A Touch of Grace remains my favorite book of the Realm series. Mayhap, it was because by this time in writing the series, I did not feel the need to offer but a bit of repetition in the story to draw the readers in. Or mayhap, it was because I was absolutely invested in the couple in the book. In my mind’s eye, I could see them as perfectly as if they stood before me.
Gabriel Crowden, the Marquis of Godown, is an Englishman of French descent, living at a time when England was at war with France. One can quickly denote his French heritage for his title is “marquis,” rather than the English spelling of “marquess.” He is an Adonis—a man with perfect looks and perfect manners—but with a life far from perfection. Some five years prior, he had been banished from England, for he had refused to marry a woman who had set a trap of compromise for him. The woman’s deception and the resulting action of his refusal makes him a bitter man, one who takes his resentment for his “punishment” and his lost years with his father out on the women in his life. When he returns to England, his three eccentric aunts take it upon themselves to see him married and settled. However, Gabriel prefers his life as a rake about Town.
One special twist I provided Gabriel was an unspoken “feud” of sort with Adam Lawrence, Viscount Stafford (and future Earl of Greenwall). Many of you will recall that Adam is my “go-to guy.” He appears in some ten of my novels, and, in this story, I make him Gabriel’s competition for the hand of several different women.
With a need to protect him from his accuser’s father and one to teach him something of life, Gabriel’s aunt, his father’s eldest sister, a formidable duchess, has approached Aristotle Pennington, the man she has loved all her life, but a man below her family’s expectations, to find Gabriel a position with the Realm, a covert British intelligence unit operating during the Napoleonic War. Pennington’s doing so saves Gabriel from the rejection of society and removes him from England when all meant to press him into an imprudent marriage. After several years with the Realm, Godown is eventually summoned home to claim his father’s title, only to learn that his father has placed special provisions in his will. Fearing that Gabriel would perish in his service to the Crown, the former marquis has stated in his will that Gabriel must be married and the new marquise with child before a particular date or forfeit the peerage to a relation that Gabriel despises. Unaware of the restrictions upon him, Godown drifts through the social Season with little care for more than his own pleasures only to learn his days are “numbered.”
Miss Grace Nelson was first introduced to the readers of this series in Book 2, A Touch of Velvet. She was the governess to Miss Gwendolyn Aldridge, the only child of Viscount Averette, the paternal uncle to three of the heroines in this series: Velvet (book 2), Cashémere (book 3) and Satiné Aldridge (book 7). At the beginning of this book, Averette is gathering his belongings to escape to the Continent to avoid punishment for crimes he has committed. In Grace’s opening scene, the man is physically abusive to his wife, and Grace steps in to save the woman. Averette dismisses Grace from her position, and she must return to her brother, who has run through the family’s fortune; thus, the reason Grace is in a governess position.
Although she is quite comely, to avoid men’s unwanted attentions, Grace had disguised her appearance with spectacles and a strict hairstyle. When Gabriel encounters her again, he “sees” her as a woman worth knowing, and, ironically, she sees him in a likewise manner. However, their path to happiness is NOT an easy one. There are moments of trust and of love, but these memories are smothered by fears of betrayal and the overwhelming evidence that Grace is involved in a plot to kill Gabriel.
“The first fully original series from Austen pastiche author Jeffers is a knockout.” – Publishers Weekly
“Jeffers’s close look at the dark secrets of Regency society instills a sense of realism.” – Publishers Weekly
After years away from England, members of the Realm return home to claim the titles and the lives they had previously abandoned. Each man holds onto the fleeting dream of finally know love and home. For now, all any of them can hope is the resolution of his earlier difficulties before Shaheed Mir, their old enemy, finds them and exacts his revenge. Mir seeks a mysterious emerald, and he believes one of the Realm has it.
