an excerpt from
To Tempt an Angel
by Patricia Grasso
Copyright © 2013 by Patricia Grasso and published here with her permission
He knew she was cheating.
Angelica read the suspicion in the man’s alcohol-glazed eyes. She was confident of her talent, so being caught didn’t worry her, but drunks almost always proved dangerous. With the exception of her own father, of course.
Eighteen-year-old Angelica Douglas wet her lips, gone dry from nervousness, and felt a droplet of perspiration roll slowly down the valley between her breasts. Reaching up, she brushed a wisp of golden hair away from her face and adjusted the wreath of fresh-cut flowers she wore like a crown on her head.
Angelica gave her intended victim a sunny smile and flicked a glance at the group of fairgoers gathered in front of her table. Seated on a stool, she began moving the thimbles around and around on the makeshift table that consisted of a board resting on top of a trestle.
“Stop,” the man growled.
Angelica looked at him expectantly.
He pointed at the middle thimble. Angelica lifted it to reveal nothing and laughed with delight.
“Yer cheatin’,” he accused her, his foul breath making her stomach queasy.
Seemingly unruffled, Angelica looked him straight in the eye. “Sir, you are a poor loser,” she told him in an affronted tone. “Would you care to throw dice instead?”
“I ain’t throwin’ dice with no girl,” the man snapped, and turned to go.
“Afraid?” Angelica challenged him, making her audience laugh with approval. When the man kept walking, she shifted her blue-eyed gaze to those watching and asked, “Would anyone care to throw dice with me?”
“I would love to throw with you,” answered a voice in a tone suggesting intimacy.
The crowd parted for the handsomest man Angelica had ever seen. Older than she by ten years at least, the black-haired and dark-eyed English Adonis carried his tall, well-built frame with athletic grace. Though commonly dressed in black breeches and white shirt, the man had the bearing of an aristocrat.
Sacred sevens, Angelica thought, his devilishly good looks startling her. She felt as if Old Clootie, in all his sinful perfection, had stepped out of the crowd to lead her astray.
Towering over her, the man stood ten inches taller than her petite height of five feet, two inches.
Angelica tilted her head back to look into his black eyes.
Long moments passed. The sights and sounds and scents of the crowded Midsummer Fair disappeared as they gazed into each other’s eyes.
Recovering herself, Angelica gave him a sunny smile and produced a pair of ivory dice. She offered them to him for his inspection. Their fingers touched as he lifted the dice out of her hand; a jolt of excitement shot through Angelica, and she wondered if he felt it, too.
“I’m Robert,” he introduced himself in a husky voice. “What’s your name?”
“Are you a good angel or a bad one?” Robert teased her.
“I was wondering the same thing about you,” she answered.
He smiled at that and asked, “How much have you won today, angel?”
“Then let’s set the stake at four pounds,” Robert suggested.
Angelica hesitated and worried her bottom lip with her small white teeth. If she lost the whole day’s earnings on one toss of the dice, her family would go hungry. But if she won, she’d have eight pounds for her day’s work. Ensuring her own victory wouldn’t be difficult, but this man frightened her in some indefinable way.
“Four pounds,” Angelica agreed, unable to resist the temptation of doubling her winnings.
“What’s your main?” Robert asked, passing her the dice without bothering to inspect them.
“Seven.” Tossing twelve or crabs was the only way to lose by choosing seven, but there was no chance of that happening with her loaded dice.
Angelica shifted the dice back and forth in her hands, as if trying to get the feel of them. When she tossed the dice, a four and a three came up.
“Let it ride,” Angelica said, casting him a side-long glance, hoping to double the eight pounds.
Robert inclined his head. He placed eight pounds down to match the eight on the table.
“Sacred sevens,” she whispered, and tossed the dice. This time a six and a one showed up.
Angelica gifted him with a sunny smile and dragged the sixteen pounds closer. Good Lord, her family could eat on this for a month. If her father didn’t steal it for drink . . .
“Do you play?” she asked him, feeling confident.
Robert fixed his dark gaze on hers, and Angelica suffered the uncanny feeling that he knew she was cheating. Then he dropped sixteen pounds on the table.
A four and a three appeared on her next throw. Angelica stared at the thirty-two pounds she’d won. “Let it ride,” she said, casting him a flirtatious smile.
