Authors: Diana Quincy
Copyright © 2014 by Dora Mekouar. All rights reserved. This book is a work of fiction. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means whatsoever without express written permission from the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Cover Design by Seductive Designs Image copyright © Hot Damn Stock
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For my boy Laith, who brings me joy every day
Dorset, England – 1802
Death was not what Lord Cosmo Dunsmore had anticipated. He hadn’t expected the agent of darkness to snatch him from a Dorset cornfield at dawn. But this was fitting, once he thought about it, given the extent of last evening’s debauchery.
Flat on his back, the cool dew of the grass seeping through the thin linen of his shirt, he peered up at the apparition. He’d assumed Hades would wear black, or red maybe, the color of vice. Instead, the vision descended from the sky in a billowing cloud of white, a smoky outline against the gray light of dawn.
“Good God,” he mumbled to himself. “The demon is female.” And with the longest legs he’d ever seen. He got an excellent look, because the stems were clad in close-fitting buckskin breeches. Surely, a seraph such as that couldn’t emerge from the dregs of hell.
On top of that, she approached from the wrong direction. Conventional wisdom suggested that the devil resided far south of here. She floated closer, white cloth flapping behind her. Perhaps it was Persephone come to drag him to his fiery fate. A man could do worse. Blinking away the blurriness, he wondered how much he had imbibed the night before. Ballocks. He must still be foxed out of his head to be seeing spirits in broad daylight.
He knuckled his eyes and blinked several more times, the insides of his lids burning. But there she still was, falling from the sky. Funny, he’d always surmised that angels floated on a cloud of serenity. This one must have lost the function of her wings, given the way she plummeted toward earth. She was close enough to the ground now that he could hear the wind whistling through her feathers. Odd-looking appendages they were. Poufs of white that looked like misshapen clouds, not the butterfly-shaped apparatus one would expect.
Pushing to his feet, he walked toward where it appeared she would land for a better look, but his angel seemed to jerk off course, racing right for him. Before his drink-addled brain could react, swathes of silk enveloped his head and blinded him, throwing him off balance. Something slammed against his body, knocking the breath from his chest, swiping his already-wobbly feet out from under him.
For a few moments, he saw swirls of black, which was closer to what he’d imagined would occur when the end came. Regaining his senses, he found himself flat on his back. Again. Only this time he was tangled up with lush female flesh, and the scent of lemon and cloves. Heaven or hell, this afterlife business wasn’t going to be as unpleasant as he’d anticipated.
! Are you so
to collide with me?” God’s messenger spoke French-accented English. She let loose a string of obscenities no angel would utter. “
. You could have killed us both.”
She pronounced the word
. Charming. He couldn’t see her face, couldn’t see anything, really, beyond the white fabric enshrouding them both, but he didn’t need to see the sprite to comprehend the depth of her aggravation. Perhaps the Almighty had sent her for some saint in the village, like Vicar Payne or his do-gooding wife, and the angel grasped the colossal nature of her mistake by having found him instead.
Still spewing epithets in French, she kicked, trying to free her ensnared legs. The heel of one of her boots hit a particularly sensitive spot on his person, prompting him to unleash a few choice words of his own in the King’s English. He forced himself to breathe through the pain spearing his groin. She’d kicked him with such precision that he’d probably sport a lobcock for the rest of his life. Or, God forbid, depending on how this all turned out, throughout eternity. Many would find that a fitting punishment for an unrepentant scoundrel like him. Yet the severe distress emanating from his manly parts was oddly reassuring. It suggested he still moved among mortals, unless one experienced physical agony in the afterlife.
Maybe he was in hell after all.
.” She struggled to sit up through the tangle of cloth and cable entwining them. He couldn’t tell where he was, or where she was, or which way was up.
Something soft and rounded bumped up against his cheek, and straddled his head. His angel was sitting on his face. Smiling, he curved his hands around the delightful swells of her bottom.
Perhaps heaven was what one wanted it to be.
Shooting to her feet, Mari Lamarre spun around and slammed her left boot hard into the soft underside of the
“Ouch! Devil take it.” He struggled to sit up among the tangled remains of her parachute. “May I kindly ask that you watch where you place your boot, madam?”
