Godric Fleming, Earl Visel, vowed to kill his cousin Rowland when he got his hands on him.
He strode down the alley, feeling like a fool as his ridiculous cape billowed out behind him as if he were some Barbary corsair. Which was, of course, exactly how he was dressed—or at least the English public’s perception of a corsair.
When he reached the alley entrance he gaped. “Good God.”
The street in front of the Duke of Richland’s house was crammed with dozens, maybe even hundreds, of carriages. No wonder Rowland hadn’t been waiting for Godric near the duke’s garden gate as they’d planned.
Godric considered the mob of unmoving carriages, his mind as chaotic as the scene before him. Perhaps this mess was a sign he should call off his ill advised plan? Perhaps there was still time to—
Godric spun around to find a huge boy dressed like a stable lad.
“Who the devil are you?”
“Mr. Rowland sent me to tell you the carriage is waitin’ at the back entrance, my lord.” The young giant hesitated. “Mr. Rowland said he needed to talk to you before taking the woman.”
Godric clenched his jaws so tightly his head throbbed; trust that idiot Rowland to bring in even more conspirators. It was bad enough the two of them were planning to kidnap the woman—now this boy was part of the plan? Who else had the fool told? The bloody Times?
“No.” He shook his head. No, he would not do it. He could not do it.
“My lord?” the boy asked, his brow furrowed in confusion.
“Come along,” Godric said, ignoring the lad’s question and marching toward the other end of the alley.
The oddest sensation filled his body as he walked: as if he were emerging from a dense fog, his head clearing with each step and his vision shifting slowly into focus. For the first time in months—hell, over a year—he could see. And what he saw was bloody terrifying.
He stumbled and the air whooshed out of his lungs at the enormity of what he had almost done.
Good God! What the devil have I been thinking?
You haven’t been thinking, Godric old boy, his long-absence conscience pointed out.
No, he hadn’t. Why the hell had it taken him so long to realize he was behaving like a bloody lunatic? And why had he only come to his senses now—after scheming and planning and preparing for weeks?
Does it matter why you’ve seen the disaster you’ve been courting, Godric? Just be grateful that you have—before it was too late.
Perhaps speaking to his prospective kidnap victim—Drusilla Marlington—earlier in the evening had begun to clear the madness from his mind? The young woman had done nothing to him—they hardly even knew each other—and yet he’d humiliated her and forced her into a marriage with a man who’d been courting another woman.
And when her unwanted marriage had—against all odds—showed signs of becoming a love match? Well, then Godric had decided to use her again to get to the man she’d married: Gabriel Marlington.
To be perfectly honest, her husband had done nothing to him, either. Yet all Godric had done since returning home to Britain was harass the man.
I’ve been telling you this for months, the dry voice in his head observed.
“Blast and damn,” he cursed under his breath. Sod it all to hell; this was bloody lunacy. He would get in the carriage, go home, and try to forget these past few months of insanity.
He would have a devil of a time with his cousin Rowland—a man so desperate for funds he’d ransom his own grandmother—but Godric did not doubt he could handle the little worm.
The hired carriage waited at the end of the alley, the interior darker than the night. Godric yanked open the door.
“We’re going,” he said to the figure sitting on the back-facing bench. “I won’t—”
Something hard slammed into the back of his head. His vision exploded with red-hot pain and he staggered forward. “Wha—”
“Push him in, James!”
Big hands grabbed his shoulders and shoved. Godric went head-first into the carriage, turning his head just in time to avoid landing on his face and breaking his nose. Even so, the pain from the impact was so intense it was nauseating and his stomach cramped, preparing to void itself. He gritted his teeth to keep back the flood of bile while huge hands grasped his ankles and folded his legs up against his chest.
A face lowered over Godric’s: huge blue-violet eyes creased in a frown, red lips parted, a lock of silky black hair . . .
He blinked, “Y-you—”
“Hallo, Lord Visel.”
Whoever was holding his ankles gave him a shove and his head struck the opposite door. The last thing he heard was, “He’s out cold, James, but you’d best tie his hands.”
Eva de Courtney, middle and least-favored daughter of the Marquess of Exley, worried her lip as she looked at the man who lay crumpled up on the carriage floor.
“Well, here he is. Now what do you want to do with him, my lady?” James had insisted on trading places with her and was jammed into the back-facing seat, his expression mulish, his huge arms crossed over his chest.
“You know what I want to do.”
For such a large man, he could make the most piteous sounds. “Oh, Lady Eva. Are you sure you wouldn’t—”
“I’m quite sure.”
“But you don’t know what I was going to say.”
“I’ve been able to read your mind since we were both old enough to crawl, James Bixby. You were about to try and talk me out of my plan. Yet again.”
Eva squinted down at the earl and used the toe of her boot to nudge the colorful turban off Lord Visel’s head. “Would you look at that?” she said.
James bent to look. “What?”
“The bugger even dyed his hair.” She cut her groom and oldest friend a quick look. “If that doesn’t convince you he was up to dastardly deeds, then I don’t know what will.”