Surprising her, Robert dropped thirty-two pounds on the table. Angelica tossed the dice; a five and a two appeared.
“This must be your lucky day,” Robert remarked in an amused voice. Carelessly, he dropped sixty-four pounds on the table and challenged her. “Will you let it ride, angel?”
Shocked by the size of his bet, Angelica flicked out her tongue to wet her lips. Should she meet his challenge?
Angelica tossed the dice. A six and a one showed up.
“I’ll pass,” she announced, dropping the one hundred and twenty-eight pounds into her pocket.
Afraid to look at her victim, Angelica walked away without another word. She hadn’t gone more than a few feet when someone grabbed her arm. She whirled around, ready to defend herself.
“May I escort you home?” Robert asked, his smile charming.
Angelica was instantly suspicious. Did he want to steal her winnings? Or was his intention even more sinister? He was incredibly handsome, but her family came first. They depended on her for their survival.
“No, thank you,” she refused.
“You need protection,” he told her. “You carry a great deal of money.”
“Who will protect me from you, sir?” Angelica asked, arching a perfectly shaped brow at him.
“You don’t trust me?” Robert asked, giving her a lopsided grin.
“I trust no one,” she told him. “Especially men I don’t know.”
“We are merely friends who haven’t known each other very long,” Robert argued. “I let you cheat me out of a hundred and twenty-eight pounds. The least you can do is allow me to escort you home.”
“I never cheat,” Angelica insisted, and walked away.
“I suppose you don’t lie either,” he called.
Angelica quickened her pace. She squelched the urge to turn around to see if he was following her.
Leaving Coram’s Field, Angelica slowed her pace and walked west on Guildford Street. Angelica knew she should have looked for her sisters to accompany her home but needed to get away from Robert. Who was this handsome man who’d lost a small fortune to her? She would have liked to know him better, keep company with him, perhaps.
Resentment toward her family stepped out of the shadows of her mind. Why did she need to forgo a normal life in order to support her family? Just once, she wanted someone to take care of her.
And then guilt for thinking such disloyal thoughts chased the resentment away. A tragic figure in her mind, her father couldn’t help his dependence on drink; her aunt certainly couldn’t work and had already spent all her money keeping them alive; her sisters were younger and couldn’t be expected to do more than help out. Her dreary life wasn’t the fault of her family. The men who had ruined her father would pay dearly for their crimes against the Douglas family.
Angelica put her hand in her pocket and touched her winnings. One hundred and twenty-eight pounds would feed them for a long time. Perhaps she could save some of it for their return to Sweetheart Priory, her father’s ancestral home in Scotland, the only thing of value they still possessed. If her father didn’t steal the money to pay for drink . . .
Glancing at the sky, Angelica wondered if she should have accepted Robert’s offer to escort her home. Twilight was just an hour away. Would she make it home before nightfall?
Angelica walked briskly through Russell Square, Montague Place, and Bedford Square. Most Londoners appeared in high spirits, anticipating the celebration of Midsummer. Bonfires would light Primrose Hill that night, discouraging those elegant gentlemen from polite society who wished to duel there.
Then Angelica started down Tottenham Court Road. Here the crowds dwindled until she walked alone.
“Lord, guide me home safely,” Angelica whispered, fingering her necklace, the only thing of value she owned.
A gift from her aunt, the fluted diamond globe hung on a gold chain. The pendant’s top and bottom were set in gold. Aunt Roxie had insisted the diamond had magical properties that protected its owner from harm.
Unbidden, the image of her handsome victim arose in her mind’s eye. Angelica knew she had behaved badly.
Cheating the man out of that much money was sinful, she thought. Her actions mirrored that of the disreputable men who’d ruined her father so many years ago. Perhaps she should return to the fair and give back part of the small fortune to him.
Her need was greater, Angelica told herself. If the man could afford to gamble a hundred and twenty-eight pounds, he could afford to lose it
Angelica knew the only reason she wanted to return the money was because she wanted to see Robert again. Yes, she was lonely, but she needed no distractions to interfere with her revenge.
“Why are you walking, angel?”
Startled by the voice, Angelica whirled around to see Robert on horseback. Her heart beat faster at the sight of him. Had she conjured the man up by thinking of him? Such happenings were possible.
