Book I – The Royal Entourage series: Six Regency heroes — One royal hangover!
The morning after the most scandalous bachelor party of the century, the dukes of the royal entourage must face all of London’s fury . . . when not one of them can remember a thing.
Roxanne Vanderhaven always believed herself the perfect wife. But when her husband, the Earl of Paxton, leaves her clinging to the edge of a cliff, she’s forced to face the truth: she married a murderous blackguard. Her eventual rescuer, Alexander Barclay, Duke of Kress, is one of England’s most disreputable peers—a member of the notorious royal entourage, no less–and certainly the last man she can count on. Indeed, the Prince Regent himself exiled Barclay to Cornwall, and now, by decree, the dashing duke must seek a royal bride to regain favor and help quell the public’s fury against the excesses of the crown.
Roxanne desperately wants a new life—after she’s uncovered the cause of her husband’s despicable actions—and she finds herself drawn, most surprisingly, to her unlikely champion. The Duke of Kress may not be quite the scoundrel he appears…but if she gives him her heart, will Roxanne be making the same mistake twice?
From Chapter One
The Duke of Kress halted at the end of the sandy path and dismounted his favorite new possession, Bacchus, a fine prize of a beast. He had purchased the striking black stallion because the steed gave the appearance of a brave warhorse suitable for a duke on his way up in the world.
But in the eight day ride down from London, Alex had determined three things. First, he should have brought the carriage and matched pair instead. Second, the stallion might be a looker, but he had the most bone-jarring gaits of any creature foolish enough to carry man on his back. And thirdly—and perhaps worst of all—the animal was an out and out ninny-hammered, vain coward.
The horse refused to allow his hooves to be dirtied by a single drop of water—not even the smallest puddle would he cross. The animal did not like to travel long distances and complained long and loud if the bedding and feed were not excellent. Bacchus shied from anything and everything that moved in the countryside—birds, leaves, other horses, even—it appeared—small, harmless dogs. His horse, in short, reminded him of . . . him, Alex thought with a half smile.
He liked him very much.
The mongrel, dashing in circles around them, produced the most godforsaken howling noises in between those high pitched yips and yowls. Bacchus’ ears lay flat, and his raised hind leg promised swift corporal punishment.
The dog stopped to dance a jig in front of him, as if he were bred for herding. The mongrel was truly the ugliest canine in creation. Wiry white hair covered the short legged creature, save for one large patch of black encircling his eye—his only eye. Lopsided ears framed his uncomely head—one stood up at attention, the other drooped in retreat.
“Away with you,” Alex demanded half-heartedly. “Go on, then.”
The dog sat down and cocked his head.
Alex removed his hat and raked back his hair. Damn, but it was hot. And now he was lost yet again. It had been madness to embark on this trip without a forward rider at the very least.
It had been absurd. He refused to examine the reason why he had done it. Regret was a cold comfort, indeed. He would just have a look at the coast for any possible recognizable landmark—not that he knew a bloody thing about the area—and then he would return the way he had come until he found a sign post or a person to guide him.
He made a motion to remount, and the dog immediately lunged and closed his ineffective jaws around Alex’s boot clad ankle. The cur made an awful whimpering sound, and dug in his paws in an effort to drag him away from Bacchus.
While he could not feel the dog’s teeth, this made for a perfect end to another wretched day on a journey that would not end. “Let go, damn you,” he said with a half-hearted laugh.
The dog obeyed at once and emitted a long whine that ended on a yawn as he sat back on his haunches.
“Stay,” he ordered the animal and then sighed when the animal whined again. Alex turned and strode along the path parallel to the cliff, searching for a better vantage point. Strangely, the dog did not move. Oh, but the howling. The hound sounded like a dying cat.
The trail curved outward to the sea, toward a lower promontory point, and he followed it. After many minutes, he stepped onto a secure rocky ridge and scanned the vast wild beauty of the coastal landscape and crimson rays of the setting sun. Not twenty miles away to the southwest, he could see his future—St. Michael’s Mount. The magnificent castle was perched on an outcropping of granite, rising from Mount’s Bay. All was swathed in an eerie, golden mist.
