What did a man wear, when he might die before sunrise?
Crossing to the clothes press, Thomas Caldwell pulled out a crisp linen shirt and thrust his head into it.
He could smell the spring green bushes where it had dried and been sun-bleached after laundering. He drew on his waistcoat, the indigo one, with silk-embroidered buttons, sewn in Spitalfields. Not his finest but well-fitted, dark enough to blend into the early morning shadows, loose enough to raise his pistol-arm swiftly. Handsome enough to meet his Maker–but no!
Blood wouldn’t mar this dashing swoop of cravat today, nor any another, God willing.
Knife, slipped in his boot. Dagger, sheathed in his belt.
Hands–clenched and unclenched, awakening reluctantly, readying themselves.
He shrugged into his favorite coat and rubbed the thick nap, dark brown like his hair. His fingers combed through stubborn curls and tied them back in an efficient queue.
Candlelight flickered in the mirror. Yes, he cut a fine figure.
Fine, fine. Two French pistols in their case.
He slung his brother’s satchel on his shoulder and cantered down the dark stairs.
Robin’s desultory lantern lit the mews.
“Come on, lad!”
The boy rode hard with him past the Cock-and-Bull Tavern, past the Colleges. The morning star gleamed above a church spire as they galloped by.
A sign? Tom said a prayer, several.
Eight hoofs on cobblestones beat a tattoo in his head. Their horses careened between carts headed to market on the bridge arching over the Cam. Farmers, too, up before the sun in market-day rituals. This Saturday of nearly-spring was dawning fair.
They were the first to the fields outside town. Dismounting, they walked through the tall grass that stretched across the meadow and rustled in the March wind, their footfalls quiet from sinking in soft mud. The last snows had only just melted into the earth.
It was a good day for a duel. It had been too chilly to practice in the snow and ice. Tom’s nose was still sorely chapped from the interminable cold that plagued him for weeks every winter.
He coughed. No good, that. He feared it would distract him.
Fear would distract him.
The sharp chill of dawn heightened all his senses. He could almost hear the Earl’s stallions whinnying in the distance and charging across the fens. He was fortunate this wasn’t a joust, since he could never match the Earl’s horsemanship.
But he had finesse with flintlock and cartridge. Robin held the case open.
Tom claimed his weapon and hefted the long, slim gilded gun in his hand. The metal was bracingly cold. His leather gloves were warm and supple, so no matter.
The matter was this: Turn, pace, count. Turn. Fire.
His arm rose steady. His mind was clear of everything but the heavy, fulsome, all-consuming need for vengeance. His heart would take satisfaction in the shot, whatever the outcome. When his finger jerked, his ears rang with the report.
The sun rose at last, glinting in his eyes.
Why was he facing east? That was a mistake. He would know better next time.
“Good shot, sir!” Robin waved to him as swirls of smoke blew away.
Together they paced back to the makeshift, life-size puppet, wool-felt hung upon wood, standing in for the challenger. The cloth gaped, torn in the center and smoldering where the bullet had whizzed through. Jagged fibers exposed the board cracked beneath.
His chest tightened.
Thus do I, gentleman-scholar and barrister-at-law, unwilling heir to a barony in the Borderlands, complete the first of my trials.
The biting stench of black powder lingered in the air, drifted across the valley, and wafted to the sky, where high above his brother must be looking down upon him. Was Alex smiling now? Tom could not. His anger at himself thrummed too strongly, despite the gratifying pleasure some small part of him took in the accuracy of his aim.
He would perfect this ritual. Spring made travel possible. He’d go to London, to Edinburgh, whatever it required. And before summer was out, he would kill the Earl of Roxburgh.
Ahh, there’s a bit of luck.
The servant hadn’t secured the door when she left.
Tom entered a dimly lit space, curtains drawn, chairs lining the walls. A fire burned low but steadily in the grate. Only a wealthy earl would heat a coaching inn’s unoccupied sitting room. Pocket doors flanked each side. To the left the door was shut fast. That side of the room was cooler, too, likely the sleeping chamber. He would find what he wanted there.
He drew a quick breath. The tavern’s sour-tasting stout still coated his lips.