“I beg your pardon?” she said.
“I asked why you were walking instead of riding,” Robert replied.
“I forgot my wings at home,” Angelica told him.
“Would you care for a ride?”
Angelica smiled politely and refused, saying, “I never travel with strangers.”
“We aren’t strangers.” Robert gave her a boyish grin and added, “You’ve just stolen—I mean, won—a small fortune from me. The least you can do is allow me to escort you home.”
Angelica wanted desperately to ride with him. She wanted to keep company with a gentleman and live a normal life. Sacred sevens, she wanted her old life back
Duty defeated desire.
“Making your acquaintance has been a pleasure,” Angelica said, turning away.
“Several people saw you pocket that money,” Robert reminded her.
Angelica saw the sense in what he was saying. Yet, she suffered the uncanny feeling that accepting his offer would change her life forever. Would that be a bad thing? She certainly wasn’t happy with her present life.
“I live on the far side of Primrose Hill,” Angelica said, turning toward him with a smile lighting her face.
Robert dismounted in order to help her up. The sound of a galloping horse broke the silence around them, and they turned in time to see a man on horseback aim a pistol at them.
Robert dove for the ground as the shot rang out and took Angelica with him. She heard their attacker’s horse galloping away.
Robert lay on top of her and stared into her eyes. Caught by his dark gaze, Angelica felt her cheeks heating with an embarrassed blush.
“The danger has passed,” she managed to whisper, feeling the warmth of his body seeping through her light clothing.
Robert seemed in no hurry to release her. “You’ve lost your crown of flowers,” he said.
Angelica couldn’t credit that the man was talking about flowers when they’d nearly been killed. She opened her mouth to tell him to get off, but then he moved.
“I knew someone would try to steal your money,” Robert said, helping her rise. He lifted the wreath of flowers off the ground and placed it on top of her blond head, adding, “You look like a flower fairy again.”
“What makes you think the assassin was aiming at me?” Angelica countered. “He didn’t stop to steal my money. Perhaps he’s one of your enemies.”
Robert snapped his brows together. She knew from the expression on his handsome face that he thought she made sense.
“I’m an excellent markswoman,” Angelica said, pulling her dagger from the sheath strapped to her leg. “If you hadn’t thrown yourself on top of me, I would have taken him down. Then we could have questioned him.”
Robert burst out laughing. “A knife wielding angel? Next time I’ll let you rescue me,” he said, helping her onto his horse.
“I should walk the rest of the way,” Angelica said when he mounted behind her. “Being attacked twice in one day is statistically impossible.”
“You are the sweetest gambler I’ve ever encountered,” Robert said. Then, “What’s your full name?”
“Angelica Douglas.” His body pressing intimately against hers made her feel weak. To mask her nervousness, she asked “What is your full name, sir?”
“Are you joking?” Angelica glanced over her shoulder at him. “Your name is really Rob Roy?”
Robert shrugged. “My father had a keen sense of humor.”
“I agree,” Angelica said with a smile, “but the joke is on you.”
Robert inhaled deeply of her scent, lavender and water lily. She reminded him of a spring day. “Your smile shames the envious sun, angel.”
“I love this moment in the year’s cycle,” Angelica told him. “Sunshine, flowers, and freedom fill the days.”
“Do I detect a philosophical gambler?” Robert asked, amusement tingeing his voice.
Angelica shrugged. “I am philosophical by choice and a gambler by necessity.”
A connoisseur of beautiful women, Robert enjoyed the feeling of the angel in his arms as they started down Hampstead Road. She exuded seductive innocence, an aphrodisiac to his senses.
The girl possessed a startlingly perfect face, flawless ivory skin, and full lips that begged to be kissed. Thick golden hair, streaked with paler shades of blond, framed her face and cascaded almost to her waist.
Crowning her head, the wreath of fresh-cut flowers gave her an ethereal appearance. He could almost see this flower fairy cavorting like a nymph through the woodland.
Hers was a haunting beauty that had beckoned to him from the first moment he’d seen her at the fair. Why would such a woman waste her time running a thimblerigger’s game? Most gentlemen of his acquaintance would have parted with a fortune to keep her as a mistress. She would produce beautiful babies, too.
