excerpt

A Stroke of Luck

Book Three—Intrepid Heroines

Sailing home with her two young brothers from adventures in foreign lands, the intrepid Miss Zara Greeley risks her life to pluck a half-drowned handsome stranger from the icy sea. He claims to be a duke—and she’s tempted to believe him, for only a duke could be so impossibly arrogant. Both of them are happy to part ways after several misadventures. But Fate quickly plunges them into another encounter when it turns out Zara and her brothers are long-lost distant relatives, come to reclaim their inheritance from an unscrupulous cousin.

When Prestwick is called upon to mediate a family crisis, he is shocked to discover the raggle-taggle Zara Greeley and her young brothers have appeared back in his life. But the more he’s with them, the more he realizes how much he admires their plucky courage and steadfast honesty. And so, as Prestwick works to right a past wrong and restore their rightful heritage, he also finds himself caught in a current of swirling desire—is it too late to convince Zara that despite their previous clashes, the two of them are a perfect match?

EXCERPT

The crisp linen felt smooth against the line of his freshly shaved jaw. Prestwick drew in a deep breath, and looked around the elegant cabin of his yacht, savoring the subtle scent of his own special blend of bay rum cologne that had replaced the stale reek of seaweed and sheep.

It came out in a slow whoosh, sounding suspiciously like a sigh.

“I wonder how them Greeleys mean to go on,” murmured Stump, as he rummaged around in the dressing table for the duke’s pocketwatch. Finding the oval of crested gold, he slammed the teak drawer shut with a tad more force than was necessary. “I mean, seeing as they ain’t got a feather to fly with on account of their boat being wrecked on the rocks.”

“You are about as subtle as a sledgehammer,” growled the duke. He made a final adjustment to the folds of his starched cravat, then reached for the freshly brushed bottle-green coat that was laid out on his berth. “Did you really think I was going to leave them high and dry?”

His valet hid a sigh of relief with an aggrieved snort. “Didn’t rightly know. After all, you have been in a mighty odd frame of mind of late.”

Odd did not begin to describe his frame of mind of late!

“Perhaps,” he retorted, “it has something to do with the mighty odd physical tortures my body has been subjected to of late.”

“Now don’t go exaggerating—”

”Hmmph! You call being nearly drowned, nearly starved, nearly crippled and nearly worked to the bone exaggerating?”

Stump scratched at his chin to hide a grin. “Aw, it wasn’t quite that bad.”

“No, it was worse.” Prestwick checked his pocket to make sure the leather purse was safely stowed. “Now, if you will straighten up in here, I mean to go make some inquiries about whether it might be possible to hire a room and a proper bath tub for an hour while Sullerton gets Nereid ready to sail.”

“A proper bath? That all you can think of after our adventure?” murmured Stump, his greying brows drawing together in a slight frown. “Hmmph. I guess you really didn’t like getting your hands dirty after all.”

“I told you as much,” replied Prestwick curtly, brushing a mote of dust from his shiny new boots. Turning on his heel, he left his valet staring quizzically at the unwrinkled back of his superfine coat.

Once he had descended to the cobbled harborfront, he looked around for any sign of his erstwhile companions. The street, however, was deserted, save for McTavish and another man who were wrestling the barrels of whiskey up from the boat and into a dray cart.

The Scot looked up at the duke’s approach, his expression remaining unchanged at the sight of the elegant set of new clothes and highly polished Hessians.

“Did you perchance see in what direction Miss Greeley and her brothers went?”

The long pause that followed as the man chewed on his pipe was enough to make Prestwick want to dig it out of the bushy beard and fling it into the sea. Finally, with a last chomp and a spit, McTavish cleared his throat. “And what business is it of yours, laddie?”

The duke’s hand clenched around the purse in his pocket. “My business with the Greeleys is none of your concern, you flinty old pirate,” he snapped, his frayed temper causing his voice to rise to a near shout. “Unlike you, who have exacted your pound of flesh, I merely want to give them a . . . parting gift.”

“Money? You’re going tae offer the lassie your money?”

“Don’t think you will be seeing any of it,” muttered Prestwick.

“Auch, I dunna want your money, laddie.” He scratched at his cap. “Dunna think the lassie does either.”

“Thank you for the advice,” he replied with scathing politeness. “No doubt it is the only thing you offer for free.”

The Scot actually chuckled. “Suit yourself.” The pipe stem came out of his mouth long enough to point to low, half-timbered building at the far end of the harbor. “They are having a bite at Campbell’s.”

