Cover of St. Raven

Second excerpt from St. Raven

"...a crafty tale of sensuality and suspense as bewitching as the heady brew served up at Stokeley Manor." Bookpage

Chapter 2
    Cressida's heart had been racing forever, it seemed, but now it settled to a deep, fretful thud as she waited for the worst.
    For moments she heard only her heartbeats, as if she were alone, but with some deep and ancient instinct she knew he was there. It made silence more terrifying than shouting. She turned her head this way and that as if she might detect him.
    Then he said -- the highwayman said, "No one's going to hurt you. Please believe that."
    Strangely, she did. Her frantic heartbeats slowed.
    "I have things I need to do," he said, "so I must leave you bound here for a while. I'm sorry for it, but no one will hurt you." He spoke from closer by. "However, I need to tie you up a bit more."
    He ignored her, lifted her, wrapped something around her at elbow level and knotted it. Then he moved away, boots on carpet. She heard the door open and close.
    Now, she was alone.
    She wasn't sure whether to give thanks or vent rage. The scoundrel had wrenched her from her place and purpose, and now he had abandoned her here, bound and blindfolded. She raised her hands to push off the blindfold and realized why he'd tied her around her arms. She could not raise her hands high enough.
    She wriggled her head on the pillow but couldn't dislodge the cloth. She stopped. The cloth was tied over the back of her turban, and that was held in place with hairpins that dug and pulled at every movement.
    "Go hang yourself," she muttered to the absent villain, a useful phrase she'd found in Shakespeare. With any luck he'd be caught and end up at Tyburn, doing the hangman's jig.
    For some reason, that image did not particularly satisfy her. She supposed that thus far he hadn't deserved death.
    And he had blindfolded her for a reason. So she wouldn't see.
    So he wouldn't have to murder her?
    It was a warm summer's night, but a chill crept through her, and tears trickled beneath the blindfolding cloth.
    Tris ran downstairs and found Caradoc Lyne waiting for him in the parlor, sipping cognac. Cary was a strapping blond Adonis who generally shared Tris's carefree attitudes and sense of mischief. Now he disapproved.
    "I couldn't let her go with Crofton," Tris said.
    "I'd think not, but why tie her up?"
    Tris grabbed the decanter and poured himself some brandy. Smuggled brandy. A reward of another jape, but one that had gone a great deal more smoothly than this.
    "I should leave her free to wander the house or to run off?"
    "You could explain..." But then Cary pulled a face. "I suppose not."
    "Quite. She'll keep, and we still have a coach to hold up."
    "You said that would do."
    "On consideration, it won't. Crofton, damn him, is hardly likely to complain to the nearest magistrate." Tris drained the glass. "Come on."
    "Bollocks. If we have to try again, can I hold up the coach?"
    "No. I claim right of rank."
    They left the room, debating the honor, heading for the stables and fresh horses.
    "I could fit into the Crow's disguise," Cary argued.
    "And how long would it take to darken your hair and stick on this damn face hair?" Tris touched his beard and realized that one side still hung loose. "Damn that ungrateful harpy."
    Glue would take too long for his limited patience. While his long-suffering groom readied fresh horses, he used a bit of sticky emollient to tack the edge back. Then he mounted a new horse and returned to the fray.
    Cressida finally realized one reason her prison seemed eerie. There was no clock. She was accustomed to a bedroom clock. Occasionally she heard a distant chiming -- two quarters, then one o'clock -- but here was only silence and her own anxious breathing. What was going to happen when the man returned?
    She'd set out on this journey prepared for terrible things, but not this. She'd been prepared to give herself to Crofton, but she'd had a plan to avoid that, a plan that now lay in pieces, damn Le Corbeau!
    She supposed she should be terrified, but she seemed to have moved beyond that to mild insanity.
    Since arriving in London, she'd written frequent letters to her best friends back in Matlock, entertaining them with her observations of the capital and the ton. What a shame she'd not be able to write about this.
    Witty phrases popped into her mind to do with Le Corbeau and the haute volee, which meant the high flyers of society -- the dandies, dukes, and Patronesses of Almack's, who had all failed to notice the arrival amongst them of ordinary Cressida Mandeville. They'd notice if this scandal ever became known!
    She wasn't particularly uncomfortable, but she was furious at how those men had handled her. Her wrists were tied with her garters, and she suspected her ankles were bound with her very expensive silk stockings. Which some man had removed, the knave!
    Malmsey-nosed knave, she borrowed from Shakespeare, hoping that indeed her captor had the swollen red nose of the drunkard.
    Strange that a person could be frustrated, bored, frightened, and furious all at the same time.
