“Oy, missy . . . ”
Horace’s harsh voice came from behind her, raising the hair on the back of her neck. Eliza had made it to the top of the stairs leading to the back door, but there was no way she would make it out now.
“Don’t ya run from me. I told ya t’ go pack yar crap. Wilkins will be ’ere in an hour.”
With Horace breathing down her neck, there was nothing to be gained by running. Eliza swung around to face him and did her best to stand her ground. “I told him no, and I’m telling you again: I’m not going with him!”
She braced for the backhand she knew would follow. Sure enough, pain exploded down the right side of her face, and she flew against the wall three steps behind her. God, how had her mother put up with this for six years?
Horace was of medium build, thickly muscled and broad-shouldered. If one didn’t know what a brute he was, one might even think him handsome. But all Eliza could see was his lust for violence. She tried to straighten, but he pushed her back against the wall and ground his groin into her belly. He smelled of stale ale and sweat, and she could feel his manhood swelling as he rubbed against her.
“Wilkins paid me twenty quid for yar li’l virginal cunt, so ’e owns ya now.”
Outrage overrode pain and disgust, and she pushed at him hard enough to force him back a step. “You sold me to Pig Face? You truly are despicable!”
His face twisted with hate and his open hand connected painfully with the other side of her face. Wilkins and Horace were birds of a feather, best mates so to speak, and calling Wilkins “Pig Face” was sure to get his goat—she should have thought of that.
“Always with the big bloody words. Ya’re nothing but a tavern wench, but ya won’t go with the customers and ya won’t let me between them lily-white thighs. What the fuck did ya ’spect me ta do with ya?”
He was screaming at her at the top of his voice now. Through the haze of pain, Eliza heard Lynn chime in from the bottom of the stairs.
“Just lock ’er in the cellar, love. Let Wilkins deal with ’er when ’e gets ’ere.”
Eliza ignored her. In for a penny, in for a pound. She might as well get him good and mad now—maybe Wilkins wouldn’t want her if she was all bruised up. Correcting his pronunciation, she countered, “I expected you to ignore me, but even that was obviously hoping for too much.”
Grabbing her by the hair, he dragged her down the stairs and along the corridor towards the store cellar door. “Ignore a bit of all right like you? Not bloody likely. But I ’ad enough of ya stalking about the place like ya bloody own it and looking down yar nose at me.”
The cellar door loomed before her. Eliza tried with one hand to yank her hair out of Horace’s grip and braced herself with the other against the door frame. She could not let him lock her up down there.
She knew why he was so keen to get rid of her—she was the only obstacle to his full ownership of the inn. Her father had left the inn to Eliza and her mother in his will. That meant, now her mother was gone, it should be hers. But if it bought her freedom from Wilkins, she would give up all claim to it. “You can have the inn. Just don’t make me go with Pig Face.”
Eliza couldn’t quite keep the desperation out of her voice, and the way he chuckled in her ear confirmed how much he liked hearing it. “Too late, Liza, he paid me coin for ya.”
Lynn cackled behind her. “He owns a mill and ’e’s willin’ ta marry ya. What the fuck’s yar problem?”
With that she kicked Eliza hard in the small of her back, sending her flying down the short flight of stairs into the cellar, where she landed on a heap of coal. She heard something crack inside her, then a strange kind of prickly sound accompanied the darkness trying to claim her before she was pulled back by Lynn’s shrill laughter. “Prince Charmin’s all out of glass slippers, ya stupid cunt.”
Eliza got up, white-hot rage giving her the courage to taunt them into killing her right then. A quick death would be better than having to endure Wilkins and dying at his filthy hands. “I’m gonna make you pay for this and everything you ever did to my mum, you greedy, wife-murdering clods.”
Something solid slammed into her arm with such force it lifted her off her feet. She heard another crack and pain exploded all through her. This time she didn’t think she would be able to get up again. She lay limp, waiting for Horace to deal her the deathblow. But it didn’t come.
Instead she felt Horace’s fetid breath fan over the side of her face as he whispered in her ear. “I wanna fuck ya and kick the living shit out of ya all at the same time, but Wilkins paid to be the first in yar snatch and ’e wants ya still breathin’, so I’ll leave ya to contemplate yar future . . . see, I know some big words too.”
She heard him climb the stairs, slam the door, and throw the bolt. And then, when she was sure she was alone, she gave herself up to despair. Hot tears streaked down her aching face as she let herself rest against the mountain of coal at her back. Something warm and sticky seeped into her collar, and she wondered if the cut was big enough for her to bleed out.
“I’m sorry, Mum. I tried.”
She lifted her eyes to the ceiling, wishing she wasn’t so completely alone in the world. “But how do you expect me . . . ” She frowned at the usually pitch-dark upper left corner of the room and caught her breath. The coal chute had been left open and the mountain of coal reached almost to the top. Horace couldn’t have known. They certainly hadn’t noticed it before. It was growing dark out, and the opening did not add much light. Could she get up? Did she dare to hope she could make it out of the cellar, away from the inn and the fate Horace had arranged for her?
She might as well try. She had nothing more to lose.
Just north of Hampstead, November 1819
The last pale light of the day filtered through the bare trees onto the road and the two men traveling it in an elegant open sports carriage. The jingle of the harness preceded their passage, the sound of the horses’ hooves muted by the leaves blanketing the road. One man did his best to nap on the high seat, but the vehicle’s driver seemed to thoroughly enjoy his occupation and the way the gathering darkness drained the color from the forest around them. A light rain had fallen earlier, and the damp soil smelled rich and fertile. It was a perfect evening to drive the last remaining miles to London.
The driver was Sir Henry March, knighted for his services to the crown during the campaign against the Corsican megalomaniac—although nobody cared to speculate on what exactly he had done to warrant that knighthood.
Beyond being a knight of the realm, Henry was a classical scholar, a notorious libertine, and the responsible owner of four estates, who could trace his lineage to William the Conqueror.
