Read The Perfect Stranger Online

Authors: Anne Gracie

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

The Perfect Stranger (5 page)

BOOK: The Perfect Stranger
9.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

He was breathing more regularly now, so perhaps the headache was passing, as Stevens had said it would. His strong profile was limned by the bright gleam of the fire. He looked gentler in sleep, not so grim and somber.

Beowulf gave a longing look toward his bearded master, turned three times in a circle, and dropped down on the sand beside Mr. Blacklock and closed his eyes with a big, doggy sigh.

“Good dog,” Faith told him.

The dog opened one baleful eye, looked at her, and bared his yellow fangs in a low growl, warning her to keep her distance.

“Like master like dog,” she told him in a whisper, feeling better for the defiance.

She wriggled a bit to make the sand conform to her shape, then lay in the dark, watching the flames throw dancing shadows, and thought of her sisters.

Where were they now, and what they were doing? Probably worrying, she thought ruefully. They would have received her letter saying she was leaving Felix. They’d have expected her home days ago.

She closed her eyes and tried to send good thoughts to her twin. They could sometimes do that; feel each other’s emotion. Faith concentrated, not knowing if it would work but helpless to do anything else.

That had been the worst of these last weeks, the feeling of helplessness. She’d had no idea what to do. All her life she’d let others to look after her: older sisters, her much bolder twin, her great-uncle, and finally, Felix.

Felix. What a naive, trustful fool she’d been!

She lay in her borrowed blanket, staring up into the velvet dark sky. One star seemed a little brighter than the others, standing alone, yet bright and sparkling. She would be like that star, she decided. She would learn—somehow—to take care of herself. She would never be so wholly dependent on anyone again.

The fire crackled gently, the dancing flames making a bright glow against the night sky. Beyond the fire, the waves hissed and shushed, hissed and shushed in a soothing rhythm, and soon Faith, too, was asleep.

She was woken in the middle of the night by a sound; she did not know what. Cautiously she raised her head and looked around. She could see nothing. Beowulf was sitting up, though, watching Mr. Blacklock with ears pricked and a worried expression. The big creature whined softly and pawed at the man’s body.

Faith moved closer to see what the matter was. The dog growled low in its throat, but she ignored it. Mr. Blacklock’s head turned restlessly back and forth as if he was trapped. His expression was far from peaceful, but it wasn’t a rictus of pain as it had been earlier. A bad dream, perhaps, rather than pain. Faith was well acquainted with the effects of nightmares. Her twin had them often. Faith, too.

She felt his forehead. It was no longer clammy. She stroked it softly, smoothing it under her fingers. “There, there, all is well,” she whispered. His eyes opened wide and stared at her, unseeing.

“Hush now,” she repeated softly. “’Tis just a dream. There is nothing to worry about.”

He looked blindly around him as if searching.

“Hush. Everyone is safe and well. There is nothing to worry about. Go back to sleep.”

His hand came up and grabbed her hand, imprisoning it fast in his big fist. He stared fixedly at her a moment, then his eyes closed again. His grip on her tightened, and he gave a big sigh and relaxed with her hand clamped against his chest.

Faith made several attempts to tug her hand free of the warm, hard grip but could not move her hand. His heart beat under her fingers, steady, a little fast. As soon as he slept again, his fingers would loosen their hold on her, she thought.

She lay down beside him, her hand imprisoned by his, and waited for him to fall asleep again.

It was very soothing feeling his chest rise and fall with his breathing. Like the waves of the sea, going in…and out…

Nick awoke to the first rays of sun on his skin, a rare feeling of contentment and a sour taste in his mouth. He was hard, aroused, rampantly so; a state he had not woken in for some time. His mouth curved. It must have been some dream. He wished he could recall it.

He stretched and was immediately aware of a small, feminine hand tucked against his chest. The reason for his arousal became clear. No dream, but a soft female body that lay pressed against the length of him, curled against his side, warm and trusting. Intimate.

Who the devil was it? He had no recollection of taking a woman to bed. The only woman he recalled—and then the events of the previous evening came flooding back. He remembered the girl fleeing those swine, and the fight—God, but he’d enjoyed that!—and he recalled eating dinner beside the fire and the girl’s prideful pretense of having somewhere to stay…

The rest was a blank. The reason for the unpleasant taste in his mouth suddenly became clear. He’d had another one. Already. Damn!