    She turned her mind to planning. She must escape this captor, continue to Stokeley Manor, and complete her mission....
    It was very late, though, and she'd hardly slept recently for dread of this journey, so wandering amid wilder and wilder plans, she drifted off to sleep.
    She woke with a start.
    Darkness...? No, blindfold! This wasn't a nightmare, then.
    It was reality, and he was back.
    She'd been waked by sounds -- things being moved some distance away. If only she could see! Faint light around the edge of the blindfold told her a candle was lit.
    He was back, presumably with time now to do things. Shivers ran through her, and her teeth threatened to chatter. She clenched them, but it didn't work. He'd hear, and he'd... do what?
    Water. Splashing.
    The mundane picture was shockingly clear.
    He was pouring water from a ewer into a washing bowl. A slight splashing told her he was washing. It leached the terror out of her, leaving her limp and dazed. A vile rapist might well wash before attacking her, but it seemed so unlikely.
    The sound of water awakened thirst. Her throat turned tight and dry enough to choke her. "May I have a drink of water?" she managed.
    Abrupt silence."I thought you were asleep. Wait a moment."
    She worked her tongue around her mouth to moisten it, all the while following sounds. Water pouring. Footsteps again, coming closer. She only flinched a little when he touched her face.
    "Water," he said, clearly to diffuse her fear. What a strange villain this was.
    She didn't resist when his arm pushed under her and raised her. When cool glass pressed against her bottom lip she opened her mouth. He tilted the glass, and blessed water filled her mouth. She swallowed; he poured. A strange union -- his hands, her mouth, working together as if practiced by familiarity....
    But then the synchrony broke. He tilted too fast or she swallowed too slow. She jerked, almost choked.
    "Sorry." The glass was removed. She felt him stroke the dribble from her chin, and she smelled sandalwood again, stronger now. He'd just used sandalwood soap on his hands.
    Soap, horse, leather, man. She had never noticed such things before and she didn't want to now. They created a weakening sense of intimacy. She needed to see! To see a malmsey-nosed villain.
    "Don't. Please...."
    "Hush." He laid her back down, settling her head last and carefully. A new foolish distress attacked. She could imagine what she looked like, lying here in her tilted turban and crushed, disordered finery.
    He walked back across the room and she heard a strange sound. A soft tearing. A muttered curse.
    His false beard and mustache!
    What would he look like without them? More important, would she know him? She'd lived among the haute volee these past months. On the edges of the fashionable world, but still there. If she did recognize him, she must not show a hint of it!
    A new worry stirred. Would he recognize her?
    That would be disaster. She was merely the daughter of Sir Arthur Mandeville, however, minor nabob. She doubted most of the ton were aware of her existence. And anyway, a man desperate enough to become a highwayman would hardly have been dancing at London balls.
    More washing. Two thumps that were probably his boots. Her hearing was so sensitized by then, so frantic for detail, that she heard his stockinged footsteps as he came back to the bed.
    Now. Now it would happen. Fighting might be useless, but she'd fight anyway. When a hand grabbed her foot, she kicked.
    Something cold touched her ankle. She felt a sharp tug.
    Her legs were suddenly free, and she used them to try to push away from him.
    "Don't be afraid."
    "Why not? You're a criminal."
    "But of the more gallant variety."
    She could tell he was coming no closer, so she stilled.
    "You really didn't want to go on with Lord Crofton, you know."
    "Oh, yes I did." She wished he'd take off the blindfold, but then didn't. She mustn't see his face.
    Silence, but then a weight settled on the bed not far from her feet. She flinched. She couldn't help it.
    "Why what?"
    "Why were you going willingly with Crofton?"
    "That, sir, is none of your business. Now kindly return me."
    "You think he'll be waiting for you by the road?"
    The lazy amusement made her want to scream with frustration. She had thought that, and it was ridiculous.
    "Of course not. You can take me to Stokeley Manor."
    "Whereupon he will have me arrested."
    "Take me close, then. I will manage on my own from there."
    "I don't doubt it." After a moment, he asked, "Who are you?"
    Now what? He must assume that she was a light-skirt, so why the question? What answer would get her on her way? Everything, everything, hinged on getting to Stokeley Manor.
    He seemed to think he was rescuing her, so he'd let her go only if he believed her to be a hardened harlot.
    "Who am I, sir?" she replied in as bold and brittle a tone as she could. "Your captive, and yes, Crofton's whore."
    The bed moved again. Oh, Lord. He was lying down. Not touching her, but lying beside her....
    A hand brushed down the front of her gown. She flinched but managed to silence a protest. Presumably a whore wouldn't mind.
    Would he feel her frantic heartbeats?