He was a handsome man. His nose was straight, his sandy hair was cut short and reached down into short-cropped sideburns, and his lips were neither too thick nor too thin. However, his jaw had a determined set to it, and even when he was otherwise relaxed, his blue eyes were intense.
His person was presently obscured by a calf-length, multi-caped greatcoat and a carriage blanket thrown over his knees against the November chill. But it was generally agreed that he cut an impressive figure, even if his clothes tended to be comfortable rather than fashionable.
They had just left the lights of a small roadside inn behind them and were turning up the hill towards Hampstead Village when Henry became aware of a shadowy figure scurrying along the road in front of them.
At the sound of the horses, the woman visibly startled, then ran as if the hounds of hell were nipping at her heels. She was bent forward as if aged, and her gait was unsteady. But the face that turned over her shoulder to see who followed her was young and utterly terrified. In her haste to get away from whomever she was trying to outrun, she stumbled over the hem of her soiled and tattered skirts and yelped in pain when her knee hit the gravel on the road.
Henry found it impossible to ignore the woman’s obvious distress. He stopped just ahead of her, handed the ribbons to his groom, and jumped down to see what he could do for her.
Even once he was standing next to her and she could see him clearly, she continued to look behind her as she tried to get back on her feet, as if unafraid of Henry but terrified at what could still be behind. Henry put a hand under her arm to help her up, but she winced and drew in a sharp breath. He tried gently placing his arm around her waist to steady her, eliciting another pained noise as she sagged against him.
She was small and light, and a sense of unease crept over him as he examined her more closely. Her waist was trim under his hand, and luscious dark curls framed her face—a face that showed unmistakable signs of a beating. Her lip was split and her jaw had begun to discolor. There was a welt on her forehead and her left eye was almost swollen shut. Her hands and clothes were blackened with what appeared to be coal dust, and she was clad in only a simple peasant skirt and blouse, while her shoes were missing altogether.
“Good God,” Henry breathed. He quickly decided, whatever her story was, he could not turn his back on her. “You’re injured; can I take you somewhere? To someone who will help you?”
She shook her head, which obviously hurt, and squeezed out between clenched teeth, “I just need to get away.”
The girl obviously wasn’t thinking clearly, so Henry probed for more information. “From whom or where?”
She was barely holding herself upright now, but her voice was full of contempt. “My stepfather at the inn.” She indicated behind her and sagged farther against him as she lost her footing again. Henry could feel as well as see her injuries were serious.
“Did he do this to you?”
She almost spat out her next words. “Him and his new missus. But I’ll not marry that bastard Wilkins. I’ll die first.”
She then truly spat on the ground for emphasis, her eyes blazing with a need to defy her fate that struck a chord with Henry.
He answered her with a calm he did not feel. “Well, if you stay out here alone and in this state for much longer, you probably will.” He smiled down at her, hoping to reassure her. “You had better come with me so my housekeeper can have a look at you.”
She twisted to look at him for a moment as if to assess whether she would get herself into even worse trouble by going with him, then shrugged. “I think I’d rather the devil I don’t know.”
Henry couldn’t suppress a wry grin. ”That’s the spirit.”
He led her to the curricle without further delay, and when her knees buckled, he simply lifted her into his arms and boosted her up to Roberts on the seat. She was too light for her frame, and he wondered what other methods her stepfather had employed to bend her to his will.
Pulling himself up onto the driver’s seat next to her, he realized he had neglected to introduce himself.
“I’m Henry March, by the way. Can you tell me your name?”
“Eliza.” Her voice was weak now, the fight having gone completely out of her.
Henry wrapped the carriage blanket around her before he took the ribbons from his groom, Roberts, who then swung himself around onto the box seat behind. Henry urged the team into a trot, despite the gathering darkness and the girl’s unsteady hold on consciousness. He tucked her uninjured arm through his and urged her to lean on him as he drove them towards London and his Mayfair home.
February 1823, on the road from Newbury to Avon
The day was rather spectacular for late February. Sir Henry March, accompanied only by his groom, piloted his curricle along a small country road toward Upavon and his ducal cousin’s estate. He’d taken his hat and greatcoat off some miles back to let the sun warm him. The dry and unseasonably warm weather had left the roads passable, the riverbanks painted in crocus yellow and purple, and the bare trees brightened with the first hint of spring. Sir Henry had high hopes the familiar beloved landscape in all its spring glory would cheer him, but so far, nature’s exuberance had served only to highlight the melancholy holding his heart hostage.
It was out of character for Sir Henry to feel so low. At four and thirty he was in his prime, blessed with a considerable fortune and the respect of his peers. He enjoyed good health, and nature had favored him with a pleasing countenance, straight limbs, and the kind of charisma women found hard to resist. His eyes were blue and penetrating, his hair sandy blond and cropped short, and his smile engaging.
However, only three weeks had passed since he’d said goodbye to his lovely mistress, Eliza. There was no anger to carry him through the parting, since her sacrifice was as great as his own, and so he could only miss her. He missed her smell, her smile, the way she twirled her long dark locks around her fingers while she read. But most of all, he missed knowing she would be there when he got home. But Eliza had taken on the task of helping his friend and partner, Allen, who had returned from a foreign assignment with considerable injuries. And, to honor his agreement not to see Eliza for six months, Henry had to trust another agent to investigate the Russian threat and to keep Allen and Eliza safe.
Henry and his groom had just passed through a sunlit oak forest, bright with early whispers of green, and were heading up the last rise before the descent into the Avon valley. He pulled up his grays on the crest of the hill overlooking the river. His cousin’s ancestral castle stood in the distance. The horses bent their heads to nibble at tufts of grass by the side of the road while Henry allowed himself a moment to take in the familiar vista.
The road ahead led down a sheep-studded incline and over an ancient stone bridge spanning one of the arms of the Avon River. It passed through the charming hamlet of Upavon and disappeared into the forests beyond. The calmly flowing river below was bracketed by willows and hazel, shimmering silver where the sun hit the water.
