Cover of St. Raven

Excerpt from the Regency romance,
St. Raven

A Romantic Times Top Pick.
"Beverley's delicious, well-crafted and wickedly captivating romance is a surefire winner. She combines strong characters, sensuality and a witty sense of humor that should win readers' praise."

     Chapter 1
    Summer, 1816. By a road north of London
    Still as a statue in the full moon's light, the highwayman watched the road. He controlled his mount without effort and without bit, and when the horse stirred, tossing its head, no jingle broke the quiet of the night woods.
    His clothing was dark as the shadows, his face concealed behind a black mask and a delicate beard and moustache of the style of Charles I. He would be invisible if not for the splash of a sweeping white plume on his broad Cavalier hat.
    That plume was the signature of Le Corbeau, the bold French rascal who called himself the Crow and claimed the right to peck at those who traveled the night roads north from London.
    Though no one else could be seen, the Crow did not fly alone. He had men stationed north and south to warn of danger and of approaching prey. He waited for their signals in stillness except for the stirring of his feather in the breeze.
    Then, at last, an owl hoot with a strange pattern at the end floated from the south. A victim approached. A suitable one. Not the well-armed mail coach or poor pickings on a swaybacked horse or in a cart. What came from the south was undefended but worth the effort, and would be here soon.
    He listened until he heard the pounding of fast horses. With a sharp whistle of his own, he surged out of the trees and down the road head-on to the coach and pair.
    The startled coachman dragged on his reins. By the time the coach stopped, Tristan Tregallows, Duke of St. Raven, commanded the two people in the coach with his cocked pistol, and two colleagues kept guard nearby.
    Heart pounding in a way both alarming and pleasurable, Tris thought this was almost as good as sex. Pity this was his first and last night for the game.
    "Monsieur, madame," he greeted with a slight inclination of his head. He continued in the French-accented English of the real Le Corbeau. "Pleeze to step out of ze carriage."
    As he spoke, he assessed his victims as best he could, given the dim interior.
    Terror or threatened apoplexy might have driven him off, but he had a fashionable young couple at gunpoint. The lady sat closest to his side of the coach, and she seemed more furious than frightened. Her mouth was set, and her direct, pale eyes showed outrage at his attack.
    "Damn your eyes, you gallows bait!" the man snarled. The voice confirmed him well born, which was excellent. He would not miss half his money.
    "Zat is in ze hands of le Bon Dieu and ze magistrates, monsieur. You, on ze other hand, are in mine. Sortez! You know my reputation. I will neither kill you nor take your all -- unless," Tris added, trying for silky menace, "you continue to disobey me."
    "Oh, get out and let's get this over with," ordered the man, shoving the woman so hard that she banged against the inside of the coach.
    Her head snapped toward her partner as if she'd blister him, but then she turned back to open the door, head bowed, apparently meek as milk.
    As Tris backed Caesar a few steps to make sure he couldn't be jumped, his mind danced with curiosity. The man was a cur. It seemed the woman might think the same, yet she obeyed. It could be an unhappy marriage, but such wives rarely rebelled over little things.
    He tried to shut off curiosity. He didn't have time for a mystery. Even so late, on a night with a good moon, another vehicle could appear at any time.
    The woman climbed down the steps, one hand holding her pale skirt out of the way, the other using the open door for balance. Half an eye on the man, St. Raven still made a number of instant assessments.
    She tended to roundness rather than slender elegance.
    She was graceful in this awkward situation.
    She was dressed in a fine evening gown under a light shawl. Unusual for traveling. Damn. Perhaps they were called away to a deathbed.
    She had a neat ankle.
    When she arrived on the road and looked up at him, he noted a heart-shaped face fringed with dark curls frothing out along the front edge of a fashionable evening turban of striped cloth. She wore pearls at her neck and ears.
    Modest pearls, however. He wished she showed signs of fabulous wealth. He supposed he'd have to take them, or at least part of them. Damnation. Would returning them destroy the purpose of this enterprise?
