East Chatham, Southern England
"Stand and deliver!"
The thieves growled like hungry human wolves. Lady Seraphina Montgomerie hid
beneath her brother's cloak in hopes the highwaymen didn't recognize their prey
was a woman. Midnight shadows on a barren country road were the only protection
In retrospect, setting off on her own that night proved foolhardy, but she
had no choice. Her dearest friend was depending on her. Like her patriotic
brothers, Sera simply could not betray a noble trust. Even if it meant facing
bloodthirsty highwaymen at midnight.
She only wished she hadn't gone on this reckless mission alone.
Gripping the reins of her gray-speckled mare, Sera bit back her fear of
wolves and stared firmly ahead.
"Aye, ye be smart about it, guv!" hissed the thief behind her.
"No tricks and we'll do our business in peace."
Sera said nothing. In dawning horror, she realized she was trapped. A large
man with a bulbous nose pointed a pistol at her heart. His partner, a thin man
with a young raspy voice, cut off the path back to her home. Both highwaymen
looked and smelled fouler than their horses. Sera buried her nose within her
cloak to avoid the stench.
"I'm sorry, but I have nothing to give you, gentlemen." She tried
to deepen her voice, but it echoed with a distinctive high pitch. She winced at
the thought she sounded like her nephew with a cold.
"Gennelmen, is it?" mocked the man with the pistol. "We got
us a right cove 'ere, don't we Charles? I bet 'e always remembers to say please
and thank you even to 'is whores."
"Enough of the chit chat, Georgie!" snapped the second thief. He
cast a wary eye down the dark road. "Just get 'is money and let's be
off afore trouble starts."
"Nothing ever 'appens in East Chatham, brother." Charles gleamed
with wicked humor. "We got all night afore any of the locals emerge from
their cozy beds. Only ones about at this 'our are up to no good. Where ye
'eaded, boy? Into port for a bit o' muslin?"
Sera's hands trembled beneath her brother's cloak as a chill night wind
whipped through her. It seemed even Nature taunted her, making her feel alone
and unprotected. "Don't go pale on us now, boy!" barked the big-nosed
thief. "Right bred coves are easy to fright, ain't they Charles?"
"Just give us yer purse and we'll be on our way!" growled the
other in Sera's ear.
"No," she defied in a small, determined voice. "I told you
gentlemen, I have nothing to interest you."
"I'll be the judge of that." Charles ripped the cloak from Sera.
In the brief struggle, her long golden-brown hair tumbled out of its bindings.
Her assailants stared at each other in stunned recognition. "She's a
bloody chit!" the younger balked.
Stomping down her terror, Sera shot a repressive glare at the highwayman.
"I would thank you not to use such language in front of me, Mr. Charles.
Now please return my cloak. It is a cold night and I want to go home to bed. I
suggest the two of you do the same before someone gets hurt."
"Aye, she's a chit with a mouth on her," crooned the elder brother.
"Listen to the way she lectures us like a prim and proper lady."
"I am a lady!" Sera demanded stiffly. "The Earl of
Thornbridge's sister to be precise. Harm me and you'll have him to deal
"So you're Thornbridge's bit o' muslin, eh?"
"I am his sister," Sera corrected in clipped tones. She twisted
her mare’s reins; Persephone fidgeted beneath her.
"Thornbridge is an old blue blood like all his clan," retorted
young Charles. "His sister wouldn't be caught dead running around in
Sera thought dead an inappropriate word to use at that moment, but kept her
opinion to herself. Aptly, she sensed if these two thieves realized how
terrified they were making her, they'd become even more appalling and
dangerous. And she needed to get hold of her rampant fear to plot an escape so
she could get home to hear her brother lecture her again on the arrogance of
headstrong, foolish females.
"What are ye doin' out on the road at midnight, luv'ly?" Georgie
prodded. "Did ye tire of old Thorny already? Lookin' for a little
The way the man was looking at her made Sera want to go straight home and
take a bath. Instead, she stared rigidly ahead preparing herself for action.
There was no time to be afraid, no time to bemoan her reckless adventure. She
got herself into this mess and now she had to get herself out of it.
"Obviously, you are as stupid as you are ugly," Sera retorted in a tone
she hoped was haughty. "It would be pointless for me to answer your
"Ugly am I?" he taunted. "Aye, I guess ye pretty pieces are
used to the perfumed gents ye indulge. But a whore's still a whore no matter
which bed she lies in. Get between her knees and she 'owls whether ye're a duke
or a devil."
