Love with The Perfect Scoundrel

 

ISBN 10: 0061493287

ISBN 13: 978-006149328

 

Book III in the Widows Club series.

 

Twice jilted in the last two years, the achingly beautiful yet stoic Grace, Countess of Sheffield has given up on love. Now she's no longer capable of maintaining the elegant, serene facade with the members of the Duchess of Helston's secret circle of friends. And so she flees… only to encounter wretched disaster during the carriage ride north. 

But little does Grace know that once she faces all fate has tossed her way, she will find a new life…with a tall, rugged stranger who not only saves her life but forces her to dig deep into her hidden reserves of desire and fortitude to blossom into the woman she was destined to become—a lady willing to sacrifice all for a mysterious, yet powerful man who insists he is nothing more than a perfect scoundrel. 

 

 

 

 

The Muse Unleashed . . .

After The Kiss was released, readers wrote in droves asking when Grace Sheffey’s story would be told. Jilted in the first two books of the series, the beautiful Countess of Sheffield deserved nothing but the very best hero according to her fans. Grace was modeled after the young Princess of Monaco with oodles of quiet charm and graciousness. But as the story unfolded, under her delicate façade there lurked a steeliness of heart and spirit, two things that would serve her well during her encounters with the hero.

Grace’s hero Michael Ranier was named after the husband of RomanceNovel.tv’s Maria Lokken. After all, what better name than “Ranier” to associate with a heroine who looks like Grace Kelly? The face and form of this tall, rugged hero “from the Colonies” was modeled after New England Patriot’s quarterback, Tom Brady.

Re the plot: After driving white-knuckled 1,200 miles (on the wrong side of the road) during a research trip to England, I was loaded with ideas. In beautiful Derbyshire, I awoke one morning to discover the green valleys and dales covered with snow. I asked myself what if the heroine found herself stranded here after a freak blizzard? A story was born.

Michael Ranier’s horse was brought from the Colonies and is named “Sioux" in honor of a favorite horse from my youth. And the badger-hunting Atilla The Dog “who is far more snout and teeth than leg and hair”? Why, he is modeled after my own dear Coco, who loyally sits beside me every darn day as I write.

 

 

Reviews . . .

"While trying to escape the vicious gossip that comes from having two men jilt her, Lady Grace Sheffield finds herself stranded in the snowy Yorkshire countryside. Grace is rescued from near freezing by Michael Ranier, who brings her back to his newly inherited farmhouse and quickly melts Grace's coldly polite façade with his kindness. All it takes is one passionate night with Michael, and Grace begins to rethink everything she once believed about love.Love with the Perfect Scoundrel will dazzle readers with its graceful writing, subtle wit and deliciously sensual love story." ~ Chicago Tribune

 

“All romances should exhibit such emotion, sensuality, and great storytelling.” ~ Romance Reviews Today

 

5 out of 5 stars
“This third entry in Ms. Nash’s wildly popular Widows Club series is filled with the same depth of wit, passion and emotion that we have all come to love in a Sophia Nash book. Filled with riveting characters in an unforgettable setting, Love with the Perfect Scoundrel is quite simply, perfect!” ~ Romance Novel Television

 

"Nash deftly infuses the superbly crafted, deliciously sensual romance between Grace and Michael with a generous soupçon of subtle wit, and the latest irresistible addition to her Wicked Widows historical Regency series is an exquisitely emotional, perfectly satisfying romance." ~ Booklist

 

 “Sexy and sensual; a lush Historical Romance that sizzles off the page! THIS book, is in my top 10 ~ ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦ (10 out of 10 Diamonds) - Absolutely LOVED it!!” ~ Book Reviews by Bobbie

 

"From the first page, Love with the Perfect Scoundrel is enchanting. The writing is flawless, the story entertaining and the characters, even the seamier ones, jump right from the pages. I enjoyed this novel completely . . .”
~ Romance Readers at Heart

 

 “I learned years ago that whenever I intend to begin a story written by Sophia Nash that I had better make sure the pizza has already been delivered. Otherwise the members of my family will have to eat cold cereal or sandwiches. This tale is no exception. The author begins with a strong willed lady in distress and then the tender roots of romance begin. From there the author builds tension that only seems to increase with each page turned. Within these pages you will experience pure romance at its very best!” ~ Huntress Reviews

 

 4 ½ stars, (Top Pick) HOT

”Nash's vibrant storytelling sparkles as she tells the tale of a woman's secret desires and the man who can make them all come true. Here's a fantastic story you'll want to go on forever!” ~ Romantic Times BOOKreviews magazine

 

”This book is a gift of emotion wrapped in sensuousness and tied with a bow of hope.” ~ Rakehell Reviews

Excerpt . . .