    He turned his full attention to the stocky man who followed her. His top boots, breeches, jacket, and beaver hat might seem casual to some, but Tris recognized the height of fashion for a certain sort -- a sporting Corinthian. The striped waistcoat, the flamboyant cravat, and the cut of the coat confirmed it and sent a warning: The man's heavy build would be all muscle.
    Then the moon shone full on the man's sneering face --chunky, wide in the jaw, and with a nose that looked to have been broken more than once.
    Viscount Crofton, a man in his early thirties of moderate wealth and expensive tastes, especially in women. Or rather, in quantity of women. He was a bruising rider and pugilist who was generally to be found at any event promising sport -- with men or women -- and with a preference for the rough.
    Crofton had attended a gentlemen's party at Tris's house once. It had been made clear that he would never be welcome again. It would be a personal pleasure to distress Crofton, but the man was dangerous, and needed watching.
    Tris reminded himself not to be distracted, but some detail niggled. Something that might be relevant here.
    Tris brushed it aside. He had a simple task in hand -- to stage a hold-up so that the man in jail as Le Corbeau would be proved innocent.
     "Your purses, pleeze," he said, but couldn't resist another glance at the woman. Crofton wasn't married, but dress, demeanor, and jewelry spoke of a lady, not a whore. Did he have a sister?
    Crofton pulled a handful of banknotes out of his pocket and tossed them onto the ground, where they fluttered in the breeze. "Grovel for them like the pig you are."
    "Crow," Tris corrected, tempted to force the man to pick them up with his teeth. "Madame?"
    "I have no purse."
    A cool, educated voice. A lady for sure, and the moonlight painted her features with white marble purity.
    "Then it will have to be your earrings, cherie." Instinct clamored that something was wrong, and he couldn't ride away with this mystery unsolved. The thought of a well-bred lady in Crofton's clutches revolted him.
    He glanced at the woman, but she wasn't looking at him. She was gazing at the moonlit countryside, denying his existence even as she took the pearl drops from her ears and tossed them down by the money.
    Then she looked at him, eyes wide, lips tight. The mysterious lady wasn't frightened. She was furious.
    She had to be with Crofton by choice to be so angry at the interruption. On the other hand, he couldn't forget the way Crofton had shoved her, and her instinctive, outraged reaction.
    And then, the elusive detail came to him.
    A week or two ago, Crofton had won a property in a game of cards. Stokeley Manor in Cambridgeshire. To celebrate he was throwing a party -- an orgy, to be precise. Tris had received a presumptuous invitation, and unless he was mistaken, the event began tomorrow night.
    So, Crofton was on his way there, and he wouldn't be taking his sister with him, or any other respectable lady. Unlikely as it seemed, the moonlit madonna had to be a high-priced whore. Not all whores were sluts, and some used a ladylike appearance as part of their stock-in-trade.
    Experience and instinct, however, told Tris that this woman was no such thing. There was one way to try her out.
    Le Corbeau was a foolish, romantic sort of highwayman, and he sometimes offered to return his loot for a kiss. A lot could be learned from the way a woman kissed.
    Tris smiled at her. "Since my wages have so unfortunately fallen in ze dirt, ma belle, I must ask you to pick zem up for me."
    He thought she was going to refuse. The moonlight did not show color, but he knew a flush of anger heated those rounded cheeks -- anger that tightened her lips and confirmed his fears. It was the sort of cold, righteous anger no whore he'd known would ever permit herself.
    "Do it," Crofton snapped, "and get rid of the cur."
    She flinched under the order, but again she submitted, walking forward and then dipping down to pick up the money and earrings. She didn't walk like a whore, either.
    Tris didn't like it. He didn't like it at all.
    He'd heard that Crofton's entertainments leaned to the crude and that he had a taste for debauching virgins -- the less willing the better. Might he have found a way to force a well-bred virgin to be the centerpiece of his celebration?
    The woman straightened and approached the horse, holding out the money and jewelry.
