, bareheaded figure clad in a dusty galabeeyah for a long moment, sighed, then raised her voice. 'Father!'
'I am working. Is it time to eat?'
'No. There is a man here, unconscious.'
'Leave him.' Her father sounded irritated at the interruption and not in the slightest bit curious. But then this slumped heap of humanity was a person, not a ruined temple, or an inscription, let alone a fresco, so his lack of interest was only to be expected.
'He will die and then he will stink,' Cleo retorted. Only a direct threat to her parent's comfort and convenience would shift him, she knew that very well.
There was a muttered curse, then her father appeared. He poked the recumbent figure with the toe of his boot. It shifted slightly. 'Not dead. And not Egyptian. Frenchman, no doubt. Where do you want him?'
'I do not want him at all, but on the other bed frame in my room, I suppose.' Cleo pushed aside the hangings and stripped the spare sheets and her few clothes from the bed, leaving only the thin cotton padding over the crossed ropes. By the time she got back her father had the man under the armpits and was dragging him in, still face-down.
An unpleasant possibility struck her. 'Are there swellings?'
'What?' Her father let the limp figure fall back with a thud.
Cleo winced. Now she'd have a bleeding, broken nose to deal with. 'In his armpits. If he has the plague, there will be swellings.'
'No. No fever either, he's as dry as a bone.' He went back to dragging the man inside. Cleo lifted the long legs when he reached the bed and they hefted the stranger up and on to his back. By some miracle the assertive nose was unbent.
'Heatstroke, then,' Cleo diagnosed. There was a dark dried mess on his left sleeve. 'And a wound.' Her father was already turning away. 'I need to get these clothes off him.'
'You were a married woman, you can manage.' His voice floated back from behind the hangings. He would be lost in his correspondence again until she pushed food under his nose.
'I might have been married,' Cleo muttered, laying the back of her hand on the wide, hot forehead, 'but I was not married to this one.' She took off the man's sandals, the easy part, then rolled and pushed the limp, heavy body and dragged at the cotton robe until it was over his head. The cord keeping up the thin cotton drawers snapped in the process, so she pulled those off too. There was a belt around his waist with a leather bag, heavy with coin. She set it aside, then stood back to survey the extent of the problem.
And it was extensive. Six foot, broad-shouldered, blond and lean with the look of a man who had recently lost whatever slight reserves of fat he might have had, leaving the muscles across his abdomen sculpted as though by the hands of a master carver. And he was very definitely male. The carver might have had the decency to provide a large fig leaf while he was at it
Widow she might be, but she was certainly not sophisticated enough to gaze unmoved on a naked stranger. Not one who looked like this. Cleo fixed her gaze on his arm where a ragged wound was cut like a groove from shoulder to elbow, gave herself a little shake and concentrated on priorities.
Gunshot, not a blade, she concluded, eyeing the inflamed edges of the red, weeping mess. Removing the outer robe had torn it open, although it had obviously not been healing healthily. The first thing was to get some water into him, then reduce his temperature and then she would see what she could do with his arm. There was no doctor or surgeon with the small detachment of French troops camped on the far side of the next village, so she could expect no help there.
The man sucked greedily at the cup when she lifted his head to drink. The smell of water seemed to revive him a little.
'Slowly, you cannot have too much at once,' she began, then recalled that he had spoken in French before he collapsed. 'Lentement.'
He moved his head restlessly when she took the water away, but he did not open his eyes. Now to get him cooler and covered up. She could start work on his arm once she had put some food under Father's nose.
'You, monsieur,' Cleo said in French as she shook out a sheet and dropped it into a bucket of water, 'are a thorough nuisance. Believe me, if my fairy godmother flew down and offered me whatever I wanted, another man to look after would be the lowest on my list of desirable objects.' She pulled the linen out and draped it dripping over the distractingly naked body. 'There. That's better.' For me, at least.
It was his favourite fantasy, the one that came when he was half-asleep, the comfortable, yet arousing, one about being married to his perfect woman. There was the rustle of skirts, the soft pad of feet, the occasional faint waft of some feminine perfume as she moved about the room close by. Soon he would wake up and she would come to his bed and smile at him, her blue eyes warm and loving, her facehe could picture it very clearlysweet, with neat little features and a soft, pink mouth.
