The Wicked Waif - Blackhaven Brides, Book 11
Light, fun Regency romance from Mary Lancaster.
Welcome to Blackhaven, where the great and the bad of visiting Regency society turn local life upside down...
Where there is love, there is life…
When Tillie is pulled from the stormy sea off the coast of Blackhaven, she is injured, traumatized and remembers nothing of her previous life, not even her real name. In a frightening, unknown world she clings only to her rescuer, Major Dominic Doverton.
Dove is the quiet man of Blackhaven. Outside his regiment, no one knows of his heroism or its tragic consequences. He is at peace with his fate. Only Tillie, with her innate kindness, curiosity and mischief churns up his certainty and breaks through his aloofness to his secret.
However, the mystery of her identity seems to be mixed up with a conspiracy to free Bonaparte from Elba, and finding Tillie’s family only unleashes more danger – and threatens to separate her forever from the man she loves. Dove will take on the world to protect her, but does he have the will to fight again for his own fate?
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Read an excerpt below
"Excitement from the first page..."
"Mary Lancaster leaves a lasting impression with her wonderful characters and settings!"
"Beautiful! ...Don't miss THE WICKED WAIF! Ten Stars!"
"Fresh... I thoroughly enjoyed it."
"A fun, thrilling page-turner with a dashing hero and an intriguing heroine"
"Love, love reading MARY Lancaster’s books!"
In the howling gale, battered by driving, freezing rain, Dove’s small boat fought its way through massive waves. Rowing against the wind and the tide, he’d struggled to get close to what was left of The Phoenix, but he could see no one clinging to the wreckage.
He stopped rowing to listen for any cries through the storm, and imagined he heard something, a sort of inhuman wail.
“Did you hear that?” he yelled to his companion, Cully.
“Can’t hear a thing over this!” Cully shouted back. “Don’t see no one else, though. Do you want to go back?” Releasing the side of the wildly tossing boat, he lunged across to Dove to take the oars. Dove gave them up with relief, for the strain had made his old wound ache. But at least he’d given Cully’s arms a rest.
“Pull for the shore!”
Clinging to the side of the boat, Dove slid along its length and threw himself onto the other bench. He imagined he heard the wailing sound again—a trick of the raging wind, no doubt, for Cully was right. Even holding the lantern higher, he could make out no human shapes in the savage water. Anybody discovered now were more than likely to be dead, for no one could survive for long in these temperatures.
Still, as Cully pulled on the oars to take them back to shore, aided this time by the tide and the wind, Dove continued peering about him. Among the wreckage of the ship and its cargo of wooden boxes, some of which had spilled their contents, the waves tossed up odd human possessions, a boot, sailor’s trunk, even what looked like a comb.
Dove wondered grimly how many lives had been lost this night. He and Cully had pulled several men from the sea since The Phoenix had broken up so dramatically on the rocks beyond the harbor, but he knew the sea must have taken more. The other rescue boats were mostly back ashore now. Everyone had given up finding more survivors.
Hurled by a crashing wave, a large wooden crate almost landed on top of the boat before it swirled beside them in the sea instead. Dove leaned over to fend it off, and again he heard the wail, a wild shriek of panic, of pure fear. At the same time, he was sure the sides of the box moved, vibrating, lifting.
“Hold!” he yelled at Cully, thrusting the lantern at him.
Obeying through habit, Cully stopped rowing and took the lantern from him. Only when Dove seized the rope, captured the box, and began to haul it into the boat did Cully protest.
“Sir, we got no room for cargo!” he shouted. “Let it go, ain’t our problem.”
But Dove was working from sheer instinct. The unlikelihood didn’t occur to him until much later. A wave battered him as he dragged the box over the side and he fell back. With an oath, Cully helped settle the box. Dove grabbed the knife from his belt and began prying open the top while Cully glared at him as if he’d gone mad.
“There’s going to be water!” Cully warned, lifting the lantern higher to show him. But when Dove finally tore off the lid, a human being reached out of the murky water within and let out a wild, terrible cry.
Cully staggered back in horror, but Dove, letting the poor creature cling around his neck, hauled the figure out with one arm, and kicked and shoved the leaking box back over the side.
“Row!” he barked, pulling the last semi-dry blanket from the box under the bench and wrapping it around the freezing, shivering mess in his arms. It appeared to be female.
Cully didn’t need to be told twice. He was already rowing as hard as he could.
