Sloane: THE ANGEL IN MY ARMS
Marcus MacInnes, the Earl of Weston, looked out over Lulworth Cove and chuckled. “Well now, Sully, you’ve seen it for yourself. Aye, it’s my own personal Jericho. Wouldn’t you agree?”
The valet’s swarthy face remained unreadable, the lines around his eyes deepening as he squinted, his gaze focused on what lay below them. The cove’s blue water lapped at the hulls of fishing boats. On the shore, the village dozed sleepily in the warm sunshine.
Exactly the sort of spot where a gentleman might just be sent to rusticate from a gunshot wound. Especially if the gentleman happened to be a spy.
Sully turned to look directly at his master. “It looks quiet enough, I’ll give you that.”
Marcus smiled wryly before turning his horse back onto the leafy path. “Indeed.”
Sully followed suit, kneeing his bay gelding next to Marcus’s chestnut Thoroughbred. “There could be smugglers.”
Marcus slowed his mount just long enough to give the valet a dubious look.
“Or not,” Sully admitted somewhat dejectedly.
Marcus ducked his head to dodge a low-hanging limb and the green leaves of one of the massive whitebeam trees that lined the trail. “What a waste of time.”
But there was nothing he could do about it. He’d been given an order, and he’d bloody well follow it.
Marcus was a Young Corinthian, and that meant something.
He and Sully continued on in silence. Their horses, Marcus thought absently, seemed thankful for the slower pace after the three-day ride from London to Lulworth, a sleepy hamlet located in Dorset along the southwestern coast of England.
The shaded lane curved and ahead of the two riders rose Lulworth Castle, Marcus’s home. Originally built as a hunting lodge, the impressive structure had been expanded over the years until it was the largest home in the district.
The unentailed castle belonged to Marcus, due to his mother having been an only child. Yes, it was all his. And it was undeniably magnificent. But it was not where he wanted to be.
Marcus was a member of the Young Corinthians, a clandestine spy organization led by Henry Prescott, Viscount Carmichael. There was an unwritten rule among the Corinthians never to question an assignment. The life of a spy demanded complete loyalty and unswerving belief in your superior’s judgment. Something Marcus had suddenly found particularly disagreeable.
The moment a bullet found its way into his leg during a mission this past spring, Marcus had known that his role within the elite organization would change dramatically. Until his injury healed fully, he was more of a liability than an asset in the field.
Nevertheless, when Lord Carmichael suggested that Marcus investigate recent smuggling activity near his ancestral home in Dorset, Marcus nearly abandoned his well-practiced charm and told his superior exactly what he thought of the assignment.
Finding yourself with a bullet in your leg was one thing. Having your superior send you off on a fool’s errand was quite another.
He couldn’t deny that in all likelihood he’d made himself somewhat of a nuisance to Carmichael as he impatiently waited for his blasted wound to heal.
And if he admitted that much, then he really could not blame Carmichael for dispatching him to the Dorset countryside when news of a possible connection between radical revolutionaries and local smugglers had the Prince Regent’s drawers in a twist.
As Carmichael had informed him over plates of roast beef at their club, a string of recent robberies in London was believed to be related to the suspicious activities in Lulworth—both somehow tied to Napoleon’s supporters.
Marcus had only stared at Carmichael in disbelief, a heavy goblet of brandy poised halfway to his mouth. Really, it was too much to be believed.
But still, Marcus reluctantly realized, if he were to be completely honest, his irritation with the assignment had as much to do with the location as with the smuggling investigation itself.
As a boy, when not in Inverness at his father’s estate, the family had split its time between London and Lulworth. At least in London he’d been able to lose him- self amid the constant thrum of social and sporting events. But the same could not be said for Lulworth. The hamlet’s inhabitants had never gotten over his Scot- tish father’s stealing away the fairest of their English roses. It hadn’t helped that the elder Lord Weston embraced his role as the brutish Highlander with particular relish. His habit of donning a tartan and broadsword whenever his relatives visited the castle had only made things worse.
The locals hadn’t liked the father, and as a result, they didn’t like the son. And Marcus had known, from a painfully early age, that he simply did not fit in. Not in Lulworth, where everyone from the baker’s son to the solicitor’s daughter saw him as nothing more than the son of a thief. Not in Inverness either, where the blue English blood in his veins meant he’d never be a true Highlander.
“I’ve sorely missed Cook’s pheasant,” Sully said, pulling Marcus from his thoughts.
