excerpt

The Hired Hero

Book Two—Intrepid Heroines

When a dying courier manages to deliver vital war documents for her diplomat father to their country estate, Lady Caroline Talcott bravely decides to deliver the papers to London herself. She sets out in the dead of night, only to have her carriage attacked by mysterious assailants. By luck, she manages to escape, but alone and injured, her chances of reaching London are slim.

Until she encounters the notorious Earl of Davenport out on his morning ride. Keeping her identity a secret, she offers him a small fortune to conduct her safely to London.

In dire need of money for his recently inherited estate, Julian agrees to the deal—and finds he has to toil hard to earn it. He soon discovers that Caroline is everything a lady should not be—outspoken, clever and fearless. As they are pursued across the English countryside, Julian’s grudging respect for her courage turns into desire—and then into something far deeper. But will they survive long enough for love to triumph?

EXCERPT

Caroline wasn’t sure the earl’s study was exactly the spot she would have chosen for their confrontation. He looked even more forbidding seated behind the massive oak desk, hands steepled him on the tooled blotter, stormy blue eyes crashing into her like waves against the strand. It was uncomfortably familiar, having faced her father under similar situations on countless occasions. Besides, there was the little matter of . . .

“And now, Miss . . .” There was an emphatic pause, which he drew out like a duelist unsheathing a rapier. His voice, though low, was equally sharp.

“Kindly put an end to the theatrics. If you wish to continue enacting a Cheltenham tragedy, join Mrs. Siddons on the boards—I will not tolerate it any longer under my roof. I mean to know who you are, and I mean to know it NOW.”

It was only at the last sentence that the volume rose drastically. But if the desired effect was to reduce the young lady seated before him to flinging herself at his feet in contrition and immediately confessing her identity, he had sadly miscalculated his own oratorical skills.

Caroline’s head hunched down towards her shoulders and her face took on an expression that one of the brasher young grooms at Roxbury had characterized as “mulish.”

There was nothing but silence.

Davenport’s gaze continued to wash over her, the blue of his eyes darkening to a scudding gray. His fingers began drumming on the scarred wood. When it became evident that words were not forthcoming, he rose and slowly walked to stand beside her chair. Caroline was not lacking in stature herself, but from where she was seated, the earl seemed to tower over her, his broad shoulders and powerful torso only reinforcing the appearance of holding the upper hand. She imagined that was the intention.

The nerve of the man, to think he could intimidate her with his ultimatums!

She resolutely refused to look up at him. Instead, she locked her gaze on the first item on his desk that caught her eye. As she focused in on it, she found that for the second time that morning she had to strangle the urge to laugh. It was a book. On the breeding of sheep.

“Well?” It came out as a baritone rumble.

“It is you, sir, who may stop the histrionics. I will not tell you my name. It is of no concern to you.”

Outrage flared in Davenport’s voice. “When I am forced to drag some half-dead chit out of the mud, have her nursed back to health at an expense I can ill afford, only to have her steal my property . . . “

Caroline had the grace to color.

“. . . then it damn well is my concern. I mean to have your name, make no mistake about it.” His eyes narrowed. “Perhaps I should just haul you into the village—it seems there I should learn who you are soon enough.”

Caroline shot up from her chair. “The only mistake I have made is landing on the doorstep of a profligate wastrel who has squandered his last farthing on drinking and gaming and . . . and other pursuits, no doubt, instead of taking care of his responsibilities, like a true gentleman. Why, it seems you are insensible to even the most basic decencies of your class, like helping a lady in distress, you—you odious man!”

Davenport’s patience, already dangerously frayed, snapped. For weeks he had borne the shrill demands of countless creditors, the suspicious looks of his tenants, the whispered innuendos of his neighbors. More nights that he cared to remember he had struggled with the ledger books, fighting against despair to come up with a way to restore his estate and family name to respectability. She spoke of common decencies—what of Helen! To be so cavalierly accused by a chit barely out of the schoolroom, with no acquaintance of him except through rumor, was too much to bear, especially when she owed him her very life. How dare she speak to him like that?

His hand came up in the air.

Caroline flinched.

