Anna Campbell lives in Australia. She has four times been voted Favorite Australian romance writer by the Australian Romance Readers Association (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012) and her work is published in 16 languages. She has written eight multi award-winning historical romances set in the Regency period for Avon and Grand Central Publishing Forever. WHAT A DUKE DARES is her third book in the “Sons of Sin” series and releases in late August 2014. Read her interview here. Below you can read an excerpt from What A Duke Dares. Courtesy: Anna Campbell.
Excerpt from WHAT A DUKE DARES:
Val D’Aosta, Italy, February 1828
During nine years of travel, Penelope Thorne had been in more tight spots than she cared to remember. None quite so restricted as this one in the rundown common room of a flea-bitten hostelry high in the Italian Alps.
Battling to steady her hand, she raised her pistol and pretended that facing down a pack of miscreants was an everyday occurrence. Instinct insisted that betraying her fear would only invite rape and robbery—perhaps murder.
A dozen men leered at her. All desperate. All drunk. All drawing courage from their cohorts’ belligerence.
“The first man who moves gets a bullet,” she said in fluent Italian.
Unfortunately the denizens of this godforsaken village spoke some outlandish dialect. Their speech bore little resemblance to the melodious Tuscan that she’d learned in Florence’s salons.
Pen cursed the bad luck and bad weather that stranded her so far from civilization. Behind her, her maid and coachman cowered against the wall. The innkeeper was nowhere to be seen. He was probably in on the plot. He’d looked just as villainous as these thugs.
A heavily whiskered brute swaggered forward, expression contemptuous. Through the blast of incomprehensible patois, she made out the words “one” and “bullet.”
She kept the gun straight, despite crippling fear. “One bullet does a lot of damage.”
His lip curled in disdain and he took another step. She cocked the gun, the sound loud in the fraught silence. “Any nearer and I’ll shoot.”
He proved his scorn by approaching so close that she smelled the stale odor of his hulking body. Her stomach, already churning with dread, revolted and she only just stopped herself from faltering back. Behind him, the others shifted. Whatever the leader said prompted laughter. Laughter that made her skin crawl.
“I warned you.” She forced herself to meet the glittering excitement in his pig-like eyes.
Her finger tightened on the trigger and an explosion rent the air. She jerked back and her ears rang. The hot stink of gunpowder filled her nostrils.
“Porca miseria—” He staggered into the gang, who heaved and growled like an angry ocean. A bloody hole punctuated his forehead and astonishment froze his features before his eyes rolled up in his head and he slumped motionless.
Dear heaven, he was dead. At her hand.
Pen desperately wanted to be sick. In her twenty-eight years, she’d never killed anyone.
As the rabble coalesced into a menacing unit, she fumbled in her pocket for her second gun. She felt a presence at her shoulder and realized that at last her coachman Giuseppe displayed some backbone. If only he displayed some backbone while carrying a rifle. But his weapons remained in her carriage outside. All he had were his fists.
The men surged on a wave of rage. Pen raised her pistol with a hand that proved unexpectedly firm. Stinking bodies surrounded her, blocked the air. Cruel hands grabbed her, pinched her breasts. A blow landed hard against her ribs, stealing her breath.
Terror gripped her. She had one bullet left. Was this time to use it?
Giuseppe was somewhere in the melee. She couldn’t help him. She could barely help herself. Gasping and struggling she lifted her gun, bleakly aware that once she shot, she was at the mob’s mercy.
When a gunshot rang out, she first thought she’d fired. Yet the pistol remained cool in her hand.
The groping hands stilled. The angry roar faded to silence. The attack had lasted seconds, but it had felt like a lifetime.
Another gunshot and the horde fell away like a tide withdrawing down the beach.
“Get away from her.”
Astonishment turned Pen to stone. Even after nine years, his voice was familiar. The authoritative baritone caught at the heart that she’d kept on ice since their last meeting.
