Dark Angel by TJ Bennett:
When young widow Catherine Briton is washed ashore, the sole survivor of a violent shipwreck, all she wants is to go home to London. But injured as she is, she can't escape when a shadowy stranger rescues her and takes her to his castle—where she's healed with suspicious, almost magical speed.
The more time Catherine spends in the castle, the more her curiosity rises where her fiercely handsome new "master," Gerard, is concerned. As she begins to investigate, though, her discoveries only bring more questions. It seems Gerard isn't the only one on the island keeping secrets…
The small town is full of strange mysteries and townspeople who know more than they should about her. And when a hulking beast that stalks the nearby hills and valleys catches up to her, Catherine must figure out what's going on before it's too late.
About the Author
RWA Golden Heart nominee TJ Bennett writes outside-the-box historical romance with richly detailed settings and unusual subjects. Her varied background includes extensive travel as a military dependent in Europe; owning a consulting business; teaching college-level English; and working as a civilian contract negotiator for the US Air Force. TJ knows about the black moments in life, too, and uses it to enhance her writing. She believes nothing is ever lost, and no painful experience is in vain.
Read an Excerpt
A Gothic Fairy Tale
By TJ Bennett, Liz Pelletier, Shannon Godwin
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 TJ Bennett
All rights reserved.
Somewhere on the Irish Sea
Death had courted me most of my life, but I was not prepared to make his formal acquaintance just yet. That is why, when I spied from the bow of my pitching lifeboat a tower silhouetted against the roiling storm clouds, I clutched at the image as though it were a talisman against my fate.
"Land ho!" The wind snatched my words away before any of the beleaguered passengers sharing my lifeboat could hear.
The curtain of fog shifted, revealing dark stones and a flickering light in the distance. Hope surged even as the raging gale tore my bonnet from my head, subjecting my coiled hair to the wind's violent lashing. I finished tying off a makeshift bandage around the lacerated scalp of an oarsman while I struggled to get a better view.
"Where, Mrs. Briton?"
"There! An island." I pointed again, even though I could no longer see it.
He narrowed his eyes, peering where I indicated. "Can't see anything. Not through this rain." He gave me a pitying glance. "Are you certain you saw something?"
"Yes —" I gasped as a wave smashed over the sides of the stalwart vessel, hitting me full in the face and leaving me drenched. The lifeboat listed to starboard like a drunken sailor, slamming me against the side before righting itself. My ribs ached from the impact. I swallowed seawater, my stomach threatening to rebel.
The oarsman reached out, steadying me. "Careful, ma'am. Wouldn't want ta lose you in this mess."
Holding my cloak an inch from my body while freezing water soaked it through, I lifted my chin. "It will take more than this bit of a rain shower to do me in," I assured him. I did not wish to worry him. He had been rowing against the storm for hours and he had enough to concern him. Exhaustion etched deep grooves into his otherwise youthful face.
With a nod, he went back to his rowing.
The gray mist obscured everything around us at its whim. Lightning streaked across the sky, and I caught a glimpse of a dark tower before the clouds curled in tendrils around the fleeting image, concealing it once more.
I threw a desperate glance at the captain, his white beribboned hat a landmark at the stern of the boat. Despite his mishandling of the Merry Widow, he remained our best hope for getting out of this storm alive. We had managed to survive. We would not die like the passengers of the other lifeboat.
We would not.
I had to tell him of the possibility of salvation, but there was no way he could hear me over the storm. With determination, I dragged myself against the roll and pitch of the boat past the remaining twelve passengers and crew to the captain's side.
"Captain, land ho! Off the starboard bow!" I had to shout to be heard. "I saw an island."
Gripping the tiller, the captain stared futilely at a compass whose needle rotated in gyrating circles inside its protective glass case. He cut me a glance, his face white with the effort of steering, and now with something else — fear. "You saw nothing, lass. There be no island there." He flicked a stark look over his shoulder in a hunted gesture. "Go back to your seat."
"I know what I saw." I pointed to where I had last sighted the tower. "Land. A tall tower and a light. We must make for it before this boat goes under."
He set his jaw. "I told you, there be no island. Get back to your seat, or I'll have you tied down for interfering with me duties."
I had no intention of returning to my seat. This man had no idea of my resolve, which would cut through his resistance like the two-edged sword that it was. The people on this boat needed shelter; several were injured. We must find refuge, and despite my upbringing as a proper English gentlewoman, I had learned the hard way that in order to defend the helpless and downtrodden, one must show more fortitude than those who placed obstacles in one's path. Right now, this man was an obstacle, and he would be overcome.
I drew myself up to my full five feet in height, throwing back my shoulders as I did when addressing the doctors I worked with who had little respect for the nurses who toiled beside them.
"See here, sir. You will find that I am not so easily dissuaded. If we survive this folly, you will also find I have friends who can pull your command out from under you." I finally had his attention, even if I was shamming. I had lost my highly placed friends years ago when I opted to serve our British soldiers in Turkey instead of choosing a life of privilege in London.
