An extract from The Wild One:
Newman House, 18 April, 1775
My dear brother, Lucien,
It has just gone dark and as I pen these words to you, an air of rising tension hangs above this troubled town. Tonight, several regiments -- including mine, the King's Own -- have been ordered by General Gage, commander in chief of our forces here in Boston, out to Concord to seize and destroy a significant store of arms and munitions that the rebels have secreted there. Due to the clandestine nature of this assignment, I have ordered my batman, Billingshurst, to withhold the posting of this letter until the morrow, when the mission will have been completed and secrecy will no longer be of concern.
Although it is my most ardent hope that no blood will be shed on either side during this endeavour, I find that my heart, in these final moments before I must leave, is restless and uneasy. It is not for myself that I am afraid, but another. As you know from my previous letters home, I have met a young woman here with whom I have become attached in a warm friendship. I suspect you do not approve of my becoming so enamoured of a storekeeper's daughter, but things are different in this place, and when a fellow is three thousand miles away from home, love makes a far more desirable companion than loneliness. My dear Miss Paige has made me happy, Lucien, and earlier tonight, she accepted my plea for her hand in marriage; I beg you to understand, and forgive, for I know that someday when you meet her, you will love her as I do.
My brother, I have but one thing to ask of you, and knowing that you will see to my wishes is the only thing that calms my troubled soul during these last few moments before we depart. If anything should happen to me -- tonight, tomorrow, or at any time whilst I am here in Boston -- I beg of you to find it in your heart to show charity and kindness to my angel, my Juliet, for she means the world to me. I know you will take care of her if ever I cannot. Do this for me and I shall be happy, Lucien.
I must close now, as the others are gathered downstairs in the parlour, and we are all ready to move. May God bless and keep you, my dear brother, and Gareth, Andrew, and sweet Nerissa, too.
Sometime during the last hour, it had begun to grow dark.
Lucien de Montforte turned the letter over in his hands, his hooded gaze shuttered, his mind far away as he stared out the window over the downs that stood like sentinels against the fading twilight. A breath of pink still glowed in the western sky, but it would soon be gone. He hated this time of night, this still and lonely hour just after sunset when old ghosts were near, and distant memories welled up in the heart with the poignant nearness of yesterday -- close enough to see yet always too elusive to touch.
But the letter was real. Too real.
He ran a thumb over the heavy vellum, the bold, elegant script that had been so distinctive of Charles's style -- both on paper, in thought, and on the field -- still looking as fresh as if it had been written yesterday, not last April. His own name was there on the front: To His Grace the Duke of Blackheath, Blackheath Castle, nr. Ravenscombe, Berkshire, England.
They were probably the last words Charles had ever written.
Carefully, he folded the letter along creases that had become fragile and well-worn. The blob of red wax with which his brother had sealed the letter came together at the edges like a wound that had never healed, and try as he might to avoid seeing them, his gaze caught the words that someone, probably Billingshurst, had written on the back ...
Found on the desk of Captain Lord Charles Adair de Montforte on the 19th of April 1775, the day on which his Lordship was killed in the fighting at Concord. Please deliver to addressee.
A pang went through him. Dead, gone, and all but forgotten, just like that.
The Duke of Blackheath carefully laid the letter inside the drawer, which he shut and locked. He gazed once more out the window, lord of all he surveyed but unable to master his own bitter emptiness. A mile away, at the foot of the downs, he could just see the twinkling lights of Ravenscombe village, could envision its ancient church with its Norman tower and tombs of de Montforte dead. And there, inside, high on the stone wall of the East chancel, was the simple bronze plaque that was all they had to tell posterity that his brother had ever even lived.
Charles, the second son.
God help them all if anything happened to him, Lucien, and the dukedom passed to the third.
No. God would not be so cruel.
He snuffed the single candle and with the darkness enclosing him, the sky still glowing beyond the window, moved from the room.
Berkshire, England, 1776
The Flying White was bound for Oxford, and it was running late. Now, trying to make up time lost to a broken axle, the driver had whipped up the team, and the coach careered through the night in a cacophony of shouts, thundering hooves, and cries from the passengers who were clinging for their lives on the roof above.
Strong lanterns cut through the rainy darkness, picking out ditches, trees, and hedgerows as the vehicle hurtled through the Lambourn Downs at a pace that had Juliet Paige's heart in her throat. Because of Charlotte, her six-month- old daughter, Juliet had been lucky enough to get a seat inside the coach, but even so, her head banged against the leather squabs on the right, her shoulder against an elderly gent on her left, and her neck ached with the constant side to side movement. On the seat across from her, another young mother clung to her two frightened children, one huddled under each arm. It had been a dreadful run up from Southampton indeed, and Juliet was feeling almost as ill as she had during the long sea voyage over from Boston.
The coach hit a bump, became airborne for a split second, and landed hard, snapping her neck, throwing her violently against the man on her left, and causing the passengers clinging to the roof above to cry out in terror. Someone's trunk went flying off the coach, but the driver never slowed the galloping team.
"God help us!" murmured the young mother across from Juliet as her children cringed fearfully against her.
Juliet grasped the strap and hung her head, fighting nausea as she hugged her own child. Her lips touched the baby's downy gold curls. "Almost there," she whispered for Charlotte's ears alone. "Almost there -- to your papa's home."
