Authors: A Seductive Offer
For allowing your little sister to play with your typewriter,
for all the clothes and makeup over the years,
for always laughing at my jokes,
and for providing calm waters to float my armada.
I nub nu, Albalfa.
A scream pierced the darkness.
Softly closing the door behind her, Rachel held her still…
Cool, hard stone pressed against her back.
“It’s a little daring, don’t you think?” Rachel turned to…
What was Brave doing with her bonnet?
Was he mad?
“You look so beautiful.”
“I now pronounce you husband and wife.”
Rachel rose with the sun the following morning. It seemed…
Rachel delayed meeting her mother-in-law until after luncheon. Taking a…
After a surprisingly comfortable dinner with Brave and his mother,…
Brave had known who had stolen the pistol the minute…
“I have something I’d like for you to take a…
Bundled up against the late-afternoon chill, Rachel went for that…
He’d just taken his wife’s virginity on her bedroom floor.
It took several men and a great deal of strength,…
Lady Marion wept a little when they told her the…
Rachel never thought she’d be so happy—no relieved—to be at…
Instead of going straight to Brave and demanding to know…
scream pierced the darkness.
Balthazar Wycherley, seventh Earl Braven—known to his intimates as “Brave”—froze as the earsplitting shriek turned his blood to ice. He’d never heard anything like it before. There was something unholy about such a sound on a cold damp night like this.
The banshee’s wail echoed off the wall of trees surrounding him, fading into an eerie whisper as the cold October wind swept it away. He looked up at the clouds, indistinguishable against the black sky, save for where the frosty touch of the moon turned them into puffs of luminescent silver. Perhaps it wasn’t a banshee bringing news of his demise. Perhaps it was a ghost from the past. Or more likely, the one of his guilty conscience. The forest was now perfectly silent. No specters slipped from the darkness to claim
his soul. His heart still beat in his chest—with uncomfortable determination, in fact.
He stood there for a moment, listening for the rattle of ghostly chains, before chuckling bitterly. So this was what he’d become—a coward quivering in the woods, waiting for the dead to claim their—
Another scream tore through the night, raising the hair on the back of his neck and sending his heart pounding against his ribs. If it was a ghost, it was a terrified one.
Brave didn’t think. He simply reacted. He ran in the direction of the scream, crashing through the trees and dodging roots that would pull him to the ground with the agility of one who knew the land like he knew his own face. Anxiety swelled within him, drove him. He had to find the woman whose fear shivered down his spine. Whether it was out of a sense of heroism, or the hope of coming face-to-face with the ghost that haunted him, he couldn’t say.
Seconds later, he stood on the bank of the Wyck. Recent rains had swollen the river so that it tumbled and roared in its bed. Moonlight spilled across its path, turning foaming whitecaps to silver against the inky water. He shivered, knowing how cold it would be at this time of year.
An arm rose from the raging flow, and Brave’s eyes widened as he realized it belonged to a young woman clinging tenaciously to a large rock in the roughest part of the river. He watched in dry-mouthed horror as she struggled to hang on to the slick stone as the current pushed against her. If she lost her grip, the river would kill her for certain.
“Please, help me!”
No, not Miranda. This voice was far too low and far too alive to be Miranda.
Which meant it was up to him to keep it that way.
“Hang on!” he yelled, cupping his hands around his mouth in an effort to be heard above the raging river. There was a bridge just a few yards upstream. He could cross it and attempt to rescue her from the opposite shore—although he had no idea how such a feat was to be accomplished.
An eternity passed as he raced along the bank to the bridge. As he ran toward her, he could see the girl struggling to keep her head above water as the belligerent current tossed wave after wave into her face. Gasping, she pulled herself farther up onto the rock. Her face was strained with the effort.
As he came to a halt beside a towering old tree, Brave realized just how difficult rescuing her would be. He might very well risk his own life in the process. He tossed his gloves to the ground.
She watched him intently in the frosty moonlight, her expression both relieved and fearful. Her eyes, round and black with panic were almost too big for her stark white face. Lord only knew how long she had been hanging off that rock, and if the cold didn’t soon conquer her, the strain in her shoulders just might.
As if to prove just how cold the water was, frothy droplets sprayed his face as a large wave smashed against the bank. Icy pinpricks stung his cheeks.
Surprise coursed through him. She knew him. Startled, and more than a little wary, he took a good look at her.
