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Authors: Shannon Donnelly

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BOOK: Lady Scandal
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Diana started to call the girl's name again,
but she heard hurrying footsteps and the flap of skirts.
The moon
slipped out from the clouds again and Diana glimpsed the maid, the
hood of her cloak pulled up and her skirts fluttering as she strode
towards the coach.

The maid struggled for a moment with her
skirts and the step, but she flung herself inside the coach and
huddled into a dark corner.
Hurrying, the footman put up the steps
and shut the door.
The driver cracked his whip and the carriage
lurched forward, the team having to drag the wheels loose from the
mud.

"What took you so long?" Diana asked.

Marie-Jeanne gave no answer, but only
pressed herself further into the corner of the coach.

Suddenly uneasy, Diana stared at the
maid.

Her aunt's voice, calm as ever, drew Diana's
attention from the maid.
"I pray that is as close a call as we have
for the rest of this trip.
But since you mentioned Calais, I think
we will do better now to make for Boulogne—just in case that
captain changes his mind about us.
The trick now will be to find a
change of horses."

Between the mud and the tired horses, it
took them two hours to cover the next ten miles.
They found an inn
willing to open and offer them food and a fresh team for hire.
The
candles in the lanterns set either side of the carriage doors had
burnt out, and Alexandria decided not to replace them.
Somehow it
seemed better to draw the least notice possible.

Diana tried to coax
Marie-Jeanne from the coach to eat with them, but the maid only
shook her head and shrank back into the inky corner.
Poor girl—she must still be fretting over the
soldiers
, Alexandria decided, and let her
be.

Twenty minutes later they stepped back into
the coach, having eaten quickly and with fresh horses in harness.
Marie-Jeanne seemed to be asleep, but Diana leaned forward,
offering a slice of lamb on bread.
"Marie-Jeanne, I brought you
something to eat."

The maid said nothing.

"Leave her to sleep," Alexandria urged.

"Oh, but she must be hungry." Leaning
forward, Diana took hold of the maid's leg to wake her.
She pulled
back at once, dropping the lamb.
"You're not Marie-Jeanne!"

A low purr of a masculine voice answered in
flawless English, "No, I am not.
But I do have a gun pointed at
you, so I advise you not to do anything foolish."

 

CHAPTER FOUR

Alexandria stared at the shadowy figure
across from her, shock cold on her skin.
Fatigue blunted her
thoughts and her feelings, but not so much that she could not
recognize that voice.
Her pulse quickened and her throat dried.
Impossible that it should be him, appearing as if summoned by her
earlier thoughts.

And yet...excitement shimmered.
Could it be?
Oh, to see him again, after so long.

She straightened and scolded herself for her
heart leaping ahead of her.

Still, she narrowed her eyes, trying to make
out his features, trying to be certain, willing herself to be
mistaken, and her hands quivering that she might be.
She wished she
did not feel young and eager again.
Age ought to bring more than
wrinkles.
Yet, she knew the truth.
Knew it in ways that had nothing
to do with the rational mind.

Her skin vibrated with the awareness of him.
His voice had always done that to her—that languid, velvet voice
still brushed across her like thick silk.
It was him.
The years
could not change her knowledge of him.

Oh, she ought to hate him for doing this to
her, she decided.
She had once spent hours picturing their meeting
again—at some social function, in a park perhaps—but in all her
fantasies she had been self-possessed, a woman of the world and no
longer such a raw girl who stumbled over her words and choked on
her emotions.
And he had been—well, he had not been this dark,
disturbing figure.

Since she had no real idea what to do, she
did what she had learned to do over the long years to mask her
inadequacies; she resorted to sarcasm.
"Paxten Marsett—how very
like you to appear where you are least wanted and of no use
whatsoever."

For a moment, he did not reply, and then a
low, warm laugh filled the coach.
"And how very like you to cross
my path when you are in deeper waters than you can navigate, my
Lady Scandal."

Her hands clenched on the muslin of her
dress.
"Do not call me that!"

"What, did I say
scandal
instead of
Sandal?
Old habit, I fear.
But the name fits you so much
better."

