Read The Perfect Stranger Online

Authors: Anne Gracie

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General, #Regency

The Perfect Stranger (2 page)

BOOK: The Perfect Stranger
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The dog barked again, but now its menace was directed into the darkness. Her pursuers must be almost here.

As she scrambled off him, Faith tried to think of the words in French to explain, to beg for help. Not a single word or phrase came to her frightened brain. She knelt beside him in the sand, struggling to pull her wits together.

His features were in shadow, silhouetted against the fire. “Mademoiselle?” His voice was harsh, deep.

Her mouth opened and closed helplessly. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she whispered in English. “I can’t think of the words. Oh God!” She could not see his face. Her own was lit by his fire.

His voice sharpened. “You’re English!” He stood abruptly. He seemed immensely tall.

Faith nodded. “Yes. Yes, I am. And you—” His words pierced the fog in her brain. He was English, too.

“Thank God, thank God,” she whispered. Though why she should feel safer with him just because he was English as well as clean was a mystery. But somehow, she did.

The dog suddenly broke into a renewed frenzy of barking, and she pulled herself together. “Those men, they’ll be here any minute—”

He did not so much as glance away. He bent down and held out his hands to her. “Can you stand?” Distantly she realized he spoke with no hint of an accent. Spoke, in fact, with the tones of a gentleman.

She nodded, though her legs were shaking. He helped her to her feet with strong, gentle hands. She stared fearfully into the darkness. The dog snarled and growled, clearly sensing her pursuers, though they’d gone very quiet. “Enough, Wulf!” The dog stopped, and silence fell.

Three silhouettes were dimly visible against the glimmer of the sea and sky.

“They’re after me.”

“So I presumed. But why are they chasing you? Did you steal—”

“No!” she said indignantly. “They want—they think—they think I am—”

His gaze ran over her, coldly assessing. “I understand,” he said in a clipped voice.

He did, too, she could tell from his tone. She hung her head, too mortified to speak.

“Sit down over there, near the fire,” he ordered. “I’ll deal with them.”

“But there are three men! Maybe more.”

His teeth glinted in a savage smile. “Good.”

Good?
Faith stared at the shadowed face, wishing she could see him properly. What could he possibly mean by
good
?

A voice from the darkness shouted roughly in French, “Hey, you there! That woman is ours.”


Oui
, give her back, and there will be no trouble,” another added.

The tall man answered in French. “The woman is mine.” The dog snarled, as if to reinforce his words.

“The woman is mine.”
An implacable statement of fact. Faith shivered. Did she now have four men to flee instead of three? She glanced up at him, a tall, featureless silhouette. A spurt of anger shot through her. She was no man’s woman. Since she’d walked out on Felix all sorts of men thought she was theirs for the taking. Was it only ten days ago? It seemed like an endless nightmare, getting worse each time.

The first man swore. “The whore is ours. We found her first.” He spat. “You can have her when we’ve finished with her.”

They were planning to
share
her? Oh God! Faith began to shake again. She looked around her for a weapon, a knife, or even a heavy stick, but she could see no sign of anything useful. The biggest pieces of wood had been thrown on the fire. She would have to run. Again. The stitch in her side had eased, and her breathing had returned to normal—almost. Her face ached and her ankle throbbed, but she was in a better state to keep running than ten minutes before. Surreptitiously she bent and began to unlace her heavy boots. She would be faster on the sand barefoot.

The tall man bent sideways and took her wrist with a firm grip. “Stop that,” he ordered softly, drawing her upright again. “You won’t need to run. You have my word you will be safe.”

He raised his voice and announced with quiet menace, “The girl is mine, and I don’t share. She stays with me.” He said to Faith in an undertone, “See those saddlebags over there on the blanket beside the guitar? There’s a pair of pistols in them. Fetch them for me, there’s a good girl. I can’t take my eyes off these swine.”

“There’s a good girl?”
That didn’t sound like a potential rapist talking.

“We found her first,” a man yelled furiously.

“You want her? Then come and take her. But you’ll have to kill me first.” And to Faith’s amazement, he smiled again. There was nothing gentle or humorous in it. It was purely ferocious; a savage baring of teeth in anticipation of a fight.

A scornful laugh came out of the darkness. “Bah, Englishman, we are three to your one. We will feed you to the fish!”

