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Excerpt: King of Hearts

Book 1: Maitland's Rogues

Gabriel awoke to find the giant towering over him. The man was six and a half feet, if he was an inch. His face bore deep, irregular scars, as if unskilled hands had chipped his features out of stubborn granite. His hair was dark, his chin bearded, and he resembled a savage ogre who feasted on naughty children and wayward princesses in fearsome fables. The man studied him from his impossible height, his face as expressive as stone.

His lovely rescuer sat in a chair beside a hearth with a blazing fire. Her hands were crossed primly in her lap. She held herself stiffly and regarded him with an icy gaze. That long, golden hair flowed around her like a halo.

“Who are you?” Her voice was as dry and brittle as dead leaves.

He was lying on the floor. Not the way to meet an angel.

Gabriel tried to rise. He struggled to his knees, pushed off from his hands, and tried to heave himself up. But he was weak. Like a babe whose reach exceeds his grasp, he fell backward onto the floor. An encroaching blackness clawed at him, narrowing his sight to a pinpoint of light, pulling him into the blessedness of oblivion. His brain felt fuzzy, as if it was packed in cotton wool.

“Name,” he murmured, fighting off the blackness. He had to know her name.

“I am Louisa Peabody,” she said crisply. “Who are you?”

“King,” he managed.

“Mr. King?”

“Not mister,” Gabriel said thickly. “King — Majesty.” He grinned. It was a little joke — bitter as sin, and too much work to explain. Perhaps his joke would drive that chill from her voice.

“You are a king?”

He nodded, pleased that she understood. Too bad her features kept blurring around the edges. His eyes must be crossed, for her nose kept moving around on her face. It would be difficult to rivet her with one of his meaningful stares.

“The only king we have is old George,” she said. “You do not look anything like him.”

Mad George here in Hell, too? He hadn’t heard that the king had cocked up his toes, but then Newgate prisoners led a sheltered existence.

“Pray, what are you king of?”

Gabriel looked up at her from his lowly position on the floor. She was studying him, her head tilted to one side, waiting. The firelight caught the lights in her hair and sent their shimmering warmth straight to his gut, a spear of heat that threatened a mortal wound. He tried to say the words that burned in his befogged brain.

A large, booted toe nudged him in the ribs. He had forgotten about the giant. Gabriel ignored the man and smiled at her. Her eyes filled with uncertainty. Good. He had her interest. Conquest would be his. Unless she really was an angel.

He was better now. He might even be alive. He raised his head, tried to speak. “Island. King of island,” he said weakly.

Lu-we-sa Pe-body eyed him in disgust, then rose and left the room. The monster lifted him off the floor as if he were a sack of feathers, carted him up some stairs, and tossed him onto a soft feather bed. As Gabriel sank gratefully into it, letting the darkness take him, the man bent down close to his ear.

“And I,” the giant snarled contemptuously, “am Queen Charlotte.”

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