From the right came soft, bright voices. A fire crackled. When he peered around the door, he saw a girl’s sprawling skirts and slim hands, playing jonchets. He leaned further and spied a woman’s back, a cascade of dark red hair, a tight black dress, a slatted rocking chair. A child wriggled in her lap and twirled her tangled curls. The woman spoke in French, in rhyme, reading Perrault’s fables. He recognized the story of the grasping crow. After a few precise, fluent sentences, she surprised him by translating the lines into English. No, that would not be remarkable. The governess spoke in a delightful Scottish brogue. The rrr’s trilled on her tongue. The familiar lilt made him think of his sisters, made him ache for home.
He blinked and forced himself to turn away. Now was his opportunity.
On the chill side of the sitting room, he slid open the door to the bedchamber. A slight glow seeped through the thick draperies. He swallowed a curse when he stumbled on a carriage trunk. Its hinged top, propped up, revealed a torrent of ladies’ dresses. No secret papers there. Any incriminating political documents would likely be on Roxburgh’s person.
The Prince would want to know what business the Earl had with Lord Oxford, but Tom was also tracking private perfidies. Roxburgh’s diary could expose why Alex had challenged him.
He crept forward, taking care not to bang his toes again. The chimneypiece lacked books or trinkets. The bureau was nearly empty, the dressing table bedecked with rouge pots and floral waters. Highwaymen made it unsafe even for a countess to travel with fine jewelry. He passed by the pair of narrow beds. He’d rummage under mattresses only as a last resort.
On the desk by the window he surveyed quills, ink pot, candle stubs, sealing wax, blank foolscap and blotting squares. No bundles of correspondence. He put on his reading glasses and raised a few sheaves to the muted light but found no ghostly fragments of writing.
The only items of note were, below, a stack of drawers with polished keyholes and, on top, a porcelain dish with three tiny keys. To hide a coded journal in a faux tea chest, or for jewelry cases mired under clothes in the trunks? None fit the desk’s mechanisms.
The first two drawers proved unlocked but concealed nothing. The third he could take with brute strength. One sharp, swift pull broke the latch.
His breath hitched. A slim leather-bound book lay within. Linseed oil made it slick in his grasp. Or were his hands slippery with sweat? A narrow red Moroccan band embossed “JOURNAL” crossed the spine.
He sat on the bed and pushed the curtain aside. Brown-ink letters looped across ivory paper. “The Secret History of Sir K. & Lady E–.” He thumbed the opening pages.
I had returned from church… a barrister in training… a judge’s daughter… a Lord’s heir.
The lust-filled adventures of Scottish paramours in Cavalier days. When had Roxburgh acquired these scandalous memoirs? The writing had the look of a womanly hand, not an earl’s.
Turning another page, he heard the slight tap of a shoe-step behind him. The intruder had advanced far into the room. In one swift spiral of movement, Tom rose to find the glinting barrel of a small silver gun leveled directly at his breast.
“Put that down.” Peggie Stewart struck a confident tone as she pointed her lady’s pistol. The rogue dropped the book onto her bed. Good. Yet the man evinced none of the shame he ought to show after violating the privacy of her writing table or from his discovery here.
Had the Prime Minister hired this hapless scholar to intercept her aunt’s correspondence with Jacobite and Tory conspirators?
He wore round glasses in simple metal frames. A floppy black hat threw his eyes into shadow. His dark hair was pulled back in a loose queue. She recognized the rosy cheeks of a libertine from her brother Jamie’s example.
The man was taller and older than Jamie, closer to thirty than twenty. Soft lines radiated from his mouth when he pressed his lips together. His expression was grim.
She didn’t delude herself that his life was at stake, not from the threat of her minuscule weapon. The punishment for theft–were a magistrate to convict him–was death by hanging. Surely he would rather flee than attack her.
In the folds of her gown, she hid a brass candlestick, its ridges moist with sweat.
A dangerous gambit.
The intruder could knock the gun from her grasp, muffle her mouth, and molest her in any way he wished. Too often wronged women met this sad fate in satiric wits’ poems or those new sentimental novels.
So she kept herself beyond reach. No use calling for help if he were in the King’s employ. Aunt Ware had gone to meet an informant. The girls absorbed Mademoiselle Dupres’ full attention. Travelers
shouted and coaches and horses clattered below.