“No, you may not,
” She spat the words, her heart beating hard because of the botched landing. “I should have booted you in that depraved head of yours.”
Looking slightly concerned that she might follow through on the threat, he pushed to his feet, demonstrating surprising agility for such a large man. Unfolding to his full height, he stood almost a head taller than her, and she was not a petite woman.
“I suppose I should have allowed you to continue sitting on my face until you’d smothered the life out of me.” His perfectly enunciated English came out in clipped, elegant tones. Everything else about him was disordered, from his rumpled mahogany mane to the lines around his eyes that told of dissipation. He wore no cravat or coat, and his wrinkled white linen shirt opened at a
, baring swirls of dark chest hair that licked at his throat. “Or dare I hope, mademoiselle, you had something more imaginative in mind
“Oh, do be quiet.” Examining the wreckage, she threw up her hands. “
My parachute is destroyed.”
“Surely you cannot think to blame me for that? May I remind you that it was
who collided with
?” He surveyed the damage with the darkest eyes she’d ever seen, a pure black, even in the morning light. “Are you certain that’s a parachute?”
“Quite sure.” Taking in the endless rows of dewy grain surrounding them, she shook her head, frustrated by her misfortune of landing on a scapegrace in the middle of a cornfield.
“The reason I ask,” he said in a blithe way that tested her fraying temper, “is because your contraption appears to be missing the basket.”
Gritting her teeth, she bent to collect the remains of her equipment. As hard as she tugged, the silk didn’t budge. His dirty boots were on it, along with the rest of him. Her gaze traveled up his scuffed boots to immense, concrete-like thighs gloved in chocolate-colored breeches. Despite his elegant speech and apparently expensive clothing, he possessed the brawny body of a laborer. “Kindly remove your person from my apparatus.”
He stepped aside, leaving dark marks on the white fabric. Amusement glinted across a high forehead and bold brow. “I am no expert; however, I am reasonably certain one needs a basket to successfully fall from the sky.”
Closing her eyes, she exhaled. “There was a failure,
. The car disengaged.”
He clicked his tongue. “
.” The ironic voice switched into smooth, unaccented French. “I think you are trying to turn my head with such high compliments.”
Not only had the big idiot almost got them both killed by running into the path of her descent, he’d likely botched her assignment, and she was running out of time. She surveyed the area, trying to gage just how far off course she’d veered. Trees and wild greenery edged the amber cornfield. Beyond that stretched verdant, gently sloping hills. She couldn’t see any water, but they must be near the coast; the faint presence of humid, salty sea air told her as much. “
“Welcome to England.”
. “I comprehend that I am in England.”
He peered skyward. “What has become of your balloon?” His intent gaze settled back on her. “Or are you truly an angel who fell from the sky?”
Oh, she was no angel, as he would learn soon enough. “I ascended from Barnsley and then cut loose from the balloon, which will come down in its own in good time.”
“Barnsley? That is not so far away.” Slashes of dark brow drew together. “So you did not come from across the Channel.”
“No, I am in your country preparing to perform a jump in London.”
“You appear to be in need of a great deal more practice.”
She exhaled her irritation through her nostrils. “What is this place?”
“Dorset. Home of the Marquess of Aldridge.”
Some of the tension drained from her muscles. Not off course after all. “And you are?”
“Cosmo Dunsmore, at your service.”
Aldridge’s heir. She couldn’t believe her good fortune. The dolt might prove useful after all.
“May I have the pleasure of knowing your name?”
Careful not to reveal her sudden interest in him, she examined the forlorn parachute, which resembled a massive broken umbrella. “Mari Lamarre.”
He executed an exquisite bow, pinpricks of sun glowing red in his tousled dark hair. “Mademoiselle Lamarre,
.” He bent to help her gather her equipment. “Allow me to assist you.”
Her breathing began to regulate as she regained her composure after the rough landing. “It is not necessary.”
“Nonetheless.” He bent over to grab hold of the fabric, his broad-shouldered, squarely built form moving with vulpine ease. “I often engage in unnecessary behaviors.”
“For some reason, that does not surprise.”