“I never said he wasn’t up to something, my lady—I know he was. I just don’t think this is the only way to handle it—certainly not the best way to handle it.”
Eva made the dismissive hissing sound she’d picked up from her stepmamma, Lady Euphemia Exley. She thought the sound was a perfect response to most of the dunderheaded things men insisted on saying.
“Well, it’s too late to argue about it or change our minds now. He saw me, so we can hardly just drop him at his lodgings as if nothing happened. He’s sure to set the constables on us.” Or worse, my father.
James chewed this over while the two of them gazed at Lord Visel’s unconscious form.
“We could always cut his throat and dump him in a ditch.”
“My lady!” His eyes were as round as saucers.
Eva laughed. “Lord, James—you’ve lost your sense of humor entirely. Of course I wouldn’t actually kill him.” No matter how much he might deserve such a fate.
“Perhaps we should sit him up, my lady? He’s an earl, after all. I think we should get him off the—”
“No. He’s fine where he is,” Eva said. “I checked his breathing; he’s alive.” Visel’s head would ache like the dickens when he woke up, but that was the least his wretched behavior merited.
James flung himself against the seat back, his abrupt movements causing the entire carriage to jostle. “Lord Exley will skin the hide right offa me.”
“My father will never find out, James. We’ll only be up north a week at the most—we can rent hacks for the ride back and make the journey in a fraction of the time.”
“What if the marquess checks on you before we return?”
“Why would he? He believes I am going to join my sister at Lady Repton’s country house, but Melissa and Lady Repton aren’t expecting me to visit for at least two more weeks. It’s perfect.”
“A perfect disaster,” James muttered.
“You worry too much. My father is so concerned with my stepmamma’s delicate condition, he won’t even recall my existence.”
James made a skeptical noise but said nothing—probably because he knew it was true. Anyone with eyes in their head could see that her father worshipped his wife. Eva didn’t blame him; she loved her stepmamma, too.
“We can still change our minds about this, my lady. We could—”
“Don’t fret, we’ll be finished with Visel and back before anyone finds out anything. Besides, my father assigned you to me as my groom. Strictly speaking, your hide is mine, so you can always claim you were just obeying my orders.” The carriage passed a streetlight and illuminated his offended expression and Eva laughed.
James didn’t join her. Instead, he shivered. “My hide is more likely to find itself in Newgate after we get caught. Cor, my lady, he’s a bleeding duke’s heir.”
“We won’t get caught.”
“I’m telling you, my father shall never know. Melissa is an indifferent letter-writer and we should have at least two weeks, but probably longer. In the meantime, we will have plenty of opportunity to persuade his deranged lordship to leave my brother alone.”
“What if he doesn’t want to be persuaded?”
Eva had considered that, too. “Then you shall stay with him.”
“And how will you get back to London?”
“I can hire a chase and somebody to attend me if you are so concerned.”
“What if Lord Visel says something to your father after we let him go? I don’t see a man like him taking kidnapping without a fuss.”
“Oh come, James. Do you think he would ever admit that a mere girl, and a crazy one to boot, kidnapped him? He’d be the laughing stock of all London. Trust me, he’ll be far more interested in keeping this quiet than we are. You’ll see.”
“How the devil do you know he’ll do what you want, my lady?”
“Why, James, are you saying I lack the ability to be persuasive?” Eva laughed when he groaned. “You let me worry about Lord Visel. I trust the chaise will be waiting for us at The Swan?”
“Aye, already paid for it.”
“And did you engage it under his lordship’s name?”
James looked pained. “Yes, my lady.”
Eva grinned and sat back, resting one booted foot on the earl’s motionless body. She had no qualms about using him as a footstool. He’d tormented Gabriel relentlessly since the day he’d returned to England. He’d also said extremely uncharitable things about her. All in all, he’d behaved like a coxcomb toward most members of the ton, even though all of Britain had been prepared to receive him with open arms. And why not? He was exceedingly handsome, he was the Duke of Tyndale’s heir, and he had a reputation for military bravery that was unparalleled. But Godric Fleming had ignored the ton’s adulation and appeared only interested in persecuting Eva’s brother. There was something wrong with him; something very wrong, indeed.
And Eva should know because she counted herself as something of a Visel expert—although not by choice. She’d been at her third wretched ball of the wretched Season when he strolled in looking like an angel cast down to Earth. She’d been sitting with all the other wallflowers, watching the activities from a safe distance. Drusilla, her best friend and now her brother’s wife, had been sitting beside her.
Dru hadn’t notice Visel’s entrance because she had eyes only for Gabe.
Eva smirked to herself. Dru thought she’d hidden her infatuation but Eva watched others so closely, sometimes she swore she could hear what they were thinking. She knew that her friend had fallen head-over-heels in love with Gabe the summer she’d first met him. Gabriel, of course, was a clueless clod-headed male who’d been too preoccupied with his mistresses and the beautiful Miss Lucinda Kittridge to pay poor Dru any mind. Well, except to taunt and tease her.