'Caroline.' He would hold out his arms and she would unpin her long blonde curls and begin to undress with an innocent coquettishness that made him hard and aching before they even touched.
When she came to him, her curvaceous body would fit against his big frame as though she had been made for him. 'Oh, Quin,' she would murmur and run her hands over his chest, lower, lower
The smell of roasting meat distracted him. What were the staff doing to allow kitchen odours to penetrate to his bedchamber? He was the ambassador, damn it. His dream wife's fingers stroked down, exploring. Her blonde ringlets, unaccountably wet, fell on to his chest as she pulled him back from that distraction with impetuous little kisses that dotted his face. His body reacted predictably, hardening, his balls tightened, lifted. Soon he would enter her, love her, caress her into ecstasy. And afterwards they would talk, rationally and intelligently. They would be interested in each other's thoughts, respectful of the other's opinions. It would be peaceful, harmonious.
'Hell and damnation!' It was a woman all right, but that was all that meshed with his dream. A string of idiomatic expressions in Arabic confirmed that the speaker was no lady.
Quin realised he was conscious, in pain, devilishly thirsty and decidedly confused. 'Wha ?' he croaked. His blasted eyes would hardly open but, mercifully, a cup was pressed to his lips.
'Slowly,' a voice chided in French. The same woman's voice, clear, crisp, definitely unseductive. Definitely unsympathetic. The water was removed.
'Merci,' Quin managed to say and squinted up through sore lids. And definitely not my fantasy woman, he thought, some shred of humour emerging amidst the general misery. Tall, slender, brown haired, she regarded him down a long, straight, imperious nose with an air of tightly controlled impatience. Intelligent, certainly. Cuddly, sweet and pliant no. 'More?' he added, hopefully. 'Er encore?' He needed to keep his mouth shut except for drinking until his brain stopped boiling.
'No more water for a few minutes. It is dangerous when you have become so thirsty. You are not French.'
So, he must start thinking after all. 'Would you believe, American?' he offered.
'Really?' It seemed she would. Her brows lifted in surprise, but she did not reject the idea. The Americans were allies of France, of course.
'It is a long time since I saw Boston,' Quin conceded. A long time since he had visited his cousins in the Lincolnshire port of that name, that was. He was sent forth to die for his country from time to time, that went with the territory, but he preferred not to lie for it, if he could help it. Usually a little misdirection was sufficient. His lids drooped closed, then cracked open again as he became aware of his body as more than something painful and hot.
'Who took my clothes off?' He was naked under wet cloth that ran from collarbone to toes.
'I did,' his reluctant nurse stated crisply. 'Oh, really,' she added as his fingers tightened reflexively over the upper edge of the sheet. 'There is no need to blush, I am a widow. I can assure you that one man is much as another to me.'
Quin unclenched his teeth. Damn it, he was not blushing. 'But I can assure you, madam, that one woman is not much as another to me.'
'You would prefer that I left you to die? I was not making comparisons, so you need not be alarmed.' Now she was amused, although she did not smile. There was something about the way her eyes crinkled at the corner, the ghost of a dimple in her cheek. Then it was gone as her gaze swept over his shrouded form. He was going to blush in a moment. 'That sheet is drying out. I had best replace it before I deal with your arm.'
There was the sound of cloth being agitated in water, the swish of her skirts as she moved. Quin clung to the edge of his sheet with a prudery that astonished him. With a wet flap that showered his face with droplets the weight of another sodden sheet landed on top of him. 'Grip the edge of the top one,' she ordered and yanked the lower sheet away from the foot of the bed with a snap that left him covered even as it administered a sharp slap of wet linen to his wedding tackle in passing.
Quin suppressed the word that leapt to his lips and released his death grip on the sheet. As he squinted down the length of his body he reflected ruefully that with the way it moulded itself to his form he might as well simply be wearing a layer of white paint. And goodness knew what was the matter with him. His experience with women was not such as to leave him blushing like a virgin curate when one ran her eyes over his body.