2009 UK cover
(Lord Cynric Malloren has been held up and kidnapped by a highwayman whom he has quickly detected to be a young woman. Adventurous by nature, he is going along with the situation to see if it provides amusement.)Cyn gathered up his coats, not bothering to put them on again. He went to the coach and collected the trinket case, considering the pistol thoughtfully. It would be ridiculously easy to pick up the firearm and shoot his captor. As he left it there, he wondered whether he would regret the foolishness.
Within half an hour, the answer was yes.
From where he lay spreadeagled on a brass bed, hands and feet tied to solid cornerposts, he glared up at the three hovering women. "When I win free, I'm going to throttle the lot of you."
"That's why you're bound," said the one who still pretended to be male. "We wouldn't know a moment's peace if you were loose."
"I gave my word you had nothing to fear from me."
"Faith, you did not. You said you wouldn't turn us over to the authorities. You might intend other mischief -- against my sister and nurse, for example."
Cyn looked at her thoughtfully. `Charles' was proving to be a fascinating enigma. She had shed her cloak, hat, and scarf on entering the cottage. Soon, almost absent-mindedly, the wig had gone too. He sympathized. He'd never liked wearing a wig and preferred the bother of his own hair.
Even stripped of disguise, she made a tolerably convincing young man. Her suit of braided brown velvet fit neatly, and if a bosom swelled beneath, the lace frill of her shirt hid it well enough.
Her head was not shorn, but her hair was a sleek cap of light brown dusted with gold, with just the ripples of a wave. It was an extraordinary hairstyle for a female, but it did not look as outrageous as it should, perhaps because she was not a soft-featured lady. She made a handsome youth.
She was smooth-skinned, of course, which made her look about sixteen, though he would guess she must be closer to twenty. Her voice was rather low-pitched. Her lips might be charming if she relaxed them in a smile, but she kept them tight and angry. He didn't know why the devil she was so angry with him.
Her companions were equally mystifying.
Verity, presumably the sister, had long, lustrous wavy hair in a shade between honey and gold, and a soft, feminine mouth. In contrast to Charles, her figure was lush. Presumably Charles had her breasts bound, but iron bands wouldn't obliterate Verity's generous shape, which was well-displayed by a low neckline and wide fichu. The outfit she wore, however, was more suited to a serving maid than to a lady of quality.
Verity appeared to be the epitome of a womanly woman. To prove it she was much more nervous and kind-hearted than her sister. "We can't keep him like this indefinitely," she pointed out.
"Of course not, but it'll keep him out of harm's way while we eat and prepare to leave."
"But La... But Charles," said the nurse fretfully, "you're not allowed to leave. You know that."
This woman was old, very old. She was stooped and tiny, with half-moon spectacles and soft, silvery hair. She had been Cyn's downfall. When Charles had ordered him onto the bed to be bound, he'd refused. The old woman had obeyed the order to get him there, however, and he'd been so afraid of breaking her bird-like bones he'd ended up helpless.
He noted the slip. The old lady had almost called the chit Lady something. Very high born then, and yet one dressed as a convincing male, and the other as a servant.
"I don't care a farthing whether I'm allowed to leave or not," said Lady Charles. "Up till now I've had no reason to go anywhere, and good reason to skulk. Now everything's changed. I suppose I'll come back in due course. Where else have I to go?"
"You will stay with Nathaniel and me," said Verity.
"Perhaps." Charles' features even softened with affection. "But he's going to have enough trouble looking after you and William, dearest." A squawking noise came from upstairs. "There he goes again. Hungry little beast, ain't he?"
Verity hurried off up a set of narrow stairs, and Cyn absorbed the fact that one of his highwaymen was a mother and, he suspected, a recent one. It explained the rather excessive lushness of her figure. Discomfort and annoyance gave way again to fascination. He looked forward to telling this tale to his fellow officers. A good yarn was always in demand in the winter billets.
The older woman disappeared into the kitchen, the only other room on the ground floor. Cyn supposed there was a room under the eaves above where the sisters and the baby slept. This room, the old lady's bedroom, was being used as a makeshift parlor and also contained a number of bundles, boxes, and portmanteaux.
Question: Why were the sisters here, and why was Charles not allowed to leave?
The girl was digging in a chest, ignoring him. "Am I going to be fed?" Cyn asked.
"What do you intend to do with me?"
She straightened and came over to the bed. She raised one foot on the frame and rested her elbow on her knee. He had the distinct feeling she was enjoying the position of power. "Perhaps we'll just leave you here like this."
He met her angry gray eyes. "Why?"
"I haven't done anything to hurt you. I did my best to be sure my people don't start a hue and cry."