But they were married now, so all was well that ended well, in Eva’s opinion. She had to give Visel credit for the marriage—if he’d not behaved like a buffoon, her brother never would have been forced to offer for Drusilla, which would have been a tragedy. Not that you could get Drusilla and Gabriel to admit that….yet. No, they were too stubborn to realize they were made for each other. Eva snorted at the foolishness of people in love.
They would sort out their problems in time. She gritted her teeth and prodded Visel’s unconscious form with the heel of her boot. Yes, they would solve their problems if Lord Visel was not around to bother and meddle and interfere in their lives every ten minutes, which he couldn’t seem to stop doing for some bizarre reason.
A low groan came from the floor.
“Er, Lady Eva…”
“Don’t worry, James. You can hit him again if he comes around. He certainly deserves it.”
It was James who groaned this time. “It don’t matter how much he deserves hittin’, my lady. It just don’t do to be smacking earls over the head and—”
“Do you recall when Gabriel showed you how to shoot the pips out of a card?”
Silence met her question.
“And how about the time Gabriel told your father you’d accompanied him to look at bloodstock rather than telling him the truth—that you’d gone to see a mill and became so ill on hard cider I had to pay two postilions to lift you into the carriage?” James’s father was the stable master at her father’s country estate and a man feared almost as much as his master, the marquess.
“But it was you that made me go to that mill, my lady. And it was you that kept buyin’ me cider.”
Details, details. “That isn’t the point, James,” she said in her best lady-of-the-manor tone. “The point is Gabriel has been a good friend to you on many occasions. Now it is time we do something for him. If we don’t get this man”–she gave Visel a hard shove–“away from Gabriel, Visel will end up either killing him or making Gabe kill him. And then my brother shall have to flee to the Continent and take up gambling to survive.”
As they passed below a streetlamp she saw James scratch his head. “Now why would he have to become a Captain Sharp when he has plenty of money? And his new wife is bloody rolling—”
James was so literal. “Yes, yes, yes. All right, so he shan’t have to become a card sharp. But that is beside the point. We are removing Visel from their vicinity so Drusilla and Gabriel can take his little boy into the country and start a life together.” She didn’t have to hide Gabriel’s illegitimate son from James because they’d discovered the boy’s existence together, while spying on Visel—who had, in turn, been spying on Gabriel and Drusilla.
The hack shuddered as it rolled over the worn and rutted cobbles into the courtyard of the Swan with Two Necks. Eva pulled up the collar of her cloak and put on her hat, tucking up loose strands of her bothersome hair. She’d wanted to cut it short for the journey but James had practically had a fit of the vapors when she’d suggested it. Sometimes he could be such a girl.
“You’ve a bit above your right ear.” James motioned behind his own ear to demonstrate.
Eva caught the offending lock and tucked it in before looking at him, tilting her high-crowned beaver hat over her forehead. “There, do I look like a young gentleman escorting his drunken elder brother back to our parents?”
“You don’t look like no boy I’ve ever seen,” he muttered.
Eva ignored him and peered out the grimy window. “You go make sure everything is all set and tell them you’ve got a cup-shot gent in here and want our chaise pulled alongside so we can easily load him.”
James gave her one last, sad look and sighed before opening the door and hopping down, not bothering with the steps. After he shut the door, Eva bent to examine their captive. The light from the inn was shining through the window and slanted across his face.
He was wearing some stupid costume—she supposed it was a pirate outfit—and his turban had tumbled from his head, exposing hair that was normally an angelic pale blond but was now an inky black. He must have dyed it himself because there were smudges of black on his temple. In profile he looked just like many other aristocratic men of her acquaintance: a knife-straight nose, sharp cheekbones, and thin, supercilious lips. But somehow when you combined those features on Visel, they yielded something exceptional.
Eva did not believe it was just his shockingly good looks that distinguished him from the rest of his crowd, nor the fact that he was a womanizing, drinking, gambling fool because, those things, too, were usual aristocratic habits. No, there was something else. She thought it must be some expression in his eyes, or perhaps the way he held himself: aloof, confident, and coiled—just the way she imagined a dangerous jungle creature must behave.
She’d watched him like the proverbial hawk all Season long, and not because she found him attractive. She’d watched him because he never stopped watching her brother. Visel hated Gabriel with a ferocity that frightened her. He’d already managed to entangle him in one duel; a duel which he’d then stopped with a bizarre and very public apology. But his apology had not meant the end of his hostile behavior; quite the reverse. The few times she’d been close enough to see his face, she’d recognized the pent up rage in his eyes. And that rage had been aimed at Gabe.
That was when Eva had decided to follow the man and see what the devil he was up to. When she’d found out that it had been a logical step to kidnap him. Well, logical to her. Although she didn’t like to admit it to James, her father would likely lock her in one of the towers at Exham Castle for the rest of her life if he ever learned about what she’d done.
She looked down at the earl’s unconscious form and smiled grimly; she’d just have to make sure nobody ever learned about what she’d done—or what she was about to do.