The scene was utterly peaceful. Not even the river had any sense of urgency, meandering here and there along its gently sloping valley, bordered by farmland and wooded groves. Henry took a deep breath, wanting the calm of this place to penetrate every cell of his being.
He let his gaze travel back up the side of the hill to the forest to his right and paused. There, some distance away, where the forest stopped and the grassland began, a woman sat silhouetted against the horizon. She was seated on a portable stool and leaned toward a spindly easel as she painted.
The woman was half turned away from him, absorbed in her work and oblivious to his presence. Henry found that circumstance most intriguing. It left him free to observe her, as she observed the landscape, and just like that, his love of the land was shared with another and his loneliness somewhat alleviated.
Her figure was pleasing, and she seemed too young to be sitting at the edge of the forest by herself. Even from where he sat, the look of concentration on her profile was unmistakable. Her dark hair was brushed back from her face and held together at the nape of her neck with a sky-blue ribbon. Curiously, there were also several brushes stuck in it, and some of the shorter, slow-curling strands were unceremoniously tucked behind her ear. She wore a rather dowdy blue dress, and a large green triangular shawl was tied around her peasant-style to keep her warm and her hands free.
But what held Henry’s attention was not her youth, or her looks, but the way she painted. Now she blindly bent to wash out her brush in a preserve glass on the ground, then flicked it behind her to expel the excess water, while looking alternately at the scene before her and her unfinished painting. Then she dipped her brush into two different pots of paint, swiftly mixed the color on her palette, held the palette up to check the accuracy of the hue, and added a few self-assured dabs to her composition. She cocked her head to the side to check the effect, added one more dab, and moved on to paint the sky with a broader brush she pulled from her hair.
Henry couldn’t see the watercolor from his perch on the curricle, but he was willing to bet it was good. Every movement she made proved she was put on this earth to paint, and seeing her embrace her purpose was very attractive. Perhaps if he could find a woman who had a purpose he could understand and respect, married life might not be so bad. Eliza was right: he had to open himself to the possibility of meeting a woman he could at least like, if not love. He would never even have contemplated such a thing if she hadn’t insisted they go their separate ways.
Over at the forest’s edge, the painter lifted her clasped hands overhead and reached skyward to stretch out her shoulders, inadvertently offering Henry a tantalizing view of the curve of her breast. But before he could wonder who she was, his attention was drawn to two riders emerging from the woods across the river and racing toward the old stone bridge. The flag of silvery blond hair streaming behind the female rider identified her as his daughter, Emily, who urged her dappled gray Arabian into a hair-raising full gallop, intent on winning the race. Impatient to see her, Henry pulled up the reins, set his team in motion, and promptly forgot all about the intriguing woman on the hill.
Emily beat her cousin Bertie to the bridge and slowed her mare to a canter to cross it, having spotted her father driving down the hill. Coming to a halt, she kicked her boot free of the stirrup and slid down the side of her horse with practiced ease. She patted the mare on her rump to let her know she was free to munch on the tender spring grass, then pulled herself up to sit on the bridge’s stone wall, letting her booted feet swing from under her slightly too short riding habit.
As Henry approached, he couldn’t help but notice that not only had Emily outgrown the length of her frock but the material stretched tightly over her chest. With growing unease, he realized his lovely Emily—his treasured baby daughter—had grown a pair of breasts. No wonder the well-meaning matrons in Henry’s life had deemed it necessary to impress upon Eliza the urgency of considering Emily’s coming out.
Oblivious to his musings and her growing feminine allure, Emily sat there with the air of one who had patience with the male of the species, but only to a point.
Bertie reined in his big bay gelding just as Henry pulled up to the side of the bridge. But Emily’s attention was still on Bertie, obviously keen to see his reaction to her win. At seventeen, Bertie was tall and lanky, and promised to fill out into a fine male specimen before too long. Right now he brushed his overlong dark-blond hair from his eyes and looked at Emily with a mixture of admiration and annoyance. “By Zeus, Em, how do you get her to go like that? She’s barely bigger than a pony.”
Emily’s blue eyes sparkled, her silver-blond hair still wild and her face flushed from the exercise. “Maybe she just loves me and knows how much I love winning. Don’t you, Adonis?”
Adonis lifted her head at the mention of her name and softly blew in Emily’s direction.
Bertie, meanwhile, frowned and shook his head. “That name is just wrong. You should rename her, or stick to calling her Addy.”
The horse moved to her mistress’s side and nuzzled her neck in silent support while Emily glowered up at Bertie. “Adonis is her given name. It’s not my fault that stupid Greek deity turned out to be male. I just liked the name and what’s done is done.”
Familiar with the ceaseless bickering between his daughter and her favorite cousin, Henry shook his head, tossed the reins to Roberts, and jumped down from the curricle. Taking her cue from her father, Emily hopped off the wall and stepped into his waiting arms. “Hello, Papa. Do you want me to ride with you back to Avon?”
Henry hugged her close and grinned at her cheek. She may have grown up, but she was still the same incorrigible, gregarious, horse-mad tomboy she had always been. “Hello, Poppet! Yes, I would very much like your company, and yes, you can take the reins. Has Uncle Arthur been giving you lessons?”
Emily wrinkled her nose and rolled her eyes. Secretly the irreverent gesture delighted Henry, especially because it infuriated Hortense, his cousin’s humorless, unbending wife.
“Hardly ever! Aunt Hortense doesn’t approve of women driving, especially not teams. We have to sneak around so she doesn’t find out—and you know how much Uncle Arthur hates sneaking around.”
“That’s not fair, Em. I’ve been teaching you at least twice a week. And I’ve incurred more than one lecture from Mama for it too.” Bertie’s righteous indignation fairly made him tremble, while Emily’s eyes danced with amusement.
Listening to them, Henry wished Bertie would stand up to her. It was really too bad the boy let Emily run roughshod over him and that they both acted in all ways like siblings. They may have made a match of it, had their childhood love turned into romance over time. Obviously that was a vain hope now, a fact certain to please the duchess. Henry would just have to look for a suitably chaste and well-connected wife, reform his debauched ways, and launch Emily into society when the time came so she could find a husband she could love as well as respect.