Suddenly without warning, there were shouts, a horse's frightened whinny, and violent curses from the driver. Someone on the roof screamed. The coach careened madly, the inhabitants both inside and out shrieking in terror as the vehicle hurtled along on two wheels for another forty or fifty feet before finally crashing heavily down on its axles with another neck-snapping jolt, shattering a window with the impact and spilling the elderly gent to the floor. Outside, someone was sobbing in fear and pain.
And inside, the atmosphere of the coach went as still as death.
"We're being robbed!" breathed the old man, getting to his knees to peer out the rain-spattered window.
Shots rang out. There was a heavy thud from above, then movement just beyond the ominous black pane. And then suddenly, without warning it imploded, showering the inside passengers in a hail of glass.
Gasping, they looked up to see a heavy pistol -- and a masked face just beyond it.
"Yer money or yer life. Now!"
It was the very devil of a night. No moon, no stars, and a light rain stinging his face as Lord Gareth Francis de Montforte sent his horse, Crusader, flying down the Wantage road at a speed approaching suicide. Stands of beech and oak shot past, there then gone. Pounding hooves splashed through puddles and echoed against the hedgerows that bracketed the road. Gareth glanced over his shoulder, saw nothing but a long empty stretch of road behind him, and shouted with glee. Another race won -- Perry, Chilcot, and the rest of the Den of Debauchery would never catch him now!
Laughing, he patted Crusader's neck as the hunter pounded through the night. "Well done, good fellow! Well done --"
And pulled him up sharply as he passed Wether Down.
It took him only a moment to assess the situation.
Highwaymen. And by the looks of it, they were helping themselves to the pickings -- and passengers -- of the Flying White from Southampton.
The Flying White? The young gentleman reached inside his coat pocket and pulled out his watch, squinting to see its face in the darkness. Damned late for the Flying White ...
He dropped the timepiece back into his pocket, steadied Crusader, and considered what to do. No gentlemen of the road, this lot, but a trio of desperate, hardened killers. The driver and guard lay on the ground beside the coach, both presumably dead. Somewhere a child was crying, and now one of the bandits, with a face that made a hatchet look kind, smashed in the windows of the coach with the butt end of his gun. Gareth reached for his pistol. The thought of quietly turning around and going back the way he'd come never occurred to him. The thought of waiting for his friends, probably some three miles behind thanks to Crusader's blistering speed, didn't occur to him, either. Especially when he saw one of the bandits yank open the door of the coach and haul out a struggling young woman.
He had just the briefest glimpse of her face -- scared, pale, beautiful -- before one of the highwaymen shot out the lanterns of the coach and darkness fell over the entire scene. Someone screamed. Another shot rang out, silencing the frightened cry abruptly.
His face grim, the young gentleman knotted his horse's reins and removed his gloves, pulling each one carefully off by the fingertips. With a watchful eye on the highwaymen, he slipped his feet from the irons and vaulted lightly down from the thoroughbred's tall back, his glossy top boots of Spanish leather landing in chalk mud up to his ankles. The horse never moved. He doffed his fine new surtout and laid it over the saddle along with his tricorn and gloves. He tucked the lace at his wrist safely inside his sleeve to protect it from any soot or sparks his pistol might emit. Then he crept through the knee-high weeds and nettles that grew thick at the side of the road, priming and loading the pistol as he moved stealthily toward the stricken coach. He would have time to squeeze off only one shot before they were upon him, and that one shot had to count.
"Everybo'y out. Now!"
Holding Charlotte tightly against her, Juliet managed to remain calm as the robber snared her wrist and jerked her violently from the vehicle. She landed awkwardly in the sticky white mud and would have gone down if not for the huge, bearlike hand that yanked her to her feet. Perhaps, she thought numbly, it was the very fact that it was bearlike that she was able to keep her head -- and her wits -- about her, for Juliet had been born and raised in the woods of Maine, and she was no stranger to bears, Indians, and a host of other threats that made these English highwaymen look benign by comparison.
But they were certainly not benign. The slain driver lay face-down in the mud. The bodies of one of the guards and a passenger were sprawled in the weeds nearby. A shudder went through her. She was glad of the darkness. Glad that the poor little children still inside the coach were spared the horrors that daylight would have revealed.
Cuddling Charlotte, she stood beside the other passengers as the robbers yanked people down from the roof and lined them up in front of the coach. A woman was sobbing. A girl clung pitifully to the old man, perhaps her grandfather. One fellow, finely dressed and obviously a gentleman, angrily protested the treatment of the women and without a word, one of the highwayman stuck his pistol into his belly and shot him dead. As he fell, the wretched group gasped in dismay and horror. Then the last passengers were dragged from the coach, the two children clinging to their mother's skirts and crying piteously.
They all huddled together in the rainy darkness, too terrified to speak as, one by one, they were relieved of their money, their jewels, their watches, and their pride.
And then the bandits came to Juliet.
"Gimme yer money, girl, all of it. Now!"
Juliet complied. Without a sound, she handed over her reticule.
"The necklace, too."
Her hand went to her throat. Hesitated. The robber cuffed it away in impatience, ripping the thin gold chain from her neck and dropping the miniature of Charlotte's dead father into his leather bag.
She was still staring at the bag. "No."
But he grabbed her hand, held it up, and saw it: a promise made but broken by death. It was Charles's signet ring -- her engagement ring -- the last thing her beloved fiance had given her before he had died in the fighting at Concord.
"Filthy lyin' bitch, give it to me!"