"Why did you do that?"
He was startled by how much she distrusted, and perhaps feared him. That explained him being bound like this. Not out of cruelty, but out of fear. With his deceptively delicate appearance Cyn was not accustomed to women being so wary of him.
He chose his words with care. "I sensed you were not evil, that you intended me no serious harm. I don't want to see you swing. In fact, I'd like to help you."
She lowered her foot and took a betraying step backward. "Why?"
"I suspect you have a good reason for your actions, and I am overdue for an adventure."
She looked nothing so much as exasperated. "You're overdue for Bedlam."
"I don't think so. I just have a low tolerance for tedium."
"Tedium has its attractions, believe me."
"I have never discovered them."
"Then consider yourself fortunate."
For the first time he wondered if she was in real trouble. He'd been thinking more in terms of some girlish prank, but he doubted this formidable young woman would look so sober over a trivial matter.
"You're in danger, aren't you?" he said.
Her eyes widened but she said nothing.
"All the more reason to trust me and let me help you."
Her chin came up sharply. "I don't trust-" After a caught breath she said, "...people."
She had almost said, I don't trust men.
"You can trust me."
She gave a short, bitter laugh.
He waited until he could catch her guarded eyes. "There's a loaded pistol on the seat of the coach. I didn't use it earlier because your sister was covering my men. I didn't use it when I collected your loot because I didn't want to. I'm an excellent shot. I could have disarmed you, crippled you, or killed you at my leisure."
She frowned at him then spun an her heel and left. He heard the outer door slam and knew she had gone to check.
A few minutes later the old woman tiptoed in with a spouted invalid cup. "I'm sure you'd like a drink, my lord," she said, and proceeded to carefully feed him a cup of startlingly strong, sweet tea. It wasn't as he usually drank it but he was grateful for it all the same.
When he'd finished she dabbed up a few drips with a snowy cloth. "You mustn't worry," she said, patting one of his bound hands. "No one's going to hurt you. Ch...Charles is a little edgy these days." She shook her head and real anxiety shadowed her eyes. "It's all been quite terrible..."
Again he had the feeling they were not addressing trivial matters here.
"What should I call you?" he asked.
"I'm just Nana. That's what they all call me, so you may as well too. Are your hands hurting? I didn't tie you too tight, did I?"
"No," he assured her, though his hands were pricking with pins and needles. He didn't want Charles to come back and find him free, or she'd suspect he'd just been trying to get her out of the house. He probed for a little more information. "And what should I call Miss Verity?"
"Oh," said the old lady, who was clearly no fool, "Verity will do, won't it? You must excuse me, my lord. I have the meal cooking."
Chastity Ware hurried through the gloom of the orchard to the shadowy shape of the carriage. She had stopped in the kitchen to pick up the duelling pistols and musket. It was past time to return them and the horses. But her main purpose, she acknowledged, was to check her prisoner's words.
Her mind seethed with dark thoughts. What had possessed her to kidnap Cyn Malloren?
There'd been a point to keeping the coach, though it had been a sudden inspiration. Verity and the baby would travel much better in a private vehicle than on the stage.
And there had been a point in making him drive it. She hadn't wanted to take her attention off the men long enough to drive it herself. She had little faith in Verity's ability to shoot anyone in any circumstance.
But even if she'd had him drive a little way, she could have left him in a deserted spot. She'd driven a gig. Surely driving a four-in-hand was not very different.
A rogue male was the last thing they needed.
In truth, it had been his insufferable male arrogance that had goaded her.
He'd stood there in his blue and silver with foaming lace, too beautiful to be decent, and not at all awed by her pistols. When he'd offered her a pinch of snuff she'd thirsted to puncture his self-assurance, to see him lying in the dirt. As he'd guessed, however, she hadn't been able to shoot him over it. Then he'd turned the tables by making that gracious little speech to his servants. If it worked, it would delay and perhaps prevent pursuit.
She wished she knew what game he played, but at least now she had him safe for a while. And how he was hating it. She smiled grimly to herself as she opened the carriage door.
The inside the vehicle was dark and Chastity had to feel for the weapon, but she found it just as he had said. She pulled the pistol out, and in the uncertain light of a quarter moon confirmed that it was primed and loaded in both barrels. He'd been boasting, of course, when he'd said he could have disarmed, wounded, or killed her -- she'd been armed too -- but she acknowledged he'd had a chance if he'd cared to take it.
What made her tremble was how careless she'd been to give it to him. She closed her eyes in despair. Perhaps she wasn't equal to the task she'd set herself, to get her sister and nephew to safety.