Faith’s Englishman smiled that terrible smile and shrugged, as if to say,
We’ll see.

Faith found the pistols and hurried back and thrust them into his hands. The men in the shadows muttered, speaking in indistinct voices. As if they were arguing. Or planning.

He checked the pistols unhurriedly. Faith stared at him, marveling at his calm. One man against three. He was tall and broad-shouldered, but not as heavyset as the three. They were probably the sort of ruffians who positively bristled with knives, too. And though he had his pistols, they would only account for two, at best.

He seemed perfectly unworried by the atrocious odds.

Suddenly a wave of self-disgust washed over her. This man, a stranger whose name she didn’t even know, was risking his life for her. She shouldn’t cower behind him, letting him and his dog defend her from attack. She’d made some resolutions during the last week about learning to take care of herself, about not depending on others—not for anything! Now was the time to put her resolutions to the test.

She hurried to the fire, selected a thick, long branch, and pulled it, still burning, from the fire. Stiffening her shaking limbs, Faith stepped up to stand beside her unknown champion.

“I’ll fight you, too!” she shouted and shook her blazing brand fiercely at the shadowy Frenchmen. Sparks flew everywhere.

Her protector gave a bark of laughter, with real humor this time. “Good for you!” He raised his voice, “A man, a girl, and a dog! Three against three! So come on, swine, let’s see what you’re made of!”

Faith waved her stick in what she hoped was a threatening gesture. Light from her blazing brand danced over his features, and for the first time she glimpsed his face. She had an impression of strength. A bold nose. Dark hair, thick and tousled, in need of a cut. High cheekbones. A firm, unshaven chin, dark with rough bristles. His eyes glinted, reflecting the flame. It was almost as if he relished the prospect of a fight. Which was, of course, ridiculous.

He raised first one pistol, then another. Twin silver barrels gleamed as they caught the firelight. He brandished them with a casual expertise that even Faith could appreciate. There was a sudden hush from the three men in the dark.

“Not so brave now, my buckos?” His face hardened. “Then take yourselves back to whatever gutter you slithered from, or taste a little English metal.”

Faith waited, hardly breathing. It was a bluff, of course. He couldn’t possibly see to shoot them from such a distance and in the dark. If anyone was an open target, he was, silhouetted against the fire.

The silence from the darkness lengthened. “Very well, monsieur, you win,” one called. Heavy footsteps crunched through the undergrowth, moving away. Faith heaved a sigh of relief.

“Don’t move.” The tall man beside her whispered. He stood braced, tense, like his dog, his head craned forward, his expression intent.

Faith froze.

“Toss that thing away and crouch down for a moment,” he ordered her softly. “I need you out of the firing line.”

She flung the half-burned branch into the sand and crouched motionless, straining her eyes to see. The dog’s ears twitched. Faith watched as her Englishman closed his eyes and cocked his head, as if listening. She could hear nothing.

She jumped almost out of her skin when he suddenly shot over her head into the dark. There was scream of pain followed by a flurry of cursing.

“Lucky shot, but can you fight on three sides, Englishman?” came a taunt from the opposite side.

“With pleasure,” he answered and shot in the direction of the voice. There was another burst of swearing.

“The devil, Englishman, how can you shoot like that? It’s pitch-black.”

“I have the devil’s own luck, and I can see in the dark,” he said calmly. He tossed the second pistol onto a blanket and said to Faith, “Fetch me another burning brand.”

She hurried to obey, and as she passed it to him, the firelight glittered on a wicked-looking blade. The fishermen were not the only ones with knives. He lifted the brand and twirled it easily around his head like a baton. Sparks flew everywhere, but he took no notice. “Come on, you cowards, let’s have a look at you!” He strode forward. Faith grabbed her stick and made to follow. “Stay back,” he commanded. “You’ll just be in my way.”

He strode forward, twirling the brand as he moved, faster and faster in a barbarous display. His ferocity and control were mesmerizing: a mythical warrior, bathed in fire and a hound from hell baying at his side.

He looked utterly terrifying. And utterly magnificent.

Suddenly he hurled the brand at a shadowed figure, even as the other two leaped on him. He warded off one of them with a kick. His fist smashed into the other. Faith could barely see what was happening; it was all shadows and horrible sounds—the sounds of fists smashing into flesh, of bones crunching, and the guttural gasps and groans of men fighting.