A light voice interrupted.
"And just why do
you think my aunt scandalous when you are the one threatening
us?"

Diana's words startled Alexandria.
She had
focused her attention so totally on Paxten that she had forgotten
everything else.
As she almost had once before.
She glanced at her
niece and turned back to blister Paxten with a reproof for the use
of that sobriquet he had once given her, and which he had lured her
into earning.

However, he got his words out before she
could utter hers, that charm of his now turned on Diana.
"Aunt is
it?
How do you do?
Since your aunt has already given you my name
that must do for an introduction.
And you are...?"

Voice prim, Diana answered without
hesitation, "I doubt I should give you my name—it does not sound as
if Aunt Alexandria cares overmuch for you."

Proud of the girl, Alexandria smiled.
She
wished she had had one tenth of Diana's pert arrogance ten years
ago.
As the carriage rocked, she glanced back toward Paxten.

His voice so soft it almost did not carry
over the muffled sounds of the horse's steady trot, he said, "Oh,
she once cared for me—or so I thought."

Throat tight, Alexandria stared at
him.
Was he mocking her?
Making light of what she had indeed once
felt for him?
Her anger flared and she lashed out.
"Really, Paxten,
I thought you at least beyond hiding behind a woman's skirts.
What
did you do with poor Marie-Jeanne?"

"Your little maid?
Well, she is a touch less
poor—she had the last of my coins for her cloak and skirt."

"And, of course, she gave her garments to
you quite willingly?" Alexandria said, hoping the doubt in her tone
scalded him.

"Oh, my touch has much improved for getting
a woman out of her clothes."

Alexandria's hands clenched again.
"So has
your knack for leaving a lady in distress, it seems.
Just where did
you leave her?" She sat straighter.
"You did not harm her, did
you?"

Irritation hardened his tone.
"What do you
take me for?"

"I take you for a rogue who would carry off
a girl's clothes!"

"Well, I am that—but it was her clothes or
my life, and I'm rather more attached to the latter than she was to
the former."

As if unable to hold back the question,
Diana asked, "Your life?
Are you the wounded man those solders are
hunting?"

Alexandria sat up, tension now coiled in
her.
"Wounded?
And you have the effrontery to accuse me of being in
deeper waters than I can navigate.
Where are you injured?"

That languid tone of his took on a clipped
sharpness.
"Have a mind to your own cares, my lady.
I overheard
those soldiers.
France is not a happy place for any Englishwoman
just now, and here you two are parading about as if it were five
o'clock in Hyde Park!
It may actually be good fortune that has
brought us together."

"I doubt that!
And our parading has so far
managed to keep us safe, which is more than you have managed."

"It's only a scrap."

"In that case, you will not mind walking to
the next village.
Diana, lower the window and tell the—"

A rapid flow of harsh French cut
off Alexandria's words.
"Tiens!
C'est
toujours la même rengaine!"

Not understanding, she scowled at
him in the gloom, and Diana asked, "What does he mean it is always
the same story?"

Shifting in his seat to ease the
ache in his side, Paxten allowed the question to hang a moment.
So
the little one knew more of the language than did her aunt.
Well,
it still seemed unlikely to get these two as far as they needed to
go.
Nor as far as he needed.

"The story of your aunt and I," he
told her.
He glanced at the woman he had once known so well, seeing
no more than a pale face, indistinct in the moonlight.
It seemed
that their story had not ended.
He smiled.
"Relax, my Lady Scandal.
If I'd known this was your coach I would not have invited myself
along, but since I am here, we may as well make use of each
other."

Her answer came at once, as cool as
only an English voice could be.
"I have no use for you, Mr.
Marsett."

He smiled.
He could imagine her
expression—elegant eyebrows arched, gray eyes chill as a morning
mist, that lovely mouth of hers prim.
He always wanted to kiss her
when she took on that look—to ruffle her into losing those airs of
hers.
She still stirred that inclination, but he had not the energy
to act on it just now.

However, he knew other ways to rattle that façade of
hers.

