Iris Johansen The Beloved Scoundrel

ISBN 13: 9780553299458

The Beloved Scoundrel

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9780553299458: The Beloved Scoundrel

Now, from nationally best-selling Iris Johansen comes a thrilling tale of abduction, seduction, and surrender that sweeps from the shimmering halls of Regency England to the decadent haunts of a notorious rogue...

She was a hostage torn between passion and loyalty...

Marianna Sanders realized she could not trust this dark and savagely seductive stranger who had come to spirit her away across the sea. She possessed a secret that could topple an empire, a secret that Jordan Draken, the duke of Cambaron, was determined to wrest from her. In the eyes of the world the arrogant duke was her guardian, but they both knew she was to be a prisoner in his sinister plot—and a slave to his exquisite pleasure.

He was the fabulous rake they called the Duke of Diamonds...

For years, brilliant, deadly Jordan Draken had schemed to destroy the emperor who threatened everything he valued most in the world. Now that he held this defiant woman who was the key to his final triumph, he felt a fierce sense of satisfaction...and the first stirring of desire. She was only supposed to be a pawn in his plans, but once alone with his captive, Jordan realized she was a prize he could never surrender.

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About the Author:

Iris Johansen is the New York Times bestselling author of many novels, including Killer Dreams, On the Run, Countdown, Firestorm, Fatal Tide, Dead Aim, and No One to Trust. She lives near Atlanta, Georgia.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

February 16, 1809
Talenka, Montavia
The Balkans


The Window to Heaven was shattered.

Only moonlight and cold wind streamed through the huge circular cavity where splendor and beauty had once reigned.

Marianna dug her fingers into the door to keep herself upright as she stared at the devastation. The journey had taken too long. She had failed Mama. The pattern was smashed; the Jedalar was gone. Then she forgot everything else as the deep sense of loss over the act of sheer desecration hit home. She knew the Jedalar should be more important to her but, dear heaven, all that wonder and beauty gone forever.

Why was she so stunned? They had destroyed everything else in her life. Perhaps it was even fitting that this last beautiful remnant had died.

"Marianna." Alex tugged at her arm. "I think I hear them!"

She went rigid, listening. She heard nothing, just the wind whistling among the shelled and deserted houses of the town. She looked away from the shimmering splinters of glass scattered across the floor of the church, her gaze searching the ruins that had once been the town of Talenka. She still heard nothing, but Alex had always possessed sharper hearing than she. "Are you sure?"

"No, but I think . . ." He tilted his head. "Yes!"

She should never have come back. She should have taken the road to the south. Her mother would have forgiven her. They had not taken quite everything from her. She still had Alex, and by God, she would not let him die.

She slammed the heavy brass-studded door and dragged Alex behind her as she tore down the long aisle toward the altar, stumbling over a broken iron candelabra and several fat white candles scattered on the marble floor. The soldiers had wreaked their usual havoc here, she thought grimly. Everything of value had either been stolen or destroyed. The gold crucifix that had once adorned the wall beneath the Window to Heaven had vanished; the statue of Mary and the Child to the left of the altar had been toppled from the pedestal.

"Horses," Alex whispered.She heard them now too. The sharp clip-clop of hooves on the cobblestoned street outside.

"They won't find us," she whispered back. "They didn't see us come in, and those pigs can have no traffic with either churches or prayers." She pulled the little boy behind a column beside the altar and crouched down beside him. "But we will stay here awhile and wait for them to go away."

Alex shivered and drew closer to her. "What if they do come?"

"They won't." She slid an arm around his shoulders. He was thinner than he had been last week, she realized in concern, and he had been coughing all day. The scraps of food she had managed to salvage from the deserted farmhouses outside the town had barely been enough to keep them alive.

"What if they do?" Alex repeated.

Heavens, he was persistent. "I said they–" She stopped. She didn't know the duke's soldiers wouldn't come, she thought wearily. She could not be sure of anything or anyone. She doubted if those monsters would come to worship, but they might come to loot and burn again. "If they come, we will hide here in the shadows and be very quiet until they leave. Can you do that?"

He nodded, his weight heavier against her. "I'm cold, Marianna."

"I know. As soon as we hear them leave, we'll look for shelter for the night."

"Can we light a fire?"She shook her head. "But maybe we can find a blanket for you."

"And for you." He smiled at her–only a faint smile, but it was enough to light his face with the cherubic radiance that had led her mother to use him as a model in her last work. It was the first time she had seen him smile since the night they had–

Mama . . .

She quickly blocked the thought. She must not think of that night or anything that happened since. She had found it weakened her, and she must stay strong for Alex.

"A blanket for me too." She wanted to lean forward and kiss him, but Alex had reached the advanced age of four and regarded himself as too old for such a display of affection. "Just as soon as they leave the village."

