Country bred Lucy Craddock-Hayes is content with her quiet life. Until the day she trips over an unconscious man - a naked unconscious man - and loses her innocence forever.
HE CAN TAKE HER TO HEAVEN
Viscount Simon Iddesleigh was nearly beaten to death by his enemies. Now he's hell-bent on vengeance. But as Lucy nurses him back to health, her honesty startles his jaded sensibilities - even as it ignites a desire that threatens to consume them both.
OR TO HELL
Charmed by Simon's sly wit, urbane manners, and even his red-heeled shoes, Lucy falls hard and fast for him. Yet as his honor keeps him from ravishing her, his revenge sends his attackers to her door. As Simon wages war on his foes, Lucy wages her own war for his soul using the only weapon she has - her love.
About the Author
The winters in Minnesota have been known to be long and cold and Elizabeth is always thrilled to receive reader mail. You can write to her at PO Box 19495, Minneapolis, MN 55419 or email her at Elizabeth@ElizabethHoyt.com.
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The Serpent Prince
By Elizabeth Hoyt
ForeverCopyright © 2007 Elizabeth Hoyt
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMAIDEN HILL, ENGLAND
The dead man at Lucinda Craddock-Hayes's feet looked like a fallen god. Apollo, or more likely Mars, the bringer of war, having taken human form and struck down from the heavens to be found by a maiden on her way home. Except that gods rarely bled.
Or died, for that matter.
"Mr. Hedge," Lucy called over her shoulder.
She glanced around the lonely lane leading from the town of Maiden Hill to the Craddock-Hayes house. It appeared the same as it had been before she'd made her find: deserted, except for herself; her manservant, puffing a ways behind her; and the corpse lying in the ditch. The sky hung low and wintry gray. The light had already begun to leak away, though it was not yet five o'clock. Leafless trees lined the road, silent and chill.
Lucy shivered and drew her wrap more closely about her shoulders. The dead man sprawled, naked, battered, and facedown. The long lines of his back were marred by a mass of blood on his right shoulder. Below were lean hips; muscular, hairy legs; and curiously elegant, bony feet. She blinked and returned her gaze to his face. Even in death he was handsome. His head, turned to the side, revealed a patrician profile: long nose, high bony cheeks, and a wide mouth. Aneyebrow, winging over his closed eye, was bisected by a scar. Closely cropped pale hair grew flat to his skull, except where it was matted by blood. His left hand was flung above his head, and on the index finger was the impression where a ring should have been. His killers must've stolen it along with everything else. Around the body the mud was scuffed, the imprint of a boot heel stamped deep beside the dead man's hip. Other than that, there was no sign of whoever had dumped him here like so much offal.
Lucy felt silly tears prick at her eyes. Something about the way that he'd been left, naked and degraded by his murderers, seemed a terrible insult to the man. It was so unbearably sad. Ninny, she chided herself. She became conscious of a muttering, drawing steadily closer. Hastily, she swiped at the moisture on her cheeks.
"First she visits the Joneses and all the little Joneses, snotty-nosed buggers. Then we march up the hill to Old Woman Hardy-nasty biddy, don't know why she hasn't been put to bed with a shovel yet. And is that all? No, that's not all by half. Then, then she must needs call round the vicarage. And me carting great jars of jelly all the while."
Lucy suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. Hedge, her man, wore a greasy tricorne smashed down over a shock of gray hair. His dusty coat and waistcoat were equally disreputable, and he'd chosen to highlight his bowlegs with scarlet-clocked stockings, no doubt Papa's castoffs.
He halted beside her. "Oh, gah, not a deader!"
In his surprise, the little man had forgotten to stoop, but when she turned to him, his wiry body decayed before her eyes. His back curved, the shoulder bearing the awful weight of her now-empty basket fell, and his head hung to the side listlessly. As the pièce de résistance, Hedge took out a checkered cloth and laboriously wiped his forehead.