Juliet stood her ground. She looked him straight in the eye and firmly, quietly, repeated the single word.
Without warning he backhanded her across the cheek, and she fell to her knees in the mud, cutting her palm on a stone as she tried to prevent injury to the baby. Her hair tumbled down around her face. Charlotte began screaming. And Juliet looked up, only to see the black hole of a pistol's mouth two inches away, the robber behind it snarling with rage.
Her life passed before her eyes.
And at that moment a shot rang out from somewhere off to her right, a dark rose exploded on the highwayman's chest, and with a look of surprise, he pitched forward, dead.
Only one shot, but by God, I made it count.
The other two highwaymen jerked around at the bark of Gareth's pistol. Their faces mirrored disbelief as they took in his fine shirt and lace at throat and sleeve, his silk waistcoat, expensive boots, expensive breeches, expensive everything. They saw him as a plum ripe for the picking, and Gareth knew it. He went for his sword.
"Get on your horses and go, and neither of you shall be hurt."
For a moment, neither the highwaymen nor the passengers moved. Then, slowly, one of the highwayman began to smile. The other, to sneer.
"Now!" Gareth commanded, still moving forward and trying to bluff them with his display of cool authority.
And then all hell broke loose.
Tongues of flame cracked from the highwaymen's pistols and Gareth heard the low whine of a ball passing at close range. Passengers screamed and dived for cover. The coach horses reared, whinnying in fear. Gareth, his sword raised, charged through the tangle of nettle that grew dense at the side of the road, trying to get to the robbers before they could reload and fire. His foot hit a patch of mud and he went down, his cheek slamming into the fiery stinging nettles. One of the highwayman came racing toward him, spewing a torrent of foul language and intent only on finishing him off. Gareth lay gasping, then flung himself hard to the left as the highwayman's pistol coughed another spear of flame. Where his shoulder had been, a plume of mud shot several inches into the air.
The brigand was still coming, roaring at the top of his lungs, already bringing up a second pistol.
Gamely, Gareth tried to get to his feet and reach his sword. He slipped in the wet weeds, his cheek feeling as though he'd just been stung by a hundred bees. He was outnumbered, his pistol spent, his sword just out of reach. But he wasn't done for. Not yet. Not by any stretch of the imagination. He lunged for his sword, rolled onto his back, and raising himself to a sitting position, flung the weapon at the oncoming highwayman with all his strength.
The blade caught the robber just beneath the jaw and nearly took his head off. He went over backward, clawing at his throat, his dying breath a terrible, rasping gurgle.
And then Gareth saw one of the two children running toward him, obviously thinking he was the only safety left in this world gone mad.
"Billy!" the mother was screaming. "Billy, no, get back!"
The last highwayman spun around. Wild-eyed and desperate, he saw the fleeing child, saw that his two friends were dead, and, as though to avenge a night gone wrong, brought his pistol up, training it on the little boy's back.
With the last of his strength, Gareth lunged to his feet, threw himself at the child, and tumbled him to the ground, shielding him with his body. The pistol exploded at close range, deafening him, a white-hot lance of fire ripping through his ribs as he rolled over and over through grass and weeds and nettles, the child still in his arms.
He came to rest upon his back, the wet weeds beneath him, blood gushing hotly from his side. He lay still, blinking up at the trees, the rain falling gently upon his throbbing face.
His fading mind echoed his earlier words. Well done, good fellow! Well done ...
The child sprang up and ran, sobbing, back to his mother.
And for Lord Gareth de Montforte, all went dark.
"Help him!" Juliet cried. She thrust Charlotte into the other mother's arms, picked up her skirts and ran headlong through the weeds toward the fallen gentleman. "Dear God, he saved us all!"
Still in shock, the other passengers stood milling around like sheep; but Juliet's words penetrated their daze, and before he could flee into the woods, the last highwayman was subdued and a horde of people were charging through the weeds after Juliet.
"Is he all right?"
"Bless him, he saved that little boy, that dear, sweet little boy --"
Juliet reached him first. He lay on his back, half-concealed by a canopy of dripping nettles, broken, bleeding, still. She plunged to her knees beside him and grabbed his hand -- so lifeless, so smooth -- and shoved her finger beneath the lace that draped it, trying to locate a pulse.
Others came rushing up behind her.
"Is he dead?"
"Sure looks like it to me, poor fellow --"
Juliet looked up at them over her shoulder. "He's not dead, but I fear he will be if we don't get help, and soon!"
Ignoring the commotion behind her, she squeezed his fingers, willing him to hold onto life as more people came running to his assistance. She saw the blood soaking through his fine clothes, the paleness of his cheek beneath the crescent of dark lashes that lay against it. Wet stinging nettles were crushed beneath the other. Tenderly, Juliet reached down, flinching as those same fiery weeds stung her own tender skin, and lifted his head so that his face was clear of them.
His cheek was already puckered and angry. Juliet looked up at the circle of faces above. "Someone, please give me a coat, a cape, anything!"
His breath smelled of spirits. His head was a heavy, lolling weight in her hands, his damp hair coming loose from its queue to spill in soft, tumbling waves over her fingers. Someone thrust a jacket beneath him, and she gently eased his head back down to it as more people came hurrying toward them.
"Let's get him out of these nettles and into the coach," Juliet said, instinctively taking charge. Thank God her upbringing in Maine's wilderness had prepared her for situations such as this! "You, take his feet. You there, help me take his shoulders. Hurry, let's go!"