Henry extended his hand to Bertie, who had not bothered to dismount. “Good afternoon, Bertie. My grays and I surely appreciate your efforts to teach Emily, even if she herself remains ungrateful. When are you going up to Oxford?”
The young man beamed down at Henry and shook his hand enthusiastically. “September, Uncle Henry. Reverend Spittle thinks my Latin still needs work, but since I don’t have the brains for law or medicine, and no inclination to join the church, I really don’t think it signifies.”
Henry nodded his understanding. There was another reason Emily would have been a good match for the boy: he loved the land, and the only way to get his hands on an estate was to marry an heiress. “Are you still planning on studying land management and taking over from Watson when he retires?”
Bertie huffed. “If he ever retires, you mean. But, yes, that’s my plan until I can buy my own land.”
Henry smiled at his favorite nephew. Perhaps he would do something for the boy if he proved himself. “Good for you. Stick to your guns and don’t let your mother push you into the church if you don’t feel a calling. There are more than enough mediocre churchmen out there already.”
Grinning from ear to ear, Bertie announced, “That’s what the good reverend said. He even went as far as to tell Mama so.”
Both Henry and Emily gasped in mock shock.
“He did not!”
“Does the man have a death wish?”
Bertie chuckled. “I thought it was rather brave of him. Mama almost had an apoplexy though, and if Father had not agreed with him, Mama may have pushed to have poor Spittles excommunicated.”
That statement sent Emily into a fit of giggles before she noted with a superior eye roll, “They only excommunicate people from the Catholic Church, you dolt.”
And off they went into their next enthusiastic round of bickering.
January 1823, somewhere above Sevastopol on the Crimea
There were stars above him, clear and bright in the velvety night sky. Why could he see stars? And why was he no longer in Henry’s breakfast room, watching the morning sun on her dark curls?
Cold air made him shiver. Christ, they’d taken the lid off the hole.
Allen hastily tucked the memory of her into the furthest corner of his mind. They could never know about his love. They would use her against him, threaten her with harm, and that would surely break him.
Above him the ladder appeared and was secured against the rocks, then the customary bucket of water hit him square in the face. It was meant as a prelude to the horrors to come, but Allen had learned to anticipate and use the clean spring water they threw down on him. His Russian captors tossed down a loaf of bread once or twice a week, too, but never bothered to actually give them water. They had the rivulets of water skipping down the rocks to the soft bottom every time it rained, and it rained frequently in winter on the Crimea. Not as much as in England, but enough to make an abandoned well a miserable place to live. Luckily, the water they caught in the two buckets they had in the hole was enough to survive on. Allen had no reason to believe the Russians had brought down the buckets for their prisoners to collect water with. It was far more likely they had gotten drunk before deciding to interrogate one of their captives, and had flung the buckets water-filled into the hole. Be that as it may, there was now clean water in the drinking bucket, and he was wet from head to toe. He rubbed his mangled hands together as best he could: best to get as much of himself as clean as possible before they inflicted more wounds. Hygiene was not the most pressing concern, but it was a concern, right after their weakened state and the demented demons above.
Judging by the stars winking down at him, four days had passed since the Greek had been thrown back into the hole and left to die. It had been horribly cold since the poor soul breathed his last. It occurred to Allen he should refer to himself in the first person singular, since he was currently the only live prisoner in the hole.
One of the Russians must have climbed down while Allen was busy cleaning his hands. He was ruffly yanked up by the scruff of his neck and hauled out of the hole. Once above ground, he was dragged to a fire farther down the hill. The light was almost blinding after the endless darkness of the hole, and Allen rejoiced for a moment, thinking he would be able to warm up while he took his beating. But then he recognized the tall figure of the Russian colonel and knew today would be more than just painful. Allen didn’t actually know the man’s rank; he never wore a uniform, and none of the others addressed him as “Colonel,” but he was clearly in charge, so “the Colonel” was the name Allen had given him in his mind. Everything about the man screamed upper crust and military training. But all that military training pointed to a chain of command, and that then begged the question: who gave the Colonel his orders?
One look into the man’s cold, pale eyes and Allen also knew today would be the last time. This was his last chance to earn himself a quicker death by telling the Colonel what he wanted to know, what he had been sent to find out. But his tormentor didn’t understand Allen’s objective. He would face death on his terms, back in the hole, where he could remember her one more time.
The ogre who had dragged him out dropped Allen on the dirt by the fire and kicked him viciously. Allen heard the rib crack, all breath wrenched from him, and wondered how many more would break before they left him to die.
“Why are you in Sevastopol?” The Colonel wasn’t just an aristocrat; he was cultured. His French was flawless and his English only slightly accented. He was tall, blond, and clean shaven, and wore a gentleman’s suit that looked like it may have been tailored on Bond Street. By contrast, his men were in local garb consisting of breeches, wool shirts, fur vests, and heavy boots. All of them wore their hair long in various shades of dirty blond, their beards were unkempt, and they smelled no better than their prisoners. The two holding Allen down periodically passed a bottle containing strong spirits back and forth.
Allen breathed heavily through the pain. “Business,” was all he got out between his teeth.
“Who do you work for?”
The questions weren’t exactly original. Allen had been asked the very same ones several times a week for three months now, and his answers were always the same. “Myself. I import fine leather.”
Allen knew he had made a mistake the moment the words were out of his mouth.
“I didn’t ask what you did, spy. Spare me your rehearsed answers.” In Russian he ordered, “Left hand.”
It was a Herculean effort not to react. Letting on he understood Russian would further convince his nemesis he was a foreign agent. Allen’s arm was yanked to the side and his hand placed on a flat rock. That alone was painful enough with all the broken fingers. Allen panted with the panicked anticipation of having yet more bones broken in his hopelessly mangled hand.