Incredibly, her Englishman seemed to be winning. He landed two frightful blows on the biggest man, then picked him up bodily and hurled him into some bushes. The man screamed again as he landed in a prickle bush.

As her champion wrestled with another man, the third man limped up from behind. A knife glittered. Faith screamed a warning, and the Englishman swung around and shoved his assailant at the attacker. There was another scream and further cursing.

And then suddenly there was silence. “Keep her then, English,” one of the men wheezed. “I hope she gives you the pox!” The three attackers stumbled off into the darkness.

Man, woman, and dog waited until no further sounds of retreat could be heard. The dog’s growls died away. His hackles dropped, and soon there was only the sound of the fire crackling and the distant splash of waves.

“They’ve gone,” the tall man said curtly.

“A-are you sure?”

“Yes. Beowulf wouldn’t relax if they were anywhere in the vicinity, would you, Wulf?” The dog looked up as he addressed him. He glanced at Faith, and a low growl emitted from behind those appalling teeth. Faith shuddered. The terrifying creature was huge and woolly and the size of a small horse. Beowulf? He looked more like one of the legendary monsters the hero of that name had fought.

“Don’t worry. He doesn’t like women, but he won’t hurt you. Now, are you all right?”

“Yes, thank you. But what about you? Are you hurt?”

“Me? Of course not.” He said it as if the idea was ridiculous.

At the realization that she was safe, Faith’s legs—her whole body—started shaking. “Th-thank you for r-rescuing me.” It was totally inadequate for what he had done.

“Nicholas Blacklock at your service.” He put out his hand, and she placed hers in his. It was trembling like a leaf. Her whole body was. She tried to control it.

He frowned, noticing, and his hand tightened over hers. “You’re safe now.” He said it as if it was an order.

“Yes.” She bit her lip to stop it trembling. “I know.”

He examined her face and scowled, a black, intimidating look. “Come over to the fire, and we’ll see to that.” He grimaced at her. “Can you walk?”

“Yes, of course.” She started toward the fire, but for some reason her legs didn’t seem to work properly. A horridly pathetic sound escaped her as she stumbled and nearly fell.

He made some exclamation under his breath, and before Faith knew what was happening, he’d scooped her up in his arms and was striding toward the fire.

Nick caught a flash of something—fear? surprise?—in her eyes. She stiffened in his arms, as if bracing herself to escape. He tightened his hold and growled, “Little fool! Why not tell me you were hurt? I can see your face is, but I didn’t know about your feet!”

She gave him an uncertain look, but her body relaxed slightly. Her arms wavered, as if she didn’t know what to do with them, and then she hooked one arm gingerly around his neck, watching his face with a wary expression. When he made no objection, she tightened her hold and clutched at his shirtfront with the other, afraid he would drop her. She wasn’t used to being carried in a man’s arms, he thought.

That surprised him. Her green dress was low-cut enough to show slight but very feminine curves, and it was torn at the neck to reveal even more. It was silk or some fine fabric, though stained and ragged in places. Her cloak, on the other hand, was thick, coarse, and heavy; hand-woven wool, he guessed. An incongruous combination.

Tucked up close against his chest, he couldn’t help but inhale the scent of her. His body reacted the same as the first time, when she’d knocked him flat to the ground. Arousal. Intense and immediate. His nostrils flared, taking in the scent of her like an animal.

Thank the Lord it was dark. His body was rampant. He forced his mind to concentrate on the mystery. She smelled fresh. Female. Not a trace of perfume, just that tangy female scent that sent him hard and aching. She looked like a ragged streetwalker, her clothes were grubby and torn, and yet she herself smelled fresher than a number of ladies he could name. Too many people he knew doused their bodies with perfume rather than bathe. Yet in the unlikeliest situation, this waif had somehow kept herself clean.

Fool woman! What the devil was she doing in French sand hills anyway? An assignation gone wrong? He doubted it. Despite her bizarre clothing she didn’t seem the assignation type. Then what was she up to?

She sounded gently born. Her accent was pure, untainted by any regional burr, even when she was shaking with fear. In Nick’s experience, affectations disappeared when people were in terror for their lives. So the aristocratic accent was natural to her.

BOOK: The Perfect Stranger
8.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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