Pulling the woman down onto the bench beside him, Doverton hugged her to him. But in truth, he had precious little warmth left to impart, for he, too, was freezing cold and wet through. She felt tiny and thin, so delicate her bones seemed liable to break under the least pressure, as though she clung to life by a mere, frayed thread.
And in fact, by the time the other soldiers helped them pull the boat up onto the beach, he thought the thread had broken, for her body no longer shook and her eyes were closed as she slumped against him.
Doverton carried her ashore himself. Dr. Lampton, the town’s best physician, strode past him and paused.
“I think she’s dead,” Dove shouted above the storm.
Lampton thrust his hand under the blanket, unerringly finding where her pulse should be. In the extra light from the lanterns from the beach and the road above, Dove made out blood on her head, on his own hands and coat.
“Not quite,” Lampton said curtly. “Put her on the wagon with the others. I’ll tend them all at the vicarage.”
The wagon waiting in the street was full of shivering, injured sailors. Since there was no room for her to lie flat, Dove sat on the wagon with her to prop her up against his chest. “Tell the men to return to barracks!” he called to Cully. “We’ve done all we can here.”
As the wagon moved forward, the woman suddenly took a deep, shuddering breath and began to shake again. She flung out her hand as though trying to ward off something, so he took it in his, murmuring, “There, you’re safe now. You’re safe.”
After the first tug to be free, she clung to his hand. Her open eyes, wild with fear, stared up into his and in the brighter street light, he saw that she was young, perhaps barely out of her teens. Her face was wracked with pain.
“Safe,” she repeated. Her eyes fluttered closed again, but the shivering didn’t stop.
Mr. Grant, the vicar, had opened his house as a makeshift hospital. His wife and her maids had made up mattresses and bedrolls in the reception room and supplied dry clothes and blankets. The fire was lit and the whole house felt cozy as Dove paused with his burden in the reception room doorway. Dr. Lampton had arrived faster than the wagon and was kneeling by one of the sailors. The others huddled on mattresses, draped in blankets, drinking hot tea, or groaning with injury.
“Major Doverton!” Mrs. Grant, the vicar’s wife, hurried along the hall to him with her arms full of blankets. “Who do you have there? Does he need the doctor at once?”
“She,” Dove corrected automatically. “And I suspect she does.”
“Ah, bring her in here,” Mrs. Grant said, indicating the room across the hall. “I didn’t know there were any women on board. Do you suppose she’s the captain’s wife? He hasn’t asked for her.”
Dove didn’t imagine he would, if he kept her in a box. However, this was not the time for speculation. He followed Kate Grant into her drawing room and gently laid his burden on the sofa as she indicated. Mrs. Grant rang the bell before helping him wrestle the poor creature out of her outer clothes and boots.
“Perhaps you’d fetch Dr. Lampton from the other room,” she said to Dove when the maid answered her summons.
Taking this as it was intended, as a discreet Go away, Dove left them to get the rest of the woman’s wet clothes off, and strode to the other room.
Dr. Lampton was just rising from one patient and turning to the next.
“Doctor, I’ve brought your new patient who seems in need of urgent help,” Dove said. “The half-drowned female with the head wound .”
Lampton grunted, giving the next man a brief examination. “You’ll do for now,” he told him. “Drink your tea.”
He straightened and faced Dove, frowning as though the message had only now penetrated his mind. “The female, yes.” He swung around and addressed the huddled man closest to the fire. “You did not tell me there were females aboard.”
“There weren’t,” the man snapped, straightening. Presumably he was the captain. “My wife does not accompany me to sea and my officers are not married.”
Lampton was already striding away as though he didn’t much care for the captain’s explanation or lack of it.
“She needs to be warmer,” Lampton said at once as his new patient shook violently enough to vibrate the sofa. “Much warmer. A warming pan and more blankets. Kate, is she injured anywhere other than her head?”
“I saw no sign of it,” Mrs. Grant replied, hurrying off to do the doctor’s bidding.
Lampton scowled at the wound as he cleaned it with gentle hands. He was a man of many contradictions, but Dove rather liked him. “It’ll need stitched,” he observed. “Any idea how it happened?”
“I can guess,” Dove said quietly. “We found her in a box.”
Lampton’s eyes flew to his. “In a—”
“Exactly. Nailed shut, floating in the sea with the rest of the cargo.”
“Stowaway?” Lampton hazarded, threading his needle.