    He looked down into steady, despising eyes. Who the devil did she think she was? Joan of Arc? She was on her way to an orgy with Crofton, and she'd be wiser to be looking for help than treating a possible rescuer like a slug.
    He moved Caesar forward a step. The woman flinched back, her stony composure breaking for a moment. Afraid of horses? When her lips relaxed, however, they showed a temptingly full bow. Kissing her wouldn't be any sacrifice at all.
    He remembered to check on Crofton. Damn stupid to have been distracted. The man seemed to be simply observing, amused. A bad sign. Tris moved Caesar forward another step, and again she backed away.
    "If you keep retreating, cherie, we will be here all night."
    Her lips tightened again. "Good. Then someone will come along and arrest you."
    "Not in time. Ze money?"
    She set her chin and stepped forward, holding the money and earrings up and out, coming no closer than she had to. The contrast between her bravado and her obvious fear of Caesar touched his heart.
    He took the loot, and she hastily backed away. He separated the bank notes roughly in half and tossed part back on the ground. "I beggar no man."
    Crofton laughed. "That amount wouldn't beggar me, cur. Are we done, then?"
    Tris looked at the woman again. "I will return ze rest and your earrings for a kiss, cherie."
    She took another step back, but Crofton pushed her forward. "Go on, Cherry, kiss him. I'll let you keep the blunt if it's a good one."
    Tris saw her inhale a long, angry breath, sensed fire behind her eyes, but again she did not protest. What hold did Crofton have over her?
    "Well?" he asked.
    "If I must," she replied so coldly that he felt he should shiver. He suppressed a grin. He liked her spirit.
    He extended his gloved hand. "I cannot risk dismounting, cherie, so you must come up."
    Panic staggered her then. "On the horse,?"
    "On the horse."
    Cressida Mandeville stared up at the costumed madman on the huge horse, knowing she had finally reached her breaking point. She had struck a loathsome deal with Lord Crofton, she had set out to be his mistress for a week, she had endured some pawing in the carriage without throwing up. She would not, however, could not get up on a horse.
    "Keep the money," she snapped.
    "Kiss him!" Crofton snarled.
    Frozen by that, she did not react in time when the highwayman holstered his pistol, moved the horse forward, and leaned to snatch her up into the saddle in front of him.
    She swallowed a scream because she wouldn't show that sort of fear, but when she landed on the horse and it sidled beneath her she clutched the enemy's jacket, her eyes tight shut, and prayed.
    "Zere, zere, petite, I assure you it is not so bad up here."
    The amusement in his voice stung her pride, and indeed, now she was up and the horse was still, it didn't seem too bad -- as long as she had the robber's big, solid body to hang on to.
    She made herself crack her eyes open. All she could see was dark clothing. Her head was buried against warmth and wool, surprisingly surrounded by the smell of clean clothing and spice.
    A strange crow, indeed.
    Since pride was all she had left, Cressida made herself release her clutch and straighten her spine. Having achieved that, she turned her head to see what Crofton was doing.
    Nothing, because another highwayman had the area covered by two pistols. Not a careless crow, but Crofton wouldn't interfere anyway. He must be finding this amusing.
    Cressida remembered attending the theater in London some months ago and seeing a play that featured this rascally highwayman. There he turned out to be the hero. Reality, of course, was very different.
    All the same, given the choice between the two men....
    The highwayman seemed to have moved back on the horse so that she was sideways on the saddle in front of him, but even so, she was crushed against his body. He chuckled, and she felt it.
    Jupiter! She was nestled against him in the most intimate way. Her bottom was... well... between his thighs, her legs over one of them. She felt, in a most extraordinary way, the movements of his legs that caused the huge horse to begin to back, swaying beneath her.
    She clutched again. "What are you doing?" It was almost a screech.
    "Putting a little more distance between us and your so gallant escort, cherie. If I am to pay you due attention, I do not want him quite so close."
    The words `gallant escort' bit with sarcasm.
    She fixed her eyes on his jacket and not on the world moving around them. "You have no cause to sneer at him. You are a thief."