Robert stiffened when he realized his thoughts had drifted to babies. Thinking of babies always darkened his mood, like a cloud blocking the sun.
Well, he needn’t concern himself with babies. He planned never to marry again.
“Is something wrong?” Angelica asked without turning around.
Her question yanked him back to reality. “No, angel, I merely suffered an unpleasant thought.”
“What was it?”
Angelica glanced over her shoulder at him. “You mean it is none of my business?”
Robert halted his horse when they reached the two-hundred-and-sixteen-foot summit of Primrose Hill. He gazed down at the tiny hamlet of cottages with their pale pink, lemon, and sage stucco fronts trimmed with white like frosted cakes.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” Robert remarked.
“Everything looks pretty from this height,” Angelica replied with a rueful smile.
“A cynical angel?” he teased her.
“Look back at London,” she said.
Robert tugged on the reins to turn his horse around and looked over her head. Beyond the sloping meadow lay London with its distant landmarks—Westminster Abbey, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London.
“You can’t see the squalor,” Angelica said softly, “but it exists.”
“It’s not all squalor.”
“I agree with you, but most Londoners do not live on Park Lane,” she said.
“A bitter cynical angel?” Robert said, turning his horse around.
“There is much in life to cause bitterness unless one is a member of the Quality,” Angelica informed him.
“Do you actually believe the Quality lead perfect, happy lives?” he asked.
“None of them need to scratch like barnyard chickens for their next meal,” she answered.
Robert couldn’t argue with that. “What is beyond the hamlet?” he asked, changing the subject.
“Saint John’s Wood.”
Robert nudged his horse forward. Slowly, they descended Primrose Hill to the hamlet below.
“Stop here,” Angelica said when they reached the last cottage.
Robert halted his horse in front of a pale pink cottage trimmed in white. He dismounted and then lifted her down from the saddle.
“Angelica, darling,” a woman’s voice called. “Thank God you’re home.”
Though she appeared to be in her early forties, a youthful beauty still clung to the woman hurrying toward them. Auburn-haired and brown-eyed, the woman was voluptuous of figure. When she smiled to acknowledge his presence, two adorable dimples adorned her cheeks, making her appear even younger.
“What’s the problem, Aunt Roxie?”
“Your father is a bit under the eaves,” her aunt told her. She flicked a quick glance at Robert and added, “He drank my lavender perfume.”
Angelica raced inside the cottage. Robert followed her through a large common room into an inner chamber where an older man lay on a cot and moaned as if in agony.
“He’s poisoned himself,” Robert said, taking charge. “Fetch me an empty bucket and a jar of heavily salted water.”
“What are you going to do?” Aunt Roxie asked, hurrying into the tiny bedchamber.
“Help me get him into a sitting position,” Robert ordered, ignoring her question.
On either side of the cot, Robert and Aunt Roxie pulled the man up until his back was against the wall. He opened his eyes, looked at Robert, and mumbled, “Magnus? Is it you, Magnus?”
The words startled Robert. His own father was named Magnus, and some people said he looked like his father as a young man. How could this desperate alcoholic know his father?
“Graham, he’s not Magnus,” Aunt Roxie was telling him. “He’s—” She looked at him.
“Robert,” he supplied.
Graham Douglas moaned and clutched his stomach. “Roxanne, it is Magnus,” the old man insisted breathlessly.
“He is not Magnus,” Aunt Roxie replied.
“You cannot win an argument with a drunk,” Robert told her. “I’ll answer to Magnus if it will help him.”
“What a sweet boy,” Aunt Roxie said as Angelica returned with the salted water and empty bucket.
Robert lifted the bottle out of her hand and put his left arm around the older man’s head in order to force his mouth open. He poured some salted water into his mouth and clamped it shut forcing him to swallow.
Robert repeated this procedure again and again until the bottle was empty. Then he grabbed the bucket and planted it in the man’s lap.
“What do we do now?” Angelica asked, her anxiety apparent in her voice.
“We wait,” Robert answered, his gaze fixed on her father. He reached out to grab the back of the man’s head and force it forward until he’d vomited everything in his stomach. Then he handed the bucket to Angelica.
“You’ll soon feel better,” he told the older man, helping him to lie down on the bed.
“I already do. Graham Douglas patted his hand. “I knew you’d come to help me, Magnus.”