GABRIEL CROWDEN, the Marquis of Godown, can easily recall the night that he made a vow to know love before he met his Maker. However, that was before Lady Gardenia Templeton’s duplicity had driven Godown from his home and before his father’s will had changed everything. Godown requires a wife to meet the unusual demands of the former marquis’s stipulations. Preferably one either already carrying his child or one who would tolerate his constant attentions to secure the Crowden line before the deadline.
MISS GRACE NELSON dreams of family died with her brother’s ascension to the title. Yet, when she meets the injured Marquis of Godown at a Scottish inn, her dreams have a new name. However, hope never has an easy path. Grace is but a lowly governess with ordinary features. She believes she can never earn the regard of the “Adonis” known as Gabriel Crowden. Besides, the man has a well-earned skepticism when it comes to the women in his life. How can she prove that she is the one woman who will never betray him?
EXCERPT (from Chapter 2)
Gabriel had watched the tree line behind him for what felt of hours before a flicker of movement proved his suspicions correct. The attack that had left a gaping hole in his shoulder had not been from a highwayman or even a hunter accidentally shooting in the wrong direction. Someone had followed his trail. Someone had purposely targeted him. Likely, Murhad Jamot had doubled back. Kerrington had escaped, but the Realm’s old enemy had laid in wait. Now, Gabriel would likely die on this lonely Scottish road, halfway between his past and his future.
With difficulty, he raised his gun to lie along the flat line of the rock he had chosen as shelter. Resting his gun against the rock face, he used his left hand to lift the right to where he might grasp the gun’s handle. The movement brought fresh blood gushing from the wound, and Gabriel bit the inside of his jaw to prevent his losing consciousness. He might meet Death in the next few minutes, but if he had anything to say of it so would Jamot.
The woods around him had silenced—a sure sign that a man stalked the land. It was the way with nature. A signal of an invasion within its midst. Gabriel gave his head a shake to clear his vision, and then he inhaled deeply to steady his shaking grip. “I few more minutes, God,” he whispered as he wrapped his index finger about the gun’s trigger. “Then you may claim my sorry soul and that of a Baloch heathen.” He wondered how God might receive such a prayer: one where he prayed to be permitted to kill another before he died. Thou shall not kill.
Before he could finish the thought, a man on horseback burst through the tree line. Expecting to see a dark-skinned Baloch, the pale-faced Anglo caught Gabriel’s mind napping, and for a brief second, he paused. Just a fraction of a second, but long enough to give his opponent an advantage. Luckily, the man’s aim was off. A spray of rock fragments peppered Gabriel’s head and chest, but he did not flinch. His years with the Realm had taught him well. In the next instant, he returned fire. The Realm had seen to those lessons, as well. His attacker had foolishly risen up in the saddle—making the man a larger target.
Biting away the pain, he squeezed the trigger. The bullet flew straight, but the horse turned its head ever so slightly, and Gabriel’s hope of the shot finding his attacker’s heart disappeared. Instead, the man slumped forward as the horse raced away to the west.
Gabriel groaned as he forced himself to stand. “I require a few additional minutes, God,” he gasped. “Hold your hand steady, Lord.”
With those words, he stumbled toward where Balder waited impatiently for him. Reaching for the saddle, he strained to swing his leg over the rise and settle in the seat. “Come on, old friend.” He laced the reins through his gloved fingers and set the horse in a cantor. Each thud of Balder’s hoofs set his teeth on edge, but Gabriel managed to stay in the saddle. He would find the man who had shot him. He would finish what he had started, and then he would die.
* * *
Grace wanted to stomp her foot in annoyance. They had arrived at the overnight stop for the coach, but she had received no welcome. “I do not let rooms to unchaperoned or unmarried ladies,” the innkeeper asserted as she had protested his lack of understanding. “You are welcome to wait in the common room.”
She shot a quick glance at the open room. The inn sported several occupants—a variety of social classes mingling together. Unfortunately, other than the bar maids, only two women took their evening meals among the patrons. Even dressed as non-conspicuously as possible, her “aloneness” would draw attention. And in these quarters, attention was not a desirable commodity. Grace swallowed hard and straightened her shoulders. “I understand,” she said royally. It would be a very long night.
