Notorious Angel - a novel by Jennifer KokoskiPublished by Hard Shell Word Factory 

"Beware the Angel of Death... She holds the key."

Cryptic words scrawled in a dying man's missive to his son are the only clues to murder, treason and romance in Regency England.


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Chapter 1

February, 1816
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 Sera had.
     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 with."
     "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 britches."
     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 adventure?"
     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 questions."
     "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 wares instead."
     "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 bend.
     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 him.
     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 slowly beckoned.
     "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 similar."
     "My portrait?"
     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 horrified her.
     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 her.
     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 least."
     "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 lord."
     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 presented itself."
     "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 possibility.
     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 was.
     "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 brother--"
     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 sooner."
     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 distraction.
     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 watching.
     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 angel?"
     "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 well?"
     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 her belly.
     "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 her closer.
     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 retreat.
     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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