Excerpt from Almost an Angel

CHAPTER 1

Carolly stumbled and fell into the grass, letting its cool,  sweet scent envelop her. She tried to move her right arm, but pain shot through her ribs and she groaned into the dirt. Thank God she always healed quickly at the beginning of each life.

Another life. Another incarnation. That could only mean she hadn’t done enough or learned enough or given enough in her last life. So, now she had to start all over. Maybe this time she could earn her wings.

She didn’t know how long she lay there, her body throbbing with agony, but eventually the steady thud of hoofbeats penetrated her consciousness. Someone was riding. On a horse. Coming toward her. If only she had the strength to lift her head to see. With a grunt of effort, Carolly managed to roll over to stare at the sky. Once upon a time she’d thought being dead meant she didn’t have to hurt any longer. Boy, had she been wrong.

The hoofbeats pounded through the ground, adding to the steady thrum of her pain. Carolly remained still, unable to work up the enthusiasm to rise and grab the person’s attention. If whoever it was rode on by, then it was his loss.

If he stopped, he’d get his reward. That, at least, she’d managed to figure out in her first few incarnations: The person she met first needed her the most.

Except, she reminded herself sternly, she was the one working at something. She had to earn her wings. She sighed. Time to go to work.

Carolly pushed upright, moaning as she did, trying to see beyond the grassy hill where she lay. Off in the distance, she heard a shout and turned toward the sound. A man on a horse. He’d seen her and was riding fast straight at her.

Her strength gave out, and Carolly dropped back onto the ground. She waited.

Before long, a man knelt beside her. Carolly saw dark hair and pale blue eyes, so light they were almost gray. She saw a stem jaw in a face unused to smiles.

“Good God, what happened? Where does it hurt?” His voice sounded rough, but not ungentle as he carefully slid his arms beneath her. “Tell me if this hurts.”

She smiled through her pain, enjoying the warmth of his touch. Then he lifted her up, and she had the briefest impression of a muscled chest broader than she might have guessed from her first glimpse. He held her firmly, and she smelled the musky scent of horse and leather and man.

Carolly sighed, this time with delight. Some pleasures never faded. “Thank you,” she whispered.

Then she slept.

James Oliver Henry Northram, Earl of Traynern, did not like surprises. He liked half-naked and battered women who collapsed on his near lands even less. Which was reason enough, he told himself, to perform his Christian duty by calling for medical help, and then—now—wash his hands of the situation. His staff and the doctor would see to the woman’s care. He need not think of her again beyond a simple order to make sure she did not steal anything. Yet, here he stood, glowering at both physician and patient, as the examination continued.

He ought to look away. The doctor had to inspect the lovely young woman; he did not. Still, for some bizarre reason, James felt the strong need to stand here, watching the doctor push into obviously broken ribs and press the woman’s thick, black bruises. Couldn’t the man see she’d been beaten to within an inch of her life? Did he truly need to prod her more?

“Will she live?” James’s voice was harsh even to his own ears.

The doctor shrugged. “Perhaps” was his only comment.

James should quit the room. He did, in fact, order his feet to perform that task. They remained grounded, frozen, immobile, his legs aching from his wild ride back to the house. Why, oh why, did he insist on torturing himself?

The answer, of course, remained both obvious and illogical. He stayed because the unknown woman was fair-haired and polite. Many women in England possessed those qualities, he knew. But despite all reason, the echo of a battlefield haunted him, memories of another young person—a teen with flaxen hair and a chest that bullets had torn asunder. Daniel. James had failed to save him. He had tried, even gotten himself wounded as he dragged the boy’s body back to safety. But it had been too late.

Danny’s last words had been, “Thank you.” As if James had done enough.

Now, here James stood over another fragile blond who’d given him thanks, and he knew that fate had decided to kick him again. God, how he hated surprises.

“You say you just found her?” interrupted the doctor, his second and third chins quivering. “Lying in the field? Like this? She’s probably a highwayman’s doxy. I suggest you send for the runners immediately.”

