Miss Abigail Summers watched from her window in startled fascination as a man leaped stark naked from his bed in the house across the way. He looked to be fighting the worst of nightmares. Embarrassment rapidly overcame female curiosity when they were introduced the following day.
Sir Gifford Raven was a man of action, not at all comfortable in Bath's polite society, which was why the penniless Miss Summers intrigued him. Her dress was dowdy, but beneath her shyness he detected an unconventional young woman, a kindred spirit who could help drive his devils away...
"[Abigail] and Giff share a wonderfully tender and intimate love scene that's one of the best I have read this year. Giff is vulnerable under his scarred and scary exterior, and he shows it in this scene. It's a standout. All About Romance
Gifford's Lady: Excerpt
The knife was slippery with blood and sweat. Gifford switched it to his left hand and rubbed his right palm against his breeches. He crouched in the shadows and listened. Above him the huge sails of the privateer blotted out the starlight. The darkness was Gifford's only ally - but it forced him to rely on his hearing and sense of touch as he crept undetected through the enemy ship.
There were at least three men on the quarterdeck. He'd seen the glow of the binnacle lantern a few moments ago. Now he could hear their voices intermittently drifting forwards to him on the night air. He couldn't distinguish their words but one man laughed.
Gifford pressed his lips together. Let the fellow enjoy the joke while he still could. Soon the boot would be on the other foot.
There was a man dead in the cabin that had been Gifford's prison cell. Another one dead in the shadows close to the cabin door. From the little Gifford had overheard from the privateer crew, he believed his own men were prisoners in the hold. He had to find them, release them - and arm them.
He crept along the gangway towards the foc's'le. Every sense was alert. Had he been captain of this vessel he'd have had at least six lookouts spaced around the ship to scan the horizon. He didn't want to stumble into one in the darkness. But the lookouts would be watching for danger from the sea - not from behind them on their own ship.
The smell of pipe smoke was his only warning that a privateer crewman stood barely three feet away. Gifford froze. His right hand tightened convulsively - then relaxed into a normal grip on the knife handle.
Before this night he had killed only in the heat of battle, when the enemy was armed and facing him ...
The pipe-smoking seaman gazed contemplatively out towards the Caribbean Sea. Gifford slipped behind him, his bare feet silent on the wooden deck. He made it to the hatch and down to the next deck without being detected. A few seconds later the lookouts were hailed from the quarterdeck. Gifford tensed like a panther about to strike. Had his escape been discovered?
No. They were simply the normal hails. None of the lookouts had anything to report. Gifford released an unsteady breath, and gave thanks he'd slipped undetected past the pipe-smoking lookout.
Two men armed with muskets guarded the prisoners. Gifford's men had been crowded together into the airless hold. He wondered how many had already died of suffocation. Anger at the unnecessary cruelty fuelled his ruthless determination to destroy the privateers.
Both guards had their back to him, and Gifford paused for a few seconds, letting his vision adjust to the lantern light. He had a brace of pistols stuck through his belt, but they would do him no good here. The sound of a shot would bring all his enemies down upon him.
He also had two knives. He altered his grip on the first knife, focussed his attention on the guard's back - and threw the dagger. The throw was hard, fast, and accurate. The man slumped forward with a soft grunt. The other guard froze with disbelief as his friend toppled silently over. He started to turn towards Gifford, automatically raising his musket. Gifford threw his second knife ...
He woke suddenly. His heart pounding. His limbs paralysed with fear.
The dark room was full of unfamiliar shapes and shadows. The night air hot and oppressively muggy. His naked body wet with sweat.
For two seconds Gifford remained enslaved to the nightmare. Then he leapt from the bed, seizing up his dirk as he did so - and roared his defiance at the demons who haunted his sleep.
He'd barely registered that there was carpet beneath his feet - not the wooden deck of the privateer - when the door was flung open.
Anthony stood on the threshold, holding a multi-branched candelabrum in one hand, a book in the other. His dark skin glistened in the candle light but, unlike Gifford, he was naked only to the waist.
'What the devil's happening?' he demanded.