A long dormant emotion pushed past the hard edges of Alex’s heart and a sudden sense of déjà vu filled him.
Throwing out his arms, he embraced the strong wind that had traveled all the way across the Bay of Biscay and now whistled past him. What in hell was wrong with him? He was not normally given to such theatrics. He abruptly dropped his arms. Lord, he hoped this was not one of the effects of becoming a duke. He would have to guard against it in future.
His eyes suddenly caught on the bobbing white form of the dog higher up on the cliff to his left. A blue and gray length of material fluttered near the edge. His gaze moved lower.
Christ . . .
He started running before his mind could form words. A female was clinging to the cliff face, her skirts billowing. “I see you,” he shouted, as he ran, yanking off his gloves and coat. “Damn it, don’t let go—don’t bloody move.”
Alex stripped Bacchus of every last bit of tack and quickly cobbled together the oddest length of salvation. A pair of reins buckled end to end and attached to the saddle’s cinching, followed by a lead shank. The dog danced and yipped, urging his efforts. He added the durable portion of the bridle and breast strap for good measure.
Crawling like one of Wellington’s finest toward the edge where the dog had raced ahead, he hoped for the kind of luck that usually eluded him. “Hey ho . . . Can you hear me?”
“Here,” a hoarse voice called out. “I’m here. Oh, please hurry I’m . . .” The rest of her wispy voice was carried away by the wind buffeting the coast.
“Lowering a line,” he barked, putting his words into motion. “Shout when you see it.”
He continued to let out length after length of buckled leather and cinching.
“A little to the right and . . .”
And what? He hoped it was to her right. He adjusted the angle and stopped.
“I’ve . . . ”
He lowered a few inches more of the breast strap. His muscles tensed.
“ . . . got it.”
He let out his breath. “Wrap the end around you and secure it.” He gave her as much of the rest of the makeshift rope as he dared. “I’m going to pull at your signal. Whatever happens, don’t let go. Shout if you need me to stop.”
The dog was in a frenzy, running to and fro, but thankfully silent. Alex moved as far away as the end of the line would allow and dug his heels into the moist, grassy earth.
“Ready.” The word floated on the same updraft a gray and gold falcon used to rise and troll the cliffs.
Lord, he hoped she wasn’t stouter than the line could bear. It was going to be hellish as it was. He wrapped the end around his arms and wrist to anchor it and then slowly he backed away from the precipice.
He erred on the side of speed over care. He just didn’t trust the makeshift roping or her ability to secure the line about her well. He had been wrong in the end. Not about the method, but about her ability.
At the sight of her hands at the ledge, he slowed so she could angle onto the edge.
She was breathing hard and coughing, but God bless her, she had pluck.
He dragged her a few feet forward and then rushed to pull her completely to safety. He had to peel her hands from the reins.
The damned dog was delirious. Alex pushed him away and leaned her against his saddle bags.
She looked like a reclining statue come to life—all covered in gray clay and dust. Her hair was especially, ahem, exotic. He wasn’t sure if she was eighteen or eighty.
He left her but for a moment to retrieve his flask. He was at least grateful that Bacchus, amid the chaos, had not reverted to his usual skittish nature. The stallion eyed him with disdain and continued to munch on a thicket of delectable grass.
Alex removed the top of the flask and brought it to her lips. She swallowed a mouthful only to sputter. “Wha-what is this?”
“Sorry. Brandy’s all gone. This is all they had at that unfortunate inn in the last village.”
“No water?” Her voice was all dust and gravel churned together.
“Water? Why ever would I want that? Dangerous stuff, don’t you know? Tea, coffee, wine, spirits are the only . . .” He stopped. “Care to tell me what happened?”
She paused. “I fell.”
“Off the cliff.”
“Yes, I figured out that part,” he said dryly. “All by myself.” Perhaps she had hit her head during the fall.
She took another sip and managed not to cough.
“If you give me directions to your home, I shall go fetch someone to carry you.” He feared there was not a chance of making Penzance by nightfall now.
“No,” she answered too quickly.
“‘No,’ you cannot remember the directions to your house, ‘no’ there is no one there, or ‘no,’ you have no residence?” Please Lord, say it was not the latter. He might have saved her today, but he didn’t want to be responsible for her tomorrow.