Sera blushed at the thief’s words, though she wasn't exactly positive what
they meant. Part of her wanted to run and hide, part of her wanted to strangle
him and another part of her wanted to be sick. The closer he leaned to her
bestowing noxious whiffs of his unwashed self, the more her stomach reeled.
To his delighted chuckle, Sera slapped Georgie's hand away from her leg.
"Feisty piece, ain't ye?" He chortled. "Tell me, does
Thornbridge like ye to wear britches or is that yer preference? I never 'ad a
woman in britches afore. It'd be an excitin' adventure."
"Georgie, let's just git 'er money and go," Charles griped.
"You can't have my money," Sera decreed like a school matron.
"Keep it, luv," cooed Georgie. "We'll take a samplin' of yer
"My what?" Sera blinked in confusion.
"Now ye be nice and quiet while we find ye a spot in the woods o'er
there. Not as soft as yer protector's bed, but I expect ye'll be forgettin'
that soon enough."
When Georgie snaked a lecherous arm around Sera's waist, instinct
overwhelmed her senses. Howling in outrage, she jabbed a sharp elbow into his
chin. The attack knocked her groping attacker completely off-guard. His pistol
fell, exploding as it hit the ground. Panic gripped the horses. Sera’s mare
bolted down the lane giving her only seconds to hold on.
The world spun in terrifying madness. Her attackers shouted a litany of
curses after her. Thunderous hooves roared behind Sera as the thieves chased
her down the empty road. Her heart pounded fast. Cold air rushed by her at a
dizzying pace. She thought she was going to faint and held onto Persephone
praying her mare knew where they were going.
Sera trembled low against her horse’s neck as they rounded the blind bend in
the road. Trees loomed out of the darkness casting menacing shadows that always
frightened her. This was the haunted stretch of road where ghosts waited for a
chance to terrify the living. Fleetingly, Sera wondered if the specter of an
angry warrior would spring up just in time to scare off the thieves who refused
to give up their pursuit.
It was on that thought Sera looked up. She saw him the same moment her
wide-eyed mare drew to a halt.
At the crest of the hill, atop a monstrous steed shrouded in an eerie
moonlit fog, the dark figure glared at his intruders like a medieval knight
waiting to enter a battle. Bewitched by the ghastly sight, Sera failed to
register Persephone's reaction until the mare reared in surprise and
unceremoniously dumped her mistress on the ground.
Splitting pain shot up Sera's weakened leg, but she staunchly ignored the
old injury. Hastily, she righted herself to her knees. Then she felt the earth
rumble beneath her. It was the unmistakable sound of approaching horses.
Charles and his lecherous brother were closing in.
Sera looked toward the eerie phantom as the ground began to tremble louder.
The mysterious rider was bearing down on her. Horrified, she realized she was
caught between the thieves behind her and the dark knight before her.
Scrambling for cover behind her mare, Sera prayed for redemption.
Miraculously, the rumbling halted a scant pace before her. She felt the
phantom’s eyes scrutinize her from the shadows of a cloud. "Stay here," he
commanded in a harsh whisper. Mutely, she nodded and watched her rescuer charge
past her. In one fluid motion, he drew a rapier and cornered the thieves at the
Georgie never had a chance. As soon as he raised his pistol at the intruder,
it was sliced out of his hand. Sera heard an almost reverent gasp escape young
Charles as he drew to a sudden halt before their challenger. Even from a
distance, she could see the greedy brothers pale.
Sera was amazed. Her phantom terrified and defeated her pursuers with a
simple look and a few hushed words. She tried to hear what they said, but only
caught the brothers' brief apology before they took flight. Then she watched
For a moment, her rescuer sat poised atop his mount with sword still drawn
like a ready sentry. Calm and confident, he seemed as if being a guardian was
natural for him. She wondered if he was a soldier and imagined him in the
horseguards bearing down on Napoleon with her friend Percy. Then he casually
sheathed his sword and turned his mount toward her.
Flexing its long powerful legs, the black stallion was a beautiful creature.
As lean and agile as his master, the beast had a curious aura denoting a wild
creature tamed by a gentle hand. Sera noticed how both rider and mount seemed
suited to the glowing mist of the night. Moonlight and shadows bathed them in
an alluring array of mystery. As he drew closer, Sera strained to piece
together the image of her rescuer's face.