“Possibly. Only, who nailed her inside?”
Lampton held the needle in the candle flame. “Sounds like you need to interview our captain.”
“Oh, I intend to,” Dove said grimly.
“In the meantime, I suggest you get yourself back to barracks and change before you end up with pneumonia. You’ve done a noble night’s work.”
Dove blinked at this accolade. Lampton spared him a glance. “I know it was you who organized the rescue and saved many lives directly, too. They all owe you a debt.”
Dove colored uncomfortably. “Fiddlesticks,” he said carelessly. “I’ll take myself off.” Before he did, he glanced down at the unconscious girl and made a discovery.
Lampton had pushed her mass of dark hair to one side, away from her face, which, pale and still, basked in the center of the candles’ glow. Her skin was flawless over delicate bone structure, her features fine and pleasing, from her perfectly arched eyebrows to her slightly pointed chin.
“God, she’s beautiful, isn’t she?” Dove said without meaning to.
Lampton didn’t look at her face. “If you say so.”
Without warning, the girl let out a cry and her whole body jerked. Her hands flew out, thrusting at the doctor, pushing at air. “No, no, no!” she panted.
“Hold still,” Lampton ordered, not unkindly, holding his needle and thread well out of reach. “It will hurt less.”
But it was doubtful the girl even heard him. Dove strode up to the sofa and bent over her, catching her hands. “You’re safe, remember? The doctor is helping you.”
Perhaps she recalled his voice, or perhaps she simply ran out of energy, but she stilled, her wild, terrified eyes coming into focus on his face. “Safe,” she repeated blankly.
Her hands twisted, but not to be free, merely to cling to his. Her breath came in huge gasps. “Don’t let the dark come back. Don’t leave me there.”
“I won’t,” Dove soothed. “But you have to hold still so the doctor can close the cut in your head. If it hurts, squeeze my hands. It will be over in a minute and then you can sleep.”
“I don’t want to sleep,” she whispered, but she lay perfectly still, grasping his hands, staring at him, while Dr. Lampton worked. She didn’t cry out or complain. Only her frowning brow twitched occasionally in response to greater pain.
“What’s your name?” Dove asked, to distract her.
Her frown deepened, but she didn’t answer. There was still confusion in her eyes and it was far from clear what she understood or even saw. She seemed to have latched on to him as the one safe, stable thing in her surroundings. For the rest, she might have been drowning.
“This is Mrs. Grant,” he told her as their hostess returned to the room with a warming pan. “She’s the vicar’s wife and you’re safe in her house.”
Her eyelids fluttered. “Cold,” she whispered. “Why am I so cold?”
“You’ll be warm again very soon,” Dove assured her, afraid suddenly she would not live long enough to know that warmth.
Dr. Lampton cut his thread and stood up. “Make her as warm as you can, Kate. Without burning her. I’ve a couple of fellows to see in the other room before I go.”
As Lampton left, Mrs. Grant covered the warming pan in a blanket and slipped it under those already covering the girl, who seemed to be asleep once more. Since her grip on him had relaxed, he helped spread more blankets over her.
For a moment, he stood looking down at her. For some reason, he didn’t want to leave her.
“I would hate her to die alone,” he blurted.
“Someone will stay with her all night,” Mrs. Grant promised.
“You can’t,” he said. “You have a newly born baby.”
“Oh, she is four weeks old, now, not so newly born. But I am also blessed with a house full of servants and helpers. Don’t worry, Major. I think you need to look after yourself now.”
Dove followed Mrs. Grant’s and the doctor’s advice, for he had no wish to add an infection of the lungs to his health failings, and he had already put a strain on his barely healed wound tonight. Retrieving his horse, he galloped up the hill to the barracks with the wind behind him, glad of the brief respite of warmth at the vicarage.
Once in his own rooms, where Cully had revived the fire, he peeled off his wet uniform, rubbed himself roughly with a towel, and donned dry clothes. He was fastening his coat when Cully appeared with a nip of brandy, which Dove greeted with a delighted smile.
“Excellent idea,” he said, taking the glass and toasting him silently. “Have you changed your clothes?”
“Yes, sir, bone dry now! And the rain’s gone off, more or less.”
“Good. Did the others all get back safely?”
“I think they—and you—deserve a tot, too. I’ll just nip over and see them.”
Before he could, however, a peremptory knock sounded at the door. Cully opened it, and Dr. Morton, the regimental physician and surgeon strode in.