She reluctantly accepted the man’s objections. If the innkeeper wished to maintain his business’s reputation, he would enforce the unwritten rules, which governed society: Permitting a man the liberty of a kiss resulted in a woman’s ruination and provided a man with bragging rights. Dancing more than two sets at a ball would bring about an engagement. Responding to a man’s attentions before his intentions were known brought ridicule or disappointment. One could not use one’s suitor’s Christian name, nor could one exchange correspondence or gifts before the wedding vows were pronounced. Likewise, it was not quite the thing to drive alone with a gentleman. And, most decidedly, a woman did not travel unaccompanied. With a deep sigh, she turned to survey the room.
Grace did not look forward to remaining awake all night. She certainly would not permit herself to fall asleep. It would be too dangerous. Someone could steal her coins or something more precious. A woman was easy prey for a man who had consumed too much ale. A woman was defenseless in such matters. The female victim always bore the blame for a man’s lack of control.
Frustrated, she stepped outside to watch the busy inn yard. More strangers had arrived. She should claim a dark corner of the noisy common area before none remained for the choosing. “Stretch my legs while it remains light,” she said softly to herself. If the mail coach had stopped in a village, she might have sought the pity of a widow or a newlywed couple to spend a night on a chaise or even a pallet before the hearth. But their journey had brought her and her fellow passengers to this inn, one between villages–with no choice but to wait with the others for the morning coach. “The innkeeper said the coach will depart at four,” she reminded herself.
She inhaled deeply. “No rain,” she continued to keep her own company. “At least, my journey shall not be delayed.” She thought of her home. Of her brother Geoffrey, who had assumed her father’s title after the funeral. Of how quickly things had deteriorated. Of how Geoffrey had brought his debts to the barony. Of how many of the family’s treasures had been sold to keep the title solvent. Of how she had promised to make her own way in the world if Geoffrey would warrant the care of their younger sister Mercy. “Geoffrey will not be pleased to see me,” she thought aloud. “But it will not be for any duration. I have my letter of reference; I will find another position.”
* * *
Gabriel had trailed his attacker for nearly two hours. He had decided that the man was not a professional killer. His attacker had made no attempt to hide the blood from where Gabriel’s bullet had removed a mighty chunk of the man’s shoulder. He did not think the man he pursued would die from the wound Gabriel had inflicted upon him. It was more than a flesh wound, for it continued to bleed after all this time; but it would not be fatal unless the man did not find medical assistance soon. His attacker could die from infection, but Gabriel would see to the task before that time.
He would not fail his friends. He could have personal enemies—knew for certain he did have many who objected to the descendant of a French diplomat as a ranking member of the British aristocracy and the House of Lords—but not the type of enemy who would assault him on a deserted Scottish road. First, no one, but a select few, even knew of his presence in Scotland. Those who hated him would fight their battles in London’s ballrooms and on the Parliamentary floor. No, the man he sought was the Realm’s enemy. If his assailant succeeded in eliminating Gabriel, he would turn his attention to Gabriel’s only true friends, the men with whom he had served. Before he took his last breath, Gabriel would see his attacker dead. Viscount Worthing and the others would observe his death as a warning for their own safety.
The blood trail led to a small coaching inn. From his vantage point, Gabriel had watched the comings and goings of the inn yard. Nothing unusual. The place was not a trap. At least, not an obvious one. When his attacker had charged Gabriel’s position, in the midst of the chaos, he had glimpsed the man’s horse. Gabriel closed his eyes to relive those few brief seconds. The man bearing down on him, his firing, and then the slumped over figure in its retreat. “Cream colored. Perhaps fifteen hands high. Not as large as Balder,” he recited what he could remember. Patting his stallion’s neck, Gabriel pulled the reins to the left. “Let us see what the stables holds.”
* * *
“I want to know of this horse’s rider,” Gabriel told the young boy who had rushed forward to take Balder’s reins. He had found his attacker’s mount. The man could not be far.