The August night was so hot and still that Abigail had given up all attempt to sleep. She'd opened her curtains and her window and pulled her chair as close to the casement as possible. She was clad only in a thin muslin nightgown, and she felt very daring letting the night air caress her nearly naked body. If some of the more prudish Bath gossips knew what she was doing, they'd be scandalised by her behaviour. But she'd doused all the candles before opening her drapes, and her room was two floors above street level. It was hardly likely anyone would notice her at one thirty in the morning.
She fanned herself gently, relaxed and comfortable in her chair.
The next instant a ferocious shout split the night. Abigail's blood froze. For a few seconds she was transfixed with shock. Then her heart started to pound with fear and excitement. She leant forward, trying to locate the source of the cry.
A room in the house opposite suddenly lit up. She blinked and jerked backwards at the unexpected brightness, then gasped as she saw two men facing each other - one holding a candelabrum aloft, the other with a knife in his outstretched hand. Abigail half rose in her chair. She was certain she was about to see murder committed.
Frantic thoughts hurtled through her mind. Should she call out in the hope of distracting them? Or summon help? Who could help her at this hour? She peered down into the street below, but there was no-one there.
She heard one of the men speak, and immediately returned her attention to the room opposite. She saw that the man with the dagger had let his hand fall to his side.
She let out a shaky breath. Perhaps the moment of danger had passed. But she couldn't take her eyes off the frightening scene. She gripped the windowsill and strained to hear what they said to each other. The other window was also open to its widest extent and the men's voices carried on the still night air.
'What the devil's happening?' It was the man with the candelabrum who spoke. He sounded startled, but not afraid.
'A dream. Just a damned dream.' The man with the knife sounded so disgusted with himself that despite her alarm Abigail involuntarily smiled.
He turned to lay the knife down. His action further reassured Abigail. He obviously wasn't planning to commit murder any time soon. Now she had an opportunity to fully register what she'd already subconsciously noticed.
The uneven play of candlelight obscured some portions of his anatomy in shadows and threw other parts into bright relief; but Abigail could see quite clearly that he wasn't wearing a stitch of clothing.
He was entirely naked! And as well-formed as a Greek God. She'd seen the strength and tension in his whole body when he'd first confronted his light-bearing friend. He'd eased into a more relaxed stance, but his broad-shouldered frame still emanated virile power. Candlelight delineated the sculptural planes of his hard, muscular body.
He was beautiful. Abigail had never seen a completely naked man before. She couldn't tear her eyes away from him. It didn't even occur to her that she should.
'Remember the wager?' The man with the candelabra spoke again. Abigail reluctantly turned her attention to him. He was also a well-made man. He had black skin, but he talked to the white man as an equal. He had a pleasant, well-modulated voice, which currently held a hint of amusement.
'A month in Bath with no adventures - I know.' The white man lifted his arm to run his fingers through his hair. Abigail was fascinated by the fall of light on his shifting muscles. The hard ridges of his stomach were so unlike her own soft flesh. She unthinkingly stroked her thigh as she wondered how different his body would feel if she touched it. He was very pleasing to look at. Very pleasing.
'Yes. But Giff - that means no adventures in your sleep either.'
'A man has no control over his dreams!' the man called Giff retorted. 'I'll not lose my wager over a dream. Besides, I'm not the one haunting the house with a candlestick and a book at ... whatever ungodly hour this is. I lay down to sleep. I did sleep.'
It seemed to Abigail that his words contained a challenge.
'I was too hot to sleep,' the other man said mildly.
'Hah!' said the man called Giff. 'Well, now I'm awake I'll share your light. I'm hungry. There must be decent rations somewhere in the bowels of this house.'
'You might want to dress first?' his friend suggested, when it looked as if Giff intended to set out on his mission straight away. 'Encountering Mrs Chesney in your current state might come perilously close to having an adventure.'
'Nonsense,' said Giff briskly. ‘A scandal is not the same as an adventure. However, in deference to your finer feelings ...'
He turned away from the light towards the window. Abigail could no longer see him clearly, but it suddenly occurred to her they were separated only by the width of the street below. With the light behind him - perhaps he could see her?
He stood very still, looking across at her window. She held herself motionless, horrified that her unintentional eavesdropping had been discovered. She knew he could see her silhouette as she leant against the windowsill, but she prayed he couldn't see her features - or anything that might subsequently allow him to identify her.
The tense moment lengthened. Then, very calmly but smartly, he saluted her.