Lucy ignored all this. She'd seen the act hundreds, if not thousands, of times in her life. "I don't know that I would have described him as a deader, but he is indeed a corpse."
"Well, best not stand here gawping. Let the dead rest in peace, I always say." Hedge made to sidle past her.
She placed herself in his path. "We can't just leave him here."
"Why not? He was here before you trotted past. Wouldn't never have seen him, neither, if we'd've taken the shortcut through the common like I said."
"Nevertheless, we did find him. Can you help me carry him?"
Hedge staggered back in patent disbelief. "Carry him? A great big bloke like that? Not unless you want me crippled for sure. My back's bad as it is, has been for twenty years. I don't complain, but still."
"Very well," Lucy conceded. "We'll have to get a cart."
"Why don't we just leave him be?" the little man protested. "Someone'll find him in a bit."
"Mr. Hedge ..."
"He's stabbed through the shoulder and all over bloody. It's not nice, that." Hedge screwed up his face until it resembled a rotted pumpkin.
"I'm sure he didn't mean to be stabbed, through the shoulder or not, so I don't think we can hold that against him," Lucy chided.
"But he's begun to go off!" Hedge waved the handkerchief in front of his nose.
Lucy didn't mention that there hadn't been any smell until he'd arrived. "I'll wait while you go fetch Bob Smith and his cart."
The manservant's bushy gray eyebrows drew together in imminent opposition.
"Unless you would prefer to stay here with the body?"
Hedge's brow cleared. "No, mum. You knows best, I'm sure. I'll just trot on over to the smithy-"
The corpse groaned.
Lucy looked down in surprise.
Beside her, Hedge jumped back and stated the obvious for both of them. "Jaysus Almighty Christ! That man ain't dead!"
Dear Lord. And she'd been standing here all this while, bickering with Hedge. Lucy swept off her wrap and threw it across the man's back. "Hand me your coat."
"Now!" Lucy didn't bother giving Hedge a look. She rarely used a sharp tone of voice, making it all the more effective when she did employ it.
"Awww," the manservant moaned, but he tossed the coat to her.
"Go fetch Doctor Fremont. Tell him it's urgent, and he must come at once." Lucy gazed sternly into her manservant's beady eyes. "And, Mr. Hedge?"
Hedge dropped the basket and took off, moving surprisingly fast, his bad back forgotten.
Lucy bent and tucked Hedge's coat around the man's buttocks and legs. She held her hand under his nose and waited, barely breathing, until she felt the faint brush of air. He was indeed alive. She sat back on her heels and contemplated the situation. The man lay on the half-frozen mud and weeds of the ditch-both cold and hard. That couldn't be good for him, considering his wounds. But as Hedge had noted, he was a big man, and she wasn't sure she could move him by herself. She peeled back a corner of the wrap covering his back. The slit in his shoulder was crusted with dried gore, the bleeding already stopped to her admittedly inexperienced eyes. Bruises bloomed across his back and side. Lord only knew what the front of him looked like.
And then there was the head wound.
She shook her head. He lay so still and white. No wonder she'd mistaken him for dead. But all the same, Hedge could've already been on his way to Doctor Fremont in the time they'd taken to argue over the poor man.
Lucy checked again that he was breathing, her palm hovering above his lips. His breath was light but even. She smoothed the back of her hand over his cold cheek. Almost invisible stubble caught at her fingers. Who was he? Maiden Hill was not so big that a stranger could pass through it without notice. Yet she had heard no gossip about visitors on her rounds this afternoon. Somehow he'd appeared here in the lane without anyone noticing. Then, too, the man had been obviously beaten and robbed. Why? Was he merely a victim, or had he somehow brought this fate upon himself?
Lucy hugged herself on the last thought and prayed Hedge would hurry. The light was fading fast and with it what little warmth the day had held. A wounded man lying exposed to the elements for Lord knows how long ... She bit her lip.
If Hedge didn't return soon, there would be no need of a doctor.