The boy rubbed Balder’s nose. “The cream?” The youth looked over his shoulder at the animal he had just placed in the third stall. “His master fell and hurt ’is shoulder. Mistress Bradshaw be doctoring’ ’im in the kitchen.”
Gabriel leaned heavily against Balder’s side. Normally, he oversaw his horse’s care, but not this evening. Tonight, he would trust the boy to see to his favorite mount. He handed the boy a coin. “Give him some extra oats and brush him, and you’ll receive another coin for your efforts.” Gabriel swallowed the pain radiating through his chest. “And another if you inform me immediately if the cream’s owner chooses to leave the inn.”
“Aye, sir.” The boy’s eyes grew in anticipation. “I be finding’ you, sir.”
Gabriel shuffled toward the partially opened stable door. The place where the bullet rested in his chest burned with hell’s fire. He had managed to stay alive despite his enemy’s best efforts. Despite God’s plan for him to join his parents. Slowly. Methodically, he turned his feet toward the inn. If he were to meet his Maker, he would do so in a clean bed.
* * *
Grace stepped from the wooden walkway, which ran along the inn’s front and turned her steps toward the stable. She had no desire to be out of view of the busy inn yard. Hostlers rushed to and fro to aid those seeking shelter before nightfall. She would discover what animals the inn housed for the mail line, as well as examining the mounts of her fellow travelers. She had always loved the horses her father had kept upon the estate, especially those the former baron used when he rode to the hunt. Anything to pass the time.
Yet, as she reached the stable’s main door, it swung wide, and a man in a finely fitted coat staggered toward her. At first, she had thought to turn on her heels to make a speedy escape, but then a face of an Adonis stilled her. She had seen him previously—but twice. In London. At the party at Carlton House. And again at the celebratory gathering at the Duke of Thornhill’s Town home. “Lord Godown,” she gasped, and then observed the painful grimace as he pitched forward. Grace instinctively caught him, shoving him backward to brace him against the building. “My lord, you are unwell!” she said in concern. He used his free hand to steady himself against the door. “Permit me to find assistance.” Her hand rested on his arm, and Grace heard the hiss as he looked out over the inn yard. She imagined he judged how many steps it would take to achieve the inn’s door.
“No,” he insisted. With a deep inhale, he said, “Would you be so kind as to lead me to the inn?”
Without considering her actions, Grace laced his arm about her shoulder to brace his weight against her frame. She had never felt such panic. When she had first laid eyes on this man—some six months prior—she had considered his Christian name and how perfectly it fit his handsome countenance. Gabriel. The angel. The avenging angel, but an angel, nonetheless. “Lord Godown, please,” she whispered hoarsely as his heavy tread nearly took both of them to their knees. “Permit me to find someone more fit to assist you.”
A barely perceptible shake of his head declared his refusal. Grace’s bonnet shifted forward as his arm pressed heavy on her shoulders. He continued his jerky steps toward his goal–another ten feet to the walkway.
Finally, she shoved up on his arm to bracket his weight against the building’s side. Sliding free of his grasp, she turned to examine him more closely. In the darkening shadows, she realized his hair was sweaty and windblown, and dirt streaked his clothes’ fine cut. Then she saw the trickle of blood darkening his shirt. “Oh, my God!” she rasped as she reached for her handkerchief to press to the opening. “Tell me what has happened.”
Head back and eyes closed, he appeared unable to answer, but he finally spit out the words. “Trailed my attacker to this inn.” Grace looked on in wonderment as he took a deep steadying breath. “You did not faint from the blood.”
“No, my lord.” Grace pulled a second cloth from her reticule. She pressed it firmly over the first.
“Do you have a room?” he asked through gritted teeth.
Grace doubly regretted her unmarried status. If she had proper quarters, she could tend his wounds in private. She shook her head in the negative. “The innkeeper will not let to a woman without companionship. I will spend the night in the common room.”