Dove scowled at Cully who gazed back fearlessly.
“I asked him to come,” Cully said. “No harm in that, is there?”
“None at all.” Morton replied. “You did right.”
Cully cast Dove a grin of triumph and went on his way.
“Thank you for coming,” Dove managed. “But I’m fine. What’s more, I’m only just warm and dressed and I have no desire to take everything off again.”
“You won’t have to. Just unbutton the pantaloons a little and push the rest upward. Sit here, Dove, and let’s get it over.”
Electing not to prolong the fight, Dove sighed and obeyed.
Morton brought the lamp nearer and peered closely at the giant, jagged scar across his abdomen.
“It hasn’t opened,” Dove said patiently.
“No, I can see that. But no thanks to you. Rowing in a storm indeed! Organizing is your forte. There were other men to do the rowing.”
“Well, Cully did most of ours,” Dove muttered. “To be frank, I’m sick to my back teeth of sitting still, shuffling papers, and issuing orders. I’d rather die doing something.”
“Well, there’s no need to hurry it,” the doctor retorted, feeling his abdomen. “Does that hurt?”
“A little,” Dove admitted, refusing to wince. “But that will go after a night’s rest.”
“Well, be sure you get one. You don’t seem to have re-torn any of the muscles, and I can’t feel anything inflamed.”
“Then I’m fine.” Dove’s lips twisted. “For now.”
Morton rose and gripped his shoulder. “I wish it was different, Dove. You don’t deserve this.”
Dove shrugged. “I’ve already had longer than many.”
“And many more are alive because of what you did.”
“I don’t regret it.” He forced a smile. “I don’t even regret not dying on the field. Every day is one more than I expect. Only I refuse to die of boredom, Morton. You know that.”
“Well, you’ve got away with it again,” Morton said gruffly as Dove readjusted his clothing. “Just remember we want you around for as long as possible.”
Dove watched him go. “Thank you!” he called after him when the door was almost shut. “I am obliged to you, as always.”
Morton’s hat flapped through the crack in the door before it closed. Dove’s smile was twisted as he rose. One more duty and then he would go to bed.
The men who’d helped in the rescue were mostly from Captain Blackshaw’s company. Blackshaw himself was notably absent from the barracks, although meant to be on duty. But Dove tracked his men down without difficulty, satisfied himself as to their health and was mightily cheered for his order of extra rations.
Then, looking forward to his bed and a good, long sleep, he left their hut and strode back in the direction of the officers’ quarters in the main house. However, he hadn’t taken more than a step before he saw Blackshaw, clearly returned with friends from a long evening carousing.
“Evening, Dove!” someone called to him from the group, and he raised his hand in brief acknowledgement.
He did not stop, for he meant to deal with the discipline in the morning when he was not dog-tired and Blackshaw was more likely to be sober. But presumably, Blackshaw had noticed where Dove had come from, for he detached himself from his cronies and weaved toward him.
“Major,” Blackshaw drawled, with the hint of insolence Dove had been ignoring for several weeks. “Checking up on my men?”
Dove regarded him. The man was indeed drunk. Not for the first time, either. With a certain sympathy for anyone recently returned from battle, Dove had already closed his eyes to several minor breaches of duty, but now his patience had ended. It was time to call a halt and it would not wait for morning.
“Yes, as it happens,” Dove said coldly. “Since I could not rely on you to do so.” He smiled glacially. “You’ll be glad to know the colonel will receive an excellent report of their conduct tonight.”
Blackshaw’s frown of confusion was enough to reveal he had no idea what Dove was talking about.
“While you were in the tavern, your men distinguished themselves rescuing the sailors off a ship wrecked in the storm.” Dove took a step closer. “You will be somewhat conspicuously absent from that report. Be grateful. And careful. Or I’ll devote a whole report just to you. Do you understand me? Or do you want it in writing?”
Even in the flaring lamplight around the grounds, Blackshaw’s flush was obvious. He made an aggressive attempt to stare Dove down, but was too unsteady on his feet. It looked more like an owlish stare. And perhaps he saw the hint of contempt in Dove’s eyes, for his own fell in submission and he weaved his way back to his friends.
Dove walked on. But on the gusting wind, he could hear Blackshaw demanding of the others, “Who does he think he is?”
“He thinks he’s your superior officer,” Kit Grantham said wryly. “And he’s correct.”