    "So ardent in his defense."
    She had to look. They were almost in the trees. She glanced back. They were five yards or more from the coach. "Stop!"
    "So imperious. I adore a commanding woman."
    He rolled the r in a way that seemed to shiver through her. She couldn't do this. She couldn't kiss this man! She had to do something to escape. But what?
    Le Corbeau had holstered his pistol to control her. If she were a true heroine, wouldn't she grasp that opportunity?
    And do what?
    Hit him? A fine lot of good that would do. He'd scooped up like a child.
    And what was she going to save herself from?
    From a kiss.
    Only a kiss.
    A mere nothing compared with the fate she'd accepted. All London talked of Le Corbeau, and some ladies drove up and down these roads hoping for an encounter and a rascal's kiss.
    A kiss was nothing.... But then the horse sidled, and she choked back a cry. She had to kiss him on a horse?
    If her imagination had ever stretched so far, this would have been the most impossible, most intolerable thing ever expected of her. She saw no choice, however. Given that, she would not be a coward.
    She swallowed, then turned her head up to the masked and bearded face. "May we have done with this, sir, so I can proceed with my journey?"
    She saw him smile and realized that he might be handsome. His lips were certainly firm, yet in a mysterious way, sensual. Like a painting of a god of pleasure.
    Those lips lowered, and she almost went cross-eyed, trying to keep the danger in sight before it reached her. Shutting her eyes, she felt his lips press against hers.
    His face hair tickled.
    She tried to pull back, but his hand slid behind her head, confining her. His lips parted, and his tongue touched wetly against her.
    Trapped by his strong arms and his controlling hand she was helpless and she hated it. What's more, this was no sort of kiss she had ever imagined. This was nothing to do with tenderness or affection. It was a contest between two vile men, and she wished them both to Hades.
    As his lips moved against hers, she sat perfectly still. She would give neither of them the satisfaction of seeing her struggle. If she admitted the truth, she was also still because any sudden movement might upset the monstrous beast beneath her.
    The man chuckled, then licked her lips. She jerked back, then stilled again, but her hands became fists. Oh, but she longed to fight, to pummel, to claw at the monstrous beast who assaulted her.
    But then he moved back and looked at her.
    Thoughtfully. Questioningly.
    And Cressida knew she had made a mistake.
    She stared back. What had she done? Could she correct it?
    He looked at Crofton. Then he pushed the forgotten earrings and banknotes down the low front of her gown. Before she could express her shock at that, he gave a sharp whistle, turned the horse, and rode into the woods, taking her with him.
    Shock upon shock stole her voice for a moment, but then she screamed, "Stop it! What are you doing? Help!"
    He pressed her face hard to his chest so she could hardly breathe, never mind shout, as the beast pounded beneath her, carrying her away. Now she fought, with arms and legs, trying to find a place to scratch, to hurt. She'd rather fall off the horse than be stolen away like this.
    And her plan.
    Dear heaven, her plan!
    She heard the man curse, and the horse stopped, sidling and jerking. She freed a hand and yanked the highwayman's beard as hard as she could.
    It half ripped off in her hand.
    "Damnation!" He grabbed her hands. "Stay still, woman!"
    She flailed and kicked as best she could. "Let me go!"
    The horse began to rear and was forced down. The man's grip on her wrists tightened to the point of pain. She tried to land a solid kick on the horse.
    Her ankles were caught by two strong hands.
    "Have your hands full, have you?" drawled a fashionable voice.
    "Stop laughing and think of something to tie her up with." Le Corbeau's spoke in the same aristocratic English accent.
    That and awareness of a new enemy stunned Cressida to stillness, but then "tie her up" sank in, and she struggled again. She opened her mouth to shriek and a gloved hand covered it.
    "Know when you're beaten, you fool. I wish you no harm. In fact, I'm saving you from a fate worse than death. You'll thank me when you come to your senses."
    She glared up at him, longing to scream her opinion of his interfering arrogance, but all she could manage was a growl.