The Colonel placed the heel of his boot on top of Allen’s hand and ground down, applying his weight. Allen whimpered when half-healed bones broke once again, his eyes streaming hopelessly.
“What were you doing on the hill above Sevastopol?”
Allen had to focus to answer the question. This was not the time to slip up. “Walking.”
The Colonel lifted his foot, and a moment later his heel smashed down onto his prisoner’s hand. Allen’s agonized screams tore through the frigid mountain air, his whole being an inferno of pain. Eventually the wave of agony subsided a little and he sobbed, “Just walking.”
The kick to his head was swift and painful, but nothing compared to the throbbing in his hand.
“Stop lying to me!” the Colonel thundered. Then in Russian he added, “Take off his boot. Let’s see how much he likes his toes.”
This was new. So far they had left his feet alone, and none of the others had ever had missing boots after an interrogation. None of the others had lasted a whole three months, either, but that was all the more reason for the Russian to want to crack him before he died. This was it. This was where he finally proved himself as an agent. This was where he gave his life for the sake of the mission, his country. If he cracked now, then three months of agony would be in vain and Rick would be next in that miserable hole. Rick didn’t know all he had uncovered, but enough so the Old Man would be able to draw the right conclusions, enough so the Russians would kill him for it. There was a chance his man and friend had sent a report to England, but there was no chance whatsoever he had taken that report home himself while his master was missing. Rick was still looking for him. Just as Allen would be still looking for Rick if the situation were reversed.
Allen’s continued sobbing convinced his tormentors he was still fully occupied with the pain in his hand as the Colonel’s two hellhounds held him down and pulled off his boot. The wool socks he had carefully washed and dried after each rain to avoid foot rot were next. One of the brutes joked in Russian how his pretty little toes were the cleanest part of him, wondering if he kept his cock whore-ready too. That got a big laugh from his companion and the two guards who were supposed to watch the woods in case someone stumbled upon them. They were instantly admonished to keep their minds on their respective tasks.
The Colonel pulled a short sword from his dainty mahogany walking stick and tested the blade against the tender skin on the inside of Allen’s foot.
What came out of Allen’s mouth could only be described as a shriek. The Russian smiled, satisfied with the sharpness of his weapon, and wiped the blade against Allen’s trousers.
“Let’s try this again. Who do you work for?”
The gash on his foot stung horribly, but Allen did his best to breathe through it. “Independent merchant. Don’t work for anyone.”
The Colonel shrugged, then motioned to the man holding the bottle. “Let’s set the cut on fire.”
The demon with the bottle grinned and tipped the liquor over the injured foot. Allen had little time to brace for the hurt and hissed frenzied pants until the wave of pain subsided. He was reaching the limit of what he could take. His mind was beginning to wander, and there was no telling what he would tell the bastards if he didn’t keep himself under control.
The Colonel motioned for the two brutes to hold him down. “Again, English. Who do you work for?”
“Just me,” Allen insisted, knowing it was not what the Russian wanted to hear and therefore would mean more pain. The two helpers held him down so tightly he couldn’t move a muscle, but he had a marvelous view of the Colonel’s hate-filled eyes as he raised his sword arm and the incredible speed with which it came down on his big toe.
The howl Allen sent into the night was barely human. Then the pain overwhelmed his brain, and he fainted.
Allen awoke to someone heaving him onto a donkey and cried out as his foot hit something, probably the donkey’s belly. The man tying him to the donkey instantly put a firm hand over his mouth.
“Allen, sir. If you have any sense left in that brain of yours, use it to keep quiet. That band of cutthroats only left about half an hour ago, so they aren’t far in front of us going down the hill, but I’ve got to get you to the doctor. You’re bleeding out.”
Through the haze of pain and a profound weakness, Allen registered two things: The person talking to him was Rick! And he wasn’t in the hole. His mouth was as dry as a desert wind, so it was hard to get the words out.
“Did I tell them anything?”
A reassuring hand came to rest between his shoulder blades, and Allen had never before been so glad for a kind touch from another human.
“No, you didn’t.”
Allen breathed a sigh of relief and drifted back into unconsciousness.
Hyde Park, October 1825
The morning sun set the trees around the Serpentine alight in shades of yellow, orange, and red, and reflected them in the mirror-smooth surface of the lake. Bending to pick up another horse chestnut, Emily March decided she had more than enough to teach her two-year-old brother, Danny, how to play conkers. Slipping the chestnut into the pocket of her powder-blue walking dress, she picked up her skirts so she could move faster. The path narrowed among the fall-colored trees. Emily rushed ahead, eager to get to the bridge across the Serpentine, where she was to meet with her friend Eliza for a morning walk.
Emily was almost at the far edge of the wood, the road already in sight, when she was lifted off the ground by a strong arm seizing her around her waist and pinning one of her hands to her side. Just as she let out a surprised shriek, she heard a similar shout from behind her and felt her heart sink. Her maid, Suzie, must have been similarly accosted. Had Emily been at Avon, she would have assumed her cousins were intent on scaring her witless, but this wasn’t her uncle’s estate, and it was unlikely one or more of her cousins had made their way to the capital. Emily realized, just as a rough leather-clad hand clamped over her mouth, that she was once again in trouble. And then she saw the black coach and knew someone was intent on kidnapping her. Truly frightened now, Emily thrashed wildly in hopes of dislodging herself, or at least the hand over her mouth, so she could scream.
“Did you think I would let that arrogant ass rob me of my revenge?”
Emily recognized the Baron Ostley’s voice instantly, a nightmare come to life on this lovely autumn day. She pulled frantically on the gloved hand over her mouth. Not him, not again. Her eyes darted around, hoping to find someone who could help her, but there was no one in sight.
“And did you know his grandfather also has an axe to grind with your father? He has very interesting plans for you.” The words, accompanied as they were by a nasty cackle and the stench of his breath wafting against her skin, made Emily nearly faint with nausea. She kicked with all her might against his shin, which earned her a slap across the face. It stung, but the nasty baron’s hand was off her mouth, so she screamed as loud as she could until the hand stopped her once again.