From Chapter One:

 

Nobody could really explain the reasons behind the failed engagements of the beautiful Countess of Sheffield.

 

Oh, there was speculation. Oodles of speculation, and none was kind.

 

But that was to be expected.

 

For the aristocracy of England was unparalleled in its ability to knock one of their own off the fragile ladder of rank—with merely a look or an emphasis on a single syllable of a word. And they accomplished it with relish—especially during the little season, when few of the amusements of town were in the offing.

 

Yes, during those cold days of December, Grace Sheffey often wondered with dark humor if it had something to do with all the falsely elegant variations of boiled mutton and prune pudding that coddled lords and ladies endured following autumn’s cornucopia.

 

Whatever the cause for the malaise coursing London’s ballroom jungle, the countess knew that the traditional method of clawing out survival involved an iron jaw and a tin ear. For if a lady possessed an “of” in her name, she had best armor herself well against the vicious jaded humor prowling about Mayfair’s upper ten thousand. 
            
And so, after fleeing her circle of friends in Cornwall on the heels of her second engagement debacle, Grace tightened her corset and valiantly tried to brazen out the sting of rumors in London.

 

And failed.

 

Quite miserably and quite alone, for there had not been a single invitation addressed to her for a single event during the upcoming holidays, nor had there been a single acceptance to a small soiree she had meticulously planned.

There were only regrets. Regrets from everyone she had invited and her own regrets for ever thinking she should attempt a return to London in the heat of such ferocious gossip.

 

That was why she next chose to do what she did best: to leave. Again. Grace Sheffey decamped from this newest disaster-in-the-making, as far and as fast as she could. Little did her kind-hearted traveling companion know of Grace’s ultimate plan. 
            
“Put your feet on the hot brick, lass,” Mr. John Brown pleaded, his bushy salt and pepper eyebrows rising over faded, owlish eyes. 
            
“I’m perfectly fine, thank you,” replied Grace softly, taking care to keep her back perfectly arched, her lustrous pearls and dress perfectly elegant, her expression perfectly blank. “Forgive me, Mr. Brown, but do you think we’ll reach York before nightfall?”

 

Silence and their frosted breath mingled inside the cold, cramped space.

 

“Perhaps,” he said across from her as he rubbed at the tiny window and glanced at the leaden sky. “But perhaps no. Roman is an excellent driver, but I see patches of ice forming. Well, at least there’s no snow. My old bones tell me it’s too early in the season. But it might have been better to secure rooms at that last inn.”

 

She put aside her book. “I’m sorry I asked that we continue on.”

 

It was the longest stretch of conversation they’d had since leaving town. And it was the first time she’d offered anything other than a response to a question.

 

“No, Lady Sheffield, ’tis I who am sorry. I shouldna have presented you with the chance to go north with me. The dowager duchess will no’ forgive me for taking you from her. But then again, she’ll no’ forgive me for anything else.” He muttered the last under his breath. “Take this, Countess.”

 

Grace grasped the heavy horsehair blanket but it slipped from her stiff fingers. Mr. Brown unfolded it and arranged it to cover both their laps.

 

“Lady Sheffield, I know you willna like me for it, but may I have a word? You’ve stewed too long. I know now you’re no’ going to crack and—” He stopped cold when she dared lift her eyes to his. She then took care to draw the lacy veil of cool elegance back into place. Mr. Brown would not be deterred. “Perhaps we should speak about your future, about the past, about your—”

 

“No—”

 

“—recent ill fortune.”

 

She exhaled sharply and her ghostly breath swirled into nothingness. “Do you mean to propose we examine all the details that led up to my being thrown over by one gentleman and jilted by the next, Mr. Brown?”

 

“There’s no need to—”

 

“You’re absolutely right. There’s no need to discuss any of it. It’s the most tedious story in the world. If you really want to help, perhaps you can give me your opinion concerning two bonnets I saw at Locke and Company. Shall I order the one in pale pink satin with grapes dripping off the ends, or should I reconsider the lace creation with the blue bird of happiness tipping drunkenly to one side? What say you, Mr. Brown? Are fruits or birds the thing this winter?”