The stone castle stood before them with all the welcoming warmth of a midwinter snowfall.
“You’re an accomplished liar, Sully, I’ll give you that.” Marcus’s amiable tone belied his most recent grim thoughts. “But I know you too well. It’s Cook that you’ve been looking forward to, not her creamed peas.”
“Pheasant,” Sully corrected him. “And it’s quite a succulent bird that she cooks,” he protested. “Though her creamed peas are quite delicious as well.”
Marcus reined in his horse and raised a hand. “Far be it for me to intrude upon the ways of love,” he said sardonically, prompting a harrumph from his valet.
With a noticeable lack of his usual ease, Marcus awkwardly swung a leg over the saddle and lowered himself to the ground, an instant stab of pain shooting up from the healing wound in his thigh. He ground his teeth together until the sensation subsided, then drew the soft leather reins over Pokey’s head and handed them to Sully. “I’m going to walk off this stiffness. I’ll be along shortly.”
Sully gave Marcus a considering look then leaned from the saddle to take the reins. “Are you up to it?”
“Awa’ an’ bile yer heid!” Marcus growled, though the valet’s thoughtfulness made him smile.
“Oh,” Sully began, turning the two horses toward the stables, “I’ll be missing that burr of yours while we’re here. Can’t be playing Lord of the manor sounding like one of them Jacobites though, now can we?” he teased. “I’ll be in the kitchen, then.”
“Oh, that’s a given,” Marcus shot back in a painfully perfect London accent. For as long as he could remember, he had made it a habit to hide his burr from everyone but Sully and the Scottish side of his family. There was simply no good reason to remind people of his ancestry.
“I’ll send the hounds out if you’ve not limped your way home by dark.”
“That’s terribly thoughtful of you, old friend.”
“Don’t mention it—”
“And I do mean old,” Marcus added with a gleam in his eye.
He could just make out another harrumph as Sully rode on, his pace quickening as he disappeared into the copse of trees that separated the expansive lawn of Lulworth from the rest of the grounds.
Marcus stretched, trying to ease the aches in his travel-weary muscles without irritating his wound further. He turned and strolled, limping slightly, toward the wood, his destination undecided. The tension that had gripped his gut when he’d first spied the castle slowly dissipated as he moved farther into the trees. He tugged at his carefully tied cravat, a low sigh escaping his lips as he yanked the length of white linen free of its intricate knot and unwound it from his throat. He mopped his brow with the dust-covered cloth before dropping it into the pocket of his deep brown riding coat.
The shade from the green-leafed canopy of oak trees provided some relief, but Marcus needed more. He stopped to orient himself, looking north, then east. Realizing that he wasn’t far from the lake where he’d fished as a child, he set off at a faster clip.
A refreshing swim was precisely what he needed. The water would cool his body, clear his head, and, hopefully, tire him to the point that he no longer cared about where he was.
A high-pitched scream shattered the quiet and stopped Marcus in his tracks. A second scream followed, and Marcus ran, willing his wounded leg to keep pace with the rest of his body as he crashed through a bank of quickthorn bushes.
He fought his way through the thicket, the branches lashing his arms and legs until he broke into the open. The castle’s lake lay before him, sparkling in the sunlight.
He scanned the water’s surface, then the shore from left to right, but failed to find the source of the screams. Something moved suddenly in his peripheral vision. He narrowed his eyes and once more searched the lake. Water rippled in a circle too large to have been caused by a jumping trout.
He stripped off his coat and prepared to dive in. Just then, two figures broke the surface of the water. A peal of feminine laughter filled the air.
“You promised!” a young male voice whined indignantly.
Marcus squinted against the sun and made out a boy, sodden hair plastered to his skull.
“I never promised, Nigel,” a woman’s voice answered teasingly, “and it’s very poor form of you to lie.”
Marcus shielded his eyes with one hand to see the woman better. She bobbed up and down in the water, clearly amused with whatever had transpired between her and the boy.
She looked straight at him, her eyes widening in surprise. And then she smiled. A brilliant, wide smile that seemed to light up the entire world. She was soaking wet, long auburn curls in damp corkscrews atop her head and hanging to her shoulders. Her delicate skin flushed under the hot sun, a trailing frond of green water weed peeking out above the neckline of her dress.
And Marcus could not imagine a more bonny sight.