    That hand stroked up again, lightly past her breasts, shockingly against the bare skin of her chest, and then over her throat, trapping breath there. She stretched back, desperate to escape.
    "I won't hurt you, my lovely one, but if you're willing to serve Crofton, why not serve me for the night?"
    He suddenly rolled on her, pressed on her, hot, hard, huge.
    "No!" she screamed, trying helplessly to fend him off with her bound hands and skirt-tangled legs.
    He captured her wrists, and she felt lips on her fingers.
    He was kissing them?
    "Why not?" Such a light voice, as if she were not fighting at all. "I'll pay your usual fee. I'll pay double."
    How would a whore react?
    "I'm very expensive."
    "I'm very rich."
    "And selective. I don't go to just any man with guineas in his hands."
    He chuckled. "I'm not just any man, sweet nymph of the night. You know, I've never had a whore refuse me before."
    She recognized her mistake this time. Probably a whore never did refuse a man with guineas in his hands.
    Whore. She'd set off on this adventure prepared to be that, but only because she believed she could avoid it. Now here she was, assaulted, helpless, pressed upon by this vile man's body and his will.
    Should she let him do what men do so he'd help her complete her journey? Bile rose at the thought, but she would let him if it would work. It wouldn't. He'd find out she was a virgin, and heaven alone knew what would happen then.
    Something brushed her lip -- a thumb, she thought, and tossed her head to escape it. He overwhelmed her, his big body pinning her, pinning her hands between them, as his hands confined her head and his lips pressed to hers.
    She heard her own stifled sob and prayed he'd take it for protest not terror.
    "I've never forced a woman," he whispered against her lips, "and I won't start with you. But can't I persuade you? It would be delightful for both of us, and you know, you must know, how a man's blood heats after action and danger."
    "No! I mean, don't! Lord Crofton hired me. I consider myself his at the moment."
    "Honor among sinners?" He was laughing at her. "Come on, my pretty. He'd do the same if our situations were reversed."
    He moved. His weight lifted off her. For a moment she hoped, but then his knee pressed down between her legs, parting them. Pressed up...!
    "Stop. Please!"
    He stopped, but he did not free her. She lay there, breathless, pinned, pressed....
    "Who are you?" he asked again, and at last she understood.
    He didn't believe her. For whatever reason, he didn't believe she was a courtesan, and he was prepared to force the truth from her. He wouldn't stop until she gave in.
    Bitterly, she accepted the inevitable. She was on his territory in matters physical and metaphysical. In this, he was the victor. What name, though? Not her own.
    The first name to pop into her mind was that of the curate's wife in Matlock. "Jane Wemworthy."
    "Whore?" he demanded.
    Breath came now, a deep breath of anger. "No."
    Then he was gone. Gone from her body, gone from the bed.
    She fought when he grabbed her hands, but then she felt cool metal again. A moment later her hands were free. She reached up to shove the horrible blindfold from her face, almost taking her turban with it until pins caught her hair. She worked the cloth over it, sitting up, searching the room for information, for anything that might help her.
    She was in a modest bedroom lit by a branch of three candles. Ivory wallpaper, mahogany armoire and washing stand, rust-brown curtains and bed-hangings.
    And the man standing at the end of the four-poster bed was the gloriously handsome Duke of St. Raven. She felt as if her eyes were expanding with shock, and tried desperately not to show that she had recognized him.
    How could she not?
    Everyone knew St. Raven. He was the elusive star of society, the glorious prize. He'd inherited the dukedom from his uncle last year just after Waterloo and promptly fled the country. Cressida didn't know if he'd fled or taken the new opportunity to travel, but people had spoken of it in that way. He had, after all, instantly become the prime quarry in the marriage hunt.
    A young, handsome, unmarried duke, and apparently sound in mind and body as well.
    When he'd returned a few months ago and begun to attend society events, the steam of frenetic fervor had been enough to drive an engine. Cressida couldn't count the number of times she'd been in the ladies' room at a ball or soir‚e and heard young women gasping about seeing! him, speaking! to him, and sometimes even dancing! with him.
    Most ladies held no hopes of becoming his duchess, but a few were contenders. Diana Rolleston-Stowe, toast and duke's granddaughter, had burned with ambition. The beautiful Phoebe Swinamer had assumed an almost proprietary air toward him. Cressida looked at the man before her and wondered how Miss Swinamer dared.
    He was tall, but that wasn't what made him so formidable. Nor was his rank. In a simple shirt, open at the neck, and black leather breeches, St. Raven's presence filled the room. He took up more space than his size explained, and he was as handsome close to as from a distance.