“Graham, he is not Magnus,” Aunt Roxie repeated.
“Roxanne, you’ve always been a good sister and remained loyal to me,” Graham Douglas said. “You were there the day I fell off the horse, weren’t you?”
“Yes, I was,” Aunt Roxie answered with a nod of her head.
“You were there the day my sweet wife died,” he rambled on.
Aunt Roxie nodded her head again. “A sadder day I’ve never seen.”
“And you were here today to help me in my distress.”
Once again Aunt Roxie nodded.
The older man’s expression changed. “Roxie, you’re a damned jinx.”
Robert chuckled, and Angelica smiled. Aunt Roxie rolled her eyes heavenward and then sat on the edge of the bed to take her brother’s hand in hers.
Angelica touched Robert’s hand and gestured to the outer room. He inclined his head and followed her out of the bedchamber.
The cottage’s large common room served as both kitchen and drawing room, with a hearth on each end, one for cooking and the other for warmth. On the kitchen side of the room was a large steel cage, its door ajar. Two doors led to other bedrooms. On a table beside the settee sat a Celtic harp, a flute, and a violin with accompanying bow.
“Thank you for saving my father’s life,” Angelica said.
“No thanks are necessary, angel.”
Her next words came out in a rush, as if she were confessing a crime. “My father suffers from an affliction and was desperate for alcohol.”
“I didn’t think he was attempting suicide,” Robert assured her, and she seemed to relax. He gestured to the musical instruments, asking, “Do you play?”
“The harp is mine,” she answered.
“I should have known an angel would prefer the harp,” he teased her.
“A long time ago we had an enormous harp, but we needed to sell it,” Angelica said, a wistful note in her voice. “Perhaps the harp only appeared enormous because I was a little girl.”
“I wish I could have seen that,” Robert said, stepping closer.
“You’ve never seen a floor harp?”Her question brought a smile to his lips. “I meant, I wish I could have seen you as a little girl.”
She blushed with obvious embarrassment.
Robert couldn’t credit what he was seeing. How many years had it been since he’d seen a sincere blush stain a woman’s cheeks?
“Hello, hello, hello.”
Robert stared in surprise as the owner of the voice walked into the room. Approximately three feet long and weighing fifteen pounds, a bird crossed the room toward them. Its head and back were blue, its underside gold, and its eyes green.
“Hello, Jasper,” she greeted the bird. “I missed you.”
Angelica scratched the bird’s head, making him trill with pleasure. Then she warned, “Don’t put your fingers near him until he knows you better. Macaws can take a finger off with one bite.
“Say hello to Robert,” she told the bird.
“Hello, Jasper,” Robert said, amused to be speaking to a bird.
The macaw cocked his head to one side and repeated, “Hello.”
“Good night time,” Angelica said, crossing the room to the cage. “Come.”
“Good night,” Jasper said, walking to the cage. He stopped in front of the door, turned around, and crossed the room to Robert, saying, “Hello.”
Angelica laughed. “Good night, Jasper.”
This time the macaw went into the cage. Angelica shut the door and covered the cage with a blanket.
“Good night,” the macaw called.
“Good night.” Angelica looked at Robert and said, “I won him in a card game.”
“Who is this Magnus your father mentioned?” Robert asked.
“Magnus Campbell, the Duke of Inverary,” Angelica answered, and there was no mistaking the bitterness in her voice.
“Your father is acquainted with a duke?” Robert asked in surprise.
“My brother is the Earl of Melrose,” Aunt Roxie answered, walking into the common room.
Robert was even more surprised by that announcement. He glanced around the common room, unable to credit the fact that an earl lived in this poverty.
“Darling, we’ve fallen upon hard times,” Aunt Roxie explained.
“We did not fall,” Angelica corrected her aunt. “We were pushed, and the Duke of Inverary is one of the men who pushed us.”
“How did the duke push you into . . . your current condition?” Robert asked. “Who are the other men involved?”
“Ours is a long story” Angelica told him, placing her winnings on the table.
“I’m in no hurry,” Robert replied, masking his curiosity with nonchalance.
“Another time,” Angelica said in refusal. “I’ll tell you the whole story when I have written the final page.”
Robert cocked a dark brow at her. “Are you planning revenge, angel?”