Their fallen savior was a tall man, lean and honed with muscle, a dead weight as they struggled to lift him. They rushed him across the road to the coach, where two people were already spreading a blanket on the grass for him while another hastily began clearing the vehicle's interior of broken glass. The other mother stood nearby, pale and silent, trying to quiet Charlotte while her own children, seeing the injured man, hid their faces in her skirts.
Juliet shut her mind to her baby's distress. "Right here. Easy with him. He's been hurt, badly."
People pressed close, eager to help. This gallant gentleman had saved their lives, and everyone seemed to want to touch him. Hands reached out to support him beneath his arms, his body, his legs, though so many were not needed and only got in the way. Gently, they lowered him to the blanket while the coach was made ready for him. Kneeling beside him, the other passengers crowding around and above her, Juliet quickly loosened the flawlessly knotted, elegant spill of lace at his throat. Then she began unbuttoning his waistcoat, her fingertips going wet and slippery with blood as they neared the wound in his side.
You can't die, she willed him, working furiously now and calling for some light. Not after what you've done for us!
Charlotte, still in the stranger's arms, began to wail, only adding to Juliet's sense of urgency.
Someone found a candle and flint. Suddenly, feeble light danced over worried faces and threw Juliet's shadow across the injured man. As she gingerly undid the last button, his head began to move weakly on the blanket. He groaned in pain, his skin as white as chalk, his eyelashes fluttering.
"The child ..." he said, thickly.
"The child's fine. Be still. Relax. You're going to be all right." Out of the corner of her eye, Juliet could see movement, shadowy and silent, as the dead were placed side by side and covered with a blanket. Please God, don't let this poor gentleman be joining them. She slid her fingers beneath his waistcoat, peeling it away from his blood-soaked shirt and feeling a wave of nausea at the sight that met her eyes. In the dim glow of the candle, blood was everywhere.
"Oh, dear God, I'm going to faint," murmured one of the woman passengers, who was quickly escorted away from the grim scene before she could.
And all the while Charlotte's piercing wails rang in Juliet's head.
She shut her mind to her bawling daughter. She shut it to the last highwayman, his hands tied to a nearby tree, his mouth cursing them in language horrible enough to make her toes curl. She shut it to the people breathing down her neck, to her own queasiness, to her fear that this man was dying and there was nothing that she or anyone could do for him.
"I need a knife," she said, anxiously looking up at the faces above. "Does anyone have one?"
A small blade was produced, and Juliet deftly slit the injured man's shirt all the way to his breeches. The fabric was soaked with blood. Gently, she eased it open where the ball had gone in. In the feeble light, it was impossible to tell how badly he was hurt, but there was an awful lot of blood.
"We need to get help, immediately," she said, ripping a length of cotton from her petticoats and packing it into his side in an attempt to stop the bleeding. "I don't want to move him for fear of making his injury worse. Does anyone know where we are, how close the nearest village or town might be?"
"I think we're almost into Ravenscombe."
"Is there a doctor there?"
"Don't know. If not, might be one back in Lambourn, I should think ..."
Juliet shook her head. "We can't go charging all over England with him while we're looking for a doctor. It would be better if one of you rides for help and brings one back." Glances were exchanged. "Now!"
Her sharp word jolted everyone into action. Two men ran to the nervous coach horses, but another was already leading a well-bred chestnut steed from out of the surrounding darkness. "Here, take his instead, it's saddled and ready."
"No, let me, I insist!"
After a brief debate about who would do the honors, someone swung up onto the tall hunter and the animal was away, thundering off down the road.
And then the little group was alone. Both Charlotte and the highwayman had finally quieted, and now there was nothing but the soft rustle of the wind through the copper beeches, the sound of rain pitter-pattering into the puddled ruts. It was falling harder now, and two of the women stretched a coat over the injured man, trying to protect his face from the wet as Juliet tore another strip from her petticoats and bound it tightly around his torso.
There was nothing to do but wait. In the deep silence of the night none of the passengers spoke, each remembering the shots, the highwaymen, the deaths -- and this unknown gentleman's selfless sacrifice. They gathered close to him, protectively surrounding him, the rain falling softly in the grass verge, the hedgerows, and the field of young wheat beyond.
"Oughtn't take more than ten, fifteen minutes to bring back help," someone whispered, nervously.
"Aye, fifteen at the most."
"Provided Hawkins finds a doctor, that is ..."
A small sound came from the injured man. He was stirring again, groping for the wound in his side and trying to gauge the extent of his injury. Juliet caught his hand, lacing her bloodstained fingers through his. It was a smooth, elegant hand, white as the lace that framed it, a gentleman's hand. Yet the skill with which he had handled his pistol had been deadly.
He groaned, and his head moved on the wet blanket. "Done for ... oh, hell ... the child ..."
"Easy, there," Juliet murmured, smoothing the hair back from his forehead. "Help is on the way." With her other hand, she urgently beckoned the other mother forward. If their noble rescuer was dying, before he left this earth Juliet wanted him to see proof that he had indeed saved the boy.
"The child," he whispered, persistently. He opened his eyes -- long-lashed, beautifully shaped, romantic eyes that looked oddly familiar -- and looked dazedly about him. "Tell me the little one is all right ..."