Godric hurt. Everywhere.
He opened his eyes and then quickly shut them again after his eyeballs caught fire, the bright, searing light sending agony arrowing directly to his brain.
“Ah, good morning, slugabed.”
The voice clanged in his head like somebody pounding a mallet against a gong.
“I daresay your head is paining you a bit. I’m afraid there’s nothing for it but to rise and shine. And I have this…”
A delicious smell wafted beneath his nose, and his stomach gurgled with joy. “Guh. Coffee.”
Low laughter echoed around him. “Sit up and I shall give you some.” A small hand slid beneath his shoulder and pushed. “I can’t lift you; you’ll have to help.”
“If I sit up will you stop talking?” His voice sounded as if he’d been gargling nails.
More laughter. “Look who wakes up grumpy.”
Godric sucked in a breath, winced at the pain it caused, gritted his teeth, and pushed himself up.
Oh. God. His head sloshed, the sound remarkably like liquid in a ceramic jug.
“If you’re going to vomit again, do it into the bucket next to your feet.”
He shuddered, wrapped an arm around his midriff and reached blindly for the hand strap with the other. A small gloved hand took his wrist and guided his fingers to the leather grip.
Godric clung to the strap like a child to its nanny and forced open his eyes. And saw her.
“You.” Even to his own ears his voice pulsed with loathing.
She grinned, flashing perfect white teeth between her full, shapely lips. “Me.”
“But. . . but—” Words were evading him.
“But…but…” she laughed. “You sound like a hen about to lay an egg.” She then gave a demonstration of a cackling hen—noisily—and laughed some more.
Godric squeezed his temples with his free hand. “Please. I beg of you.”
Another low chuckle.
“Why?” he said.
“Why did I kidnap you?”
He could only grunt, but it seemed to be enough.
“Why do you think I kidnapped you?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “You were about to kidnap my dearest friend, who is also my brother’s wife, Lord Visel. Two people, I will remind you, who married only because you forced them to. But that wasn’t enough for you, was it?” She plowed onward, her ringing voice escalating. “No, you couldn’t stand to see them happy with each other, could you? So you were going to take her and what? Shame her? Shame him? Make him fight and kill you?” Her voice was like ice picks in his ears.
She leaned across the seat and the buckskin of her breeches stretched taut across her thighs. Which was when Godric’s brain registered the fact she was dressed like a man.
“I took matters into my own hands and removed you from the picture entirely.” She gave him a dirty look, the expression hard on her beautiful features.
“You are wearing b-breeches.” It was not what he thought he’d say and her expression told him it wasn’t what she’d wanted to hear, either.
She sat back in her seat and crossed her arms over her chest, her expression openly scathing. That was just as well, Godric decided, since her voice hurt his ears and he didn’t seem to be thinking or speaking straight. Instead he let his aching, dry, burning eyes roam over her person.
In addition to skin-tight leather breeches she wore scuffed black top boots—the smallest pair he’d ever seen—whose white tops were so filthy they would have made the Beau weep. Her clawhammer coat appeared to be a dark blue and the waistcoat beneath it gold and white striped. Her cravat was arranged in some hideous fashion that must be of her own devising and on the seat beside her was a black beaver hat. Her hair was rudely bunched on top of her head and held in place with a great number of pins that glittered and glinted, catching the light from outside and flashing quite painfully.
Her lips thinned but she reached into a leather satchel at her feet and pulled out the clay jug she must have waved beneath his nose.
“You’ll have to drink it from the jug.”
Godric let go of the strap, reached out a shaky hand, and began to slide off the seat.
“Well, bugger,” she snapped, putting her free hand on his chest, as if her puny little arm could stop him from falling. Godric fumbled with the strap and caught himself, but not before he drove her to her knees in the small space between them.
“Bloody hell,” she cursed, shaking the hand that had been holding the jug and sending glinting diamonds of coffee flying. She glared up at him while she sucked the skin between her thumb and forefinger. “You clumsy oaf, you made me spill.”
Godric felt his mouth pulling into a smile.
“Think that’s funny, do you?” She lifted the jug and took a noisy slurp. “Mmmm.” She lowered the jug and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Delicious.” Then she slammed the bung into the jug with her fist and replaced the coffee in the bag before scrabbling up onto the seat, never removing her eyes from his.
His stomach growled loudly enough to be heard over the wheels of the carriage. His foggy brain snagged on the thought: a carriage.
He forgot all about coffee. “We’re in a carriage.”
“Can’t slide much past you, can I?”
“Where are we going?”
Godric squinted. He could not have heard her correctly. “What?”
“I’ve sold you to a cruel and brutal merchant captain.” She paused, her mouth twisting oddly. “His name is Captain Blackclaw and his ship is called The Torment.” She sucked her lower lip into her mouth, white teeth resting on pink softness. And then a snort broke out of her pretty mouth and she doubled over. “Oh, Lord! You should see your face, Visel.” She rolled around on her seat, howling with delight.