James shifted, finding a victim for his ill humor. “What do you suppose the runners will find? That she was nearly beaten to death? That she ran from her attacker?”

The doctor flushed a dull red, but did not hold his tongue. “Do not let sentiment interfere with your judgment, milord.

She is likely a cheap—”

James cut him off. “Doctor! I suggest you treat the woman and leave my sentiments to me.”

But he didn’t understand his own ill humor. Certainly the doctor merely voiced what everyone believed. After all, no respectable woman simply appeared in such a state without someone, somewhere raising a cry of alarm—a husband or father, likely in grave distress at her disappearance. And this doctor, whose profession carried him great distances, had obviously heard nothing.

Since only ruffians kept silent when one of their kind disappeared, the man’s beliefs had merit. And yet, James could not bring himself to damn a lone, lost woman, no matter what her past associations.

His thoughts were cut off as the strange woman moved. Her breathing hitched and her eyes shifted beneath her lashes. “I believe she’s waking,” he said.

“I shall bleed her, for safety’s sake,” the doctor proclaimed, ignoring the change in his patient. He tugged at her slender arm, heedless of the bruises. But, just as he pressed his instrument against the crook of her elbow, the woman gasped, scrambling backwards.

“Stay away from me!” she cried, gasping and cringing as her other hand moved to press against her bruised ribs.

“You are awake,” the doctor said.

The woman looked up, her beautiful blue eyes shifting between her rescuers. She was obviously nervous, and James stepped forward, hoping to reassure her.

“Welcome,” he began—but was interrupted as the doctor fought to bring his cupping instrument to the crook of the woman’s arm.

“Remain still!” the physician snapped. “I am a doctor!”

With surprising strength, the woman wrenched her arm away. “I don’t care if you’re Hawkeye Pierce, you’re not cutting into me!” She matched him glare for glare.

James stepped between them before the situation could worsen. “Perhaps, Dr. Stoneham, as she is awake now, you could leave off cupping her.” He turned back, expecting to see a quivering, terrified woman. Instead, the patient seemed to have gained control of herself. Her light blue eyes sparkled with intelligence, and she boldly surveyed not only her surroundings but him.

“I must be allowed to work,” the doctor said darkly.

“Not on your life!” the woman replied. She took a deep breath, obviously trying to calm herself. “Look, doctor,” she said, though from her tone James could tell she doubted the man’s credentials. “Cupping doesn’t help anyone, least of all me.”

“It will bleed off your ill humors.”

“Not possible,” she shot back. The quick sparkle of her laughter surprised both James and the doctor with the sound of its bitter mirth. “Look, the sad truth is there’s nothing wrong with me that a little time won’t cure.”

She looked away, and James was once again struck by her vulnerability. With her flaxen hair making a soft halo about her face, she seemed like a lost angel. He stepped closer before even realizing his intention.

Fortunately, the doctor interrupted. “You will draw an infection!” the man stated, puffing up with outrage. “Mark

my—”

“Thank you, Dr. Stoneham,” James interposed, once again regretting that this was the nearest physician within three hours’ hard ride. “I will send for you immediately should she take a turn for the worse.”

Stoneham nodded. “I shall be waiting.” He spoke as if pronouncing her doom, then stomped out the door.

The woman snorted in derision. Flipping back the covers, she climbed out of bed. She wore a baggy white nightgown three sizes too wide and about five inches too short. The hem flapped just below her knees, but she did not seem to care that her trim ankles and shapely calves were exposed.

“Great. He’s gone,” she said as she once again looked about the room. Her rosy toes wiggled against the chill floorboards, and she looked healthier than James expected. Her stomach growled—a loud, low rumbling that made her press her hand to her belly and giggle in embarrassment. “Oh, my,” she said by way of apology. “Um…I know this is really rude, but could I possibly have something to eat? I’m absolutely starving. I swear I will work off double what it costs.”