The harsh words, spoken at Sir Rupert Fletcher's side, were much too loud in the crowded ballroom. He glanced around to see who stood near enough to overhear, then stepped closer to the speaker, Quincy James.
Sir Rupert gripped the ebony cane in his right hand, trying not to let his irritation show. Or his surprise. "What do you mean?"
"Just what I said." James smirked. "He's dead."
"You've killed him?"
"Not me. I sent my men to do it."
Sir Rupert frowned, trying to comprehend this information. James had settled on a course of action by himself, and it had succeeded? "How many?" he abruptly asked. "Your men."
The younger man shrugged. "Three. More than enough."
"Early this morning. I had a report just before I left." James flashed a cocky grin that gave him boyish dimples. Seeing his light blue eyes, regular English features, and athletic form, most would think him a pleasant, even attractive, young man.
Most would be wrong.
"I trust the matter cannot be traced back to you." Despite his efforts, an edge must've crept into Sir Rupert's voice.
James lost the smile. "Dead men can't tell tales."
"Humph." What an idiot. "Where did they do it?"
"Outside his town house."
Sir Rupert swore softly. To waylay a peer of the realm outside his own home in broad daylight was the work of a half-wit. His bad leg was giving him the very devil tonight and now this nonsense from James. He leaned more heavily on the ebony cane as he tried to think.
"Don't get worked up." James smiled nervously. "N-n-no one saw them."
The elder man arched an eyebrow. Lord save him from aristocrats who decided to think-let alone act-on their own. There'd been too many generations of leisure for the typical lordling to easily find his own prick to piss with, never mind something more complicated like planning an assassination.
James was blithely unaware of Sir Rupert's thoughts. "Besides, they stripped the body and dumped it half a day's ride outside London. Nobody'll know him there. By the time it's found, there won't be much to recognize, will there? P-p-perfectly safe." The younger man's hand crawled up to poke a finger into his golden-yellow hair. He wore it unpowdered, probably as a vanity.
Sir Rupert took a sip of Madeira as he contemplated this latest development. The ballroom was a stifling crush, redolent of burning wax, heavy perfume, and body odor. The French doors leading into the garden had been thrown open to let in the cool night air, but they had little effect on the room's heat. The punch had given out a half hour before, and there were several hours yet before the midnight buffet. Sir Rupert grimaced. He didn't hold out much hope for the refreshments. Lord Harrington, his host, was notoriously stingy, even when entertaining the cream of society-and a few upstarts such as Sir Rupert.
A narrow space had been cleared in the middle of the room for the dancers. They swirled in a rainbow of colors. Lasses in embroidered gowns and powdered hair. Gentlemen turned out in wigs and their uncomfortable best. He didn't envy the young people the pretty movements. They must be dripping sweat under their silks and lace. Lord Harrington would be gratified at the massive turnout so early in the season-or rather, Lady Harrington would. That lady had five unmarried daughters, and she marshaled her forces like an experienced campaigner readying for battle. Four of her daughters were on the floor, each on the arm of an eligible gentleman.
Not that he could stand in judgment with three daughters under the age of four and twenty himself. All of them out of the schoolroom, all of them in need of suitable husbands. In fact ... Matilda caught his eye from some twenty paces away where she stood with Sarah. She arched a brow and looked meaningfully at young Quincy James, who was still standing beside him.
Sir Rupert shook his head slightly-he'd rather let one of his daughters marry a rabid dog. Their communication was well developed after nearly three decades of marriage. His lady wife turned smoothly away to chat animatedly with another matron without ever revealing that she had exchanged information with her husband. Later tonight she might quiz him about James and ask why the young man wasn't up to snuff, but she wouldn't dream of badgering her husband right now.
If only his other partners were so circumspect.
"I don't know why you're worried." James apparently couldn't stand the silence anymore. "He never knew about you. Nobody knew about you."
"And I prefer to keep it that way," Sir Rupert said mildly. "For all of our sakes."
"I wager you would. You left m-m-me and Walker and the other two for him to hunt in your stead."
"He would've found you and the others in any case."