The woman was, Godric decided, every bit as crazy as she was reported to be.
Eva knew she was behaving badly, but she couldn’t help it. Mocking the haughty, handsome, and furious Lord Visel was simply too much fun to pass up.
“When you are finished amusing yourself, perhaps you might tell me where we are really going.” His voice was like an arctic blast and he was glaring at her through eyes that were almost as pale as her father’s. For one dreadful moment she experienced the same tightening in her chest she did when Lord Exley stared at her with such open disappointment. But then she recalled this man was in her power.
She crossed her arms. “I’ll tell you where we are going when you need to know it.”
His face darkened in a way that was decidedly satisfying.
“Right now the only thing you need to know is that you should behave yourself. Angering me would be ill advised. In fact, it would be best if you kept me entertained—as you have been doing. Otherwise you shall find yourself tied up on the floor again.” She smirked. “With a rag stuffed into your mouth.”
He cut a glance down at his wrists and the red chafe marks on the tanned skin. Eva had not been happy about inflicting such pain on him. And of course James had almost suffered an apoplexy when he’d gone to loosen the bonds, insisting they remove them entirely rather than simply re-tie them. She’d let him have his way, but only after a very heated argument.
“That’s it, my lady. When he wakes up it will be the end. And if we don’t both swing for this—”
“Oh hush,” she’d told him irritably, tired of his incessant naysaying. Probably because she knew he had a convincing argument for almost everything he said. “You can ride on the box if you’re so terrified about what he will do when he wakes up.”
“It would serve you right if I did,” James snapped right back. “And what would you do when he woke up and found you all alone, I want to know?”
Eva had reached into the big leather satchel she’d taken from her brother Gabriel and produced one of her father’s dueling pistols.
James had howled so loudly it was amazing he hadn’t woken the dead, not to mention the dead-to-the-world peer tied up on the floor between them. “That is one of his lordship’s dueling pistols, isn’t it?”
“Well it certainly isn’t one of her ladyship’s.”
James had rapped on the roof.
“What are you doing?” Eva demanded.
“Riding on the box.”
That had made her frown. “You can’t. I forbid you.”
“You just told me to.”
Lord! But there was nothing she hated more than being proved wrong in the middle of an argument.
James opened the door when the chaise stopped.
“I order you to remain in here with me, James.”
He gave a rude snort.
“I shall discharge you for insubordination,” she threatened, waving the pistol.
James cut her a skeptical look and his calm brown gaze flickered to the pistol. “I hope that isn’t loaded the way you’re waving it about.”
“I’m a crack shot.”
He rolled his eyes and hopped out.
“What am I supposed to do with him when he wakes up?” she asked.
“Hit him on the head—isn’t that what you told me?” He slammed the door before she could answer.
“You are the worst henchman ever,” she’d yelled after him.
That had been hours ago, just before dawn. Eva glanced from her captive to the window and realized they were passing some small cottages, a sure sign they were approaching civilization, which probably meant another inn. It was getting time for another change of horse.
Her hostage must have thought the same. “Where are we?”
“You needn’t concern yourself with such matters. I’ve taken care of all your transportation needs. All you have to worry about is behaving like a gentleman while we change horses. If you are good, I will see that breakfast is delivered to the chaise.”
His nostrils flared and he resembled a bull about to charge. “What’s to stop me from grabbing you, my lady? I might not be up to snuff but I’m certainly well enough to grab you.”
“Hmmm.” Eva reached down into the bag without taking her eyes from him. When she sat up, she held a pistol.
“What the bloody—”
“Tut tut, Lord Visel. What kind of language is that to employ around a lady?”
His red-rimmed eyes narrowed. “I recall dancing with you at the Pentwhistle ball—you have a mouth like a sailor.”
His words pleased rather than insulted her, which, she suspected, had been his real intention. Eva recalled the night in question; she’d maneuvered him into asking her for the supper dance and he’d been surly and broody.
“I recall that evening, too, my lord. You weren’t much of a supper companion.”
“I believe you were hoping to eat your meal with The Kitten that night.”
His eyes narrowed, but he remained silent.
It was just as well—even thinking about The Kitten irritated Eva. The Kitten—or Lucinda Kittridge—was the most sought after debutante of the Season. She was perfect and beautiful and rich and sophisticated. And she always looked at Eva as if she were some type of grub worm.
The Kitten had sunk her claws into Eva’s brother before Gabriel had been forced to marry Eva’s closest friend.
Eva looked at her captive and made a tsking sound. “I know you were only pretending to pursue The Kitten because you believe it annoyed Gabriel.”
The earl raised his eyebrows.
“You can look at me like that, but I know it’s true. It was plain for all to see you didn’t give two raps for The Kitten. Besides, even if you did, your grandfather would never countenance such a marriage.” She snorted. “The Duke of Tyndale’s heir marrying a butcher’s daughter? I think not—no matter how downy she is.”
His continued silence was beginning to irritate her, and she forced herself to hold the gun in a relaxed grip, pointing it away from him, just in case he annoyed her even more and her finger took action without consulting her brain.