With a smile, he spoke in French,
his accent that of the streets.
Now, he would see just how much the
niece knew.
"One musket ball across my ribs is all I care for
tonight, Madam.
And there are miles to put between Paris and myself
if I am to be certain there won't be more.
You ought to sympathize
with that.
So, since we both wish to depart this land, why do we
not join forces?
You'll need someone to bargain for your passage
across the Channel, if you do not wish your pretty neck—and that of
your niece's—slit to gain your jewels.
And I need—I need transport
as well."

The rest of his needs he ignored.
For now.

He could not see her expression,
but he could imagine her glowering at him, frustrated with him and
wishing to wring his neck.
He glanced at the niece, another pale
face, with moonlight glinting on pale curls.
Leaning over to her
niece, Alexandria carried on a hushed consultation.
He heard the
girl mutter, "I only caught something about jewels and leaving
France and needing your help."

He chuckled and said, "No,
ma fille
, it was my help
that I am offering to get you to England."

"In exchange for my jewels?" Alexandria asked, her
tone sharp.

Her assumption irritated him, but
he had not fully decided yet how to play this next act between
them, so he only said, "Terms are yet negotiable.
However, let us
start by saying that my immediate need of you just now is fast
conveyance.
And in exchange perhaps I can assist you with what it
is you wish to gain."

The carriage swayed around a bend
in the road, forcing him to lean into the turn.
Pain shot up his
side as he did, and he winced and muttered a soft oath.

Fabric rustled as Alexandria half-rose and
shifted to sit next to him.
"Bother you, Paxten!
Now I wish I had
left the lanterns lit.
Just how little is this scrape of
yours?"

He frowned as she pulled off her gloves, her
white hands appearing so slim and pale in the moonlight.
Disapproval radiated from her as palpable as the warmth from her
body, but a familiar scent of vanilla and spice teased to life
memories of his arms around her, of soft lips, of how she
tasted.

She stripped them away with crisp questions
shot at him as if she were his nursemaid.
"Just what did you manage
to have scraped?
Your leg?
Arm?
Side?
Have you broken
anything?"

Soft hands began to search over him and he
frowned.
He did not like the sensations she stirred—no, he would
not allow her ever again to leave him vulnerable to her touch.

Taking her hands, he pushed them away.
"There is no need for you to poke at me as if you were some
healer."

"Oh, for—this is my brother's coach and I do
not wish your blood to stain it.
Besides, how much help will you be
if you bleed to death?
Now, stop being so stupid about this."

"You are the bothersome one, you know.
You
always were.
Very well, if you must, then fuss.
Here, now, Aunt
Alexandria's niece, you may pull off my skirts off, for I only had
the dress caught up around my waist for show.
If your aunt wishes
to wrap me in soft muslin, they'll do well enough."

Her tone stiff—imitating her aunt, he
decided—the girl said, "You may call me Miss Edgcot."

Paxten stared into the
darkness at her, amused.
Fabric rustled as the girl tugged
Marie-Jeanne's skirts from his white breeches and black boots.
"You
have an edge to you,
ma
fille
, but not so soft as on a cot.
And I
shall call you Miss Stuffy if you use such a tone as that—what are
you teaching the girl, Andria?"

Beside him, Alexandria
stiffened.
Did she object to his use of his own pet name for her?
And where had that sprung from?
He had promised himself ten years
ago to keep his distance from her, and women like her—proper
ladies.
Yet, here he was, already falling into old, easy habits
with her.
Merde
—perhaps he ought to have her stop the coach and set him
down.

Voice prim, she said, "I hope I am teaching
her to be wise and thoughtful, and polite."

He had to laugh, and his side ached for it,
sobering him.
He had forgotten how she could make him laugh.
"That
sounds unconscionably dull," he told her.

"I am not dull!" The girl's
indignant reply came at once, followed by a ripping of fabric.
Did
she have his skin in mind now as she tore?
He grinned.

Alexandria took the fluttering strip of
fabric.
"A little more dullness, Mr.
Marsett, and you would not be
sitting here bleeding.
Now please open your cloak and your
shirt."

Voice dropping lower, he whispered to her,
"For you, that is always a pleasure."

BOOK: Lady Scandal
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ads

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