Braving herself, she held the pistol cocked, firmly.
“I am a good shot.”
The man opened his mouth as if to speak, licked his lips, then declined the opportunity. His palms turned out in humble appeal.
Wait, they counseled. I hold no weapons.
Such hands lied. He would carry knives in his pocket, his belt, his boot. Perhaps a pistol of his own in his jacket.
He moved in none of these directions. His chest expanded, emptied, with a pronounced rasp.
Her neck warmed. A wayward curl worked its way to her jaw, her hair in disarray from her cousin’s teasing.
She lifted her chin. “You are not much of a thief, if I have caught you.”
“Have you?” His stifled laugh belied her assertion.
“You ought to have palmed the keys at once.” For she’d seen him nick them when he stood.
In a paltry conjurer’s trick, he drew them from his cuffs and flung them at her. “Here, then.”
They bounced off her wrist but she didn’t flinch. “You’ll have no luck at that.”
“Not having much luck today, I fear.” He spoke with impeccable elocution, from the best English schooling or the appearance of it. Beneath square shoulders, he had the sinuous stance of a courtier. One foot stretched before the other with a twist of the ankles to display well-molded calves. Powder-white stockings peeked beneath black velvet breeches. He wore a striped waistcoat under a dark jacket, with wide, gold-ribboned lapels cut to reveal the solid girth and firm thighs of a man well-versed in the pleasures of food and wine.
And women, too.
His gaze raked her body as his hand gave a courteous flourish. Lace cuffs exposed well-manicured if ink-stained fingers. Such a cultivated gentleman needn’t stoop to rummaging in travelers’ rooms, unless to pay extraordinary gaming debts.
Was he a spy or a felon? Deceitful, wicked fellow, pilfering her papers, plundering her desk.
“What manner of villainy is this, defiling my drawers?”
He quirked a brow. “Deflowering, did you say?”
Heat scalded her cheeks. “Scoundrel!” Her tongue tripped on the word.
He seemed to mistake this for a compliment, for he doffed his hat and inclined his head, though his attention never left her face and arm. His eyes flashed as they caught the light. Radiant amber, the color of her father’s favorite whisky.
Not malicious, though. Mischievous. He would try some other move to set her off balance.
“And yet, you have not called for help,” he prodded.
“And you have not run.”
Their eyes met sharply, each unblinking. The air grew thick with strange energy.
She swallowed and found her throat dry. “Who are you?” Her voice wavered. She drew a long breath.
“What are you seeking?” For she had found him sitting in the very place where she penned stories about treasonous lovers. Even her aunt didn’t know about that.
The man stared at her with thrilling intensity, challenging her, tempting. They stood but three paces apart. Sparks of something she hardly dared name sent tingles up her spine. Unmet desire crackled between them.
She must resist wondering what emotions lurked behind those taunting eyes, what strength he concealed in his foppish hands. What was that rising in his breeches?
She’d grown too fond of English farces. No more lascivious merchants or dastardly Macheaths for her.
Her pulse raced. “Any gems in your pockets?”
“My dear girl, I tell you truthfully, I am no thief.”
The jaunty tilt of his head did not reassure her.
“And that is a rather wicked suggestion, from such a prim governess. Perhaps you have a jewel of your own to share? I shall cherish it, if you’ll oblige me, ma mie.”
Bawdiness, again? “Let’s see what you have to offer up first in those handsome trappings.”
His eyes widened.
So she could shock him, too. “Go on, turn out your pockets, and be quick about it.”
“Most ladies prefer me to go about that slowly.” He cast a sly smile.
Just like Jamie’s, that rakish grin.
She waved her pistol.
Fumbling, he drew forth the contents and set them next to the book on the bed. Some correspondence folded into squares, a pocket knife, a ring with seal, a small purse. The bag was lumpy. He loosed its string and poured out a handful of coins. No urgent need for money unless he had already scammed an unsuspecting tavern-goer or filched sovereigns from another guest.
“What’s this? You’re a foolish sort of trickster.” Her arms ached. “Stealing into bedchambers and not even in need of funds.”