He held up part of what had been the frame of the parachute canopy. “Your support appears to have suffered more damage than you.”
, it will require much repair.” Still marveling at her luck in landing on him, Mari turned away from Dunsmore, allowing her left foot to give out from under her. “Oh!”
Dropping the frame, he rushed to her side and the stench of alcohol breezed over her. Firm fingers closed around her elbow, providing sturdy support. “You are hurt.”
Ce n’est rien
.” Pretending to test her weight on her left leg, she let a bit of uncertainty to creep into her voice. “It is nothing, just my knee. I will be fine.”
“You mustn’t put any weight on it.” He swept her up into his arms, demonstrating unexpected physical adroitness for someone clearly suffering from the aftereffects of a night of overindulgence. “You may have seriously damaged your leg by falling the way you did.”
“I did not fall. I
“Something of a crash landing, you must admit.”
Up close, signs of self-indulgence were evident in the bloodshot whites of those gleaming coal eyes. “Where are you taking me?” As if she didn’t know. “I must be going.”
“No one is going anywhere just now. We must get to the house and look at that injury.”
“You are a most exasperating man.”
“You have no idea.”
“Put me down, at least,” she uttered in false protest. “I assure you I can manage on my own.”
“It’s no trouble.” He walked in long, sure strides, appearing to take care to avoid jostling her left knee.
Wrapping one arm around his broad, sinewy neck, she forced resignation into her voice. “If you are certain.”
“I am.” He shifted her in his arms, bringing her closer to the heat of his sizable body. Instead of detracting from the
appeal, his rumpled appearance actually contributed to it, even though he reeked of sweaty male, drink, and cheap perfume. And the earthy smell of rutting, which lingered beneath the cedar scent of his shaving soap. Her belly clenched at the thought of this mountain of a man engaging in the carnal act. “It is always a pleasure to have soft womanly flesh so close at hand.”
She rolled her eyes. “
Vous êtes une pomme de terre avec le visage d’un cochon d’Inde.
“A potato with the face of a guinea pig.” He made a show of considering her words. “Now who is that meant to insult: the potato or the guinea pig?”
“It is supposed to insult
“At least my standing has improved from swine to monsieur.” Stars danced in his midnight eyes. “That’s something to rejoice in.”
She suppressed a smile. The sot had a sort of drunken charm. Turning her attention away from Dunsmore, she studied the stately sandstone manor that came into view when they emerged from the trees.
“Welcome to Langtry House,” he said, following her gaze. “It’s not much, but it suits our basic needs.”
She wondered what aristos considered basic needs. The dark, ancient cottage where she’d grown up fit that description, not this tranquil, three-level manor with ivy spreading over its façade. Yet despite its imposing size and elegant lines, Langtry House bore the comfortably battered patina common to seaside dwellings, giving the impression the old place was thoroughly at ease with itself. Not that anything about the sand-colored home came as a surprise. After all, she’d studied the Georgian manor’s layout down to the smallest detail.
“Langtry is not Aldridge’s seat,” Dunsmore said. “That honor goes to Aldridge Castle in Oxfordshire.”
She was well aware of that. A few weeks ago, the marquess had shut himself away here on the coast. His sudden withdrawal from society had prompted this visit. “Are there many smugglers here?”
“Such an unpleasant term. We prefer the term free traders.”
“What types of goods are smuggled?”
“Free traded,” he corrected with ironic amusement. “The usual. Brandy, mostly.”
They entered the dwelling from the back, through a large, square kitchen. The click of Cosmo’s boot heels against the rough flagstone floor announced their arrival. A plump older woman in a white cap and apron stooped over the fire, tending to an assortment of black pots. A large cut of meat roasting on a spit saturated the warm, humid air with its rich aroma.
“Mrs. Godfrey, we have a guest.”
A slight young girl chopping onions at a wooden worktable littered with vegetables halted to stare at them, pale eyes wide in her narrow face, knife suspended in mid-motion.
Mrs. Godfrey turned toward them with an assessing gaze, her cheeks shiny red from her exertions. “Very good, my lord.” She pressed her lips inward and then outward, disapproval radiating from her like heat from a fire. “Shall I prepare a chamber for the…her?”