"He's fine and with his mother," Juliet said softly, just as the man's searching gaze found the small boy, huddled against his mother's skirt and staring at him with huge, frightened eyes. Their savior smiled, at peace now, and Juliet did not protest when he carried her hand to his face and laid it against the angry red flesh of his cheek. "You saved his life," she murmured. "You're a hero."
"Hardly. I was just ... in the right place at the right time, I think." His eyes closed, but nevertheless his mouth remained curved in the faintest of satisfied smiles. He turned his head so that his lips were in Juliet's palm. They moved softly, sending wanton little thrills rushing unexpectedly down her spine. "Heroes do not make bumbling ... fools of themselves, as I have done."
"I think we'd all beg to differ on that, sir," Juliet said firmly, and was joined by a hearty chorus of agreement from those around them. "Can you tell us your name? Where you live? Your family will be worried and must be notified."
"My family won't --"
But his weak reply was buried beneath distant shouts, laughter, and the sound of hoofbeats rushing down on them from out of the night. Riders were coming from the south, and they were coming fast.
"Hail them!" Juliet cried, raising her head to stare down the still-empty road.
Suddenly, galloping horses burst into view, their riders spurring them to reckless speeds in what was obviously a race.
"Stop!" The grandfatherly passenger ran forward, waving his arms. "We've an injured man here!"
"Whoa!" The nearest rider hauled on his reins, sending his lathered horse skidding in the mud and rearing in protest. "Whoa!"
"What the devil's going on here --"
"Good God above!"
They were a group of carefree young rakehells, all splendidly dressed, all riding neck or nothing, all obviously in their cups to one degree or another. One by one they vaulted from their mounts and ran forward, eager to lend what assistance they could.
"Bloody hell, it's Gareth!" cried the nearest, the tail of his fine Ramillies wig bobbing as he fell to his knees before the elegant gentleman. "What the devil happened to you, man? 'Sdeath, I've never seen so much blood in my life!"
"Shot. And watch your language, Chilcot ... there are women and children about."
"Bugger my language, Gareth, tell us what happened!"
Juliet raised her head and looked this "Chilcot" in the eye. He, like their injured savior, didn't look much older than herself, but it was obvious that she had more sense than the lot of these spirited young bucks combined. "Can't you see your friend is in a bad way?" she admonished. "Pray, don't make him talk any more than he has to. Now, if you must know what happened ..." She quickly told them about the highwaymen, the other passengers adding pieces to the story.
One of the young scapegraces pulled a flask of spirits from his coat, lifted his stricken friend's head, and held the flask to his mouth. "You mean Gareth took a bullet meant for one of the little ones?"
"He did indeed. He saved all of our lives."
"Don't look so surprised, Cokeham," the tallest of the lot drawled, surveying the scene with a lordly gaze and pulling out a snuff box. He took two pinches, then snapped the lid shut with a casual flick of his fingers. "Hasn't he always been the one to walk out of cockfights, rescue puppies, shun the use of spurs? Don't just stand there gawking at him. Go get help. Now!"
"Oh, for God's sake, Perry," their fallen friend murmured, obviously embarrassed. He tried to move, and through his teeth, sucked in his breath on a gasp of pain. "Now, help me up, would you? Somebody?"
He tried to sit up, but Juliet put a hand on his chest. "You're staying right there, Mr. Gareth whoever-you-are, until help arrives."
"Ooooh! Listen to the lady, Gareth! Plagued with petticoats you are, and she isn't even your wife!"
Juliet, impatient and growing angry, directed a glare toward the one who had spoken. "I assume you boys are his friends?"
The lad snickered. "We're the Den of Debauchery."
Juliet looked at Perry, tall, lounging and elegant -- and the only one of the lot who seemed sober. "And you, I assume, are its ... leader?"
"No, ma'am." He sketched her a bow, then indicated his friend beneath her restraining hand. "Gareth is."
"Well, then. Instead of standing around making him miserable while he bleeds to death in the rain, why don't you help us get him into the coach? Now that you're here and must know where a doctor can be found, you can bring us straight to help yourselves."
Perry's eyes widened, and his lazy insolence vanished. He straightened up, looking with new respect at the slight young woman with the twangy, unfamiliar accent who knelt beside his friend. And then he gave a slow smile of acknowledgment and touched his hat to her. "The girl is correct," he said, turning to his companions. "Hugh, you ride for the doctor and have him meet us at the castle. Cokeham, you stay here with these people and keep them safe until we can send someone back for them. I will drive the coach." His voice was grim. "We're taking Gareth to the duke."
"Now see here," the elderly man said huffily, his face angry as he seized Perry's silk sleeve, "he doesn't need a duke, he needs a damned doctor!"
But Perry merely smiled and arched a brow. "What, don't you know who your noble rescuer is, then?"
Once again, the injured man tried to sit up. "Perry --"
But Perry's eyes sparkled with private amusement. He stretched out his arm, sweeping it down and forward with a dramatic eloquence that caused his friend's eyes to flash with impatience and anger. "May I present Lord Gareth de Montforte ... leader of the notorious Den of Debauchery, third son of the fourth Duke of Blackheath, and black-sheep brother of Lucien, the present and fifth duke." He straightened up. "Now, do take care. I, for one, have no wish to be held accountable to His Grace should anything happen to him."
Someone let out an exclamation of disbelief.
Lord Gareth de Montforte cursed beneath his breath.
And Juliet Paige went as white as the chalk mud in which she stood.
Their gallant savior wasn't just the duke's brother.