“Ahh, my dear girl.” His sigh betrayed annoyance. “The other servant left the hall door ajar. I have broken no locks.”
“And I believe you are the one who crept up on me! Such awkward circumstances for us both. Perhaps I should speak with your employer. You need not query me here alone.”
She gaped. Did he think to cajole her?
“I assure you, Mademoiselle, I have no nefarious purposes.”
Crivvens if he’d soothe her with that mannerly voice. She felt a feint coming soon.
“I am, in fact–” He scooped up his hat in his left hand.
There! That’s wrong.
“–A friend of the family, come to take tea with Lady Roxburgh.” Bowing deeply, he extended his front leg to move a whole step nearer, then all at once flung his hat and hand up and across, as if to knock her gun aside.
But now she knew him to be a swindler, for the Prime Minister’s man would have learned that her cousin, the Countess, had died.
The word caught in her throat.
She fired her shot.
Straw sizzled. The virago stumbled into Tom’s arms. My heart is aflame.
No, that was just his bullet-holed hat, reeking of black powder.
“Ooph!” My chest is bursting.
The damnable hussy jabbed him with her fists and scored a powerful blow to his side. He lost his footing and fell onto the bed, with one of her arms wedged beneath him and the other brandishing a shiny rod.
He grabbed her wrist and twisted upwards. At which she loosed her hold. The unwieldy weapon slipped from her grasp. Or perhaps she threw it.
“Oww!” Blasted candlestick.
His temple ached from the direct hit. He rolled onto his back and cursed the gods.
The mattress shifted as she scooted away. He felt her weight on the far edge of the bed.
She had not run. Foolish herself, then. He pulled off his glasses and covered his eyes with his hands. A starry view, indeed. Even his brother had never thrashed him so effectively.
“You are a fierce assailant.” He spoke hoarsely, reluctant to move, nor yet meeting the world with his gaze.
“I fear I have injured you.” Her voice was closer than he expected.
“That was rather the point, I imagine.” He tried to sit but made do with turning, half raised on his elbows, to regard her. His vision swayed. The finely drawn curves of her ruby red mouth blurred. Perfidious jewels, her gem-green eyes, to cast this hex upon him.
He groaned at his prick’s misguided determination. One could go to the gallows for looting an earl’s rooms. Yet here he lay wondering how limber were those deceptively delicate hands, how soft her lips, whether she knew any French mots de débauche...
Ahh, he was far gone to imagine seducing the very lass who might be called as chief witness against him. He knew such cases well, his life hanging in the balance. The scales of justice were seldom evenly weighted.
“A fine trick, my girl. You shall leave me dangling in the wind.” Though a noose might not hurt as much as this knock to his head.
“I haven’t left you yet.”
“Why ever not?” Useless now, his limbs. He couldn’t coordinate their movements properly. Dark red lines smeared his hands.
Damnation. “Have I been shot?”
“You are bleeding–”
He felt his forehead, winced when his fingers discovered a deep gash, scowled at the blood dripping onto his cuffs.
“–from the candlestick.”
“From your harrowing assault.” He’d been reduced to whispering.
“Merely a concerted defense.”
“A vicious weapon, that.” He gestured with his chin. Even the smallest movement made his head spin. He tried to coax his body up further but could not. “Wielded by a clever wench, I grant you.” She remained beyond his reach. “Did you fear for your honor so greatly?” He settled back onto the straw tick.
“Nay, only for my possessions.”
Muck for a brain. He tested his acuity by counting her breaths, growing steadier.
“Why were you reading my book?”
Yes, she could cross-examine him now. He was powerless against any subterfuge. Yet her meaning was obscure. “Your book?”
“I watched you. Don’t dare deny it. What did you find?”
“Some extravagant old romance.” Cool, soft linen caressed his cheek. “Filled with scandals and intrigue.” His words came from far away. “And all the lawyers turned out to be traitorous spies…” He closed his mind, dark, like drawing curtains shut against the too-bright light of a spring afternoon.
Someone sponged his face and pressed a sweet-scented cloth to his head. Was he dreaming? He reached for the bedpost to pull himself upright. A woman’s hand on his brow came along for support.