    Despite all her kicking and squirming, her evening shoes were snatched away, her garters -- her garters! -- untied, and her silk stocking stripped off. Then her ankles were tied. Moments later, her wrists were bound, as well.
    "We need to blindfold her," her infernal captor said.
    She tried to fight, but the bonds and despair turned her feeble. Tears stung at her eyes as they were covered by a cloth tied behind her head.
    Oh, Lord -- oh, Lord, to be safe home again as she had been until so recently, with no deeper concern than the choice of jam for breakfast.
    "Think that counted as a hold up?" asked the other man, still sounding amused.
    "It'll damn well have to. I'm not doing this again."
    "Perhaps you should mind what you say, the lady not having anything blocking her ears as yet."
    "Damn it all to Hades...."
    "Perhaps you should mind your language." The second man sounded as if he was laughing.
    "Stubble it."
    Then the horse jolted, and they were off again. Her mouth was free and she could have screamed, but for the moment she didn't dare. She couldn't even clutch now. She was entirely dependent on her captor's strong arms.
    "Where?" asked the other man.
    "The house. That's why she's blindfolded."
    A house. A house that mustn't be seen.
    Fear turned her cold. Le Corbeau was not a Frenchman, but an Englishman. A well-born Englishman. He'd do anything to save himself from the hangman. Killing her would be a mere nothing.
    Lord, save me. Lord, save me. Lord, save me, she prayed with every sickening jolt of the horse beneath her, with every crush of her captor's body. He was her terror now, not the horse.
    She was powerless, helpless, completely at the mercy of this mass of muscle and power.
    She was going to vomit.
    Would it choke her?
    Would anyone care...?
    The horse stopped.
    Cressida shuddered and gave thanks, trying to swallow the taste of bile. The man moved, taking the pressure from her, settling her to sit sideways on the smooth and slippery saddle.
    Then he was gone.
    She was alone -- blind, bound, and unbalanced in the cold air. The horse moved.
    She fell!
    Even as she screamed, strong hands caught her waist. She cried out again, this time in thanks for the strong arms beneath her, then for the strong body she was held against.
    The monstrous beast again, but this one was solid and safe -- and two-legged.
    From her right the other man said, "Dear lady, please don't be afraid." He sounded sincerely concerned.
    But it was the highwayman who held her, carried her. To where? To what? New fears should be boiling up, but it was as if terror was exhausted. She could only pray.
    No. She could think. "Knowledge is power," Sir Francis Bacon had said, and she needed any power she could grasp.
    She could hear, so she sorted through sounds. They'd left the horses behind, and the men must be walking on soft earth because there was no sound of boots.
    She could smell. No smell of horse, either, but a slight whiff that might be a pigsty not very far away. A farm? And sandalwood, of course, so common to her nostrils now that she hardly noticed it.
    Then the men's feet made a crunching noise. Gravel? No farm had a gravel driveway. They were approaching a house of substance.
    She was blindfolded because of the house, so she wouldn't recognize it. No, so she wouldn't recognize it again if she returned with the magistrates. That did suggest that they expected to let her go eventually.
    After they'd had their wicked way with her?
    She'd thought such things the stuff of Minerva novels!
    They stopped. She heard a click. A latch?
    Yes. The door didn't squeak, but it made a slight sound as it opened, and she was moved from outside to in. No breeze. Staler air. Polish. Faint memories of a meal. The steady tick of a large clock and wood floors beneath boots.
    Fear trembled back into life. She didn't want to be inside, inside his house. "Please...," she said.
    "Hush. Make noise and I'll gag you. I'll put her in my room."
    The other man must still be there. Did that offer more safety or more danger?
    With a shift of balance, Le Corbeau began to carry her upstairs.
    To his room.
    To his bedroom.
    Cressida prayed. With Crofton it would have been vile, but it would have been her choice and for her purpose. Was she to lose her virtue to a thief's whim?
    Another door opening. Carpet under boots. A stronger smell of sandalwood.
    His bedroom.
    She was lowered onto something soft.
    Onto his bed.

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