But they weren't leaving. They were coming closer. She could hear the horses just outside the church and men's voices laughing and talking.

Her heart pounded as she drew Alex closer.

Let them go away, she prayed frantically. Mother of God, let them not come into the church.

Footsteps on the stone stairs.

The muscles of her stomach tightened painfully.

"Marianna?"

"Shhh." Her hand clamped over Alex's mouth.

The door creaked as it swung open. So much for prayers. Now she must do as her mother had taught her and rely only on herself.

Mama.

A tide of grief overwhelmed her. Tears stung her eyes until she could barely see the man standing in the doorway.
She blinked. She had not cried since it had happened, and she would not cry now. Tears were for the weak, and she must be strong.

She watched the man start down the aisle. He was tall, very tall, his stride long and purposeful, his dark cloak billowing behind him like the wings of a vulture. He was not in the duke's livery, but that didn't mean he wasn't the enemy. No one followed him, she noticed in relief. He had left those other pigs outside. She had a better chance of besting one man.

He stumbled in the darkness and muttered a curse.

She heard Alex's gasp beneath her hand. There had been many curses that night, curses and laughter and screams. She had held Alex to her breast so he would not see, but she had not been able to keep him from hearing. Her hand kneaded his thin shoulders in silent comfort.

The man stumbled again and then stopped, stooped, and picked up something from the floor. A few minutes later a tiny flame of light pierced the darkness as he lit the stub of a broken candle he had retrieved.

She shrank farther back into the shadows, her gaze raking the enemy to search out weakness.Dark hair tied back in a queue, a long face, a glimmer of green eyes.

He lifted the candle high, his eyes searching the darkness until he found the gaping hole that had once been the Window to Heaven. His hand tightened on the candle; his face contorted in an expression of demonic fury. "Damnation!" His booted foot kicked out at the shards of glass on the marble floor. "Dammit to hell!"

He'd cursed in English. He must be English, like Papa, but she had never seen Papa in a fury like this.

Alex whimpered.

The man stiffened. "Who's there?"

He was turning toward them! She tried to think quickly through the sick terror tightening her chest. If he saw them, they would be helpless prey. Their only weapon was surprise.

"Stay here," she whispered. "Wait!" She pushed Alex still farther behind the column, darted forward, and charged the man.

"What the dev–Oof." Her head connected with the stomach and knocked the breath out of him. She grabbed the broken iron candelabra from the floor and brought it up between his legs. He gasped and doubled over in agony.

"Alex! Come!" she called.

Alex was behind her in seconds, and she grabbed his hand and ran up the aisle. But before they reached the door, she was knocked down and hit the floor, hard. He had tackled her! He flipped her over and leaped astride her. Helpless. She was as helpless as Mama had been.

"No!" She struggled wildly.

"Lie still, damn you."

Alex leaped on the man's back, his thin arms encircling his neck.

"Run, Alex," Marianna cried. "Run!"

She felt the man above her tense. "My God!" he muttered, and then added in disgust, "Children!" He leaped to his feet, throwing off Alex's hold. Marianna scrambled to her knees and reached for the candelabra she had dropped.

"Marianna!"

She looked up to see her brother struggling in the arms of the man. She lunged up at him, wielding the candelabra, but Alex was immediately lifted as a shield between them.

"Oh no, not again," he said grimly, this time in Montavian. "I will not permit a second assault on my person. I have other plans for my manhood."

As all men did. She wished she had a sword to cut his off. "Let him down," she said fiercely.

"Presently." He must be very strong; he was holding Alex as if he were weightless. "But only if you promise not to attack me."

"Put him down."

"Or?"

"I'll find a way to hurt you again."

"Ah, another threat. You're a little young to deal in threats."

She took a step closer.

He stiffened, his wary gaze on the iron weapon in her hands. "Keep your distance." As she stopped, he relaxed a little. "One of the first things you should learn is that the man who possesses the prize dictates the terms. Now, I seem to have captured an object you value." He backed away from her a few paces. "He's very small, isn't he? Small children are so easy to hurt."

Fear ripped through her. "I'll kill you if you–"

"I have no intention of harming him," he interrupted. "Not if you don't force me to defend myself."

She studied him. His thick dark hair had come loose from its queue and framed a long face that was all planes and hollows. His straight black brows slashed over startling green eyes, and his nose reminded her of the beak of an eagle. It was a hard face, a face as inflexible as stone, the face of a man who could be cruel.

"Answer my questions, and I'll set this young man down," he said. "I assure you I don't usually make war on children."

She did not trust him, but she had little choice. "What do you want to know?"

"What are you doing here?"

She searched wildly for an answer he would believe. "It was cold, and we needed shelter for the night."