Lord Godown nodded weakly. “Would you share my room?” He caught her gaze, and the clarity surprised her. “If you have a husband whom you were to meet on the road. . .” He did not finish his thoughts as the pain snatched his breath away. Frantically, he caught at her hand. He said softly, “I do not wish to die alone.”
Grace recognized his proposition to be a scandalous one, but she had accepted the inevitable conclusion the moment she had draped Gabriel Crowden’s arm about her. She would willingly participate in her reputation’s ruination. The fear she recognized in his gaze stayed her. This man carried death about his strong, muscular shoulders. “Yes, I will stay with you, Lord Godown,” she said without hesitation.
“You have called me by name three times. Do we hold a prior acquaintance?” She noted how he stood taller.
Grace blushed as disappointment filled her. Why would an “Adonis” remember someone as nondescript as she? “Grace…Miss Grace Nelson. Lord Averette once served as my employer.”
Lord Godown cupped her face as if seeing it for the first time. “Miss Nelson. Of course.” He stroked her mouth with the thumb of his left hand. “Just what I require. A touch of grace.”
Grace could not breathe. She had never known such an exquisite moment. He had seen her. Truly seen her. Not the governess, but the woman of three and twenty with dreams buried, but not deceased. And she knew him also. Not the face of perfection. But a man who had known great loss. She licked her lips for moisture, and her tongue grazed his ungloved thumb. She noticed how something flared in his gaze. “How should we proceed, my lord?” she said uncertainly.
Her words had broken the spell, but his fingers still traced her skin. Grace’s breathing shallowed, and pure warmth spread through her. “You are my wife,” he said confidently. “Your maid abandoned you, taking your purse and leaving only a public ticket for your transportation.” He easily wound an elaborate tale. He was, obviously, a man accustomed to improvising in intense situations. “We were to meet in Carlisle, but when you did not appear, I came searching for you.” She nodded her agreement. “Reach into my inside pocket and remove my purse. I will not be able to do so when we enter. Have it at ready to place in my hand,” he ordered. She did as he instructed. “I will also require a card from my case.”
“You should probably open it in the innkeeper’s presence,” she said. “It will bring legitimacy to our claim. I have previously spoken to Mr. Bradshaw regarding a room.” She fished the items from his various pockets. “The innkeeper will recognize me.”
Lord Godown smiled at her with admiration. “You are quick to assess what must be done.”
“I have been my own mistress since leaving the schoolroom. I left home at eighteen,” she explained.
A frown crossed his brow, but he made no comment on her disclosure. Instead, he lifted her chin with his fingertips. “Miss Nelson. Grace. The man who attempted to kill me is in the kitchen being tended to by the inn’s mistress. I managed to wound him.” She nodded her understanding. He inhaled deeply and looked off as if seeing something she did not. “If he discovers I have taken refuge within these walls, he will come for me. What I am asking of you could be dangerous.”
Despite wishing to appear brave before this magnificent man, Grace’s lower lip trembled. “How shall you stop him?” she asked tentatively.
Lord Godown smiled wryly. “If I am awake, I will deal with him. If not. . .”
“I must see to his demise,” she whispered. The thought of taking another’s life frightened her.
He must have recognized her fear. “It will not come to that,” he assured. “But I must stop him. Others of your acquaintance are in danger: Lord Worthing, Thornhill, Viscount Lexford and Sir Carter.”
“Those with whom you served?”
“Yes. They are my earnest companions. I cannot explain now, but know my words are true.” He swayed, and Grace instinctively reached for him. “You cannot send for the surgeon, Miss Nelson. You must tend my wound,” he insisted. “No one must know how close to death I am.”
“Please do not speak as such, my lord.” She clutched at his lapel.
“My life is in your hands, my dear,” he said in a matter-of-fact manner that sent a shiver down her spine. He caught her fingers and brought them to his lips. “If I should die before I wake…”
Grace bristled. “I shall not have it! Do you hear me, Lord Godown? You shall not die on my watch!” Despite her best efforts, a tear crept down her cheek.