“Warthon will have fun with you, you bloody wildcat!” Ostley panted with the thrashing girl in his arms. They were out of the stand of trees now and perhaps forty paces from the coach. “Open the door, Charles. And you better hold on to her until I can climb in. Looks like you’re going to have to earn your turn with her.”
Emily was busy pulling, scratching, and making herself as difficult to carry as she could, so when Ostley barked the command over her head, it took her a moment to comprehend the meaning of what he had said. The realization that there were two of them this time made her redouble her efforts.
An angelic-looking blond boy in his mid-teens opened the door to the coach and jumped down. His eyes were wide with horror. “I don’t think she wants to come, Papa. We should go before we attract even more attention.” He pointed toward a nursemaid clasping a crying child to her bosom and running as fast as she could toward Rotten Row, where a few gentlemen were on their morning ride.
Ostley seemed unperturbed by the prospect of a bigger audience and kept dragging Emily toward the vehicle. “Nonsense, no one is going to believe a maid’s word against mine. Get in the coach and hold the door open.”
Emily’s predicament was frightening enough, but the arrogance with which Ostley assumed he would get away with kidnapping her was truly terrifying. And she had only herself to blame. She had been just as arrogant to think she was safe, that she could leave behind Thomas, the guard her father had imposed. She had been a fifteen-year-old fool the first time Ostley had assaulted her, and she was still a fool. After Ostley had been foiled two years ago at the inn by Lord Didcomb, Emily had assumed the baron would simply go back home and leave her be. And he had, for two years. But apparently he had been waiting for the right moment all the while. Emily’s skin crawled as she realized he must have been watching her.
Pulling Emily’s head against his shoulder, Ostley breathed into her ear. “I’m going to let him fuck you before I tell him who you are. We will see what he thinks of his precious mother then. She’s a whore just like you are.”
The words cut through Emily like a knife. Her mother, Lady Ostley, had loved her father; she was not a whore. Tears of frustration gathered behind her eyes. Then it dawned on Emily who the boy was. The monster was going to make her have relations with her brother. Fury burned within her at the injustice of it. How dare this monster make her the instrument with which to punish her mother. Emily wasn’t sure she wanted to meet the woman who had given her up at birth, but she would rather have died than meet her like this.
As the door to her doom loomed closer and closer despite her constant kicking and scratching, the panic engulfing Emily sent blood rushing in her ears, so she didn’t hear the horse approaching until it was almost upon them. But she saw the look of panic on the face of the boy—her brother Charles. Then she was jerked around violently as Ostley turned and shouted, “Take the bint, Charles.” Then louder: “Bob, drop the maid and help the boy.”
Emily was now facing backwards but still being dragged toward the coach. They were followed by a burly brute, who grinned a gap-toothed grin and had the writhing Suzie flung over his shoulder. At his master’s command, he dropped the maid, but before he could carry out the second command, he was mowed down by the approaching horse. Behind the wild tangle of horse’s hooves and the fallen man, Emily could just make out Suzie struggling to her feet and running for the trees.
Emily’s golden god, Lord Didcomb, Max, the man who had come to her rescue two years prior, jumped off the still-moving horse and landed not ten paces from her and her captor, his riding crop raised high and ready to strike. “Didn’t I tell you never to come near Miss March again? Let her go this instant!” His green eyes flicked to Emily’s for a moment, making her knees weak for an entirely different reason.
Even in her present predicament, Emily had to admire the young lord’s stormy countenance. The scowl on his face suited her romantic hero image of him perfectly, but behind her she could feel Ostley tremble, and she didn’t think it was with fear. “Charles, grab her hair and yank on it hard if she doesn’t do as you say. I must deal with this upstart.”
“Charles, I would advise you not to lay a hand on your sister.” As soon as Max said it and saw the shock on the boy’s face, he knew Charles hadn’t known who his father was kidnapping, and he began to feel just the tiniest bit sorry for the younger Ostley. Max knew all too well how a cruel relative could bend a boy to his will. Only a few short years ago, his grandfather had had Max so far under his control, Max had wanted to hurt Emily March himself.
Lord Didcomb’s voice was icy cold and menacing, making Emily feel sorry for the boy gasping behind her. But she had no time to worry about him. Though Ostley literally vibrated with rage, his voice was oddly calm. “And now you’ve gone and ruined my surprise.” He grabbed Emily by the hair himself so he could free up his right hand.
Out of the corner of her eye, Emily caught sight of a pistol, and panic flooded her once again.
“Gun!” was all she could get out before the shot ripped through the morning air.
At the same time, Emily saw a pistol glint in Didcomb’s hands, and then another shot rang out. The baron fell back, pulling her to the ground with him. He let out a strange little gurgling sound and then went completely limp and still, while a stench worse than his body odor hit Emily’s nose. Realizing Ostley no longer held on to her, she scrambled away as fast as she could. Didcomb was next to her in three long strides and lifted her to her feet.
Emily, shuddering with disgust, stepped into Maximilian Warthon’s arms for the second time in her life. “God, he stinks.”
Max folded his arms protectively around Emily March and thanked the gods he once again had reached her in time. “My father was a soldier and used to say the worst thing about death was the smell.”
Emily chanced a glance at the man on the ground. “Is he dead?”
“Yes, I got him square in the chest.”
“Good.” Emily sighed gratefully and rested against his broad shoulder once more, but then abruptly looked up as a thought struck her. “Did he shoot you?”
Max grinned, which put a dimple in his left cheek, making him look boyishly young. “Luckily the late Baron Ostley was a very bad shot and at eight paces only managed to ruin my jacket.” He nodded to his right shoulder, where the bullet had ripped a powder-burned hole.
Emily stuck her finger in the hole, making sure there was no blood despite Max’s soft laughter at her fussing. She loved the velvety sound and smiled up at him, completely captivated by the man in front of her. He was just as tall, his face as perfectly manly and his blond curls as impossibly golden, as she remembered. His arms around her felt like heaven. And in this perfect moment, she heard the click of a gun being cocked, and then Charles’s voice.