    Though big and strong, he possessed a fine-boned elegance, along with the drama of dark hair and deep blue eyes. As she'd noticed before, his lips suggested things a lady should not even think about.
    "You recognize me." It was not a question.
    Too late, too late, she saw her danger. "Yes."
    Would they hang a duke for playing highwayman? Surely they'd have to do something if she identified him. She slid a glance at the long, sharp knife on the table by the bed. She could almost feel it slicing into her throat....
    "More water, Miss Wemworthy?"
    In her terror, the offer and the name confused her so she stared at him. Then she managed, "Yes, please, Your Grace."
    Surely not even the most deranged criminal and murderer would behave like this.
    Or laugh, as he did now. "I think we've progressed beyond such formality. Call me St. Raven. I intend to call you Jane."
    "Even if I object?"
    He gave her the filled glass. "Miss Wemworthy is such a mouthful, and sounds so stern as well. Like the sort of woman who disapproves of amusements, or writes improving tracts."
    Cressida concentrated on drinking, trying to stifle her reaction. He had Mrs. Wemworthy exactly. Surely everyone didn't suit their names?
    St. Raven did have something of the predator about him, but Mandeville was all wrong for her. Centuries ago Sir John Mandeville had written of his travels to wild lands full of dragons and creatures who were half man, half beast. She loved the stories, but had never wanted to travel beyond the safe and ordinary herself.
    Safe and ordinary. She was on the Duke of St. Raven's bed! She couldn't help thinking of the hundreds of young women who would swoon at the thought.
    Surely she was safe from rape. Compromise a young lady whom he then might have to marry? She was surprised he hadn't already tossed her back on the King's Highway.
    "More water?" he asked, as if her thirst were the prime concern.
    "No, thank you." She had other needs, however, and refused to be missish about them. "I will soon need a chamber pot, Your Grace, and privacy to use it."
    "Of course," he said, equally unembarrassed. Cressida realized that she'd hoped to put him out. "Give me your word that you won't try to run away before we talk again, and I'll provide you with a private room and all comforts."
    She blinked at him. "You'd accept my word?"
    "It is not binding?"
    She wanted to rap out, "Of course," but she wasn't quite sure. No one had ever asked her for it before, and being practical....
    "Clearly not," he remarked, brows rising.
    "If you were a villain, Your Grace, and I could escape by giving you my word, I'm afraid I would do it."
    He smiled. "Clever and honest."
    Her heart did a somersault. He was definitely the sort of man who drove women to make fools of themselves, and it wasn't entirely because of his rank.
    Not her, she resolved. Not her.
    "So," he said, "you must decide if I am a villain or not."
    Suddenly irked by her position, she scrambled off the bed. "You are a highwayman," she pointed out, empowered by being vertical.
    "Not true."
    "How can you say `not true'? You just held up a coach and kidnapped me!"
    "Very well, somewhat true."
    Improperly, he sat while she was standing, sat on the bed, leaning back against one of the carved bedposts, his right arm around his raised knee. She didn't think she'd ever in her life been with a man so casually -- casually dressed, casually arranged, casually mannered.
    And this was a duke! The Duke of St. Raven.
    She'd think she must be dreaming except that she could never conjure up anything so outrageous.
    "But I was only playing at it for the one night."
    She remembered now that he was said to be wild. "You find being a thief amusing?"
    "After a fashion. This consequence, after all, is certainly novel."
    "I think you're mad."
    His lips twitched. "I wouldn't if I were you. Quite alarming to be in the power of a madman." He let that sink in for a moment, then added, "To return to the matter of your parole, I cannot allow you to go to Lord Crofton's, so unless I'm sure that you will be here in the morning, I'll have to take steps. Tie you up, perhaps. Or," he added, "tie you to me."
    Those eyes swept to her breasts. She glanced down. Her too-large-for-fashion bosom was rising and falling with her agitated breaths. In the low evening dress that Crofton had insisted upon, they were highly exposed. She put her hand to shield herself and felt the notes crackle. She remembered the duke putting her earrings and the money down there.
    She swallowed and met his eyes. "I am barefoot and heaven alone knows where, Your Grace. I will not leave until tomorrow."
    "It is tomorrow. You will not leave until we have breakfasted and discussed matters."
    She hated to be given orders, but she said, "Very well."
    "Your word of honor?"
    She hesitated again, but only in awe of being asked for it. "My word of honor."
    "Come, then." He stood, took his branch of candles, and led the way out of the room to the one next door. It was only then, eye-to-back, that Cressida realized that he might have sat down to give her the height advantage.
    Could she believe he'd do something so understanding, so thoughtful?

Read Chapter Three

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