He was Charles's brother, as well -- and the uncle of her baby daughter.
As the passengers argued with Lord Gareth's friends about where to bring him, Juliet got to her feet and walked a short distance away, trying to regain her composure and hide the shock that must've been written all over her face.
She ran her palms down her cheeks. Dear God. This man is Charles's brother. He looks so much like him ... how could I not have known?
Her back to the commotion behind her, she drew several deep breaths, stared blankly into the darkness for a moment, then shut her eyes in a silent prayer for strength. Finally she rejoined the others, where she reclaimed Charlotte and retrieved her miniature from the highwayman's leather bag. Perry took her arm; at his insistence, she climbed into the coach to ride along with Lord Gareth.
Wrapping Charlotte in a blanket, she held her close and reached for the injured man as his friends brought him in after her. Nobody noticed how her hands shook. Nobody noticed how her entire body shook. They settled him on her seat, positioning him so that his head and shoulders lay cradled in her lap, his eyes, glazed with pain, gazing up at her. And then the door was shutting, Perry was climbing up on the box, and the coach shot past the worried faces beyond the window as Perry sent the team off with a shout and a crack of the whip.
His weight was warm and heavy and solid. She averted her gaze from his and was unable to speak.
And as the vehicle moved through the lonely English night, Juliet leaned her cheek against the cold window and let her thoughts drift back in time ... back to that cold winter day in Boston when she'd first seen Captain Lord Charles de Montforte.
He had been the stuff of a young woman's dreams.
The memory was as near as if it had all happened yesterday ...
She was minding the counter in her stepfather's store, stuffing logs in the little stove; outside, the cold morning air was as brittle as glass. The day was like any other of late, with rinds of frost on the windowpanes and one or two customers who still had any money left to spend walking up and down the wide-planked aisles as they browsed the shelves. And then she heard it: the steady rattle of musketry, brisk commands, the ringing clatter of a horse's hooves over frozen, crusty cobbles.
A flash of scarlet passed just outside. Tossing the last log into the stove, Juliet rushed to the window and, with the heel of her hand, cleared a spot in the frosty pane. And there he was, sitting high atop his horse, his coattails splayed over the animal's powerful brown haunches, his fair hair queued with a black bow beneath his tricorn -- a British officer, capable and dashing, reviewing his troops on Boston Common.
Her hand went to her suddenly fluttering heart. She'd thought a handsome man in uniform was just that -- a handsome man in a uniform -- but this one was different. His red tunic stood out against the fresh snow like the plumage of a cardinal, and even from a distance of some thirty feet she could see that he was well-bred, untarnished, something special. Back as straight as a steeple. White-gloved hands firm but gentle on the reins. A man above squalor, above indecency, above common, everyday things. From the elegance of his leather smallclothes to the sword at his thigh, from the whiteness of his breeches to the glossy mirror of his boots, he'd been a gentleman. A god. She couldn't have cared less whether he was a soldier or a colonial. She couldn't have cared less about anything. She had fallen in love. Right then, and right there ...
"Fancy that, the troops parading in our common as though they own the place. Pompous asses! Despicable louts!"
Old Widow Murdock, one of the customers in the store that morning, saw immediately what had caught Juliet's interest.
"Juliet? I'd like a half-dozen eggs. Mind you give me the brown ones, not the white this time. And no cracked ones, ye hear? Juliet! Are you listening to me? Juliet! ..."
The coach hit a bump, jarring her rudely back to the present. Juliet closed her eyes, desperately trying to hold on to the memory, that sweet, sweet memory, but it faded back into the murky arms of time and she was once again in England -- three thousand miles from home, from the memories, from a Boston that was torn apart by war.
Three thousand miles from that mass grave near Concord, where the single red rose she had left would long since have been blown away by the wind.
Her throat suddenly ached and she stared off into the night, her eyes stinging with unshed tears.
And here he was, Charles's brother, faintly familiar and thus already beloved, his very likeness to his dead sibling resurrecting all those memories Juliet had locked up inside herself, relegated to their proper place, since that horrible day last April. He lay heavily across her lap, his head cradled in the crook of her right arm and his pale face just visible in the gloomy shadows of the coach. She should have known, of course. They both had the same romantic eyes, the same lazy smile, the same curve of the cheek and cut of the mouth, the same height, same build, same bearing. Only the hair color was different. Where Charles had been a gilded blond, his younger brother's hair was a few shades darker. It was probably tawny-brown, Juliet thought. Somewhat fair in daylight. But not now.
The coach hit a rut and she heard him catch his breath in pain. Repositioning Charlotte, she gingerly rested her arm across his chest to better steady him against the swaying rock of the coach. His blood, warm and sticky against her skin, had soaked through her bodice, her skirts, her stomacher. His eyes were closed, but she suspected he was conscious and merely drifting in his own private hell of pain and fear. She ached to speak to him, yearned to ask him all about Charles, tell him just who she -- and Charlotte -- really was. But she did not. It didn't seem quite right to intrude upon his thoughts when he might very well be dying, and so she remained quiet, cradling his head and now, seeking his hand in the darkness to assure him that he was not alone.
His fingers tightened immediately over hers, dwarfing them, and sudden tears stung her eyes as she gazed down at him.
Dear God, he reminds me of my beloved Charles ...