James felt his jaw go slack. The woman stood completely unabashed before him, her curves enticingly outlined by the light from the window. Once again, he was appalled by his lack of discipline. He should not even be in her room, much less standing there staring at her long shapely legs, perfectly rounded bottom, or at the perkiest breasts he’d seen in many a year. She could not have aroused him more with a deliberate seduction. Unfortunately, she seemed completely oblivious to her charms—which made her all the more interesting and him all the more irritated by his reaction.

“Madame,” he began, his voice tight.

“Call me Caro,” she answered, searching the room. For her clothing, no doubt, since she crossed to the wardrobe, opening it to find it empty.

“Please, Madame, you have been—”

“Caro or Carolly. Not Madame.” She bent over, tugging open one drawer after another in the wardrobe. She found nothing, while James had to forcibly restrain himself from moving directly behind her and fitting her body to his in a most ungentlemanly manner.

“You have been severely—”

“I can’t stand formality. It gets in the way of things,” she went on from her bent position. She opened the lowest drawer. “It’s important you feel comfortable with me.”

James closed his eyes. He had to close them, otherwise the sight of her upraised bottom would have completely undone him. “You were severely injured,” he reminded himself more than her.

“Really, I much prefer Caro.”

“And I strongly—”

“Caro.”

“Urge you—”

“Caro.”

His eyes shot open and he glared at her, tunneling all his frustration into his stern tone. “Miss Carolly!”

She turned, smiling beatifically up at him. “Yes?”

He ground his teeth. “I run a formal household, madame.”

“But ‘madame’ makes me sound like my mother!”

He regarded her silently for a moment, totally confounded. Finally he snapped, “I do not like surprises!” God alone knew why those words came forth. “Perhaps you should return to bed while I contact someone regarding your accident.”

She obviously wasn’t listening. She continued to inspect the room, poking at the escritoire and then heading back toward the window. He had to stop her. God only knew what he would see if she stood directly in the sunlight. The hard tips of her breasts already stood out whenever she moved. If the sunlight revealed their color, James doubted his ability to control his baser instincts.

Good God, he realized, he had been far too long without a woman if a strange female tempted him almost beyond reason! But she truly was beautiful, and…

With two swift steps, he caught her, being careful to touch only her arm. Her eyes widened at the contact, and she instinctively cringed away from him. He had not gripped her hard, but even so he instantly released her, belatedly remembering her bruises. She had been beaten to within an inch of her life. How loathsome of him to touch her at all, to think such lascivious thoughts about her, to want…

“Madame, you must return to bed,” he said, “while I send a message to your family.”

She shook her head, her eyes wide and her voice suddenly muted. She gazed up at him. “Sorry, no family.”

“None?”

“Nope. Nada.”

He stood directly before her, and though she was tall for a woman, he still needed to look down to see into her face. A bare shift in his gaze would reveal the dark shadows of her nipples.

“Perhaps a friend?” he managed to say through his constricted throat.

“I’m afraid I’m all alone in the world.” She lifted her shoulders in a casual shrug, and he nearly groaned at both her words and her movement. He was losing the battle. He knew it. No man could resist temptation for so long, and certainly not one who had lived virtually as a monk since returning from the battlefield.

“I may be all alone in the world,” she continued, “but I’m not a doxy like that quack physician said. That’s a whore, isn’t it? A harlot?”

For the first time in years, James was completely nonplussed.

“Well, I’m not one.” She glanced up at him, and he made a conscious effort to regain control of his body and mind. “Look, I know things seem odd right now.”

He raised an eyebrow—the only movement he allowed himself for fear of giving into his lust.

“I’m not handling this very well, am I?” she asked. Then she sighed.

He had no response except for the obvious. “Please return to bed, madame. I can only surmise your…behavior is due to a serious injury. Perhaps you shall feel better after a short rest.”

“Pooh.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I said, pooh.”

“But—”

Suddenly, she laughed. It was a gentle cascade of notes like water falling onto pebbles. He could only catch his breath at the sound, praying he would hear it again.