The door burst open suddenly, ending their conversation. Two young women hurried inside. Both appeared younger than Angelica. One had black hair and limped and the other was a redhead, yet the three sisters resembled one another.
“Robert, may I present Samantha.” Angelica gestured to the ebony-haired girl. “And this is Victoria. Sisters, meet Robert Roy.”
“Rob Roy?” Samantha exclaimed with a smile.
“You must be joking,” Victoria said.
“Mind your manners,” Aunt Roxie admonished them. “Ladies of quality do not insult guests.”
“Ladies of quality do not run a thimblerigger’s game,” Angelica told her aunt.
“Nor do they pick pockets,” Samantha said, emptying her pockets of coins.
“And they do not engage in disreputable activities,” Victoria added, placing her own day’s earnings on the table. “You know, dear aunt, disreputable activities like telling people’s fortunes, calling up the dead in a seance, or selling love potions.”
“Hush, darlings, we need the money,” Aunt Roxie replied. “I do what I can to help out.”
Angelica gestured to Robert, saying, “Let’s walk outside.”
Once the cottage door closed behind them, Robert asked, “Your sisters are pickpockets?”
“I’m afraid so,” she answered.
“And your aunt is a charlatan?”
“Aunt Roxie is no charlatan,” Angelica told him. “She has a special gift.”
Robert tried hard not to laugh in her face but couldn’t quite suppress his smile. “Do you actually believe in that?”
“Yes, I do,” Angelica said. “I possess a similar, albeit undeveloped, gift. “
“The sight of you did bewitch me,” Robert said, gifting her with his devastatingly charming smile.
Angelica stared in the direction of Primrose Hill. “Samantha limps because one of her legs is slightly shorter than the other,” she said without looking at him. “A wealthy gentleman, one of the men who ruined my father, ran over her with his carriage. We couldn’t afford a physician to set the broken bone.”
“I’m sorry,” Robert replied.
“That happened a long time ago,” Angelica told him. “Victoria has a problem with letters and numbers.”
“What do you mean?”
“She can’t read properly or cipher numbers,” Angelica said, turning toward him. “Other than that the Douglases are a normal family.”
Robert laughed. “I’ll come by tomorrow to check on your father.”
“You want to consort with people like us?” Angelica asked.
Robert leaned close, his face merely inches from hers, and said in a husky whisper, “I’d love to consort with you.”
Ever so gently, Robert drew her into his embrace. His face hovered above hers for the briefest moment and then descended as he moved one hand to the back of her head to hold her immobile.
Their lips met in a chaste kiss. When she relaxed in his arms, Robert changed the tempo of the kiss. His lips on hers became ardent and demanding; his tongue persuaded her lips to part, tasting the sweetness beyond them.
And then it was over.
Robert drew back and studied her expression, knowing she’d just experienced her first kiss. He traced finger down her silken cheek and rubbed his thumb across her lips.
“May I have my watch back now?” Robert asked, gazing deeply into her disarming blue eyes.
Angelica blushed. “I-I don’t know what you mean.”
“You lifted the watch out of my pocket when we were attacked,” Robert told her.
Angelica reached into her pocket and produced the watch. “It looks like real gold,” she remarked, passing it to him.
“It is real gold.”
“How can you—?”
Robert planted a quick kiss on her lips and then whistled for his horse, grazing a short distance away. The horse returned to his side in an instant.
“You certainly have trained him well,” Angelica said.
“I have a firm hand but can be a generous master,” Robert said suggestively.
“I will never call any man my master,” she informed him.
Robert mounted and pulled on the reins to turn the horse around. Whistling a bawdy tune, he started down the road through the hamlet. He knew she was probably watching him but would not turn around to wave good night.
Angelica Douglas was unexpectedly spectacular, a seductive angel, a rare woman of courage and loyalty. Albeit an incorrigible cheater at games of chance.
Though her father had fallen upon hard times, she was still an aristocrat. The father’s loss of fortune served Robert’s purposes; he planned to make that magnificent angel his mistress.
That thought made Robert smile with pleasure. He decided to go visiting in the morning before he called on Angelica. He needed to know what the Duke of Inverary had done to Graham Douglas.
Keeping a mistress who wanted revenge against his own father could undoubtedly complicate his life. Somehow, he would atone for whatever his father had done to the man.
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