“Step aside, miss. I don’t wish to hurt you, especially if you are indeed my sister.”
Emily froze and then slowly turned around. She was calm enough, but all the blood had apparently drained from her brain. She couldn’t, for the life of her, think of a way to save her rescuer without getting herself shot by the shaking, wide-eyed boy in front of her. And then the second fortunate event of the morning occurred. From around the side of the coach stepped none other than Eliza, the friend Emily had planned to meet today, with a small pistol clasped in both hands. Her gun and her determined dark eyes were trained on the brand-new baron intent on avenging his father.
“Charles Ostley, lower the blunderbuss. Your mother will never forgive you if you harm Emily.”
Charles shot Eliza a surprised look. “Mrs. Strathem, what are you doing here?”
Max used the moment of inattention to pull Emily behind himself, but Emily would have none of it and stepped back in front of Max. Luckily it was of no consequence. Eliza was now close enough to Charles to put her hand on the barrel of the gun and force it lower.
“Stopping you from making a huge mistake, apparently.”
The boy looked stricken and very young. His voice was unsteady. “But this man just killed my father. A gentleman can’t leave that unavenged.”
Max, impatient with Emily’s insistence to position herself in the line of fire, wrapped both arms around her, but before he could swing her around and shield Emily with his body, Eliza took the gun out of the boy’s shaking hands.
“There is nothing to avenge, Charles. You know better than anyone what kind of husband your father was to your mother. You saw what he just tried to do to your sister. Everyone is better off without him.”
The boy leaned into Eliza and began to sob. “What am I to do?”
Eliza handed the heavy shotgun to Max, who had stepped closer, slipped her own gun into a pocket in her burgundy walking dress, and pulled Charles into a warm embrace. “I think we should load your father into the coach and take him to Oxfordshire so your mother can arrange for his funeral.” She then turned to the coachman who had watched the whole scene unfold, doing his best to keep the nervous horses under control. “What do you say, Coachy? Will you help us convey your late master back to his estate?”
The coachman nodded. “Yes, ma’am. And I think we should get the young sir away from here before the law arrives. But”—he pointed to the burly ruffian on the ground—“I’d rather not take him back, he’s a nasty piece of work.”
Eliza nodded and turned to Max. “Can I leave you to deal with Ostley’s man? I think paying him off will be sufficient.”
Max regarded her for a moment, a look of quiet admiration in his eyes, then bowed. “Thank you for your timely intervention, Mrs. Strathem. You may depend on me. I will also convey Miss Emily safely back to her father.” He then bent to help the coachman pick up the late baron and carry him to the coach, where Charles held a somber watch over the proceedings.
At last, Eliza turned to Emily and pulled her into a tight embrace. “I was worried about you when you weren’t on the bridge at the appointed time. Are you well, poppet? It seems you found yourself a reliable champion.”
Emily gratefully returned her friend’s embrace and sighed her relief. “My golden god, you mean? Yes, he has proven himself twice over now.” Considering her friend, she asked, “You are in contact with my mother, are you not?”
Eliza kissed both her cheeks. “Yes, poppet, I’m acquainted with your mother. Your father couldn’t contact her for fear of bringing Ostley’s wrath down on her, but I struck up a friendship with your grandmother some years ago. She timed her visits during Ostley’s absences whenever possible and took me along on a few of them with me posing as her companion. That’s how I got to know your brother, too. Let me take him home and get the baron under the ground, and then, if you wish, we can arrange for you to meet your mother.”
Emily couldn’t help feeling conflicted at the prospect of meeting the mother who had condemned her to the life of a bastard, to never quite belong. It had been done to protect her, but still. She was glad Eliza was there to wipe away the tears rolling down her cheeks unbidden. These weren’t the kind of tears she wanted to shed in front of a near stranger, no matter how beautiful he was, or how safe his arms felt. By the time Max had caught his horse and was striding toward her, Emily had herself under control again. At the same time, Emily’s footman, Thomas, leaning heavily on Suzie, emerged from the edge of the wood, and her landau arrived, convincing Emily that she was finally safe. She urged Eliza into the coach, to take Charles away from the gathering crowd of onlookers. Then she went to help Thomas to the landau, while Max dealt with the deceased baron’s now conscious servant.
Before Emily stepped into her conveyance to make her way home, she sent Max a shy smile. “Thank you, my lord.”
Max nodded his acknowledgment. “You are most welcome, Miss March.” He held her gaze just long enough to make her blush, then returned to dealing with the bruised brute.
Before long, they were on their way across the bridge. Leaning back into the comfort of the carriage seats and surrounded by people she could trust, Emily had to admit even her taste for adventure was satisfied for some time to come.
1760, somewhere in Essex, England
The setting sun painted the facade of the lovely Palladian mansion pink, but the overgrown boxwood hedges and the weeds on the lawn pointed to a general neglect of the estate. It was an odd contrast to the owner’s ostentatious London wardrobe and flashy horse flesh. Marcus Landover supposed it was to be expected of a young man less than a year in possession of his fortune. He had it on good authority the fool had already blown through his cash reserves and had to retreat to his estate to escape his creditors. That begged the question why Marcus had let himself be goaded into accepting an invitation to the Baron Tillister’s card party. Especially since he knew the man intended for him to part with a good portion of his money.
Marcus, at nine and twenty, was almost a decade older than the young baron’s crowd and had little interest in their excesses but he was fond of his great-aunt, Millicent, and Aunt Milly worried about Baron Tillister’s stepsister. The girl, a Miss Sophia Chelmsford, had not been heard of since her mother’s funeral seven months prior. Although her mother had been estranged from the family, she had been a Landover by birth and Aunt Milly wanted Miss Chelmsford to know she was not alone in the world. The two letters she had written had gone unanswered, and it concerned the old lady.