Lord Godown flicked it away. “I will do my best to comply. Now, come, my dear. We have a farce to play.”
How he managed to walk so straight and so proud, Grace would never know. Every step must have brought Lord Godown excruciating pain, but other than a flex of his muscle under her fingertips, she would never have guessed the truth. As they entered the establishment with her hand resting firmly on his arm, his countenance displayed nothing but amiability.
“Ah, my good man,” he said aristocratically as the innkeeper hustled forward to greet him. “Thank you for attending to my wife’s needs.” He flipped open the case and placed his calling card on the counter’s corner. Unobtrusively as possible, Grace slid it in Mr. Bradshaw’s direction. Lord Godown palmed the case and placed it in her hand. “My marquise has spoken of your kindness, sir.” The innkeeper’s eyebrow rose as he eyed Grace suspiciously, for she had said nothing of a husband previously, nor had she mentioned she was a marquise. Yet, she knew the man would not question them further, for a good innkeeper, even one on the Scottish side of the border, knew to toad to the whims of the English aristocracy. He read the ornate card. Meanwhile, Lord Godown said, “I pray the room you were preparing for her ladyship will suffice for we two. I have been too long without my bride. She has attended a sick relative for several weeks.” The marquis glanced lovingly at her, and, for a moment, even Grace believed the illusion he created.
The innkeeper blustered, “Of…of course, Lord Godown. I will see to it immediately. If you will sign the registry, sir.” Bradshaw turned the book for Gabriel’s signature.
“May I?” Grace said on a rush. “I never tire of signing my new name.” She knew he could not lift his arm high enough to reach the book.
“And I never tire of reading it, my dear,” he said evenly.
Grace caught the quill and signed their names with a flourish. “Delightful as always,” she said with a girlish sigh.
“This way, your lordship.” The innkeeper gestured to the stairs.
His muscles flexed, pulling Grace closer to his side. The stairs would be a challenge. Despite the impropriety, Grace slid her arm under his jacket and about his waist. As they climbed, she gave a list of instructions. “Have someone bring his lordship’s and my bags to the room. We shall require hot water to freshen our things after the dusty travel. A simple meal. Perhaps a clear broth with bread and cheese.” She tried to anticipate what she might require to attend him.
“And plenty of brandy,” Lord Godown added. “My wife will have tea, but I will require your best brandy.”
Mr. Bradshaw opened the door to the room and busied himself with building a fire. Over his shoulder, he said, “I will send up extra candles for better lighting.” He set the coals ablaze. “And how long might you be staying with us, my lord.”
Lord Godown reached into the purse Grace had surreptitiously placed in his hand while the innkeeper tended the fire. “I was considering a stay of some three days. Perhaps, longer. When a man is without his wife so shortly after his marriage, he must pay the price of the lady’s good intentions.” He lightly tossed a coin to the man, who adeptly caught it. “We do not wish to be disturbed. Her ladyship will send word when meals are to be served.”
“Absolutely, my lord.” Bradshaw made a deep obeisance.
When she noted Lord Godown swayed in place, Grace quickly closed the door before the innkeeper fawned further. “My lord!” She rushed forward to brace him. “Sit.” She assisted him to the bed’s edge. “If you can tolerate it,” she said as she frantically worked his tight-fitting jacket from his shoulders. “Do not lie flat until I can remove your clothing. I doubt I can turn you to treat your wounds, otherwise.”
Godown chuckled, “I seriously doubt, my dear, there is anything you cannot do once you set your mind upon it.” She had freed him of the jacket and turned to his cravat. “But as being undressed by an exceedingly pretty woman is not one of the seven deadly sins, I believe, I will enjoy the intimacy of the moment. I doubt to have this pleasure ever again.”
Grace’s cheeks pinked. “You will know such wayward pleasures again, my lord.” Her thoughts brought a deeper red. “And I am far from pretty, Lord Godown.”
His Lordship brushed a stray curl from her face. “That is where you err, Miss Nelson. You are the most handsome woman I have ever beheld.”