"There's not much shelter here with that window broken." His gaze was on her face, reading her expression. He didn't believe her, she realized in despair. She had never been good at lying. He continued. "Perhaps you're a thief. Perhaps you came in here to see what you could steal. It wouldn't be–"

"Marianna wouldn't steal," Alex said belligerently. "She only wanted to see the window, but it was gone. She would never–"

"Hush, Alex," she said sharply. It wasn't Alex's fault. He was only defending her and didn't know the importance of the Jedalar.

"The window?" He glanced up over his shoulder. "Hell yes, it's gone." That terrible anger twisted his face again. "Bastards! I wanted that window."

He wanted the Window to Heaven. Then he must be one of them! "Who . . . who . . . are you?"

His gaze narrowed on her face. "Not Mephistopheles, as you seem to hink. Who do you think I am?"

She moistened her lips. "I think you belong to the Duke of Nebrov."

"I belong to no one." His lips tightened. "Certainly not to that whoreson bastard. I don't– Ouch!"

Alex's teeth had sunk into his hand.

Marianna tensed, prepared to spring if he retaliated against the boy.

But he merely shook off the boy's teeth. "It seems the cub is also fierce."

"He's afraid. Let him down."

"I'll strike a bargain with you. I'll put him down if you promise not to run away."

He had seemed sincere in his dislike of the duke, but that didn't mean he was not the enemy. He wanted the Window. "You put him down and let him leave us, and I'll not run away."

"But then I'll not have my shield."

She smiled with fierce satisfaction. "No."

His lips quirked, but he did not smile in turn. "Done. I think I can protect myself from one small girl. Drop your weapon."

She hesitated and then dropped the candelabra.

"Good. Your promise?"

She had hoped he would not demand the words. "I promise," she said grudgingly, and then quickly added, "if I see no danger to Alex."

He set the little boy on his feet. "There's no danger here for the boy."

There was danger everywhere, and she must be prepared to face it. She turned to Alex. "Go to the garden and wait for me there."

"I don't want to go."

She didn't want Alex to go either. The night was cold and he was ill and she did not know how long this Englishman would keep her here. But there was no choice. Alex had to be sent out of harm's way. She took off her wool shawl and wrapped it around him. "But you must." She gave him a gentle push. "I'll be with you soon."

He started to protest, but when he met her gaze, he turned and ran toward the small door to the left of the altar.

She was alone with him. Mama. What if he hurt her the way they had hurt her mother? Fear closed around her heart, robbing her of breath, freezing her blood as she turned to face him.
"You sent away my hostage," he said mockingly. He set one of the candelabras upright, found the candle he had dropped, and relit it. "It makes me feel exceptionally insecure. I don't know if I can tolerate–Why the devil are you shaking like that?"

"I'm not." Her eyes shimmered with defiance. "I'm not afraid."

He could see that she was more than afraid; she was terrified. It was probably good that she feared him; fear would produce answers, but for some inexplicable reason he felt the need to save her pride. "I didn't say you were. It must be the cold. You gave the boy your shawl." He took off his cloak. "Come here and let me put this around you."

She looked at the cloak as if it were a sword pointed at her. She took a deep breath. "I will not fight you, but you must make me a promise. You must not kill me afterward. Alex needs me."

"After what?" he asked. His gaze narrowed on her face, and he understood. "You think I intend to rape you?"

"It's what men do to women."

"How old are you?"

"I've reached my sixteenth year."

"You look younger." In the loose, ragged blouse and skirt she wore her body appeared to be as straight and without womanly form as that of a child. She was small-boned, delicate, almost painfully thin, with a smudge darkening one cheek. Her fair hair was pulled back in a long braid and added to the effect of extreme and vulnerable youth.

She stared at him scornfully. "What difference does it make how old I am? I'm female, and men don't care. They care for nothing."

She sounded so certain, he felt a surge of pity for the waif. "Has this happened to you before?"

"Not to me." Her tone was suddenly reserved. He could almost see her withdraw within herself, sidling away from the pain she would not discuss.

"And it won't happen now," he said grimly. "I'm not known to be above debauchery, but I don't rape children."

But she wasn't a child. The delicate beauty of her features should have reflected wonder instead of raw wariness; her clear blue eyes gazed at him with a worldliness far beyond her years, and her lips were set tight to prevent their trembling. He had seen the same look on the faces of the children in the towns and villages along Kazan's border, and it made him as angry now as it had then. "Where are your parents?"

She did not answer at once, and when she did, she spoke so softly, he had to strain to hear. "Dead."

"How?"

"Papa died two years ago."

"And your mother?"

She shook her head. "I . . . don't want to tell you."

"How did your mother die?" he repeated.

"The duke."

He remembered her earlier accusation. "The Duke of Nebrov?"

She nodded.

It was no surprise to him. The powerful Duke of Nebrov had launched an insurrection against his brother, King Josef, over a year ago. It had been a bitter struggle, and both armies had almost been destroyed before the duke had been forced to acknowledge a defeat. The king's forces had been too scattered...

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