Davenport caught himself. Is that how it began, he wondered. A simple loss of temper that suddenly moves from thought to deed. The bruises on the face before him, though lightened, were still very much in evidence, ugly, raw reminders of somebody else’s anger. He thought of Helen’s face, how similar the damage looked. Except her eyes did not spark with spirit anymore as this young lady’s did. How many times did it take to beat the will out of another person? He jaw clenched. And why would someone filled with life and humor and dreams allow it?

The thought of how easy it would have been to cross the line make him nearly ill. Was he really not so very different from Charles after all?

He had never been so utterly ashamed of himself. His hand fell to his side and he moved slowly around to slump into his chair. Running his hand through his hair, he turned to stare, unseeing, into the cold black coals of the unlit fireplace.

“What would you have me do?” he asked in a voice barely above a whisper.

“I have a small sum . . .”

Caroline cleared her throat. “Ahh . . . actually sir, you do not.” She took a leather purse out of her jacket pocket and laid it in front of him.

For a brief moment, Davenport wondered if he was beginning to lose his sanity. He stared at it, speechless. Then he threw back his head and began to laugh.

She stared at him. No doubt, he mused, wondering if he had taken leave of his sanity.

The sound of his laughter trailed off and his face took on an expression of bemused resignation. “Seeing as I am at my wit’s end, perhaps you have some idea as to how to proceed.” His glance traveled over her breeches and boots once more. “You seem to have no lack of imagination.”

Caroline sat down abruptly. “As a matter of fact, I do have a proposal.”

His mouth twitched at the corners. “I rather thought you might. Well, let’s have it.”

She squared her shoulders. “You are obviously in dire need of funds. I am in dire need of reaching a certain destination without further delay. So I propose a partnership of sorts. If you will help me get there, I will pay you very well.”

“And just where are you going?”

Caroline hesitated for a moment, as if deciding whether she could trust him. “London.”

“How much?” he asked.

“A thousand pounds.”

Davenport gave a bark of laughter. “Good lord, are you truly intent on making a monkey of me this morning? Or have you received another knock on the head, one that has caused you take leave of your senses?” He shook his head. “A thousand pounds, indeed.”

“It is no joke, sir,” said Caroline indignantly. “I promise you, when we reach London you shall have it.”

He merely chuckled. “Yes, I shall eat gooseberry tarts perched atop Parliament, too.”

“You doubt my word?”

He stopped laughing.

“Do you?” she persisted. “No doubt you would not think of insulting a man’s honor by refusing to accept his word.”

The earl drew his brows together thoughtfully. “Hmmm.” Once again his fingers began drumming on the desk as he mulled over her words. The fact of the matter was, he needed to pay a visit to his man of affairs in Town at some point soon. And even though the odds were her offer was merely a desperate ploy, in the event that her family would be grateful, he could sorely use a thousand pounds. But there was something else as well, something oddly touching about her pluck. . .

“Let me make sure I understand you,” he said very slowly. “You wish to hire me to escort you to London, for which service I will receive one thousand pounds?”

“That is correct, milord.”

Perhaps it was madness, but after a long moment, Davenport gave a curt nod. “Very well, we have a deal, Miss . . .”

“My name is Caroline.”

“Truly?”

She nodded. “Yes, but other than that I shall not say.”

His lips pursed but he did not argue. He merely leaned back in his chair and leveled her with a piercing gaze. “Now that my role is little more than a hired lackey, have you given any thought as to how we may travel to London? I take it you have inspected the stables well enough to know I wasn’t telling you a hum when I said there is no carriage.” He picked up the meager purse and let it drop again. “I doubt there is enough for two fares on the mail coach, even if we take outside passage.”

“But you have two horses. And they are already saddled.”

“You have no proper riding clothes and—you can’t mean . . .”

“That’s exactly what I mean,” she replied. “It is the simplest and quickest means. I shall be your groom. Trust me, I’m quite good at pulling it off. Luc—, that is, a male cousin has on occasion taken me to mills and a tavern with no one the wiser.

He closed his eyes. “He should be birched.” There was a slight pause. “You are serious, aren’t you?”

“Have you another idea?” challenged Caroline. When he didn’t answer, her mouth set in a line of grim satisfaction. “Besides,” she added. “No one will be looking for two men traveling east. Come, let’s not waste any more time.”

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