Of course Marcus had no expectation of meeting the girl at a high stakes card party, but he could persuade one of the servants to take a note to her. Sophia was eighteen and had not yet been formally introduced to society. Her stepbrother was her legal guardian, so a message was the best he could do for now. Well, that and losing a little money to the youngsters to ease Aunt Milly’s mind.
There were three coaches ahead of him in the driveway so it was safe to assume Tillister had invited all of his cronies and planned to make an occasion of it. Marcus felt almost sorry no one had deemed it necessary to warn the young Baron that Marcus’s fortune had been won at the card table. He was far from the easy mark the young man assumed. But Tillister’s friends either didn’t know or didn’t tell him.
The coach stopped outside the brightly lit front portal and Marcus allowed his man, Richard, to help him down, maintaining the illusion that he was incapable of doing anything for himself. “Get everyone put up and rest, but keep everything ready. I plan to depart around three in the morning.”
The trusted retainer bowed low and murmured so only Marcus could hear. “I figured. Them youngsters don’t look like they could keep up.”
Marcus smiled. “Quite. We will be traveling to the Marchioness from here.”
Richard bowed again and Marcus ascended the shallow steps to leave his hat and cape with the aging butler. The man handed both to a footman and then led Marcus past an elegantly curved staircase and into a beautifully proportioned drawing room. The house was rather lovely despite the shabby exterior and there was plenty of fashionable furniture, but the fabrics were beginning to fade.
“You are not staying the night, Sir?” the aging butler inquired as he held the door for Marcus.
“Not if I can help it.” Marcus sighed.
The old retainer just nodded. He obviously was used to young men spending the night. He turned to the young baron holding court by the fireplace and announced the new arrival. “His Lordship, Marcus Landover, My Lord.”
Marcus stepped forward to greet his host whilst the butler bowed himself out of the room. Baron Frederick Tillister beamed with all the enthusiasm of a man whose grandest scheme had just fallen into place and rushed towards him.
“Landover, come in! I hope your journey was not too arduous.” He shook Marcus’s hand vigorously and led him to the group of young men by the fire. “You know Welsh, Adrian, Micklesby and Bingly from town of course. The brooding chap over there is my neighbor, Len Wilder, and the three over here who can’t stop arguing about horses are the brothers Fairly.”
Marcus nodded to all the gentlemen he was acquainted with and turned back to Tillister whose grin was full of pride and expectation.
“Let me pour you a drink. I picked up a rather decent brandy at Berry’s last week.”
Marcus was intimately familiar with the establishment on St. James's street. Any wine from there came with a hefty price tag. The baron was apparently going all out to impress him. “By all means, Tillister. Just the thing to wash the dust of the road from my throat.” He took the snifter Tillister handed him and noted how quickly the young man consumed his drink. At this rate he would be impaired by the time dinner was served. He either drank because he was nervous or because he was overconfident. Marcus was undecided as to which one was the cause. “You must be expecting more guests, we are uneven numbers for whist right now.”
“We will be thirty for dinner, and my sister will join us shortly. She is my hostess tonight.”
Marcus tried to hide his surprise, but his brow must have shot up in question.
“My stepsister.” The baron clarified. “My stepmother’s daughter, Miss Sophia Chelmsford. My friends generally like seeing her preside over the dinner table.”
Marcus was taken aback for a moment. A young married woman appearing as hostess for a dinner mostly attended by men was rare enough; a young miss not out in society would ruin her chances for a decent marriage. Surely Tillister wouldn’t allow that.
“Ah, I do seem to remember the late baroness had a daughter.” Out of the corner of his eye, Marcus noted the brooding young man start for Tillister with a murderous look on his face, but two of the horse-mad brothers held him back. Something involving Miss Chelmsford was going on and Marcus promised himself to get to the bottom of it. Aunt Milly may be right to worry about the girl.
Excerpt from Déjà You
A well-appointed country estate, England 1790
Lord Dillings had her cornered. She should have known what he intended, should never have responded to his call, and she most definitely should not have stopped to talk to him. But she was a maid; she had to be nice to the guests, no matter how depraved she knew them to be.
His eyes were lust-filled and determined. “Come on, Marianne, I have seen the way you catch your breath when you watch the others at their games. You want it, I know you do.”
Marianne tried one last time to reason with him. “Sir, I’m married! That fact hasn’t change since yesterday.”
Lord Dillings only grinned at her. Christ, his hands were everywhere, his brandy-laden breath hot on her neck and his mouth about to descend on hers. There really was only one thing for it. She raised her knee and stomped her heel on his foot as hard as she could.
“Damnation!” He hissed in pain and stepped back in shock, giving her enough room to slip past him, hike up her skirts, and flee towards the back stairs as fast as her legs would take her. She could hear him behind her, trying to catch up.
Part of her enjoyed the chase, but she did not want him. She had no interest in any of the guests in this house. They may have been fine lords who knew all about pleasure, but they lacked her Joe’s broad shoulders and his kind heart.
“Little wildcat! I’ll have you in front of the whole company for that.” Dillings wheezed.
Not if she could help it. There was only one man, other than her husband, she would ever contemplate even fantasizing about, and that was Lord Linford. Marianne redoubled her efforts, ran down the stairs and lost him in the maze of servants’ corridors. When she was sure he no longer followed, she made her way to the library where she had scoped out a hiding place previously.
Last night I said goodbye,
In the nicest possible way,
To a man I never really met,
But love so anyway.
I knew our love was a mirage,
But now that he told me at long last,
That an old love is becoming new again fast,
I feel lost at sea,
Adrift in the ocean that lays between him and me.
There seems to be water everywhere,
It hangs heavy in the air,
pools in my eyes,
Makes my shoes hard to wear.
My moorings have again slipped away,
No harbor for me,
No sheltering bay.
Again I’m blindly searching for driftwood to keep me afloat
In this vast expanse of loneliness.
Where is my lifeboat?
And all the while I’m happy to know
you found your moorings, your sheltering bay.
Yet, if my dreams don’t lead into your imaginary arms,
Our tenuous link severed,
your love no longer keeping me from harm,
There is no point in dreaming.