The ache at the back of her throat became unbearable. Her nose burned and she blinked back the gathering mist in her eyes. Damn these tears. These weak, foolish, useless tears. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried not to think of Charles and his cavalier smile, the hardness of his body and the way his mouth had felt against her own. Instead, she tried to see the dim shapes of trees passing just outside in the darkness, to concentrate on the squeak and rattle of the coach, to lull her mind into numbness and keep at bay the huge waves of emotion that threatened the dam of her self-control.
And then her gaze fell on the baby, still swathed in the blanket and nestled between herself and the seat.
She didn't realize she was weeping until the brother's pained whisper broke the choking silence.
"Are they for me?"
Her nose was running now. She sniffed, sniffed again, flashed a smile that was too quick, too false. "Are what for you?"
"Why, your tears, of course."
Oh, Lord. She shook her head, not trusting herself to speak for fear she'd give in to the great, wracking pain that threatened to burst from her. This man, suffering so quietly, so bravely, did not deserve to see tears; he needed hope, comfort, encouragement from her, not an appalling display of weakness. She suddenly felt selfish and ashamed -- and guilty, too. After all, the tears were not even for him, poor man. They were for Charles.
"I'm not crying," she managed, dabbing at her eyes with the back of her sleeve and staring out the window to hide the evidence.
"Really?" He gave a weak smile. "Perhaps I should see for myself."
And then she felt them; his fingers, brushing her damp cheek with infinite softness and concern, tracing the slippery track of her sorrow. It was a caress, achingly kind, gentle, sweet.
She stiffened and caught his hand, holding it away from her face and shutting her eyes on a deep, bracing breath lest that dam of her self-control break for good. She managed to get herself under control, and when she finally dared meet his gaze, she saw that he was looking quietly up at her, at her distressed face and the tears she was trying so valiantly to hold back.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" he asked, gently.
She shook her head.
"Are you quite certain?"
"Lord Gareth, you're the one who's hurt, not me."
"No. That is not true." His eyes searching her face, he touched her other cheek, the one the highwayman had cuffed, his whole manner one of such gentle, selfless concern that she wanted to lash out at someone, something, for this injustice that had been done to him. "I saw that -- that scoundrel strike you. If I could kill him all over again for that, I would. Why, your poor cheek still bears the mark of his hand ..."
"I am fine."
"Dear heavens, Lord Gareth, must you keep at it so?"
The words had come out angrier than she intended. She saw the sudden shadow of confusion that moved across his eyes, and a sharp pang of remorse lanced her heart for having put it there. Her anger was not directed at him, but at the fates that had taken first one of these dashing brothers and would now, most likely, take another. It wasn't fair. It just wasn't damned fair. And here he was worried about her cheek, her silly, stupid cheek, when his life's blood was oozing all over her skirts and onto the seat and his flesh was feeling colder and clammier by the moment. She wanted to cry. Wanted to put her head in her hands and bawl until all the grief and pain and rage and loneliness still locked inside her was purged. But she did not. Instead, she took a deep breath and met his questioning gaze.
Same romantic eyes. Same kindness in their depths, same concern for other people. Oh, God ... help me.
"I'm sorry," she murmured, shaking her head. "That was unfair. I didn't mean to snap at you. I'm so sorry ..."
"Please, don't be." He smiled, weakly. "Besides, if those tears are for me, I can assure you there is no need to waste them so. I shall not die."
"How confident you sound! I -- I wish I shared your convictions."
"Well, I simply cannot die, you see?" Again that slow, lazy grin that sought to reassure her even when the hot, tinny smell of his blood could not. "My brother Lucien would not allow it."
"And is Lucien a god whom even death obeys?"
"But of course. He is the Duke of Blackheath. A deity into himself, I am afraid ..."
His eyes had closed. He was growing weaker, his voice little more than a thready whisper now, yet even so, he tried to inflect a certain jaunty humor to his tone that tore fiercely at Juliet's heart-strings. How brave he was. How totally selfless. She gazed down at him, and shook her head in growing despair. "Save your strength, my lord. I know you're just trying to bolster my confidence that you will indeed survive."
"Perhaps." He opened his eyes and looked guilelessly up at her. "But as I'm trying to bolster my own as well, what harm is there in it?"
She sought his hand. Laced her fingers through his and squeezed. A long moment passed between them, with neither saying a word as they held hands in the darkness and the coach bounced over the night-lonely road.
"Why did you do it?" she finally asked, her voice breaking. "Why, when you could have just turned your back on all of us and gone safely back in the direction from which you'd come?"
His eyes widened in blank surprise, as though he was confused that such a question even needed, let alone deserved, an answer. "Why, 'tis my duty, of course, as a gentleman. There were women and children amongst your lot ... I could not have turned tail like a coward and left you all to perish, now, could I?"
"No," she murmured, sadly. "I suppose not."
She pulled her hand from his to make sure the strip of cloth with which she had bound his wound was still in place. Her fingers came away wet with blood. Fresh dread coursed through her and she surreptitiously wiped her fingers on her cloak, stilling her expression so as not to alarm him.
He was not fooled, though. She could see it in his eyes. But he knew she was already upset, and was too kind to distress her further. Like the gentleman he was, he changed the subject.
"Speaking of those children ..." He turned his head within the curve of Juliet's arm so he could see Charlotte. "It appears that one of them ... is yours."
Juliet followed his gaze. "Yes, my daughter. She's just over six months."
"Will you bring her close? I adore children."
