The Storybook Hero

Book Three—Lessons In Love

A gambler, womanizer and all-around wastrel, Alexander Sheffield secretly yearns for a rousing adventure to help redeem his sense of honor. Heading off to the frozen Russian tundra to rescue a young cousin seems just the sort of mission he needs. But his quest is soon jeopardized by the deadliest enemy of all—a headstrong beauty.
Orphaned and penniless, Octavia Hadley has no choice but to accept a position as a governess in faraway Moscow. And while the journey from England is terribly daunting, she soon finds greater peril in the heated advances of a handsome stranger. Knowing that charming rakes offer nothing but ruin, she rebuffs him, and when they part ways in Russia, she is sure she’s seen the last of him
But when danger throws them—and their young charges together—Octavia and Alex must work together to evade Napoleon’s invading army and reach safety. However they soon discover that the greatest enemy may be their own simmering desires.

EXCERPT

Octavia gathered her flapping cloak close around her and retreated towards the mizzen hatchway. The ship gave a sudden lurch, causing her foot to slip on the steep wooden ladder. An instant later, another twist and roll nearly sent her head first into the murky darkness below. She tightened her grip and felt for the next rung.

It was clear the bad weather was now full upon them. Octavia managed to make the rest of the descent without further mishap. Her fingers kept hold of the ladder as she steadied her footing and peered down the narrow passageway. It was almost pitch black and the violent motion of the ship made it even more difficult to make out much of anything. However, she was sure the way to her cabin lay ahead and to the right.

She ventured several steps forward, only to be tossed against one of the stout oak timbers. Repressing a most unladylike word, she rubbed her bruised shoulder and started off again, this time keeping her body pressed up against the rough wood. Her progress became steadier, and as she descended another set of narrow steps, she felt she was nearly there.

Suddenly, the ship yawed nearly on its side. Octavia was flung across the passageway, but instead of crashing into another beam, she found herself up against something equally as solid, but a bit more yielding.

“Well, well, what have we here?” came a slurred voice.

To her dismay, Octavia discovered that her nose—and a good deal of the rest of her anatomy— was buried in the rough wool of a man’s coat. An arm groped its way around her waist and pulled her even closer.

“Why, it’s a female,” continued the soft drawl. “And a rather shapely one at that.” The man’s feet moved unsteadily with the next buck of the hull, causing the bottle in his other hand to thump into the cross beam. “Perhaps you would care to join me in a little toast to weathering this blow. I’m sure we could also . . . come up with some interesting ways to keep each other warm in this cursed cold.”

A binnacled oil lamp up ahead cast just enough light for Octavia to make out the lean jaw, straight nose and full lips of the face before her. Lips that were slowly curling into a suggestive smile. He was tall enough that he had to stoop quite low to avoid hitting his head, causing a tangle of long, raven locks to fall over his bleary eyes. They were blue, she noted, despite the tumble of curls. An unusual blue, somewhere between cerulean and slate.

“Let me go at once, sir!” she demanded as she struggled to free herself from his grasp.

His arm only tightened its hold. “I assure you, it would be a most pleasant way to forget about the storm outside.” The hull rocked wildly once more. “We could . . . make our own waves.”

What gall! How the devil did he presume to know what she would find pleasurable? As she opened her mouth to tell him just that, his mouth brushed against hers and she felt his hand begin to rove lower.

That settled it. Since words were having very little effect in discouraging his amorous attentions, she decided she would have to resort to a more convincing way of saying no.

Her knee came up hard in his groin. Very hard.

The bottle fell from his hand and rolled away. With a sharp intake of breath, the man sunk to his knees, then toppled forward and rolled into a fetal position. A low moan escaped his lips—which, she noted in grim satisfaction, were no longer curled in a smug smile.

Her rather limited experience in such evasive action had taught her now was the time to take to her heels. As soon as the man recovered, he was likely to be in quite an ill-humor. Unfortunately, the ship took a steep plunge. Octavia lost her footing and both she and the other body slid down the pitched planking, coming up hard against the latched door of storeroom.

She began struggling with her tangled skirts, desperate to be out of the man’s reach by the time he was able to move again. However, another sound from his lips brought her up short. She couldn’t quite believe her ears.

Why, it appeared he was laughing.

“Good Lord, where did you ever learn that? he managed to gasp.

Octavia sat up on her knees. “From a friend,” she replied warily. “I was told it was the most effective way to discourage a man’s attention.”