I moved closer in order to lower my voice. "If we stay out here, we will die. You know it."
He stared past me. "I'll not make landfall in these parts. Not for gold or glory. If it's death you fear, 'twill find you more surely back there than on this boat. I'll take my chances with the sea, thank you."
Another wave crashed over the side. I clutched his arm, my heart pounding. Soaked and sputtering, I glared at him. "Then you did see it."
"No." He stuck his face into mine. The terror in his narrowed gaze chilled me to the bone. "Only the dead or dying see that island. Only those who set sail and never return home see that island." His hand tightened on the tiller. "I — dinna — see it. Now go back to your seat!"
At that moment, someone screamed and the boat beneath my feet rose and rose — and pitched downward in a terrifying descent into Hell.
* * *
Sand. Wet and gritty beneath my cheek, between my fingers. My lungs seized.
I need air.
I sucked in a ragged breath, then coughed and choked as water arose from my belly and I became violently ill. The taste of salt and bile lingered on my tongue. A horrible, jagged pain lanced my side, and I gasped. Freezing surf rushed in, swirling around me, trying to drag me back into its depths.
I could not remain here, at the water's edge, where the sea had deposited me and now tried to suck me back into its yawning mouth. I made my limbs move despite the lethargy commanding me to lie down and die. The belled hoops of my sodden skirts fought my frantic attempts at freedom, and I dragged them sopping wet across the sand and seaweed.
I hurt. But I welcomed it because it meant I lived. Nothing else mattered.
I inched forward like a turtle toward higher ground, beating back the dark haze of oblivion so I might live a few minutes longer.
Finally, I could go no farther. If my life depended on it, and it very well might, I could not fight the feeling of a great weight pressing down upon me. I rolled over, staring at the storm clouds above. It must be nearing dusk, but the thunderheads blocked out the weak light of the setting sun, leaving day as dark as night. The rain had moved on, but the wind still wailed like a banshee.
The mist, cold and thick and wet, hung over the ocean and crept up onto the beach. Tendrils of it floated over me, caressing my hands, my legs, my face. Bitter cold touched my heart, and gray surrounded my vision. The pull of oblivion beckoned. My breath shuddered from my body, and slowly my heavy eyelids drifted shut in blissful surrender to Death.
Another wave crashed over me, causing me to sputter awake. The salt water stung my eyes. Twilight was bleeding into the darker black of night. Shouting in the distance made me turn my head. It pounded ruthlessly, bringing on an almost overwhelming nausea. Fighting it back, I blinked hard. A rush of wind rose above the sound of the waves and a shadow passed over me.
I tried to follow the shadow with my eyes. The mist parted, and for a moment, I saw something move along the edge of the shoreline: a sleek, powerful beast, its fur black as midnight, its pale gaze fixed on me, its enormous body swaying as it stalked closer.
Fear possessed me, made me dimwitted with terror. On the periphery of my vision, bobbing lights, far away shapes snaked down the beach toward me from the direction of the structure high on a hill — the one I had seen from the bow of the lifeboat before — before —
I stretched my hand toward the lights.
"Help," I cried weakly. "Help me, please! I am here ..."
My vision wavered again, and a dark form loomed over me. I tried to scream, certain the beast was about to lunge for me, but my lungs would not draw breath. I turned to face it, but the creature was gone. Instead, a man was there, reaching for me, his large hands clasping mine and pulling me just beyond the waterline and up onto the beach.
"I have you," he shouted.
Though the pain in my side stabbed at me, the waves no longer touched me, and the mist had disappeared. He hung over me, sheltering me from the biting wind. Intense eyes beneath a slash of dark brows stared down at me from a lean, striking face — a face hewn out of wilderness and shadows, more frightening than beautiful, and yet somehow both.
I closed my eyes.
It did not matter who he was. I was safe.
"How in bloody hell are you here?" The deep voice above me sounded utterly perplexed.
"How the devil did you accomplish it?"
I coughed out more water and said the only thing that came to mind. "Please do not — swear at me, sir." A spasm of pain seized me, and I flinched.
"Well," said the bemused voice. "You've spirit, at least. Good. You will need it."
My tenacious grip on consciousness loosened, and I fought to retain it. I looked up at him with a sense of urgency pushing me on. I had to warn him. "A wild animal ... I think — it might attack ... "
His unblinking gaze reminded me of the creature's fixed stare. "There was no animal when I arrived. You must have imagined it in your distress."
He leaned back on his heels and snapped out orders, giving sharp commands for my comfort to the others who had finally arrived. I squeezed my eyes shut as strong arms cradled me.
"I must move you," he said. "Be brave."
He lifted me and I cried out, my side screaming in agony.
He grunted. "Damned dress must have soaked up half the ocean. Why didn't you drown?"
A shiver tore through me, the cold wind biting into the wet layers of my clothing. "Would you have preferred it?" I asked, my teeth chattering.
That earned me a quiet laugh. He shifted me in his arms, tucking my head beneath his chin, warming me with his body heat.