His contented feelings dissolved, though the state of his body remained unchanged. He sat up cautiously. His movement disturbed her, and she cuddled closer, mumbling something in her sleep.

Why had she reached out to him in the night? He was still in breeches and shirt, so nothing had passed between them. She was cold, perhaps? Or frightened. Needing a feeling of protection. Probably.

Beside him the thump, thump, thump of a tail told him Beowulf was awake and raring for exercise. Nick stretched again. He needed to clear his head. He glanced down at his body, which had not abated in the least. A swim would take care of both problems.

“Fetch Mac,” he whispered. The dog bounded off, tail swaying joyfully. Taking care not to disturb the sleeping girl, Nick rose and looked down at her. She lay bundled in her blanket, sound asleep. All that was visible was a small, pink, peeling nose and a tangle of fair curls. No doubt she was exhausted after her trials the night before.

The morning was still chilly, despite the sun. She’d miss his warmth. Nick picked up his coat and spread it over her. She’d sleep for hours yet, plenty of time for him to decide what was to be done with her. One thing was clear; she couldn’t go on as she was.

A splutter of Scottish curses came from the far side of the camp. Nick grinned. Wulf invariably woke Mac by licking his nose.

Faith awoke to the smell of man in her nostrils. Man and coffee. Could there be any more heavenly scent in the world? She inhaled deeply, luxuriously, and sat up, discovering as she did that she was wrapped in a man’s greatcoat. Mr. Blacklock’s? He was gone from his bed, she saw immediately. There was no sign of him or the dog. He must have recovered from his bout of…whatever it was.

“Sleep well, miss?” Stevens was bent over the fire.

Faith stood a little stiffly and stretched. For such an unconventional bed she had slept remarkably well. She shook out the greatcoat and blanket and laid them over a bush to air.

“There’s hot water in that pot, miss. If you want to wash and so on before breakfast, you can go up in there, behind those bushes. No one shall disturb you. Mr. Nicholas and Mac are down at the beach. Mr. Nicholas wanted a swim. They should be back by the time you’ve finished.”

“A swim? Really?” Too cold for swimming, she would have thought. She took the hot water and made her way deeper into the sand hills where she made her ablutions. It was heavenly to have hot water to wash in.

She brushed down her clothes as best she could, wishing they were clean and fresh. She felt suddenly nostalgic for a petticoat freshly pressed and smelling of starch and soap and the iron. She tidied her hair. Something at least had come of those years of growing up in Grandpapa’s house, where no looking glasses were permitted. She could do her hair without one.

She touched her cheek gingerly. The swelling seemed better, but it was still sore. She was probably sporting a huge, unsightly bruise. She felt her skin and grimaced. A looking glass was the last thing she needed just now, with her nose sunburned and peeling and the midge bites. And freckles, too, probably. Aunt Gussie would have a fit.

Faith hadn’t thought of freckles when she’d sold her bonnet. Only of the money it would bring. And the food she could buy with it.

Still, freckles beat starvation any day. And speaking of starvation…that bacon smelled heavenly. Despite her sore ankle and her blisters, there was a definite spring in her step as she returned to the campsite.

“Coffee, miss? If you don’t mind waiting, I’ll cook your breakfast along with Mr. Nicholas’s and Mac’s. They shouldn’t be long.” Stevens glanced impatiently down at the beach as he handed her a steaming mug. “I was sure they’d be out before now.”

Faith sat by the fire, sipping the hot, black brew. It was amazing what company, a full stomach, a good sleep, and a cup of hot, strong coffee did for one’s spirits, she reflected. She was just as destitute as yesterday, just as thoroughly ruined. It was true what people said; morning did bring the dawning of hope.

If Mr. Blacklock was indeed a gentleman of means, he might lend her the fare to England. England. She so longed to go home, home to where she was loved and she belonged, home to her sisters and to Great Uncle Oswald and Aunt Gussie. She missed her family so much, she ached.

But would home ever be the refuge it had once been? When she returned she’d be a social outcast, a ruined woman. She’d have to face the full weight of her foolish recklessness.