They were barely a foot apart before Nature conspired to unveil the mystery.
He just dismounted when a large cloud rolled by in the heavens and illuminated
the barren road.
Silver shadows cloaked her rescuer suggestively. Dressed in black, he had a
dangerous quality about him. Dark eyes studied her with a mixture of surprise
and suspicion. As Sera pondered his hauntingly familiar expression, recognition
"Gabriel St. Clair?" she gasped in wonderment.
Gabriel St. Clair, the new Earl of Blackstone, was an enigmatic figure. Sera
had never met the prodigal son in person, but his portrait captivated her the
afternoon she called on his reclusive father. At the time, she thought the
artist was much too inclined towards the romantic style of painting, but to see
the actual subject standing before her took her breath away.
He was much taller than she imagined from the canvas replica hanging in his
father's country estate. Muscles bulged beneath his snug-black britches. A tiered
great cloak swirled about his giant six-foot height. He could block out the sun
just by stretching, she thought whimsically. Sleek, dark leather gloves covered
his fingers as he cradled the hilt of the sword hanging about his waist. Sera
noticed he shared his father's distinctive features: a hawk-like nose,
commanding chin and eyes that sparkled with intelligence.
More than his father had, Gabriel personified his grandfather's buccaneer
past. His midnight-black hair was unfashionably long and swept back over the
edge of his collar. His neck was notably absent of a gentleman's cravat.
Undoubtedly, it was a habit he picked up from his adventurous sea days.
Sera huddled on the lane oblivious to her disarray or her blatant stare.
Like a transfixed doe, she gazed at the notorious earl as if he were the most
fascinating creature she had ever seen. She was content to study the living
portrait until it rumbled to life.
"Are you hurt?" Polite concern edged his deep voice.
When she noticed him studying the hand massaging her knee, awkwardness
filled Sera. "No," she lied. "It's just a little nuisance from
an old injury. The stiffness acts up now and again."
To not appear an invalid simpleton, Sera rigidly climbed to her feet. The
once-mangled muscles groaned in familiar agony, but she doggedly refused to
indulge the whim to brace them with her hand. She stumbled slightly, but
quickly righted herself in practiced formality. All the while, her polite smile
remained defiantly unbroken.
Sera brushed the dirt from her and affected a dignified pose as she faced
her rescuer. It was difficult not to become entranced in his countenance.
"Forgive me for staring, Lord Blackstone," Sera blurted.
"It's just that you look quite different from your portrait, yet so
Sera nodded. "The one hanging in your father's Study. I assume it was
done when you were younger, before you left on your travels. It's quite good,
or so I thought at first, but now I realize the artist must not have had a keen
eye for his subject. Why, it doesn't even begin to do justice to your majestic
size nor your graceful strength."
The earl raised an inquisitive brow at the compliment. "As you seem to
know my identity, I fear you have me at a disadvantage, madam." His voice
rumbled mysteriously. Despite a casual air, his shadowy gaze glimmered
shrewdly. Almost as if he was testing her.
"Of course, my lord, I was forgetting myself. What with all this
unexpected excitement," Sera flustered. "You really were most
magnificent dispatching those ruffians, sir." She smiled in youthful
admiration. "You have my unending gratitude."
"I would settle for your name and your direction."
"My direction?" Sera hesitated. At first she thought he wanted to
know where she was going and knew instantly she'd have to lie. Then it occurred
to her that he wanted to know where she came from instead. Both thoughts
It suddenly dawned on Sera that she was standing in the midst of a barren
road, dressed most inappropriately and conversing with a virtual stranger as if
she'd met him at a country social. Most gentlemen, as the new Earl of
Blackstone most assuredly was, would think the situation highly scandalous of
Then, Sera realized her entire mission tonight was scandalous and possibly
foolhardy. Assuming she actually survived this night unscathed, no one could
ever know what she was doing when her brother's staff believed her sleeping.
Otherwise, her overprotective brothers would confine her to her bedchamber
until she was a blue-haired old spinster.
"Does your silence mean you’ve forgotten where you live, my lady?"
Lord Blackstone prodded. "If you will tell me your name, I can help you
find your way home."
"Why would you do that?" she asked warily.
"Call it a whim," he shrugged. "I hate to leave a task unfinished.
And as I have been obliged to rescue you once this night, I would find it quite
annoying to my pesky code of honor to allow a young lady of breeding to wander
about darkened roads unescorted when there are thieves and other miscreants
lurking in the shadows."