The spicy scent of wood smoke and pine clung to him as if he spent most of his time out of doors. I turned my head, encountering warm skin beneath my cheek. He was not wearing a neck cloth. Instinctively, I pressed my face into the opening of his shirt, feeling comforted by the sturdy rhythm of the heartbeat beneath, by the scent of the underlying musk permeating his skin. It drew me, that scent, and I rubbed my nose against him in response. His arms tightened around me for a moment, a rampart against the storm.
I did not question my immodest action, did not feign a diffidence I could not feel. He represented warmth and protection, life and hope. I would cling to him like a barnacle to a hull if he would only make the terrible pain go away, banish the lingering horror of what I had endured beneath the water's depths as the sea had tried to murder me.
Memories assailed me of the captain's terrified face, of the futile push of oars against a raging sea, of bodies tumbling past mine in the water, of someone reaching out, capturing my hands, dragging me to the surface —
I struggled to lift my head and battle back the darkness long enough to ask him about my fellow passengers. My throat was raw with the seawater I had swallowed. I forced my head up. "Did you ... save the others?"
He paused in midstride, then resumed walking. I heard the great weariness in his voice when he spoke again.
"There are no others."
He gazed down at me, a dark angel pronouncing their fate. Shock flared through me, and despite the shimmering torchlight, I had only a hazy impression of the hard angles of his face, the exotic shape of his eyes, the blackness of his hair before the vision wavered and I plummeted into quiet, blessed oblivion.CHAPTER 2
Murmuring voices flowed toward me through the darkness, drifting like strands from a symphony heard through an open window. One of the voices belonged to my savior, of that I was certain, but the other was unknown to me.
I did not open my eyes, as the important task of bearing the pain that covered me like a mantle occupied the whole of my attention. I shoved at it with my mind, but it persisted; I may have moaned in response. Something cool pressed against my cheek, smoothed my forehead — it was a woman's touch. A cloth swept across my brow.
"Poor wee thing. It looks as though she was nigh unto being drowned," a female voice whispered.
A male voice rumbled in response.
I perceived that I lay indoors upon a hard, raised surface covered with soft blankets. The acrid smell of burning tallow hung in the air, and a soft light flickered beyond my eyelids. The mass of stiff material and steel hoops supporting my dress shifted and loosened. I cried out and arched my back as a blade of pain ripped through my side.
Were they trying to kill me? To finish what the storm had started?
"Take care," my savior's voice snapped.
"Master, we must get these wet things off her before she catches her death," the woman protested. Her voice sounded worn with age. "I'll need to clean the blood from her wounds." The woman's voice dropped into a conspiratorial whisper. "Then we will see what ye can do for her. Turn round and I'll prepare her for ye."
"She's practically half-dead. What bloody difference could my seeing make to her?"
There was a long pause. When he spoke again, his voice, to my distracted ears, sounded reluctant.
"Oh, very well," he grumbled.
From the sound of his footsteps, he moved away.
The woman shifted me and bright pain bloomed again, the blackness threatening to engulf me once more. I hovered on the edge of consciousness, praying for the void to come while my wounds were cleaned. The pain in my side made my breathing shallow, and I panted softly. Something warm and scratchy — another blanket — was draped over me.
"Master?" the woman called to him.
The footsteps returned.
"Feel there. Her ribs, perhaps?" she asked.
A large hand spread itself against my wounded side beneath the blanket.
"Yes," he said, his voice tight.
The warmth from his hand penetrated the fog of throbbing pain. I should have been shocked, or at the very least embarrassed by this stranger's touch on my bare skin. The pain eased. An odd coincidence, but my addled mind made the connection.
I opened my eyes barely a slit. He gazed down on me, his expression troubled, a deep frown of concentration furrowing his brow.
The gray mist of his gaze enveloped mine and blocked all else from the periphery of my vision. The untamed beauty of his face struck me even in my half-conscious state.
Another woman might have found his high cheekbones and exotic eyes excessively proud or the swarthy hue of his skin too foreign or the black slash of his eyebrows too authoritarian. Nevertheless, to me, he was beautiful like a wild thing was beautiful, some creature of the forest and the fields.
"Do not —" I barely croaked the words.
His frown deepened, and he leaned closer. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and his hand against my side seemed to grow hotter by several degrees.
"I won't hurt you," he vowed, the fierceness of his expression belying the comfort in his words.
I tried again. "Do not let go," I managed, and saw him blink in surprise.
His head moved in a slow nod of understanding.
"Sleep," he commanded, and I closed my eyes in obedience to his one-word decree.
* * *
Consciousness returned by slow degrees, revealing itself in streaks of flickering light behind my closed eyelids. There was a familiar sound: windows rattling as the driving rain pelted against them. And a less familiar sound beneath that — an almost indiscernible breathing — indicated I was not alone. A scent lingered in the air, of wood smoke and heather and pine.
Excerpted from Dark Angel by TJ Bennett, Liz Pelletier, Shannon Godwin. Copyright © 2013 TJ Bennett. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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