Long blond hair that shone like tarnished silver in the moonlight obscured some of her face. But there was no mistaking the owner of those huge, waiflike eyes and strong nose. It was Rachel Ashton—the daughter of one of his father’s closest friends. All the more reason why he
to save her. Rachel was in serious danger of drowning, not to mention freezing to death, and only he could save her.
It had been a long time since he’d saved someone. Wishing he had didn’t count.
Pushing all thought except the present from his mind, Brave yanked off his coat and rolled up his sleeves. The autumn air bit through the thin lawn of his shirt, and he shivered, knowing the river would be much colder.
“What are you d…doing?” Rachel cried.
“Rescuing you—if all goes according to plan.” Eyeing the branches hanging just above his shoulder, Brave hesitated. What he was contemplating was madness—the servants would have a fit when they found out. Odd, but as crazy as his plan was, he hadn’t felt so right about anything in a long time.
And perhaps saving her would take away some of the pain for the one he hadn’t saved.
Grasping a low branch, Brave pulled his weight upward, swinging himself into the yawning embrace of the tree with surprising ease. Bits of bark clung to his reddened palms, and he brushed them against his trousers before easing himself into a horizontal position on the branch.
He inched forward, the muscles of his fingers and thighs clenched tight around the limb for balance and leverage. As the bark tore the buttons from his waistcoat, he moved his large frame cautiously forward. The tree was old and sturdy, but he hadn’t tested its strength since he was a lad and he was much larger now than he had been then. It would do neither of them any good if he tumbled into the water with her. He could swim, but he doubted he could carry their combined bulk against the current.
The branch didn’t budge under his weight. Satisfied that it would hold him, he crept farther until he was suspended directly over Rachel. She stared up at him, mute and wide-eyed. It was a look he had seen before—an expression of desperation that only women seemed capable of. Miranda had given him the same look.
Thrusting haunting visions of tear-filled eyes to the back of his mind, he turned his attention back to the task at hand. He was Rachel’s only chance, and he wasn’t about to let her down.
“I hope this works,” he muttered, before taking a deep breath and throwing himself over the side of the branch. The world tipped and fell. How did he get himself into these situations?
Because he went looking for them. Ever since he was a child he’d gone out of his way to rescue whatever pitiful creature needed it. He hadn’t always been successful.
Please God, don’t let me fail this time
Beneath him Rachel gasped at his daring move. He would have laughed were it not for the fact that he was hanging upside down like a bat above an irate river. With his legs wrapped securely around the tree, the momentum of his action had him swinging like a lazy pendulum above the raging water. He knew his legs could easily support his weight.
He just didn’t know if his legs and the branch could support her weight as well.
The river washed over her, alternately pushing and pulling her into its frigid bosom. She came up gasping for the breath stolen from her.
“Grab my hand!” he yelled above the crashing water. His fingers brushed the side of her face as he reached down for her. Her chilled flesh was soft—silky. The shock of it almost made him yank his hand away. How long had it been since he had touched a woman?
Despite her obvious fear, he didn’t have to tell her twice. She gripped his arm with one hand, then the other, crying out softly as the current lifted her.
“It’s all right,” he told her once he was certain the branch wasn’t going to break—yet. “I’ve got you.”
Yes, but what was he going to do with her? He had no idea how to get her to shore other than trying to lift her, and trying to lift something that probably weighed between
eight and nine stone while hanging upside down was not going to be easy, doubly so when that nine-stone weight was also waterlogged.
“Damn.” He gazed down at her, painfully aware that the blood was rushing to his head and making him dizzy. “Hang on. Whatever you do, don’t let go.” Fuzzy warmth swam behind his eyes.
“Don’t worry,” she yelled above the rush of the river. “I won’t.”
With determination that came from knowing he had to do something or let her die, Brave clenched his jaw, took a deep breath, and began to curl himself up at the waist. His shoulder groaned, his stomach muscles burned, and it felt as though his eyes might burst right out of their sockets, but he lifted his upper body until he was able to grasp the branch with his free hand.
Her weight threatened to pull him back down. She was a good-sized, healthy girl. Lucky for him the fashion was for flimsy gowns. If she had been wearing anything heavier than her waterlogged muslin gown and pelisse, he never would have been able to lift her this way.
Clutching the branch in a death grip, he strained every muscle in his body to hoist himself facedown onto the limb, grasping the rough bark tightly as the world suddenly dimmed before him. His head swam with prickling dizziness, and pretty colors danced before his eyes.