A dark-sleeved arm curved across his body. Her bosom listed towards his chin.
He drew a fractured breath. The musky dampness of her tight-laced bodice did not make the view any less appealing.
“Do you recall what happened?” she asked. A pretty flush bloomed on her cheeks beneath errant strands of red hair.
He stared into her eyes, fathomless green pools, sparkling, unearthly bright, like Highland lakes in winter. It took a while for him to comprehend her speech.
“I am afraid I remember all too well. You are a vixen.” He almost smiled.
But her forehead remained furrowed
His chest grew tight. “You needn’t worry. I shan’t prosecute you for this injury.”
That sounded more barrister than bandit. Badly done.
The woman pulled away.
Please, no. He slid a hand along her stiff skirt and captured her waist.
In an unforeseen advance, her palm rose to his cheek. He matched it with his own.
“I might have blinded you.” She spoke on a breath. Wit and intelligence and something tender lit her eyes.
“How tragic, ‘twould have been, ne’er to behold such beauty, then.” He blinked and took the measure of her face, from lips to lashes, down again, landing on her mouth and mooring there. If he pressed slightly forward, he might, must–
She tugged her hand into her lap and shifted as if to stand. “Your tongue is as gilded as those ridiculously bright buckles.”
Her teasing emboldened him. She was probably a good Presbyterian and would regret if he seduced her, however great the pleasures he might give, that they could share. His groin tensed, his cock arced.
He stretched his legs to hide the mounting muscle.
Silly shoes, hmm? He wiggled his feet and clicked his heels to show off the shiny leather.
“A harmless vanity. Quite unobjectionable.”
“On the contrary.” Her voice was rich, throaty. “I fear nothing about you is as it seems.”
His pulse tripped. Perhaps she would humor his new longing after all.
He leaned towards her under guise of an intimate confession. “And your slippers are much too fine for a lady’s maid, Madamoiselle.”
Was she the Earl’s new mistress, part French, part Scots? Plying information from a kept woman required only a kiss and a coin.
He wrapped an arm around her and watched her breath grow apace. Mesmerized, he almost forgot what he planned to say.
“And this…” He pulled gently at the lacing of her bodice.
She squirmed but did not protest.
“This is quite a dear ribbon, don’t you think? No mere bauble.” Soft silk met his thumb and twined around his fingers. He should like to release the ribbons of all her undergarments.
Her freckled skin glowed bright pink.
He angled toward her ear. “I like to make you blush.”
“You are a rake, then.”
She did not sound angry. Her chastisement was cut through with too much–admiration?
Her hands found their way to his chest and pressed upon it. Her eyes were wide, dark.
Delicious. He would taste them. He limned a finger across one brow, the other, kissed an eyelid and its mate, tenderly. They popped back open.
He squeezed her shoulder. Thick cloth shielded her flesh from his touch. He ran a hand down her arm and assessed the pattern, the stitching, the embroidered trim. His sisters had taught him well. Exquisite hand-dyed Italian fabric, uninspired Scottish design. He slipped his fingers beneath the edge of her sleeve to trace the curve of her wrist. Her pulse beat fast.
But he wanted her to invite his kiss. God, such vanity.
Her lips bent into a smile. “I fear I am too enamored of highwaymen for my own good.”
“I am no highwayman.”
“And I no servant.”
He’d realized this, of course, but what did her exact household position matter for their brief tryst?
“Who, then?” He whispered against her neck.
“I am Lord Roxburgh’s cousin.”
An icy shiver ran down his back, but he refused to let the name weigh upon him. Not at this moment. No place for anger in the midst of making love to a young woman’s collarbone.
He swallowed a curse. “The Earl must have many cousins.” His chilled hands swooned into her thick curls. “Surely,” he said, tilting her head back, “this one could spare a kiss for her unwitting victim.”
She answered–well!–by leaning towards him.
Oh so sweet.
“Mm..” Her lips banged against his.
Something shifted inside him. His heart grew brighter, pounding a swift, unlikely cadence–a Scottish reel, though he never stood up for such dances. He was bereft of all ordinary sense. This curious, charming girl, would-be lover of bungling highwaymen, had absconded with it. He dove upon her mouth, joyfully, abandoned.