Sullenly her assailants retreated, creating a path between Pen and the doorway where her unlikely rescuer stood. Pen sucked in her first full breath in what felt like hours. Sweat, blood and the reek of her fear tainted the air.
The tall man wearing an elegant cape and a beaver hat tilted at a rakish angle seemed to belong to a different species from the bandits. Cam carried two horse pistols, a rifle hung over his shoulder and a sword dangled at his hip. Snow brushed his hat and shoulders.
“Get out and don’t come back.” As he stepped forward, his tone sent a chill oozing down her backbone. “This lady is under my protection.”
His Italian was as good as hers and this time the thugs understood. Although his arsenal of weaponry undoubtedly spoke more loudly than words.
One of the men remonstrated about their dead comrade until Cam raised the gun. The fellow skulked off with the rest, the dead man hoisted between them.
Shaky and ill, Pen extended a trembling hand toward Giuseppe. To her consternation, Cam gripped her arm. Even through the leather glove he wore, she felt the heat of his touch. How could he affect her like this after so long?
“I’m all right,” she forced past rising gorge.
“Like hell you are.” His hold tightened.
If only the room stopped revolving. If only she caught a decent breath. If only she saw something other than Cam’s endlessly disapproving expression and the face of the man she’d shot.
“I’ve…I’ve never killed anyone before.”
“Don’t waste your pity.” He sounded livid.
Wonderingly she stared into his face. That beautiful, sculpted, austere face that still haunted her dreams, no matter how she’d struggled to forget him. “You’re angry with me?” she asked in bewilderment.
“Damn right I am.” His mouth flattened. “I’d love to take you over my knee and give you a good spanking.”
“I can’t imagine why,” she said faintly, her voice coming from the end of a long tunnel. Cam’s face became the only fixed point in a reeling world.
She closed her eyes. Then her stomach gave a nauseating swoop as Cam swept her up in his arms. She managed an incoherent protest before blackness claimed her.
“Take this.” Fumbling to hold Pen, Cam shoved the horse pistols at the useless cur who had cowered behind her. He firmed his grip on Pen’s motionless body. She was a bonnie fighter. How his heart had leaped when he saw her courage, even while his belly twisted with terror.
He stared down into her face. The promise of the girl had flowered into the sort of beauty that started wars. He still remembered how disturbed he’d been all those years ago to discover his childhood shadow transformed into a striking woman. Now the long slender body was curved and soft in his arms. Her scent teased him. Something fresh and floral. Warm and womanly. Smoky. A trace of gunpowder, by God.
Long black hair flowed around her. Outrage threatened to choke him as he recalled those savages tearing at it and pawing her. If he’d had more bullets and some men at his back, he’d have done a damned sight more than chase the brigands away.
“Fetch the landlord,” he said to the girl he assumed was Pen’s maid. She hunched on the stairway, dark eyes wide as if expecting Cam to take up where the locals left off. She rose and managed a wobbly curtsy before disappearing down a corridor.
Pen stirred as he laid her carefully upon a wooden bench under a shuttered window. Looking at Pen, a turbulent mix of emotions assailed him. Relief at her survival, of course. Anger at her being in this place at all. An unacceptable physical awareness.
An awareness that only built as he bent over her, checking for injuries. Scratches marked her neck and shoulders. He couldn’t see much else wrong with her. Horror clenched his gut as he imagined what might have happened if he hadn’t arrived.
Inky eyelashes fluttered against pale cheeks, but she didn’t wake. What shocked him wasn’t her sensuous beauty. What shocked him was that she still contrived to look innocent.
His gaze fell to her lips, parted slightly as she inhaled. Something that felt disconcertingly like lust shuddered through him. As he pulled her torn bodice over her shift, he struggled not to notice the satiny skin under the tattered dress. He was a scoundrel to think of her as a desirable woman, rather than as a duty to hand off as soon as possible.
Blast it to hell. The moment his eyes dropped to her chest, she stirred.