“Oh God, p…please don’t faint!” Rachel cried, as she slowly separated his arm from his shoulder.
He smirked down at her, even though he wasn’t sure which image undulating before him was truly her. “I’ll try to refrain from swooning until my arm is completely wrenched free of its socket.” His vision began to clear and he gave his head a quick shake. “I’m going to pull you up. When I get you up here I want you to try to pull yourself onto the branch.”
She nodded, and Brave clenched his jaw against the task at hand.
The pain in his shoulder was almost intolerable, but he was no stranger to pain. Reaching around with his free hand, he grabbed her other arm and began pulling her up.
By the time he helped her down the tree to the ground, he was ready to collapse on the grass alongside her. Brave’s teeth were chattering and he sagged weakly against the thick trunk. The bark poked through to his skin, but he didn’t care. He would be in bad shape come morning.
“Oh, Braven. Thank you.” Wrapping her arms around her shivering form, Rachel weaved on her feet. “I s…surely would have died if you hadn’t c…come along. I w…would have hated to d…die like that.”
He laughed humorlessly. There was a certain irony to being allowed to rescue the girl who hadn’t wanted to die. Maybe there was a grand plan to the world after all.
Or maybe he’d just gotten lucky this time.
“I am glad…” Words failed him as he looked up at her. Right-side up and not neck deep in water, she was definitely a sight to behold.
An angel, actually. Had she always been so lovely?
Pale ribbons of hair clung to her face and slender neck. Her thin coat and gown clung to her curvaceous form like second skin. Her wide eyes seemed to glow with an ethereal light. Her lips…
“Oh Lord, your lips are turning blue!” He staggered over to where he had thrown his coat and returned with it, wrapping it around her shivering shoulders. He couldn’t bring himself to look at her. Not until the color returned to her face. It was too much. That frigid pallor brought back too many memories.
Rachel trembled against him. “Th-thank you.”
“Come, we must get you dry.”
She didn’t argue, as he helped her to her feet. Nor did she
ask where he was taking her. He supposed she was too numb to care, or just assumed he would take her Wyck’s End.
Holding her frigid hand in his own, he tried to concentrate on warming her fingers, not on how delicate her bones were, or how much larger his own hand was. It had been a long time since he’d held a woman’s hand. And only a man out of his wits could be so aware of a half-drowned chit.
Half-drowned. Oh yes. There was irony there.
There was a path from the river to his estate, and he made for it. It was different from the route he’d taken to the river, and much shorter.
Eager to get both himself and his icy angel warm, he practically dragged her through the woods toward Wyck’s End. She stumbled behind him like a newborn colt after its mother. With luck, the movement would warm her limbs.
He tried not to think about her limbs. He’d seen the curve of her thighs outlined by her sodden gown, the soft roundness of her calves. It wasn’t as though she was out of the common way. But his reaction to her was. He’d believed that part of him dead these last two years. It was both comforting and alarming that it hadn’t completely given up the ghost.
When she fell to her knees on the edge of the back lawn, he scooped her up into his arms with a muffled curse and, despite his protesting muscles, staggered the rest of the way carrying her. She snuggled against him, her chattering teeth the only sound in the otherwise silent night.
With his arms incapacitated by his waterlogged bundle, Brave gave the back door of Wyck’s End a resounding
with the sole of his scuffed Hessian.
Reynolds, his butler, looked only mildly surprised to see his master stumble in the servant’s entrance with a soaking-wet woman in his arms.
“Do you require some assistance, my lord?” he intoned, arching a thin gray brow. He had been part of the household ever since Brave was an infant and was more like family than
a mere servant. He was also one of the few servants who didn’t treat him as if he could snap at any moment.
“Some hot tea, Reynolds,” Brave grunted decisively, lurching down the corridor. “And some blankets and fetch one of my robes.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Tea would be l-lovely,” the bundle in his arms agreed through clattering teeth. “Thank you.”
“You may thank me when I finally put you down.” Brave groaned, maneuvering around a sharp corner into the main body of the house. “I might be more appreciative of it then.”
He carried her down the dimly lit hall. Portraits of his ancestors watched with haughty disapproval at the dribbles of water left behind him on the carpet. Brave stared straight ahead, ignoring their criticizing gazes along with the pain in his back and shoulders.