“Is that loaded?” he asked.
“What do you think?”
“I think you really are as mad as everyone says, aren’t you?”
Eva barely felt a twinge at his words. Barely. “And I think you really do have the death wish everyone says you do,” she countered. “Why else would you taunt a person holding a loaded gun on you?”
The carriage slowed abruptly and they both looked out the window. A wooden sign proclaiming “The Crown and Antler” passed by the window.
He turned incredulous eyes toward her. “Good God. We’re on the bloody North Road.”
Eva felt a flicker of worry at his disbelieving tone and forced herself to swallow it. She probably should have kept him blindfolded, or at least tied up. Not that it really mattered if he knew where they were, she supposed.
A shadow fell across them and James’s face appeared in the window. His eyes went comically wide when they landed on the gun.
“Open the bloody door, James.”
He hesitated, but then opened it the merest crack. Visel began to lower his hand from the strap.
“I don’t think so, my good man,” she said, turning the barrel toward him and gesturing upward. “Keep your hands up.”
“Awww, Lady Eva, why’d you go and get out the gun?”
“Do you work for this woman?” Visel asked.
James’s eyes became—unbelievably—even larger.
He opened his mouth to speak but Eva said, “That is hardly any of your concern, my lord. James, fetch us some food while they change the horses,” she said, never taking her eyes from Visel.
“You are helping your mistress kidnap a peer, James. If you stop now, I might be able to put in a good word for you. But if you insist on—”
“Do as I say, James.” Her voice was sharper than she would have liked, but it galvanized the huge young man into action. The door shut with a click and Visel turned back to her.
“Perhaps the next time you think to enlist his help, you might wait until my back is turned, you—you bounder.”
He appeared amused, rather than affronted, by her insult.
“You might not care about your own neck, my lady, but it is ill done of you to expose a loyal servant to such punishment.”
Eva ignored the wave of guilt his words elicited. “Save your worry for your own neck, Visel. I shall take good care of James, don’t you fret.”
He leaned back against the squabs, his disconcerting eyes roving her person. “So, we are on the North Road. Let me guess, we are headed to Scotland? I am abducting you and whisking you off to Gretna Green.”
“What a clever man you are. Who would have ever guessed it after your stupid behavior this past Season?”
His smile was one of utter unconcern.
“Don’t worry, my lord, we won’t actually get there. I have even less interest in marrying you than you do in marrying me.”
“I doubt that.”
Eva glowered at him. “If that is true, then you’d better do exactly as I say and don’t draw attention to your predicament. If you behave sensibly we can all get out of this without leg shackles of either the marital or legal sort.”
“And what are you going to do if I don’t behave? Are you going to stop somewhere along the way, knock me on the head, and get that big lummox to dig a hole for me?”
“You’d better mind your mouth, my lord. James may be a groom but he is my friend and I value him far more highly than I do you. And you should also stop giving me good ideas—although I daresay I’d have you dig your own hole before I knocked you on the head.”
His eyes widened and then he laughed, a great, big belly laugh that must have hurt his aching head because he winced. Eva didn’t know what kind of response she’d expected to receive to her threat, but it had not been this.
“You should see your face,” he said, his words a mocking echo of her earlier words.
She frowned. “Why. What’s wrong with it?’
He leaned forward, his eyes suddenly hooded, his face slack and sensual. “Nothing, darling. Not a damned thing.”
Eva was struck dumb—and not by his vulgar language—but by his hot eyes, which sent sparks of anticipation through her body. What did he mean? Did he—
His smile shifted into a sneer and he discarded his sensuality quicker than he could discard the snug-fitting coat he wore beneath his corsair robes. Of course his amorous look hadn’t been real; he’d been taunting her—toying with her—just to see if he could.
She hated him. And all the other men like him, although none of them had ever been as bad as Visel. But she’d come across plenty of men during the Season who’d been similar. Arrogant men with their superior looks, their knowing smiles—men who thought she couldn’t hear them whisper the words mad and madness behind her back. Except for Visel; he’d always wanted Eva to hear the things he said about her.
“What? Cat got your tongue?” he asked. The gleam in his eyes was one she’d seen more than a few times this Season, usually when he’d been taunting her brother. It was the same gleam that had forced her to the conclusion Visel suffered from some form of male hysteria. After all, he’d been at war for over a decade. What must that do to a man?
But she would save that subject for later.
“Why did you leave the army and come back?” she asked. “I suppose you had to return home now that you’re the duke’s heir,” she said before he could answer. “Still, you should have stayed in the country. Everyone can see you hate London—the Season, the balls, the empty brainless entertainments. You make no effort to hide the fact you loathe society.”
He shifted on his seat, grimacing at some ache or pain. “I could say the same thing about you, my lady. You sit in the corners of ballrooms with the wallflowers, you behave in ways that gain you the censure of ton matrons, your only associate is a woman from the merchant class with a clear disdain for the society she is trying so hard to enter. So, why do you do it?”