Something about the mention of other miscreants lurking in the shadows sent
ripples of alarm through Sera. Warning tolled silently in the back of her mind
as she gazed at her imperious rescuer.
"I fear this is a bit awkward for me, my lord." Shyly, she twisted
her hands together and spoke to his boots. Part of her advised a brief thank
you and a hasty retreat before she embarrassed herself by giving her identity.
Another part hesitated leaving her rescuer's side, knowing that the darkness down
the lane was both lonely and dangerous.
"I wasn't expecting to meet anyone of significance tonight," she
lied. "It's not appropriate of me to introduce myself, given the
circumstances. I wouldn't want to cause embarrassment, sir."
"I assure you, I am not so easily embarrassed," the earl assured.
"I was speaking of my own embarrassment, actually," Sera confessed.
Heaving a determined sigh, she hesitantly faced the earl. "Since you were kind
enough to come to my assistance, I suppose I owe you an introduction, at
"You have no need to fear ridicule, my lady," the earl promised.
"Knight-errants know the meaning of discretion." The reassuring
deepness of his voice soothed Sera. It rumbled in his chest like controlled
thunder, promising a tender spirit waiting to be unleashed.
With a polite smile, Sera curtsied gracefully concealing the slight misstep
of her lazy leg. Her oversized male attire marred the practiced feminine
greeting. The long sleeves she'd rolled up slipped past the edge of her
fingers. Her rope belt was coming undone forcing Sera to fight the trailing
edge of a large pant leg that covered her stumbling foot. Her voice brightly
chimed over the task. "I am Lady Seraphina Montgomerie, my lord. The Earl
of Thornbridge's daughter, although my brother has that title now. My family's
home is just a little up the road." Sera pointed toward the direction from
which she came.
Dutifully, the earl nodded. A glimmer of humor shined in his eyes before the
shadows claimed the whimsical emotion. He stared at her impassively.
"May I be so bold as to inquire how you found yourself in need of a
rescuer this evening? It is not customary for young ladies of your stature to
set out at this hour without an escort."
"Well, I can be quite uncustomary at times," Sera hesitated.
"I was a bit restless, you see, and it was such a pleasant night I thought
I'd take a ride to clear my mind. It was too late to wake any of the servants
to go with me, and I am used to riding alone anyway."
"Is that your usual riding attire?"
A faint blush crossed Sera's face at the biting question, but she didn't
hesitate to answer. "No, these are just some hand-me-downs from my
brothers. I know that it looks risqué, but I figured it would provide me a
little more security in case I encountered any undesirables on the road. It's a
most clever disguise, don't you think?"
The earl seemed amused by the ridiculous boast. He studied her haphazard
costume in a long surveying look. "I believe your assailants tonight might
not agree with that assessment," he commented dryly.
"Oh, that was only because my hair came undone when they ripped off
my--" Sera gasped in sudden alarm. "Oh good heavens, my brother's
cloak! I completely forgot about it when they were chasing me. Excuse me, my
In a flurry of motion, Sera climbed atop her mare. Hastily, she prodded
Persephone into motion. "I do hope they didn't run off with it. My brother
would be furious if he knew I took it. It's his favorite country cloak."
With silent command, the earl grabbed her mare's reins. "Before you
rush off into more danger, I believe I see the garment."
Blackstone stalked down the lane, disappearing in and out of the shadows
with all the romance and mysticism of Sir Walter Scott's adventures. He moved
with lethal grace defying the foreboding darkness like a panther on the prowl
in East Chatham. As if confirming her fancy, his cat eyes spotted the crumpled
cloak in the darkness of a tall oak tree. Shaking out the earthen debris, he
bundled it in his arms and sauntered toward her.
When he returned the garment, Sera carelessly folded it in her lap. "I
don’t know how to repay your kindness, Lord Blackstone. I don't know what I
would have done if you hadn't happened along tonight. I take it you were
restless for a midnight ride as well?"
"We are neighbors, Lady Montgomerie," the earl rumbled politely.
"I would be remiss if I did not come to your assistance when the moment
"Then we must be friends as well as neighbors, my lord." Sera
smiled brightly. "I have a habit of befriending just about everyone in
East Chatham, or so I'm told. My brothers have nicknamed my collection of
familiars my menagerie. They say I haven't the heart to turn away a friendly
face be it an earl's, a spinster's or a stray dog's. I would be honored if you
would consider yourself my friend."