"There's s-s-some who would still like to know about you." James scratched at his scalp so violently he nearly dislodged his queue.
"But it would not be in your best interest to betray me," Sir Rupert said flatly. He bowed to a passing acquaintance.
"I'm not saying I would let it out."
"Good. You profited as much as I from the business."
"Then all's well that ends well."
"Easy for y-y-you to s-s-say." James's stutter was growing more frequent, a sign the man was agitated. "You didn't see Hartwell's body. He was skewered through the throat. Must've bled to death. His seconds said the duel lasted only two minutes-two minutes, mind you. A-a-awful."
"You're a better swordsman than Hartwell ever was," Sir Rupert said.
He smiled as his eldest, Julia, started a minuet. She was wearing a gown in a becoming shade of blue. Had he seen it before? He thought not. It must be new. Hopefully it hadn't beggared him. Her partner was an earl past his fortieth year. A mite old, but still, an earl ...
"P-p-peller was an excellent swordsman, too, and he was k-k-killed first." James's hysterical voice interrupted Sir Rupert's thoughts.
He was too loud. Sir Rupert tried to calm him. "James-"
"Challenged at night and d-d-dead before breakfast the next morn!"
"I don't think-"
"He lost three f-f-fingers trying to defend himself after the s-s-sword was wrenched from his hand. I had to search the g-g-grass for them afterward. G-g-god!"
Nearby heads swiveled their way. The younger man's tone was growing louder.
Time to part.
"It's over." Sir Rupert turned his head to meet James's gaze, holding and quelling him.
There was a tic under the other man's right eye. He inhaled to begin speaking.
Sir Rupert got there first, his voice mild. "He's dead. You've just told me."
"Therefore, we have nothing further to worry about." Sir Rupert bowed and limped away. He badly needed another glass of Madeira.
"I'LL NOT HAVE HIM IN MY HOUSE," Captain Craddock-Hayes pronounced, arms crossed over his barrel chest, feet braced as if on a rolling deck. His bewigged head was held high, sea-blue eyes pinned on a distant horizon.
He stood in the entrance hall to Craddock-Hayes house. Usually the hall was quite large enough for their needs. Right now, though, the hall seemed to have shrunk in proportion to the amount of people it held, Lucy thought ruefully, and the captain was right in the center of it.
"Yes, Papa." She dodged around him and waved the men carrying her stranger farther in. "Upstairs in my brother's bedroom, I think. Don't you agree, Mrs. Brodie?"
"Of course, miss." The Craddock-Hayes housekeeper nodded. The frill of her mobcap, framing red cheeks, bobbed in time with the movement. "The bed's already made, and I can have the fire started in a tick."
"Good." Lucy smiled in approval. "Thank you, Mrs. Brodie."
The housekeeper hurried up the stairs, her ample bottom swaying with each step.
"Don't even know who the blighter is," her father continued. "Might be some tramp or murderer. Hedge said he was stabbed in the back. I ask you, what sort of a chap gets himself stabbed? Eh? Eh?"
"I don't know, I'm sure," Lucy answered automatically. "Would you mind moving to the side so the men can carry him past?"
Papa shuffled obediently nearer the wall.
The laborers panted as they wrestled the wounded stranger inside. He lay so terribly still, his face pale as death. Lucy bit her lip and tried not to let her anxiety show. She didn't know him, didn't even know the color of his eyes; and yet it was vitally important that he live. He'd been placed on a door to make it easier to carry him, but it was obvious that his weight and height still made the maneuver difficult. One of the men swore.
"Won't have such language in my house." The captain glared at the offender.
The man flushed and mumbled an apology.
Papa nodded. "What kind of a father would I be if I allowed any sort of gypsy or layabout into my home? With an unmarried gel in residence? Eh? A damned rotten one, that's what."
"Yes, Papa." Lucy held her breath as the men negotiated the stairs.
Excerpted from The Serpent Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt Copyright © 2007 by Elizabeth Hoyt. Excerpted by permission.
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