“I wouldn’t expect such a stupid question—not even from you, my lord. I do it because my father makes me do it; because he believes it is a woman’s duty and destiny to marry. If I were a man—” She bit her lip to keep from saying something he would only use against her.
His golden-blond brows lifted, exposing a thin white line that ran through the right one and his cruel mouth pulled up in a smile that held no humor. “Go on, if you were a man, you would—?”
“Shut up.” Even Eva could hear that her order lacked any heat. The man was irritating and exhausting and she would do best to ignore him. She turned away from him, looking out the window at the iron gray sky. There would be rain soon.
“I never pegged you for a coward.”
She whipped around and met his derisive gaze. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“You know exactly what I mean.”
The carriage shifted as they stared at one another, the sounds of business outside the door unnaturally loud in the silence. His eyes seemed to have become a colder, icier, shade of blue although she knew that was impossible. She fought the urge to shiver but lost. His lips parted to show white, but slightly uneven teeth. The bottom of the front tooth was chipped, a tiny triangle missing from the inside edge where it met its partner. It jarred with the perfection of his features but did not make him any less attractive. Instead, it added a hint of danger to his otherwise too-angelic good looks.
“What is going to happen when the marquess catches us, I wonder?”
“Oh, my dear girl, if you think he will let a man abscond with his daughter without giving chase, you are sorely mistaken.”
His smirky, know-it-all expression made Eva reckless. “He believes I’m at a country house party with my sister. If he even thinks to check on my whereabouts, it will not be for some time. I shall be back by then.”
His brows arched. “Then why bother going all the way to the border? Why not let me out here and you can join your sister now?”
She was tempted. He was a treacherous man and she knew he would attempt to escape the moment he saw an opportunity. But it was too soon to release him; she wanted to give Gabe and Dru a couple of weeks if she could. By then they’d be in the country and there would be no opportunity for Visel to bother them, or at least not easily.
“I can see you find the idea appealing.”
She flashed him a hard smile. “I find the idea of your shutting up even more appealing.”
He chuckled, looking genuinely amused by her rudeness. The smooth, deep rumble of laughter hit her in the chest and slithered downward, settling low in her belly. Eva refused to let the effect he had on her body distract her from the business at hand. Men like him—sophisticated, confident, and sexually experienced men—had this effect on women like her, not through any effort of their own, but simply because of their life experience.
The things that took place between men and women were no longer a mystery to Visel. But, when it came to bed sport, women of Eva’s class were treated like mushrooms—kept in the dark and fed manure—until the night they were sacrificed to their husbands. Whereas a man like Visel had likely discarded his virginity at an early age, probably foisting himself upon some unfortunate domestic. And then he’d gone on to hone his sexual prowess with whores and widows.
Yes, that was all that separated Eva from Visel: experience. And he used his experience like a weapon that gave him the illusion of sophistication. Luckily for Eva, she had her stepmamma to advise her in such matters. Lady Mia made a concerted effort to inform all three of her stepdaughters about what went on between men and women.
Not that Eva had been completely ignorant before hearing her stepmamma’s interesting information. After all, she’d seen animals coupling many times. She knew about the physical aspect of the act. Of course her stepmamma had certainly expanded on that knowledge. Still, even the best information could not compete with actual experience, and she had none of that. At least not with anyone other than herself.
She’d contemplated, more than once, divesting herself of her bothersome maidenhood—just to see what all the fuss was about. The loss of her virginity would serve the dual purpose of making her unmarketable on the marriage mart; even more unmarketable than the threat of madness that clung to her.
The only reason she hadn’t lain with a man was the possible repercussions of such an action: a child. The scandal of having a child out of wedlock would not bother her in the least. In fact, it would free her of ever having to marry. Also, her father had settled enough money on her that she could raise a child in more security and ease than the Regent’s own bastards. But what she couldn’t give a child was something money would not buy: a future.
She could never have children, either inside marriage or out of it.
“Tell me, what are you thinking, my lady?”
She looked up, having forgotten she wasn’t alone.
“What are you thinking?” she countered.
He grinned. “I’m thinking that you might actually be more lovely dressed in snug breeches and that form-fitting coat than you are in a ball gown.” He leaned forward and Eva recoiled. “I’m thinking I’d love to see what your arse looks like in those tight leathers.”
Eva gasped and heat crept up her neck, her body’s treachery making her hate her appearance more than ever. Eva knew what he said was true: she was beautiful. Only a fool would try to deny it. All her life she’d hated what she saw in the mirror, not to mention the expectations that went with her appearance. Nobody would ever believe her—not that she cared—but she wished with all her heart that she was a big, lumbering, homely girl—like one of the kitchen maids at her father’s castle, a girl named Em who had hair and eyes the color of mud—a girl she’d seen laughing and jesting with her father’s grooms as if she were one of them.
That was who Eva wanted to be.