“Look. Thank you so much for your concern, but I feel much better,” the woman said. She stretched her arms high above her head and wiggled her toes. “However,” she continued with a yawn, “I’m always hungry at the beginning of one of these adventures.”

As if to emphasize the point, her abdomen released another loud groan.

Madame! Please cover yourself!” James didn’t know where he found the strength to bellow out his order, but somehow he did. And in such a way as to communicate the danger this strange woman courted. She abruptly scrambled away from him, flushing cherry red, then scrambled back into bed and tugged the coverlet up, over her body.

“Perhaps I could suggest a bargain, madame,” he said in his coldest tones. “If you will keep yourself properly covered for a week while you heal, I shall have Cook send up a bowl of gruel.”

“Gruel!” She had begun to settle back onto the bed, but twisted around at his suggestion.

“You would prefer chicken broth?” He forced himself to keep his tone hard. Though she now sat in bed, her body covered, the memory of what he’d seen, of what he’d wanted to do, still burned in his blood.

“I’ll expire from starvation on chicken broth!” she exclaimed. She tilted her head and peered at him. For a moment, her eyes actually shone. “Make it one day of bedrest and the whole chicken,” she said.

“Two days,” he haggled, “provided Dr. Stoneham says you can leave the bedchamber.” Then he forced himself to take one step backwards, away from temptation.

“That quack wouldn’t say I could breathe if you held a gun to his head. A day and a half and a steak.”

“Three, and gruel.”

She groaned. “You’re supposed to go down, not up.”

“You are supposed to act like a lady, not a child.”

That silenced her, albeit only for a moment. She settled onto the bed, folded her legs beneath her, and looked at him. He felt himself grow quite warm beneath her gaze— as if she sought to see the real him, the man without his accoutrements. The concept intrigued as much as it terrified him.

“You’re too serious,” she said, her gaze almost unnaturally focused.

“And you are too impertinent,” he retorted.

She laughed, and once again James was struck by the beauty of the sound. “Well, at least we agree on something.” She sighed, her features settling into a guileless smile. “How about this? I promise to spend the next two days in bed if and only if you send me a real dinner—no gruel or porridge or broth—and if you solemnly promise to visit me at least once tonight and twice tomorrow.” She lifted her eyebrows as he considered. “How about it? It’s the best deal you’re likely to get.”

He waited, considering his options. He already regretted riding in the east field this morning. Had he gone west, he never would have encountered her, never would have brought her to his home, and would certainly not be standing before her now, his body betraying him in the most embarrassing way. He shook his head at his own ridiculousness.

Yet, who was this strange woman and where did she come from? No man, least of all himself, could resist such a mystery.

“I accept your proposal,” he finally said. “Now, if you will please remain in bed, I shall find you dinner. Good evening, madame.”

She straightened. “You have to call me Carolly!”

He gave her his most formal bow. “That was not part of the agreement.” Then he left the room, quietly shutting her door behind him.

Laughing, Carolly left her bed and paced the confines of her room. She was beginning to feel more oriented. She was in England, and her host was a member of the aristocracy. But what year was she in?

Looking around, she did her best to take stock. It was easier without the distraction of her host. Good Lord, but he was sexy. She’d always been attracted to well-dressed men. Add to that the man’s sparkling blue-gray eyes, obvious intelligence and breeding, and she’d been hard pressed not to fall into his arms. The only thing that had kept her from completely disgracing herself was that she was here to become a full-fledged angel, not dabble in romance.

But Lord, he did tempt her.

Focus! she ordered herself as once again she studied her room. Truth be told, she adored the elegant furniture and the pretty cream-and-blue fabrics. She trailed her hand across the luxurious four-poster bed and its damask draperies. She’d always wanted to sleep under a canopy!

Next, she inspected the few other pieces of furniture in the room. She’d already explored the wardrobe—a desperate move to keep herself from drooling all over Mr. Aristocratic Hunk— but now she studied the chair, the dressing table, and the desk with its dozen tiny drawers. She spent a good five minutes pulling open each hidey-hole to inventory the contents—which unfortunately were nothing except a bottle of ink, a quill, and some crisp linen paper.