She seemed about to speak to him when her gaze shifted past him and over his shoulder. Shock and dismay filled her expression. “No, Titus!” she cried out. “No!”
Marcus turned his head just in time to make out a massive dog galloping toward him. The fawn-colored animal launched himself into the air, toppling Marcus backward onto the clay earth of the lake bank.
The weight of the beast’s body settled on Marcus’s chest and he planted a dinner-plate-sized paw on either side of Marcus’s head. Then the dog lowered his massive face, the drool from his sharp-fanged mouth threatening to drop at any moment.
Marcus held himself completely still, knowing full well the animal had the upper hand. The dog sniffed carefully, his noxious breath hitting Marcus’s nostrils with pungent force.
“Titus, get off that gentleman now. This! Very! Instant!”
The dog offered Marcus a sheepish, apologetic look before swiping his lolling tongue in friendly salute across Marcus’s face.
“Now! Get off him. You bad, bad boy!”
Another apologetic look and the dog rose, allowing Marcus to sit up.
The woman leaned down to peer anxiously into Marcus’s face.
“I must apologize for my dog’s behavior,” she began, now standing so close that Marcus felt tiny droplets of lake water hit his skin when she moved. “He is—”
“A menace to society?” the young boy at her side offered, giving Marcus a toothy grin.
“He is an enthusiastic participant in life.” The woman rose to her feet to glare at the boy. “Titus is simply in need of proper instruction in manners.”
“That is one way of looking at it,” the boy countered, pointing at the dog, who was now a few feet away and busily tearing holes in Marcus’s castoff coat.
“Titus!” the woman protested, dashing toward the Shetland pony–sized dog. She tripped on a tree root and landed awkwardly on all fours, her nicely rounded derriere sticking up in the air.
Marcus stood with difficulty, wincing, his leg throbbing like the devil. He brushed without much success at the dirt stains on his buff-colored breeches and white linen shirt.
“Who is she?” he asked, failing to hide his stunned reaction.
The boy, whose features exactly matched the young woman’s, chuckled. “Oh, no one of consequence, I assure you.” He offered his hand to Marcus and shook enthusiastically. “I, on the other hand, am Nigel Edward Tisdale.”
She was now engaged in a heated game of tug-of-war with the dog, her petite frame hardly a match for the big dog’s superior strength.
“Marcus MacInnes, Earl of Weston,” Marcus replied, hiding his burr with practiced ease. His gaze returned to the woman. “I wonder, should we assist Miss—”
“Not the Errant Earl?” the boy asked in wonder.
Marcus turned and looked at the lad, assuming that he had misheard. “I’m sorry, what was that you said?”
“Surely you know what people in these parts call you? I’d rather poke myself in the eye with a sharpened stick than listen to my mother and her friends gossip, but even I’ve heard the talk, and it’s—what is the word I’m looking for?” Young Nigel paused and drummed his fingers against his lips as he thought.
“?‘Unfavorable,’?” Marcus offered helpfully.
“Well, I was going to say ‘downright nasty,’ but yes, ‘unfavorable’ will do.”
Clearly, while the world about it had moved forward, the village of Lulworth continued to stalwartly cleave to unfounded and exaggerated assumptions. Marcus assumed that he should be offended, but honestly, he had neither the energy nor the interest at the moment.
He looked back to the woman who was desperately attempting to maintain her foothold. “Shouldn’t we . . .” he began, gesturing toward the pair.
“Oh, no, that would irritate Sarah to no end,” the boy answered, watching the scene with marked delight as he wrung out his sodden shirt. “And trust me, you don’t want to irritate my sister.”
Marcus couldn’t help but picture the woman irritated— enraged, really, as he sensed it would take very little to make her so. Her auburn hair flying about her like a fiery halo, her skin heated to a delicious pink hue.
Marcus shook his head from left to right, wondering if the dog had indeed done some sort of damage to his mental faculties.
The two males watched for a moment more as the woman dug in her heels and seemed to be gaining the upper hand. But then the dog began to drag her forward, pulling her lower and closer to the ground until she collapsed with an audible expulsion of breath, facedown in the dirt.
“Sarah?” the boy queried in a mischievous tone. “Have you rescued Lord Weston’s coat?”
The woman froze. Then slowly, she released the torn coat and pulled herself upright, brushing lightly at the front of her wet, mud-stained gown.
Excerpted from The Angel in My Arms by Stefanie Sloane. Copyright © 2011 by Stefanie Sloane. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.