 

He refused her well-baited trivialities like a cunning, seasoned old trout. “I admire you, Countess. More than you know. I’ve always thought you gentle, sweet, and full of feminine sensibilities. But I do believe I might have misjudged you on the last. I came prepared for this journey with three dozen handkerchiefs and yet they remain as dry as a Scotsman’s throat when gin runs thin.”

 

“Tears never change the facts, Mr. Brown.”

 

He scratched his balding pate, returned his hat to its place, and refused to drop the matter. “After Ata is through with me, the marquis and the duke will probably drag my bones through all of England for taking you to Scotland.”

 

“And I shall tell them that this was the only solution,” she continued. “I will not ruin my friends’ happiness by staying and becoming an embarrassing reminder of past expectations.”

 

“Is that what you call ruptured engagements now? Past expectations?” He snorted. “The dowager duchess calls them something entirely different, and unforgivable. But that’s not fit for your ears.”

 

Grace knew his pride was still bruised from the dowager duchess’s stalwart refusal to reconsider a life with him.

“So, it appears we’re both running away.” Grace stared unseeing out the smudged window of Mr. Brown’s small carriage.

 

“No, lass,” he replied. “You are running away. I am giving up.”

 

“Well, Mr. Brown, we shall have to make a bargain then. I shall promise not to call you a fool for giving up a lady who obviously still loves you, if you will promise not to utter the obvious—that I’m a coward for running away.”

 

“You are anything but a coward, Grace Sheffey. You’ve proved to be a lady of great fortitude and character. You didn’t have to release Lord Ellesmere from his promise.”

 

She pursed her lips. “There’s no need for false praise. I’ve never found virtuous behavior all that rewarding.”

 

“Perhaps, but wrongdoings never improve one’s lot in life, either.” The older gentleman sighed and stretched his aching limbs as much as the interior of the small carriage would allow.

 

“Are you suggesting we’re damned to be unhappy whether we’re respectable or sinful, Mr. Brown? Hmmm . . . I hadn’t guessed our view of life so similar.”

 

“Och, what a muck I’ve made of cheering you.” He leaned back against the hardened leather squabs of his carriage. “You’re entirely wrong, my dear. You’ve forgotten the great benefit of youth. You’ve the whole of your life ahead of you. I’m the only one allowed to feel sorry for myself. When you’re staring at seventy years in your brittle dish, then——mind you, only then——may you seek peace after failure.”

 

“Well, it’s a bit different for females, as you well know, sir. Most everyone would argue that a widow of seven and twenty is as firmly stuck on the shelf as mildew. But please, Mr. Brown, never think I’m complaining. I’ve had my second chances. And I was blessed with an enormously kind husband for a short while—”

 

“A very short while,” he interrupted. “Och, Countess, Sheffield was a great man but, forgive me for saying, he was too old for ye.”

 

“You’re very wrong, Mr. Brown. Age has nothing whatsoever to do with attachments of the heart. But, now I want”—she paused and smoothed a wisp of hair back in place with her cold, stiff fingers—“no, I need to go away for a short while. But have no fear. I’m certain I’ll return to the whirl in town very soon. I can never stay away for very long. It’s just that everything is too fresh. We never should have stopped in London. I should have waited until a new scandal made my failure look like moldy, old news.” Distractedly, she rolled one of her long strands of pearls between her fingers. “Fortunately for me, I have the wherewithal to feel sorry for myself far, far away from all painful conjecture.”

 

“If it were not so cold, I would argue with you. Why, you’re but a spring chick. I’ll endeavor to do better once we thaw before a good fire on the other side o’ the border.” He tucked the loosening corner of the blanket under her. “I’m only sorry you didn’t urge your maid to continue along with us. You’re too softhearted by half.”

 

“Not at all. Sally doesn’t tolerate the cold— has never been more than ten miles from Cornwall,” Grace replied. “I never should have asked her to come. But I’ve arranged for her to return to London. When I’m settled, I’ll engage a maid who is more hardy to the vagaries of the northern climes.”

 

She remained silent for a moment, her hands folded demurely in her lap, then cleared her throat. “Mr. Brown?”

 

He stopped tapping his fingers along the edge of the bench.

 

“I’m glad we’ve been frank with each other. I’ve wanted to tell you that I’ve decided on a small change of plans.”

 

Mr. Brown shook his head. “I don’t like changing plans.”

 

“I would ask you to deposit me in Lancaster. When we arrive in York, it will be a simple matter to take the cross road to the coast.”