“Of course, I have a home,” she murmured. “A quite lovely, large one.”
“Yes, really.” She bit her lip, and then spit out the dust quite inelegantly. “It’s just . . .”
“I don’t want to go there.” She picked at her dirty gown. “At present.”
“But someone must be worried about you. Must be waiting for your return.”
She refused to comment.
“I’m sorry. I haven’t even asked if you’re all right.”
“Oh, I’m perfect.”
Her voice had that high keening to it, which made men long to go in the opposite direction.
Uh oh. These words were the inevitable prelude to every feminine lecture he had heard over the years.
“Yes. How could I not be? I thought my dog dead. I searched the cliff only to have it give way. I then had the joy of contemplating the merits of my demise by drowning versus splattering onto jagged rocks. And . . .”
“Go on. Best get it all out now.”
“And . . . and I am married to someone who is in all likelihood sitting comfortably in his library drinking wine I purchased, in boots I polished since he likes the way I do it, and reading his racing journals, which I took care to lay out for him this morning.”
“That was very nice of you.”
“I’m a very nice person,” she insisted.
“Of course you are.”
“Stop”—her gray eyes darkened—“agreeing with me.”
Yes, this was the way all his conversations went with females. In the past, however, he’d had the pleasure of knowing them at least a fortnight before the ranting began. Well, at least her anger was directed toward another man. Perhaps. It was a bit hard to tell.
“You must think me mad,” she said, dejected.
“No, not at all.”
“Yes, I can tell you do.”
“You just told me to stop agreeing with you.”
“Yes, but in this case you should deny it.”
“Is that what you want me to do?”
She looked toward the place from which she had fallen. “He saw me fall and he left me to die.
He slowly stood up.
“Where are you going?
He repositioned himself behind her and grasped her shoulders to ease the stiffness. “Can you feel your arms? How long were you waiting for him?”
“I don’t know. I think it all happened about half past four.”
God, she’d been there for nearly three hours.
“How far away is . . .”
“A half hour by carriage. And no, allow me to assure you there is no possible reason for his delay.” Her voice rose. “You see, I’ve had a quiet afternoon to reflect on every possible impediment. And there is only one reason you are here instead of Lawrence.”
“My husband. The Earl of Paxton.”
“You’re a countess?” The moment he said it, he regretted it. Oh, not the words, the tone. He braced for the worst.
She said not a word. Instead she bowed her head.
No. Oh, not tears. Anything but tears. Well, the day was all shot to hell as it was. He plucked a handkerchief from his discarded coat nearby and came around to face her, on his haunches.
She dabbed at the caked gray clay on her face. “I am not crying.”
“Of course not. There’s a bit of, um, chalk in your hair.”
She shook her head and a spray of dust flew all about.
He bit back a smile. It was unkind to find humor in any part of this unfortunate lady’s circumstances. “All right. Here is what I propose,” he continued. “Let us get you to the magistrate of the parish. He will sort this out and mete out the justice your delightful husband deserves. No one is above the laws of the land, no matter what his station.”
“He is the magistrate.”
“Then I shall take you to the neighboring parish. Surely—”
“Stop, I beg you,” she interrupted dryly. “Lawrence has ties to every man of importance in all of Cornwall. They foxhunt together, play cards together, drink to excess together . .
“But—” He should know better than to press the point. “All right. What do you suggest?”
“You’d be willing to help me?”
“Why, you cut me to the quick, madam. Have I not proven myself as a prince among men?”
“Um, well. . . yes. And no.”
“Explain, if you please.”
“You did come through in the heat of the moment. But . . . if you’ll pardon me, you have a look about you that speaks the opposite of everything you say. And . . .”
“Well, I don’t trust handsome gentlemen any longer.”
“Flattery will get you everywhere, Lady Paxton.”
She hesitated. “So, you’ll help me, then? Really?”
“Alexandre Barclay—your servant.” That ringing in his head, which always preceded regret, sounded in his ears. “So . . . what precisely did you have in mind?”
“Do you have a pistol?” She studied him with her big, round honey-colored eyes and a smile that made him nervous. “Or, perhaps, a lovely little dagger?”