"I would be equally honored, my lady." Despite his casual tone,
Sera glimpsed shadows dancing dangerously within his eyes. In the next moment,
he was reaching for his restless stallion and obscuring her view.
"My friends call me Sera," she corrected. "Do your friends
have a special name for you?"
"I fear, I don't have many friends, Lady Sera," the earl replied
as he regained his mount. "Save you, of course. I have just recently
returned to England." He gently nudged his black stallion down the lane.
Sera followed automatically.
"You were gone a long time?" It was more of a statement rather
than a question, but Sera didn't explain that. Of course, everyone in East
Chatham and many in the ton in general heard about the notorious
exploits of Lord Julius Blackstone's prodigal son. The Blackguard of
Blackstone supposedly made some ladies swoon just to hear the name, but
Sera ignored that piece of rumor. Certainly, he was an impressive man to meet,
but he wasn't at all threatening. He seemed more like the gentleman and
protector his father was.
"I've been abroad no longer than any other man in my position,"
the earl professed. "My business took me far afield." Bitterness
filled his shadowy eyes.
Belatedly, Sera realized her companion's business had apparently kept him
away from home longer than he expected. So long, he hadn't even been able to
attend his father's funeral. But then Lord Julius's death had been most sudden
and tragic. Surely, that was why his son seemed so intense when he studied her
like someone considering a distant desire.
"You were engaged in shipping?" Sera asked conversationally.
"Yes." A belying edge clung to the quick confirmation. "My
family has a healthy investment in that quarter. While my father was alive, I
undertook some of his more delicate contracts abroad."
"It must be wonderful to travel so," Sera crooned like a wistful
child. "I assume you have been to the East Indies and the Ancient
World?" To his nod, she continued enthusiastically. "I've read about
such places, in my brother's library, but to actually see the Seven Wonders
would be marvelous. I’ve read the domes of the Taj Mahal and the pillars of the
Acropolis are huge when stood next to a man."
"Each seems large enough to swallow the sun," the earl declared
with the irrefutable air of authority. The fanciful idea captivated Sera. She
imagined her imperious rescuer plucking the sun’s light with a simple stretch
of his spine. She was about to share her image when his lithe back twisted to reveal
the changing landscape.
The large gates of Thornbridge Manor loomed less than a few paces ahead of
Sera. She quickly spun towards the path she just followed wondering how she got
back home. Her wistful mood darkened with the memory of why she came out on
this wretched road.
Frantically, Sera searched the inner pocket of her brother's cloak.
Relieved, she felt the full moneypurse within. The thieves didn't get it in all
the madness. If they had, well she didn't even want to think about that
Sera covertly looked at her timepiece while trailing a few paces behind her
escort. Five of twelve. She still had time. She'd have to hurry, but if
she took the shortcut through the woods, she could be in the cemetery before
the church bells chimed. Sera wanted to be early to this clandestine meeting
and get her bearings, but things just weren't working out like planned.
Perhaps she should have just taken the shortcut in the first place and
avoided the main road altogether. Then those bandits wouldn't have waylaid her.
Or forced her to encounter the indomitable presence of Gabriel Blackstone. Sera
frowned at her last thought.
Casually, the earl turned his mount to face her at the gates of her home.
"Have you never left England then, Lady Sera?" His question was
phrased with mild interest, but his eyes studied her intently.
"I visited the Continent last year," she admitted, stealing
another glance at her timepiece. "It was only a brief visit when the War
ended. My brother was injured, and I insisted in seeing him safely home."
"I trust your brother is well now?" the earl asked as if he had
all the time in the world.
"Yes, Adrian hardly notices the pain in his shoulder these days,"
she replied in rushed tones. "He's far too busy working on his books and
doting on his bride."
"Thornbridge has a bride?"
"Um, no, Adrian is the youngest of my brothers," Sera explained
after a poignant pause. In her mind, the time was ticking and here she was
chatting away with this infuriating man. Actually, any other time, she would be
delighted to talk to the earl. He was an easy man to talk to. He didn’t
interrupt her or make her think she was babbling on, even when she knew she
"How many brothers do you have, Lady Sera?"
"Three," she replied quickly. Three minutes to twelve. Sera
made little effort to disguise her attempt to check the time. Her heart began
to pound a little faster. She was going to be late, but she didn't want to
leave either. Something about the earl was too intriguing for her to turn away.