The only man who’d ever ignored the way she looked was James. And there was a good reason for that, not that she’d ever tell. James had always behaved toward her the way he would a younger son of the family: with respect but not with worshipful awe as boys had always done. At least until they knew who she was; after that they looked at her with loathing and fear.
She loved James and respected him in return. She also wished she were like him. In fact, in her mind’s eye she was like him: big and brawny and strapping. But in reality she was small, slight, dainty: the very image of her beautiful, mad, dead mother.
Thinking of her mother made her scowl. She looked at the man who’d made her remember the long dead Countess of Exley and fixed him with a narrow-eyed glare.
“You even look adorable when you scowl.” His eyes wandered slowly from the toes of her boots, over her legs and torso, lingering on her face before settling on her unruly hair. “You can clothe your sweet little body in breeches and boots but I’m afraid only a blind person would ever believe you are a man, darling.”
She sucked in a breath at the shocking words sweet and little and body and darling, her heart thudding like a war drum in her chest and her skin hot—all over.
He chuckled at whatever he saw on her face.
Hateful, hateful man. “You asked me what I was thinking, my lord earl?”
“I’m thinking you’d better shut up or I’ll gag you.”
He patted the seat beside him. “You’ll need two hands for that. Come on over here, sweetheart. I’ll hold your pistol while you do it.”
Eva was considering shooting him when the door opened a crack and James handed in another clay jug and a large oil-cloth wrapped package. “It’s sandwiches and homebrew, my lady.”
“Hand it to Lord Visel.” She gave the smirking lord a tight smile. “He can put it to good use and stuff it in his mouth.”
Godric hadn’t thought he was starving until after the first bite. The sandwich wasn’t anything special, just good dark bread with a slab of ham and a thick slice of Lincolnshire Red. The jug held a rich sweet porter that soothed his aching head. By the time they were about a good hour away from the posting inn, he was feeling almost human. With some very human needs.
“I need to use the necessary.” The words sounded unnaturally loud in the post chaise, which had been utterly silent since rolling out of the inn yard. Her full lips tightened and a fetching flush tinted her cheeks. So, the little hoyden had a vulgar mouth but she was not entirely cast away.
“I should hate for things to become unpleasant,” he said when she continued to stare. “Well, any more unpleasant.”
She huffed out a sigh and knocked on the roof with the hand not holding the pistol. The panel behind Visel’s head slid open immediately.
“His lordship needs to make a stop.”
“Here, my lady?” It was the voice of her earnest young henchman, a man who looked as if he desperately wished he’d told his mistress no back when he’d had the chance.
“Sooner rather than later, James.”
“Er, yes, very good, my lady.”
Godric and the girl glared at each other in silence as the carriage slowed a bit. He imagined the postilions were looking for a place a four-horse team could pull off the road.
“I can tell you are thinking you will escape, Lord Visel.”
He looked from the window to her, unsurprised by her words. She was young but she was not silly. Of course she was also barking mad, but that seemed to add a low cunning to her thought processes.
Godric cocked his head. “Lady Eva, you have taken my money and we are on a stretch of road with nothing for miles in any direction. What would I do out here on my own?”
“You seem an enterprising man; I daresay you’d contrive something.”
“What I will contrive is a great degree of amusement when you are caught, my lady. Trust me: I’m hardly likely to wander off too soon and miss that show. You have my word as a gentleman that I will not try to escape.”
She chewed her lip, something he was beginning to realize indicated cogitation. “Take off your boots.”
Godric did not believe he’d heard her correctly. “I beg your pardon?”
She raised the pistol.
“Why?” he asked, crossing his arms over his chest.
“You’ll hardly try something stupid in the middle of nowhere in stocking feet.”
He looked out the window at the gathering clouds. “It is going to rain.”
“Well, then I recommend you complete your, er, business without tarrying.”
“I gave you my word as a gentleman.”
“I don’t care—I am not a gentleman.”
The chaise shuddered to a halt and then rocked as somebody leapt off. When the door opened he was not surprised to see the boy, James.
He glanced from Godric to the girl and frowned, his pleasant face hardening. “Did he try something with you, my lady?”
“No, I’m merely waiting for him to take off his boots.”
The boys lips silently repeated what she’d said and he squinted at her. “But . . . why?”
“Good God, James, so he won’t run. Look at him; that is exactly what he is thinking.”
Godric smiled. “Actually, I was thinking how much I need a piss.”
She flinched as if he’d struck her.
“Here then, your lordship,” the boy said, his face flushed. “That kind of language isn’t—”
“If you want your piss, you’d better take off your boots.” She glanced at her watch, which hung from a plain leather fob. “You have one minute to take them off before we recommence our journey.”
The boy shifted. “Um, my lady—”
“Hush,” the little witch said, never taking her eyes from Godric.
He toed at the heel of one boot, giving the appearance of struggling. “My feet have swollen.” He gave her a significant look. “I daresay because I’ve been wearing boots all night. I can’t remove them.”
She motioned with the pistol. “Help him, James.”
Godric swiveled his legs toward the young giant. And when the boy reached for his boot, he kicked him right in the stomach.