Verity had arrived only yesterday, though her problems had started some time before. Her middle-aged husband, Sir William Vernham, had died nearly two months ago, only days after her son's birth. This had triggered a battle for the guardianship of the child between the babe's uncle, Henry Vernham, and his grandfather -- Verity and Chastity's father, the Earl of Walgrave.
Henry had won the first legal skirmish, and arrived at Vernham Park to take control. Verity had soon come to fear that her child could be in danger, for Henry was an untrustworthy fellow who stood to inherit a title and fortune except for this one small life. Her fears had heightened when Henry tried to keep her from her family and friends. She had fled with her baby and made her way here.
Now she feared Henry, but did not want to seek the protection of her father. Lord Walgrave would certainly keep her safe, but would immediately plan another marriage to suit his convenience. Having endured the misery of life with Sir William, Verity was determined her next marriage would be to her childhood sweetheart, Major Nathaniel Frazer. Chastity had resolved to help her sister to this end.
The difficulty was that the sisters had virtually no money, and the hunt for Verity was already intense.
Henry Vernham had visited the cottage two days ago to question Chastity and Nana -- Chastity had barely had time to scramble into female garments. They had easily convinced him they were ignorant of Verity's whereabouts, for she had not yet arrived. Their bewilderment and anxiety had been genuine.
Chastity's fists clenched at the memory of being thus confronted with Henry Vernham, for he was not just her sister's tormentor, but the man who had ruined Chastity. She had refused to even speak to him -- it was that or gut him -- but he'd managed one parting volley that had almost broken her resolve.
"I'm sure you regret your rejection of my offer, Lady Chastity, but it is too late to reconsider. You are quite beyond the pale, you know."
She'd been filled with hot rage; if she'd had a pistol at that moment, she would have shot him. When Verity arrived and told her story, however, Chastity's rage had cooled and focussed. Vernham would not ruin Verity too.
There had been no time to make careful plans, or to think things through, for he could return at any moment, but they had known they had to have money to survive, and would have to steal it. This latest twist of taking the coach had also been an impulsive decision. Now she saw it could get them all killed.
Damn Cyn Malloren. Why couldn't he have been the fat and timorous merchant they'd been hoping for?
When she saw the ornate, gilded Malloren crest on the carriage door, she muttered some dire wishes as to the fate of the owner. Then she grinned and wrenched a sharp stone from the orchard wall. She took great satisfaction in using it to scrape away the paint and gilding on both doors.
When she'd finished, however, the satisfaction left her and she hurled the stone away. Removing the crest had been the right thing to do -- tomorrow the whole country might be looking for the Malloren carriage -- but her feelings were twisted and wrong. She rested her head against the vehicle, fighting tears and silently cursing the men who had made her so bitter.
Her father, her brother, and Henry Vernham.
She let a curse escape into the quiet dark of the country night. "To the lowest pits of hell with all men!"
But then she controlled herself. She would need a cool head and vigilance in order to thwart them all.
She made sure the safety-catch was on the pistol and dropped it in the pocket of her coat. She considered the rapier, then left it there.
Leading the riding horses, she walked up to her true home, Walgrave Towers. The great house was dark for none of her family were there. Her father and older brother spent most of their time in London, and now were presumably hunting Verity; her younger brother was at school. She left the mounts in the stables and slipped in a side door.
Silence reigned except for the ticking of clocks in deserted rooms, but for Chastity the place rang with pain and bitter memories. Recent memories. She had not been unhappy as a child here. Her father had generally been absent, and their timid mother had never looked for trouble. But this was where her father had brought her not many months ago. This was where he had tried to force her to marry Henry Vernham.
Chastity made her way to the gun room without illumination, but there used flint and tinder to light a candle. She unloaded and cleaned the dueling pistols and replaced them in their velvet-lined case. Her older brother would be beside himself to think his indulgent training of his little sister had enabled her to pursue this plan. Chastity's hands stilled as she remembered the last time she'd seen Fort -- his rage, his cruel, hurtful words...
She stiffened her lips and continued her work, cleaning the musket and setting it in its rack. She was not particularly surreptitious. The servants doubtless knew she was here, and what she did, but they would ignore it if they could. She liked to think it was because they cared for her a little. Cynically, she supposed they didn't want to become involved in such a bitter fight among their betters.
The atmosphere of the house pressed on her, and she needed to escape. She blew out the candle and hurried down cold dark corridors to the West Tower door, and out into fresh air and freedom. She strode back to the cottage, consciously using the manly stride she'd perfected.
She'd better get back soon, before her soft-hearted sister and nurse made fools of themselves over that pretty, sweet-seeming viper they'd trapped.
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