He was like an adventurous novel that promised new excitement and unexpected
thrills with the turn of every page. She reveled in the sight of him. "My
Sera halted abruptly when she glimpsed Blackstone stroking his stallion's
neck. Black leather gloves fit snugly over his powerful hands. Delicately,
masterfully, his fingers caressed the sleek animal. The image intrigued and
beguiled Sera though she couldn't for the life of her figure out why.
"My brother Cassius is the second oldest," she continued in a
faded voice. "He was in the War too, but left the Continent much
A curious weakness filled Sera. She forced herself to remove her gaze from
Lord Blackstone's skillful hand. She was having too many fanciful thoughts
about where she'd like to see those fingers stroke.
Her traitorous eyes lingered over his sculptured leg as it rested in the
saddle. His britches were much too snug, uncomfortably so, she thought. Why
they showed every contour of his thigh muscles more accurately than the Ancient
Greek statues she'd seen in the British Museum.
"Was Thornbridge in the War as well?" Blackstone prodded through her
Sera thought she shook her head. "My brother Magnus inherited the title
when our parents died in a carriage accident. He's a widower now, but he has a
son. My nephew Julias wants to be a soldier like my brothers, but our uncle
says he’ll grow up just as bullheaded as his father. Montgomeries are either
soldiers, adventurers or stubborn politicians."
"Your family sounds like quite a brood," Blackstone muttered in a
mildly reproachful tone. With the ease of a playful cat, he carefully flicked a
speck of nonexistent dirt off his thigh precisely where his audience was
Sera ripped her gaze away with a blush and forced herself to keep her eyes on
her own lap.
"A loving brood, for the most part," she countered in a rush.
"But they can be a handful at times. My mother always used to say there's
a special place in hell for brothers. She meant it in the most loving
way," Sera added when she thought he might have misunderstood. "Mama
had several brothers of her own and was a bit of an authority on the matter.
She told me when brothers are young, they think of sisters as brats. But when
we mature, we become a mixture of hellion and angel."
Blackstone murmured teasingly. "And what are you, Lady Sera? Hellion or
"Neither, I fear," she confessed to her trembling hands. The
subtle seductive rumble in his chest made her thoughts clutter. Her pulse
quickened in awareness. Warmth and darkness slowly crept over her. "I'm
far too headstrong to be an angel, or so I'm told, but I have too many
principles to be a true hellion."
"A headstrong angel? Certainly a sight to behold."
She felt his whisper echo off her cheek. Sera looked up in surprise.
Somehow, Blackstone had quietly maneuvered his mount directly beside her. He
was close enough for her to see the glittering darkness of his moonlit eyes.
They were a misty emerald color, green and gray swirling together like a
morning fog bathing a fresh green meadow.
"Your eyes are even greener than your father's," Sera blurted.
"My father?" the earl repeated in dangerously soft tones. Sera's
mare snorted and backed away from him. Blackstone quickly grasped Persephone's
reins in silent unrepentant command. Intent shadows swirled ominously in his
eyes. "I confess, I'm surprised that you knew him, Lady Sera."
Sera swallowed nervously. In the back of her mind, she heard bells ringing,
but she was too entranced to figure out where she'd heard the familiar tones
before. Blackstone’s presence dominated and intrigued her.
"My father was an extremely private man who led an equally reticent life,"
he disclosed in dark speculation. "Virtually, no one got in to see him before
his death. I presume you bewitched him to become one of your friends as
Sera thought she sensed sarcasm in the earl's question, but couldn’t fathom
why. He was leaning closer to her, towering above her with an imperious glare
that made her wonder exactly what he intended.
Cold wind ruffled Blackstone’s cloak and bathed her in a dangerously
seductive heat. She realized she was gripping air where Persephone's reins
should be. Only Blackstone's gaze as he stared at her in the moonlight seemed
to matter. That and the curious noise she kept hearing chime in the distance.
"I barely knew your father," she admitted. "I only met him
the day before he died. If I'd known that the illness would have taken him so
soon, I would have come to visit him much sooner. He will be sadly missed. He
was a most noble and considerate man."
"Yes, he was," Blackstone intoned mournfully. "Some might say
too noble for the angels in this life." His eyes danced with grim shadows.
A hint of regret and recrimination edged the misty glare. For a moment, Sera
thought she sensed condemnation in his penetrating stare.