 

The elderly gentleman opened his mouth like a carp, then clamped it shut when Grace continued, “I decided several days ago that I will not go on with you to Scotland. I’m going to the Isle of Mann—where I spent my childhood. When my cousin inherited, he invited me to reside there anytime I choose. He’s never there—too desolate to his taste, I suppose.”

 

“The Isle of Mann? You must be joking. I can’t let you go there, not at this time of year. Why, it might very well storm. The Irish Sea is treacherous in the best of weather.”

 

She raised her eyes to his, and apparently what he saw quickened his speech. “I won’t let you go alone, Lady Sheffield. I’ll go with you, see you settled. Perhaps even stay on for a while if I’m honored by an invitation. Maybe through the winter? Or longer. Yes, much longer.”

 

“You’re not my nursemaid, Mr. Brown. I only asked to take a detour—to be left at the port in Lancaster. I know the village there well, and shall arrange for passage. Then you are to continue to—” She stopped at the sound of an eerie, mournful moaning outside the carriage. “What was that sound?”

 

“Just the wind, my dear. It’s more than a mite wicked in the vales.”

 

“But it sounds like a child crying most piteously.”

 

“Some say it’s the lost heir of the moors.”

 

“I beg your pardon?”

 

“Just a sad tale told by—”

 

The carriage bounced out of a frozen rut and lurched to one side. Grace became stiff with the ill feeling of disaster. And in one suspended instant in time, everything changed.

 

Rounding another sharp turn, the carriage careened across the ice-slicked lane. Mr. Brown levered his aged frame into the space beside her and braced her shoulders as the old, ill-suited carriage floated on a long skid to the far side of the road. The driver shouted, and with an awful creaking sound, the tiny, single horse drawn carriage teetered sideways before losing its fight with gravity, and tumbled onto its side. The loud crack of a wheel or axle rended the air at the same moment Mr. Brown’s heavy form fell on top of her and a pain lanced her ribs.

 

In that moment, Grace envisioned the distraught, pitying expressions of her two former fiancés, the Duke of Helston and the Marquis of Ellesmere, as they searched the wreckage. Mr. Brown and she would appear like frozen herrings in a tin under a hedgerow.

 

For a few seconds there was blessed silence before the carriage horse whinnied and the ruined vehicle slid a few inches forward. The old carriage’s off-kilter frame creaked in outrage and cracks snaked down the joints.

 

“Lady Sheffield? Lord, I’m crushing you,” Mr. Brown croaked.

 

“No,” she whispered. “I’m perfectly fine.”

 

“Thank God.” He awkwardly reached for the door, which was now above them. Maneuvering, he wrenched it open and a blast of cold wind rushed inside the tiny carriage, which had never been meant for long-distance travel.

 

“Roman? Roman, are you there, man?” When there was no response, Mr. Brown toed a buckled bench and heaved himself through the opening, muttering a Scottish oath.

 

Breathless, Grace righted herself despite the tangle of her gown’s skirting, and the blankets, and then knelt on what had once been the side of the carriage. She collected all the objects flung about—her book, Mr. Brown’s ledger, her embroidery bag, and her large jewelry pouch. The latter she put in her voluminous pocket.

 

“Lady Sheffield, can you hear me?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Look, we’ve a dilemma. Mr. Roman is knocked senseless and his head is bleeding. At least the horse is unharmed. You’re going to ride pillion—behind Mr. Roman, holding him—toward the last town. I’ll walk. Give me your hand and I’ll help you out.”

 

“Mr. Brown, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

 

“What? Come along now. I’ve wrapped Roman’s wound but we have to make our way out of here straightaway. The wind is up and—”

 

“Mr. Brown, I cannot ride astride with this narrow gown.” She prayed it would be an acceptable excuse. “And I certainly won’t be able to prop up Mr. Roman if he’s unconscious—especially without a saddle. He’s a very large man, is he not? You must take him. I’ll wrap myself tightly with these blankets and wait until you send someone back for me.”

 

Mr. Brown muttered another oath. “Lass, you will get out o’ this wreck and mount the blasted horse now. And I’ll hear no’ another word about it.”

 

“Mr. Brown,” she replied calmly, “if you don’t do what I suggest, you might very well find yourself with two injured people on your hands without any sort of shelter—not even a wrecked carriage—and then what will Ata do to you? Especially when I tell her that I begged you to send help. And I could also hail the mail coach when it passes. The man at the inn mentioned it was traveling this same road, did he not?”

 

She heard him climb down the outside of the carriage while mumbling something about ladies and their blooming ability to make men bow to their ill thought out ideas. Then a heap of clothing was tossed through the door. She swaddled herself in a mélange of thin shawls taken from her trunk strapped to the rear of the rickety carriage.

