SUSSEX COAST 1809
Lady Angelica Lennard took matters into her own hands. Her brother needed bringing out of France and Benoît Faulkener owed a debt to her father. In view of her father's blindness, she would go herself to persuade Benoît to rescue Harry. Fully expecting a piratical smuggler, Angelica was mortified to discover a respectable shipowner - or was he? Some things didn't add up, but somehow Benoît didn't seem a stranger. Was she imagining the warmth and intimacy? When she fell into danger and Benoît's steely will showed through, she was sure of it!
The door opened and the candles flickered in the sudden draught. Long dark shadows swooped up and down the walls as Benoît Faulkener entered the room. Angelica caught her breath, her hands gripped the letters painfully hard as she fixed all her attention on her host, trying desperately to divine what kind of man he was.
He closed the door quietly and returned her gaze with equal curiosity but considerably less intensity. He was tall, slightly over six foot, lean and sinewy, with a deceptive, whipcord strength. His hair was raven black and his skin tanned. He had high cheekbones and a slightly aquiline nose. There were small creases at the corners of his eyes, as if from squinting through bright sunlight and seaspray. His mouth was firm yet sensitive, but it gave away few secrets.
Apart from his white cravat and the frill of his shirt sleeves beneath his cuffs, he was dressed entirely in black, which emphasised his lean height and corresponded well with Angelica's somewhat exotic preconceptions of him. After her father's description of their dramatic encounter on the seashore, she had never expected Benoît Faulkener to look like an average gentleman - though what she had been anticipating she would have been hard pressed to say.
In fact, he looked more like a pirate than a smuggler. Her first, confused thought was that she wouldn't have been surprised if he'd been wearing a golden earring and a red kerchief, and carrying a cutlass. It was as if he had brought the briny expanse of the ocean into the small room with him. In his invigorating presence, the hitherto cosy chamber seemed to become claustrophobic and cramped.
Angelica's full lips parted slightly in amazement. She stared at him as if transfixed, still clutching the letters against her breast.
A hint of amusement appeared in Benoît's alert, watchful dark brown eyes. He had a mobile, intelligent face; his resemblance to his mother was elusive but unmistakable.
'Good evening, Lady Angelica,' he said politely, bowing slightly in her direction. 'I'm sorry you've had such a long wait for me. Had I known you were here, I would have returned sooner,'
Angelica blinked. After an evening spent with his still very French mother, she had somehow expected Benoît to sound equally exotic. In fact his voice was pleasantly deep, but unambiguously English.
'I've brought you a letter from my father,' she said baldly. It wasn't what she'd intended to say, but her customary self-assurance had deserted her.
'So my mother said. Please, sit down again.' He gestured courteously towards a chair and then went over to the sideboard.
Angelica's gaze followed him. She knew she ought not to stare at him quite so intently but she couldn't help herself. Even if she hadn't already been so curious about him she would have felt compelled to watch him. He moved with a controlled, crisp grace which she found unaccountably rewarding to see. He was certainly the most assured man she had ever met; yet she sensed that his self-confidence wasn't founded on empty arrogance, but upon hard-won experience. Perhaps he really would be able to help her.
'Would you care for some brandy?' he asked. 'You've come a long way today, and I don't imagine you are finding your errand an easy one.'
Angelica had been so preoccupied with her reflections on his potential character that, for a few moments, she barely understood what he'd just said to her. She glanced blankly at the decanter he was holding, and then a natural association of ideas popped unbidden into her mind.
'Is it smuggled?' she exclaimed, before she could stop herself.
He had been pouring the brandy, but at her comment he glanced sideways at her. There was a gleam in his dark eyes, and she saw a slow smile form on his lips. He was clearly amused by her gauche outburst. She blushed hotly, wondering furiously how she could have been so unsophisticated as to speak her thoughts aloud.
I doubt if much of the spirit drunk in this county has had duty paid on it,' Benoît replied urbanely, completely unruffled by her question. 'Except for that in Sir William Hopwood's house, of course.'
'Thank you.' Angelica took the brandy he offered her, returning his gaze as calmly as she could.
She had already put herself at a disadvantage with him; she had no intention of allowing him to see the extent of her inner confusion.
'Of course, you must know Sir William,' said Benoît conversationally, as he sat down opposite Angelica and stretched out his long, black-clad legs across the hearth. 'He's one of your father's friends. But I don't believe that you yourself have ever visited this part of the country before, have you?'
'No,' Angelica replied, more harshly than she realised. His words had conjured up an old, painful memory. 'We were going to visit Sir William one spring - but then my mother died.'
She would not normally have said as much to a stranger, but she was thoroughly unsettled by the situation. Asking a favour from a man she didn't know, even one who owed such an enormous debt to her father, was turning out to be even harder than she'd anticipated.
'I'm sorry,' said Benoît quietly.
Angelica glanced at him quickly and then looked away, gazing into the fire as she tried to get a grip on herself. She knew she was being completely ridiculous. She had come to perform a simple errand and she was turning the whole thing into a foolish melodrama. After a moment she put the brandy glass down on a hearth stone with a firm click and lifted her head to look squarely into her host's eyes.
'Thank you, sir,' she said briskly, sounding much more like her normal self. 'But it happened several years ago, and I'm sure you are more interested in what I am doing here now.'
'I imagine you've come to reclaim my debt to your father,' said Benoît matter-of-factly, crossing one black-booted ankle over the other and taking a sip of his brandy. Unlike Angelica, he was completely relaxed. 'I confess I'm curious as to the exact nature of your request.'
'You do intend to keep your promise, then?' Angelica exclaimed, staring at him, her surprise audible in her voice. She had assumed he'd done no more than make a brash, boy's declaration all those years ago. She'd been quite certain that she would have to struggle to persuade him to keep his promise - perhaps even obliquely to threaten him.
Benoît looked up and met her eyes. He hadn't moved a muscle, but she was suddenly conscious of the immense force of his personality. Like a sleek black wolf slumbering by the winter fireside - he looked peaceful, but you roused him at your peril.
'I always keep my word, my lady,' he replied coldly. His voice was dangerously soft, and it contained an undercurrent of pure steel. 'But I do not yet know what service the Earl requires of me. Perhaps you would be good enough to give me his letter.'
He moved suddenly, leaning forward and stretching out an imperative hand towards her. Her heart leapt in momentary fright at his unexpected gesture and she instinctively hugged the letters against her breast.
'My lady,' he said impatiently, a hard gleam in his eyes. 'It would be foolish for you to come all this way and then refuse to give me the letter.'
Angelica hesitated, her gaze locked with his. She could see no apology in his eyes for having alarmed her - but neither did she have any intention of apologising for doubting his honour. She felt the same sense of apprehension, yet strange exhilaration, that sometimes gripped her at the sound of an approaching thunderstorm. The storm was unpredictable and uncontrollable, but after the endless silence that preceded it the noise and the lightning flashes could be so exciting.
From the book: The Wolf's Promise by Alice Thornton
Imprint and Series: Mills & Boon® Historical Romance™
Publication date: 1996. ISBN: 0-263-79877-1
Copyright © 1996 by Alice Thornton
® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books SA