Prestwick managed a curt nod of thanks before stalking off. The impertinence of the old goat to imply the young lady would not welcome a purse full of gold, he fumed as he hurried toward the inn. After all, she had been quite vocal on the fact that the loss of their boat had left the family destitute. After a few hurried steps, however, his pace ground to a halt.

Hell’s Bells. On second thought, perhaps the man’s gruff comment had a groat or two of truth to it. Miss Greeley, for all her appearance of having thrown the rules of Society to the wind, was still a gently bred young lady, and what he intended was well outside the strictures of propriety.

His mouth gave a rueful quirk. A good deal of what had gone on between them would be viewed as highly improper, from the quarrels to the curses to spending the night together in a shocking state of undress. What he meant to do, while not exactly proper, was merely a gesture of . . . friendship. Being pragmatic as well as proper, Miss Greeley could surely have no objection to that.

Thus reassured, Prestwick continued on.

As he approached the tavern, he saw that Nonny had taken a seat on the low stone wall facing the sea and was busy scribbling in a small notebook. The lad looked up from the frayed covers at the sound of footsteps and his eyes widened.

“S—sir,” he stammered, the pencil going slack in his fingers. Unlike McTavish, he was clearly impressed by the change in the duke’s appearance. “You weren’t bamming us—you really are a duke?”

“Well, yes. I—” Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of the sketch on the creased page and leaned a bit closer. “Why, that is Nereid.”

“Yes, sir,” said Nonny shyly. “The set of her rigging is patterned after the new vessels being built in Baltimore. It is the very latest development in nautical design, and I wished to make a copy of it.” He swallowed a sigh. “I imagine she handles like a dream. And in the right conditions, she must fly like the wind.”

“I’m afraid I’m not much of an expert on such things, however I am sure Captain Sullerton could explain the fine points, if you would care to come aboard and have a closer look.”

“Oh! I would like that very much, sir.” His face then fell. “However, we must leave very shortly, as Mr. McTavish has offered us a ride to Mulltyre, where there is a chance to find passage heading south . . . ” His voice trailed off.

Seeing his opportunity to broach the subject, Prestwick cleared his throat. “But you have no funds.”

The lad essayed a game smile. “We always manage. Zara says there is nothing shameful in earning one’s way through an honest day’s work, no matter if it means getting our hands dirty.”

“Indeed there is not,” he replied quietly. “However, I should like to ensure that for the rest of your journey, wherever it is you are going, you are not forced into any more hard labor.”

Nonny’s brow furrowed. “I don’t think Zara would allow such a favor, sir. She says a lady does not accept money from a gentleman who is not related to her.”

The duke felt a twinge of guilt, knowing the truth of it. “But—”

There was a creak of the iron hinges and Prestwick turned to find Zara staring at the purse in his outstretched hand.

“Nonny, take Perry and see if Mr. McTavish needs a hand with the last of the barrels.”

Her brother looked as if he wished to argue, but on seeing her expression, he tucked away his notebook without a word, and picked up his bag.

As soon as the two lads had moved out of earshot, she turned back to the duke, clenched fists set firmly on her hips.

Had her glare been any steelier, he decided, it would have sliced out his liver.

“What,” she asked with great deliberateness, “was that all about?”

“I wished to offer you and your family a token of my gratitude—”

Before he could go on any further, she cut him off with a sharp intake of breath. ”I didn’t fish you out of the sea for money!”

“I meant no insult, Miss Greeley.” Somehow finding himself once again on the defensive with the young lady caused his voice to take on a unintentional haughtiness. “I simply wanted to make amends for any offense I may have given you.”

A fiery hue tinged her cheeks as her voice turned equally hot. “Why, you conceited coxcomb!” she cried out. “There may be a good many things you and gentlemen of your ilk can buy with your purses. But my good will, and that of my family, is not one of them.”

Exasperated, he found himself yelling back. “Hell and damnation! I was simply trying to be . . . nice.”

“Well, don’t!” Her features had become as stony as the surrounding crags of wind-carved granite. “Unlike your finely tailored coats and richly embroidered waistcoats, it does not suit you.”

She made to brush past him, but for a moment he stood his ground. “Be assured that it matters not a farthing to me whether you like me or not.” He shifted the gold coins from one hand to another. “You have shown you possess a modicum of common sense to go along with your hellacious temper, Miss Greeley. So do not let foolish pride sink an opportunity to see your brothers back to England in some comfort and safety.”

The purse made a dull chink as it dropped onto the stone wall.

“Good bye, Miss Greeley.” Prestwick turned toward his yacht. “With any luck, we will not be tossed together again. After all, lightning rarely strikes in the same place twice.”

«- RETURN