 

Mr. Brown draped his torso through the opening and thrust a flask into her fingers. “Here’s a bit o’ false fire.” He cradled her cheek with his gnarled hand. “I don’t like this at all, mind you. No’ one bit. But you’ve got that look about you. That mulish look I’m thinking Ata taught you. Och, I know it too well.” Mr. Brown’s Scottish burr always became more pronounced when he was agitated.

 

“You’re correct. Go on, now. I don’t want Mr. Roman to suffer a moment more than necessary. I shall be perfectly fine. I’m stifling under all these shawls. And I have the basket of food from the inn.”

 

Mr. Brown was remarkably good in a crisis, and even better at taking direction.

 

He shook his head. “Don’t you dare set one foot out o’ this carriage. I promise I’ll return for you.” He glared at her until she shook her head once. Then he shut the carriage door above her.

 

Within minutes, the sounds of Mr. Brown and the carriage horse muted and she was surrounded by silence. It was the first time she’d been alone for days——no, months. Actually, she realized, it felt like the first time she’d been truly alone for years.

 

She exhaled in one long, almost endless breath, and became light-headed. For the last month she’d thought she might burst from the pent up emotion. She’d not dared to show an inch of sorrow, even around her sweet Cornish maid.

During the journey, she’d been so grateful for the cold. It had numbed her limbs, which had been screaming at her to get away from Cornwall, and then London, as fast as possible. The chill had also allowed her mind to see everything with crystal clarity.

 

She was not meant to be living with other people. She was completely different from other ladies. And the thing of it was, she would be entirely happy living alone as she had done most of her childhood. Her friends often mistook her love of solitude for loneliness; they didn’t understand the contentment that could be found by leaving one’s heart sheltered and one’s mind to quiet reflection. She tried to breathe, but again felt a hitch in her side from the effort.

There——she’d admitted it all to herself. Mr. Brown had been wrong. She possessed a great defect in her character—in her moral fiber. She was weak and she approached everything in life tentatively and without any sort of passion. It was the reason she had not secured the affections of two fiancés.

 

She was a retiring coward in the fruitful garden of her pampered life. And running away from her disappointments was something of an art form she had perfected. But sitting here, growing dizzy, she accepted the truth. She was never going to be able to run far enough away this time—for she could not run away from herself.

 

Agony darkened the edges of her vision before she struggled against all the binding layers of impractical thin clothing. Pain hit her rib cage like an avalanche gaining momentum at the same moment she noticed a small streak of blood on her glove.

Glancing behind her only to find the broken glass of the carriage sconce, she guessed she’d fallen against it during the accident. Now scared, she refused to examine the wound; instead she wrapped a silk mantlet around her ribs and bound it as tightly as she could bear.

 

Grace knew she should be worried about her predicament, but instead she could only feel tired. And she was grateful. She hadn’t been able to sleep more than an hour or two at a time since leaving Cornwall. Then again, she’d never slept well. Surrendering to exhaustion, Grace Sheffey’s mind sloughed off her worries and flew out of the confines of this wreck of a carriage all the way to the oblivion of a deep, dreamless sleep.

 

The fragile strands of consciousness lay just out of her grasp for Lord only knew how long. With a strength she hadn’t known she possessed, Grace clenched her fingers repeatedly to waken. She lay there a long time before she forced down some of the contents of Mr. Brown’s flask and coughed violently against the burn.

Her mind blurry, she wasn’t sure if she had swooned or fallen asleep. But she wasn’t foolish enough to succumb to it again. This unnaturally dark, frigid cocoon frightened her.

 

The hinges creaked as she shoved at the door above. In a rush, the door fell from its moorings, taking a portion of the carriage siding with it. Clumps of snow littered her as she toppled over from the exertion.

The silence of the snow showering from the ever more gloomy sky clawed at her. When had the storm started? Surely, it would stop soon. Mr. Brown had said it never snowed this early in the season.

 

What had happened to Mr. Brown and the driver? Lord . . . Perhaps they’d met with ill luck. Mr. Brown would’ve returned for her by now if he could.

 

Well, she had to get out, had to start walking. No one was coming for her. She would perish if she remained here. Yet it was hard to make her limbs obey. Tears of frustration almost froze inside her eyelids as she twisted herself from the wreckage.