Faith drank her coffee and pondered her situation. She could not return to her former life. She would be forever coming into contact with people who
, and she didn’t think she could bear that. It had been hard enough when she was one of the Virtue Twins and people stared so. Now it would be much worse; in addition to being a twin, she would be that curiosity and source of malevolent gossip: a fallen woman.

The thought of having to face, over and over, the look on people’s faces when they
. The look that called her whore. It flayed her, every time. She wanted to explain that she’d been tricked, that she thought she’d married for

Her precious, romantic dream sounded like a cheap excuse now.

With foreigners, strangers, it was bad enough, but at home, with people she knew, people who’d been friends…

She couldn’t face them, couldn’t face their pity or scorn or worse, the smug glee that one of the beautiful Virtue Twins had fallen. There would be such play made with that name now. People would forget it had come about because the twins—all the Merridew girls—were named after virtues. Now the name would be an ironic statement, an added twist of the knife.

She took a final sip of the strong, bitter brew and tipped out the coffee grounds. The spent grounds stained the clean, white sand. She scooped up a handful of sand and drizzled it over them until the stain was buried.

A pity her errors could not be as easily dealt with. She would never be able to slip back into her old life. She would have to make a new one. But as what?

Charity and Edward could take her in, find something for her to do in their remote corner of Scotland, where the gossip might not follow her. Faith could help with her little niece, baby Aurora. She would like that. And Prudence, too, was expecting a baby soon. Faith could help her, too. She loved babies, had dreamed of having her own little ones one day…

She bit her lip. Another dream in the dirt. No decent man would want her for the mother of his children now.

She heard Stevens swearing softly under his breath. She glanced at him in surprise. He stared down at the beach, and his brow darkened. “Damn! They must think you’re still asleep,” he muttered. She turned to see what had so annoyed him.

“No, miss! Don’t look!”

Faith stared at him in surprise.

Stevens hastened to apologize. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to shout.” He moderated his tone. “Ah, please don’t look at the beach, miss.” He grimaced, looking horribly embarrassed. “It’s no fit sight for a lady.”

He speared a thick slice of bread onto a wire toasting fork and handed it to Faith. “Make some toast, please, miss. I’ll just nip down and tell those two you’re awake! And don’t turn your head, miss. Trust me!” He hurried down the beach.

Bemused, Faith took the toasting fork and held the bread over the glowing coals. But she was so very intrigued, she had to look—just one little peek—and so she turned, craning her neck to see what had so upset Stevens down on the beach.

The toasting fork drooped in her suddenly slackened grasp.

Nicholas Blacklock and his big Scottish friend had just emerged from their swim and were walking back up the beach toward a pile of clothing. Water streamed from their bodies. Faith swallowed.

The toast turned a perfect golden brown. Faith didn’t notice. She was too dazzled by the gleam of morning sunshine on wet male bodies.

male bodies. Nicholas Blacklock and McTavish were totally naked. They strolled up the beach, talking and laughing, naked, unashamed, proudly masculine. Magnificent.

The toast blackened, then started to smoke. Faith didn’t move.

Not that she had eyes for the brawny, bearded Scotsman. It was Mr. Blacklock who drew her eyes irresistibly. Faith’s mouth dried as she watched.

Mr. Blacklock was a Greek statue come to life under her gaze; all hard, masculine elegance and lean, whipcord power. His dark hair was wet, slicked carelessly back from his face, sleek against his head, gleaming in the morning sun.

His legs were long and powerful, his chest broad and deep. She’d touched that chest. She swallowed at the thought. She watched the bunch and flow of muscles as he moved, lithe and full of the joy of life. His skin glowed. Sheer, naked, masculine beauty, strolling unconcerned up the beach toward her.

The toast burst into flames.

Chapter Three

Luck affects everything. Let your hook always be cast; in the stream where you least expect it there will be a fish.
BOOK: The Perfect Stranger
9.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Betting Game by Heather M. O'Connor
In My Shoes by Stephens, Adrian
Rush by Jonathan Friesen
Confirmación by Aurora Seldon e Isla Marín
A Prince Without a Kingdom by Timothee de Fombelle