Finally, Carolly sat back and added up what she knew. Given the style and fabrics she saw, she had to be sometime later than the 1600s. Add to that his lordship’s clothing: buff pantaloons neatly hugging his narrow hips, a stark white shirt, waistcoat, coat, and of course a tie—no, it was a cravat—stunningly outlining his broad shoulders. He also sported dark unpowdered locks that curled with cute abandon around his frowning face. All in all, it seemed she’d probably landed somewhere in the 1800s.

Or so she guessed. History had never been one of her passions.

Oh yes, and it was spring. Carolly wandered to the window, pushing it open to look outside. She was apparently in one wing of a large, very imposing estate home. Just outside her window ran a wide ledge that traveled the full length of the house. If she needed to, she could easily walk along it. In fact, she was tempted to do just that to get a better view of the land around her, but she suppressed the urge. Instead she noted a large stable, formal gardens, a green forest, and a glimmer of a lake. Everything she saw was enchanting, enticing, begging her to go outside and explore.

But she was stuck inside.

Carolly sighed. If only she had a newspaper. Even a book would give her an idea of the date, but her room remained bare and she’d promised to stay here.

She chewed on her lower lip, and her stomach released a particularly loud growl. She was really hungry. What harm could there be in looking around a bit, maybe going in search of dinner? After all, she’d be helping out by getting her own food instead of having someone bring it to her.

She tiptoed to the door, opened it a crack and peered out…

To find herself staring at the gold buttons of a black waistcoat. She gasped and looked up, only now realizing how tall her host was. And how grim-faced.

“Hi,” she said. Her mouth was dry, and she felt the steady heat of guilt rise in her face. “I was just, um, looking to see how long before that food arrived.” She backed up, opening the door a little wider. “What are you doing there?”

He leaned against the balustrade, his arms crossed over his chest, his expression forbidding. He didn’t say a word.

“You’re not standing guard, are you? That would be silly.”

“I might be waiting to see if you keep your word.”

Carolly felt her flush creep higher on her face. “My word? About not going out and around the house?”

“About staying in bed.”

“Oh.” She looked down at her bare toes. “Oops.” “Just so.” Then he turned and walked away.

“Wait!” she called.

He stopped, his back rigid.

“Please, what—what day is it? And where am I?”

He turned back to her, and she saw his expression soften.

“My apologies, madame—”

“Caro.”

He raised an eyebrow, and she sighed in resignation.

“Miss, then. Madame makes me sound old and married.”

“You are not married? You said you had no one, but…” He sounded faintly surprised.

She supposed she understood. The women he knew probably married at eighteen. Had she lived, Carolly would be about twenty-nine. At first it had astounded her that she kept her own body each incarnation, aging as she would normally. Or rather, she kept what she remembered as her own body. Sometimes she wasn’t entirely sure. Her memory wasn’t perfectly clear.

“No, I never married,” she answered softly. It was one of the things she hated most about being dead—no longer having the possibility of a husband and a family.

“So, you wish it known you are unmarried?” he asked.

She stared at him until understanding crystallized in her sluggish brain. He didn’t expect her to be married. In fact, he clearly thought her alone. But he’d expected her to lie about it, pretending to be some poor widow instead of a young maid wandering around unchaperoned.

“Of all the Neanderthal…” She cut off her muttered curse when she noticed his raised eyebrow. She took a deep breath. “No, I’ve never been married. I’m a strong, independent woman who never felt the need to shackle myself to a man.” She lifted her chin, challenging him to deny her that right.

He merely shrugged. “That no doubt explains your current…unusual circumstance.”

She felt her face heat in embarrassment. Okay, so she was apparently a lone woman beaten within an inch of her life who had collapsed practically on his front doorstep. That didn’t mean she needed a man’s protection. “I can take care of myself!”

“Clearly.”

She scowled at him.

He ignored her and leisurely pushed away from the banister.

“Very well, Miss…” He raised an eyebrow, waiting for her to fill in her last name.