“Oh, most effective,” he agreed. He slowly propped himself up against the closed door and wedged his long legs against the other side of the bulkhead to keep from being thrown about any more. Octavia couldn’t help but acknowledge that it was handsome face, despite the sallow skin and fine lines etched at the corners of the mouth. Such hints at dissolute habits were at odds with the flash of lively intelligence in those piercing blue eyes, a light evident despite the haze of alcohol. “I suppose it is a good thing I am a youngest son and need not worry about begetting an heir.”

A flush of color rose to Octavia’s cheeks. “That, sir, is a most ungentlemanly remark.”

He chuckled. “And your action, my dear lady, was a most unsporting blow.”

“I didn’t realize it was a sport to accost innocent females,” she countered.

The grin disappeared. “To some perhaps, but not to me. Believe me, I am not in the habit of forcing myself on a lady, no matter how deeply foxed. Allow me to apologize.”

She could hardly believe her ears. “You are not angry?”

“I imagine I got what I deserved.” He regarded her in silence for a moment. “Though I must admit it came as a bit of a shock. You have a good deal of, er, spirit, Miss—”

She ignored the pointed hint for her name.” A shock? By that do you mean you are not in the habit of being told no?”

The seductive smile reappeared. “No, indeed I am not.”

Arrogant coxcomb!

“Allow me to offer you one bit of advice, however,” he continued. “Most men will become, er, rather enraged at that little trick. You had best be as far away as possible in the short time you have.

“I’m well aware of that,” she snapped. “I slipped. The other time—”

“The other time! Are you in the habit of trying to make a choirboy out of every man you meet?”

Octavia looked at him in some confusion.

“Never mind,“ he muttered. “And what happened on that occasion.”

Her mouth quirked upward. “I am on a ship bound for Russia, that is what happened, sir.”

His brow furrowed. “How could he force such a thing?”

“I don’t wish to discuss it, especially with a stranger,” she said curtly. “As if you aren’t acquainted with the way men may force what they wish upon females.” His simple inquiry, however, had suddenly stirred up all the anger of the last few months that was pent up inside her. Giving vent to her feelings, she went on. “Really, what an incredibly stupid question. Are all of you men so thick that you don’t see what little choice a female has in life? What rights do I have? I can own no property, I have no voice in what laws govern me, I can seek no interesting employment. And,” she added for good measure, “if I were leg-shackled it would be even worse!”

He looked at her with interest. “Ah, a sympathizer with the ideas of Mrs. Wollstonecraft, no doubt.”

“What halfway intelligent female wouldn’t be? There are any number of sensible ideas in her writings.” As she spoke, it struck her that, given the circumstances, this was turning into a most peculiar conversation.

“You have an interesting point. Have you considered—”

At that moment, a monstrous wave crashed into the side of the ship, sending a strong tremor through the oaken timbers. The man winced, and his gaze searched wildly for his lost bottle. “The devil take it! My brandy,” he croaked thickly. “Where’s my brandy?”

Octavia was about to answer with a scathing reply when she caught sight of the rigid set of his jaw and the haunted look that had suddenly dulled the unusual blue of his eyes. Another shudder of the hull caused those eyes to squeeze tightly shut, as if in anticipation of a physical blow.

It was the storm, she realized with a start. Its effect on him was so palpable she could almost feel the tension stiffening his rigid limbs. In the flickering shadows she saw him blink once more, and in that instant, a wrenching look of raw need replaced the studied nonchalance of a hardened wastrel. Then the shadows moved once again, casting the plane of his chiseled profile in darkness.

She sensed the fleeting emotion she had just witnessed had nothing to do with physical fear. No, something infinitely more complex than that had suddenly made him seem very vulnerable and very alone. For some reason, she felt a twinge of sympathy in her breast.

“This storm is truly upsetting you, is it not?”

Another resounding crash tore a wild oath from his lips. The lamp swung wildly, then went out, leaving them in pitch blackness.

“Sir, let me help you to your cabin. Perhaps you would feel better there.” Octavia felt her way over to him and touched his arm.

He gave a low groan and clutched at the collar of his coat. “For God’s sake, don’t let go of me,” he said thickly.

Octavia wedged herself in beside him and slipped her arm around his shoulders. “Very well, I won’t let go.” His head fell against her breast. Through the thick wool of her coat she could feel the racing of his pulse and hear the raggedness of his breathing. Her hand came up, threading lightly through the tangled locks, brushing them off his forehead. Beads of sweat clung to his temples, despite the chill air. “It will pass,” she whispered.

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