Bent with weariness and the edge of pain furrowing her side, she leaned into the wind, into the gloaming, and trudged toward the main mail coach road—away from the direction Mr. Brown had taken. It was her best chance. She was certain she would find a house or village around the next bend.

 

The world around her became ghostly, the flakes falling on a slant, drifting onto the heavy branches of the trees, hedgerows, and the lane, softening the ugly ruts in the road. She shivered and drew the blankets more tightly about her.

Snow cascaded from a nearby conifer and the tawny shadow of an enormous owl emerged from the branches, its wings spread in flight. How she wished she could fly away too.

 

Icy flecks invaded the tops of her inadequate half boots while Grace trudged onward. Only the crunch of her footsteps on the new snow breached the silence of the northern Peak District. Her breath crystallized in the blanket near her mouth as she tried to regulate her thoughts and her breathing.

 

Just past the first turn, she realized there was no house, no village in front of her, only a long stretch of whiteness bordered

by snow-powdered hedges without a telltale rise of smoke in the distance.

 

She didn’t dare look up again for a long while.

 

Time lost all meaning as she walked onward, her cheeks stinging then without feeling as hints of eventide crept in behind the melancholy December sky.

 

It was then that Grace Sheffey murmured an almost forgotten prayer from her childhood . . . a little something to her guardian angel begging an entree to paradise.

 

 *            *            *

Michael Ranier tugged his brushed-beaver hat lower on his head and was grateful for the protection against the heavy snowfall. An eerie calm had settled on this land, despite the outpouring from the heavens. He loosened the reins and gave his powerful mare her head so she could choose the best path in this sudden, wretched blizzard. He wouldn’t have pressed onward from the last village if all the physical features of the landscape had not proved he was close to the first view of his new beginning . . . Brynlow.

 

Then again, the fast-forming drifts were quite effectively covering any trace of his passage. It helped quell the ill ease that had dogged him since the moment he had stepped onto the filthy English docks less than a week ago.

 

Only a few miles now separated him from the mysterious property his childhood friend had left to him in his will. Poignant memories tinged his thoughts. Who would have guessed that little Samuel Bryn would one day tempt Michael from the hard-won productive life he’d cobbled together in the colonies during the last decade and a half or more?

 

Michael rounded another turn in the road, grateful for the guide of the hedgerow blanketed in snow, and hoped more than anything that Sam had left him a huge pile of split wood, for it was going to take a cord of well-seasoned red oak to ease the cold from his heavy bones.

 

Michael began to hum in an effort to calm and encourage his mare. After eight long hours on the road, her strength was not waning nor her spirit, but he knew she liked it when he sang to her. She whinnied and shook the melting flakes from her heavily muscled black neck.

 

Michael chuckled. “Sorry sweetheart, pipes are damned near frozen.”

He stroked his mount’s shoulder, then clucked to urge her to turn onto the northwesterly route, a long straight, desolate roadway.

 

There was something moving far in the distance. A stag, most likely. He squinted.

 

He had imagined it. There was nothing there. Michael continued onward, leaning into the brunt of the storm. The effort to encourage his horse with song was stripped from him by the increasing gusts of the tempest.

 

The mare raised her head and stopped, her ears pricked up. She sidestepped and her neck swung around before she snorted.

A small hooded form leaned against an ancient, towering hemlock, its huge branches shielding the figure.

 

Good God.

 

He called out, “Hey . . . you there.”

 

The hood moved toward him but the effort appeared too great to bear. His heart lurched. Everything screamed this was a person poor in spirit and material goods, two things he knew all too well.

 

Without hesitation, Michael eased his weight onto his left stirrup and swung off, landing in a quagmire of snow.

 

“Hey, are you all right? Caught by the storm, were you?”

He reached the shelter of the tree just as the pitiable, blanket-covered sod raised his head again. Two soft blue eyes, drowning in the wisdom of the ages, stared straight into his soul, piercing his heart. He staggered backward.

 

Why, he’d stumbled across something from heaven. No earthly eyes or flesh possessed such translucence. Beyond the fringes of the dull, worn blanket wrapped about her, pale hair shimmered silver in the fading light.

 

Her gaze faltered not. “For——forgive me for being so ridiculous, but are—are you an illusion?”

 

A deep chuckle rumbled within his chest. “I was about to ask you the same, miss.”

 

“Well, this is a f-f-first. My prayers have n-n-n”—her teeth chattered uncontrollably—“never been answered before.”

 

“I’ve never been the answer to anyone’s prayers, sweetheart.” Michael scratched his jaw and smiled.

 

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