She opened her mouth to answer, but nothing came out. What was her last name? “I…I’m Caro. Carolly…” She bit her lip. Had she been dead so long she couldn’t remember the basics? She never expected to recall names of presidents or rock stars—especially since she was constantly moving around in time. But her name? How could she forget her name?

She looked up, feeling her blood run cold. “I can’t remember.” Suddenly her legs wobbled, and she had to clutch the doorframe to stay upright. Her host was beside her in an instant, gently leading her back to bed.

“Why        can’t     I     remember     my     name?     I’m

Carolly…Carolly…”

“It does not signify. I expect—”

“It sure does signify! It’s my name!”

“If you like, I could send for the surgeon.”

That got her attention as nothing else could. “No.” She shook her head, still struggling to fight through the gray soup of her recollections. “He’ll just want to bleed me, and I’ll want to punch him.”

At his look of horror, she sighed. Really, after years of hopping through time, she ought to have learned how to handle it better—and that meant watching her mouth.

She took a stab at explaining her behavior: “As you can see, I’m feeling a bit disoriented.”

“You should rest,” he agreed. “You have had a trying day.”

She looked up, searching his face as he stepped away, but he’d carefully blanked it of all expression. He did say,

“Perhaps I should introduce myself.”

She smiled in relief. “That would probably be helpful.”

“I am James Oscar Henry Northram, Earl of Traynern. At your service.” He bowed slightly while she reeled from all his names.

“An earl,” she muttered to herself. “That’s below a duke and above a count. No, an earl is a count. I mean a viscount, right?” She glanced up at him. “This is England, isn’t it?”

He obviously had no idea how to respond to her ramblings. Lord, she must sound like an idiot. Still, his voice remained level as he responded. “Yes, this is England. Staffordshire, to be exact.”

“As I said, I’m a bit disoriented, uh, sir. I mean, my lord.” She felt her face grow hotter. Why, oh why, hadn’t she been trained in this stuff before landing here? There ought to be some sort of heavenly prep school. “Or am I supposed to say ‘your grace’?”

She never would have guessed it, but apparently her dour host did indeed have a sense of humor. His lips twitched in an almost smile, and Carolly found the expression absolutely charming. Her host sobered then and said, “Perhaps, Miss Carolly, as I am forced to use your given name, you could call me James.”

She grinned. Had he just taken the first step in accepting her? God willing, this might just be her easiest incarnation yet!

Before she could say more, James Northram stepped abruptly away from the bed. “Please excuse me, Miss Carolly. I will go check on your dinner.” He gave her a pointed stare. “You will oblige me by remaining in bed.” It was not a question.

She tilted her head, eager to continue with her heavenly task, wanting to keep James by her side. After all, the more time she spent with him, the faster she could discover how

best to help. “Will you visit me?”

He shook his head. “I believe I just have.”

He was being difficult. She thought quickly. “On the contrary, I visited you. Or rather, you caught me in a moment of weakness when hunger overcame my reason.” Her eyes dropped to his feet. “I’m sorry about that, by the way. I’m usually good about my promises. I’m an honest person. Almost angelic, you might say.”

She couldn’t tell if her apology made any headway. Her host’s expression gave absolutely no clue. “Good evening, Miss Carolly,” he responded formally. Then, after another polite bow, he departed.

When he was gone, Carolly dropped backwards onto her bed, and into her pillow. All in all, she decided, she’d made a good beginning. James had agreed to use her given name, and he’d even smiled once. That was a coup with this man, she imagined. As for forgetting her last name, she dismissed it with a depressed sigh. She’d long gotten used to losing bits of her memory—pieces of who she was, tiny snatches of her childhood that could never be recovered.

What was a last name? She never really needed one anyway.

Carolly rolled onto her side and pretended she wasn’t crying.


Almost an Angel

Almost an Angel

In the last ten years, Carolly Hanson has died six times. Why must she suffer death only to live again? Could the answer be as close as in the embrace of James Oscar Henry Northram, Earl of Traynern?