A cool night wind whipped a lock of hair across her face. Blackstone gently
stroked the errant strands behind her ear. His hand lingered a moment against
her cheek. Long, warm fingers caressed her. The feel of smooth dark leather
brushing her bare skin enthralled Sera. Unexpected warmth sprang to life within
"It must have been difficult for you," she gasped struggling to
keep her thoughts. In the back of her mind, she knew she was forgetting
something important. It kept ringing through her mind at an even, musical pace.
"Losing your father when you'd been away for so long. Many people lost
the ones they loved in the War."
"Yes, they did," the earl agreed grimly. Cunning shadows flickered
in his eyes. "And many people betrayed the ones that they loved. War
brings out the worst in even an angel. But peace brings retribution."
Unconsciously, Sera bit her lower lip. With the skill of a manipulative
seducer, Blackstone soothed the bruised flesh with the soft tip of his thumb.
The touch sent shivers of unaccustomed desire through Sera. She innocently gave
herself to the caress uncaring of its unwarranted familiarity. The warmth
inside her coiled hungrily.
"Gabriel?" Sera asked in a dreamy voice that forgot all sense of
propriety and how one addresses a total stranger. At that moment, she was
overwhelmed with the sensation that he was not an unknown person to her at all.
Gabriel Blackstone was incredibly real and so intimately close to her he could
no doubt see into her soul. She could feel his warm breath on her face, the
soft touch of his fingers on her lips as she lifted her gaze and indulged in
the beckoning shadows of his eyes. She had a sudden overwhelming desire. She
wanted to drown in his misty green embrace. "Do you hear bells?"
Emerald shadows glittered in silent triumph. Enchantment enticed and
beguiled Sera like a doe fascinated with her hunter. Dark motives swirled
beneath the earl's mask of gentle desire. Something that could have been
warning reflected within the shadows of his eyes. Cunningly, Blackstone pulled
His mouth hovered just a scant inch above hers when he finally answered.
"Church bells, love," he rumbled as he lowered his mouth to hers.
"I believe it is midnight."
Cold realization flooded Sera's mind in a cacophony of alarm.
"Midnight?" She jerked away from the earl before his lips
could touch hers. In the process, she accidentally kicked his stallion and
upset her own mare. Persephone skittered away causing the disgruntled earl to
momentarily lose his balance. With defiant grace, Blackstone narrowly righted
his angry steed.
Ignorant of her companion's struggle, Sera's mind whirled in panic. The
fading sound of midnight church bells tolled the terrible fact. She was not
only late, she may have missed her meeting altogether.
It was a travesty. She doubted her contact would give her another chance to
ransom back her honor. This mission was so important and she couldn't fail no
matter how charming it was to talk to the Earl of Blackstone.
Sera faked a loud yawn as she inched her horse toward the gates of her
brother's estate. "Forgive me, my lord. It's late and I really should be
in bed. Perhaps we may finish this conversation later?"
"Before we part Lady Sera, may I offer a bit of friendly advice?"
The gentle command in his voice halted Sera at the gates of her home.
Blackstone quickly shortened the distance between them. He studied her in
charged silence, then casually warned, "Beware where you wander on the
road at this hour. There's no telling whom you may meet. Friend or foe, in the
shadows, both look the same."
With that gentle pronouncement, the enigmatic earl reached for her hand and
gently kissed the back. His rigid lips felt unexpectedly soft and provocatively
warm. Desire teased Sera in acute awareness of his gentleman’s kiss. She never
wanted it to end. As if to deny her whim, he tickled her palm in lingering
Blackstone gleamed with subtle promise. "I look forward to our next
meeting, Lady Sera." With a polite nod, he nudged his mount in retreat.
For a moment Sera couldn't move or breathe, nor do anything beyond stare
after the man who had been her guardian angel when she thought she had none. He
charmed her, beguiled her, and entranced her with the most curious sensations
she ever felt in a man's presence. Shadows cloaked him in a mystery she
desperately wanted to unravel.
Church bells tolled a defiantly beckoning truth. There was only one mystery
she could solve at a time. One compelling drama she had yet to arrange in this
midnight escapade for her dearest friend. Sera checked her timepiece then
anxiously spied the woodland path beside her home.
She hesitated briefly, her beguiled gaze drawn down the lane to where she
felt something even more important was silently slipping away. With awe and a
wealth of curious longing, Sera watched the Blackguard of Blackstone
disappear into another moonlit fog as mystifyingly as he came.
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