“Have you seen enough?” she asked in English.
The Duke of Sedgemoor was famous for his self-assurance. Nobody made him blush. But heat prickled along his cheekbones as he straightened and regarded Penelope with what he hoped was his usual detachment.
“You don’t appear seriously hurt.” He flung away his cloak and set his sword and rifle on a table. He was prepared for this lawless corner of the world even if Pen wasn’t.
“Not on my bosom at any rate.” Clutching at her bodice, she struggled to sit.
He stifled a quelling response. After all, he had been ogling her. “What in heaven’s name brought you to choose this hovel?”
One slender hand brushed her tumble of hair back from her face. To his dismay, he saw that she was shaking.
“Try the weather.” Her tone was sharper than his sword. “I know you could barge through an avalanche without creasing your neckcloth, but we lesser mortals must seek shelter when snow blocks the roads.”
She was a fool to travel through the mountains in February, but her pallor silenced his scolding. The landlord bustled in, carrying a tray.
“Mi dispiace, mi dispiace…” The fellow burst into an emotive explanation from which Cam gathered that the brigands had locked him in the cellars.
Cam seized the tray, pleased to see a bottle of brandy and two glasses. After the last half hour, he deserved a drink. Once the landlord assured them that he’d arranged for some stout villagers to guard the hostelry—a matter of civic honor apparently—Cam reserved a bedroom and sent him away.
Pen had remained quiet through the innkeeper’s recitation. So quiet that when they were alone, Cam tilted an eyebrow in her direction. Unless she’d changed beyond all recognition, quiet wasn’t her natural state. “Are you all right?”
He had a sinking feeling that the answer was “no,” but typically, she lifted her chin and glared at him. He wondered what she saw. Nothing she liked, if he read her expression right.
He’d believe that if her gaze hadn’t skittered away from the blood on the floor. A girl carrying a bucket crept into the room and kneeled to clean up the mess. The strain on Pen’s face eased.
These flashes of understanding were odd. Cam thought she’d be a stranger after all this time. Yet she wasn’t. In many ways, she was still as familiar as his sister.
Peter had given Cam all Pen’s recent letters so he had an idea of where to seek her. It was how he’d tracked her to this backwater. He’d struggled against falling under the spell of the woman who wrote with such humor and vitality. She hadn’t mentioned any amorous intrigues. But then, she’d been writing to her brother.
She swallowed and stared at him, he suspected in preference to the bloodstains. “What a coincidence that you turned up.”
“A lucky coincidence,” he said drily, lifting the brandy bottle.
“I hope you’re pouring me one.”
Another reminder that she wasn’t the innocent he’d proposed to. “As you wish.”
He passed her a brandy and tried to hide his surprise when she took a confident swig. In his world, unmarried ladies of good family didn’t indulge in strong spirits. But of course, Pen no longer belonged to his world.
He thought of Lady Marianne Seaton, the woman he’d chosen to marry. Lady Marianne wouldn’t drink brandy. But then he couldn’t imagine Lady Marianne having the fortitude to shoot a bandit either.
He’d never seen Lady Marianne less than perfectly turned out. Pen sat before him completely disheveled. Her bodice sagged, revealing the lacy edge of her shift. It seemed a betrayal to acknowledge that of the two women, Pen struck him as considerably more beddable.
The devil of it was that the years hadn’t diminished his reluctant sexual interest. The moment he’d seen Pen again, he’d wanted her. And now he was stuck with her until he got her safely back to England. What a hellish situation.
No matter what she’d got up to over here, she was his childhood companion and his friend’s sister. She deserved courtesy and respect. If he took Pen for one night, he was honor-bound to take her for life. He’d grown up enough to recognize his foolishness in offering for her all those years ago. The last thing he needed was a permanent entanglement with a notorious Thorne.
You can read another excerpt from WHAT A DUKE DARES on Anna’s website here.