Juliet hesitated, thinking that sleeping babes were best left alone. But it was not in her to deny the wishes of a man who might very well be dying. Carefully, she picked up the infant and held her so that Lord Gareth could see her. Charlotte whimpered and opened her eyes. Immediately, the lines of pain about Lord Gareth's mouth relaxed. Smiling weakly, he reached up and ran his fingers over one of the tiny fists, unaware that he was touching his own niece. A lump rose in Juliet's throat. It was not hard at all to imagine that he was Charles, reaching up to touch his daughter.
Not hard at all.
"You're just ... as pretty as your mama," he murmured. "A few more years ... and all the young bucks shall be after you ... like hounds to the fox." To Juliet he said, "What is her name?"
"Charlotte." The baby was wide awake now and tugging at the lace of his sleeve.
"Charlotte. Such a pretty name ... and where is your papa, little Charlie-girl? Should he ... not be here to ... protect you and your mama?"
Juliet stiffened. His inadvertent words had sent a bolt of pain slamming through her. Tight-lipped, she pried the lace from Charlotte's fist and cradled her close. Deprived of her amusement, the baby screwed up her face and began to wail at the top of her lungs while Juliet stared out the window, her mouth set and her hand clenched in a desperate bid to control her emotions.
Lord Gareth managed to make himself heard over Charlotte's angry screams. "I am sorry. I think I have offended you, somehow ..."
"Then what is it?"
"Her papa's dead."
"Oh. I, ah ... I see." He looked distressed, and remorse stole the brightness that Charlotte had brought to his eyes. "I am sorry, madam. I am forever saying the wrong thing, I fear."
Trapped within the curve of Juliet's arm, Charlotte was crying harder, beating her fists and kicking her feet in protest. The blanket fell away, tumbling to the floor of the coach. Juliet attempted to put it back. Charlotte screamed louder, her angry squalls filling the coach until Juliet felt like crying herself. She made a noise of helpless despair.
"Here ... hold her near to me," Lord Gareth said at last. "She can play with my cravat."
"No, you're hurt."
He smiled. "And your daughter is crying. Oblige me, and she will stop." He stretched a hand toward the baby, offering his fingers, but she batted him away and continued to wail. "I'm told I have a way ... with children."
With a sigh, Juliet did as he asked. Sure enough, the instant she was close to her uncle, Charlotte quieted and fell to playing with his cravat. Silence returned to the bouncing coach, with only the rattle and squeak of the springs, Perry's occasional shout, and the sound of the horses galloping over the darkened roads intruding upon the quiet within.
Lord Gareth steadied the baby so that she would not fall. He looked up at Juliet. "You have done much for me," he said at last. "Will you honor me by confessing your name?"
He smiled. "As in Romeo and Juliet?"
"I suppose." Though my dear Romeo lies cold in his grave, an ocean away. She looked out the window once more -- anything to avoid gazing into those romantic, long-lashed eyes that reminded her so much of Charles's, anything to avoid watching his hand, so strong and large against Charlotte's small form and possessing the same graceful elegance that the baby's father's had had. Coming here to England, she now knew, had been a mistake. A dreadful mistake. How on earth could she bear this pain, this constant reminder of all she had lost?
"You have an accent I do not recognize," he was saying. "Tis certainly not local ..."
"Really, Lord Gareth -- you should rest, not try to talk. Save your strength."
"My dear angel, I can assure you I'd much rather talk to you, than lie here in silence and wonder if I shall live to see the next sunrise. I ... do not wish to be alone with my thoughts at the moment. Pray, amuse me, would you?"
She sighed. "Very well, then. I'm from Boston."
"County of Lincolnshire?"
"Colony of Massachusetts."
His smile faded. "Ah, yes ... Boston." The town's name fell wearily from his lips and he let his eyes drift shut, as though that single word had drained him of his remaining strength. "You're a long way from home, aren't you?"
"Farther, perhaps, than I should be," she said, cryptically.
He seemed not to hear her. "I had a brother who died over there last year, fighting the rebels ... He was a captain in the Fourth. I miss him dreadfully."
Juliet leaned the side of her face against the squab and took a deep, bracing breath. If this man died, he would never know just who the little girl playing so contentedly with his cravat was. He would never know that the stranger who was caring for him during his final moments was the woman his brother had loved, would never know just why she -- a long way from home, indeed -- had come to England.
It was now or never. "Yes," she whispered, tracing a thin crack in the squab near her face. "So do I."
"I said, yes. I miss him too."
"Forgive me, but I don't quite understand ..." And then he blanched and stiffened as the truth hit him with debilitating force. His eyes widened, their lazy dreaminess fading. His head rose halfway out of her lap. He stared at her and blinked, and in the sudden, charged silence that filled the coach, Juliet heard the pounding tattoo of her own heart, felt his gaze boring into the underside of her chin as his mind, dulled by pain and shock, quickly put the pieces together.
I miss him, too.
He gave an incredulous little laugh. "No," he said, shaking his head and grinning foolishly, as though he suspected he was the butt of some horrible joke or worse, knew she was telling the truth and could not find a way to accept it. He scrutinized her features, his gaze moving over every aspect of her face. "We all thought ... I mean, Lucien said he tried to locate you ... No, I am hallucinating, I must be! You cannot be the same Juliet. Not his Juliet --"
"I am," she said quietly. "His Juliet. And now I've come to England to throw myself on the mercy of his family, as he bade me to do should anything happen to him."
"But this is just too extraordinary, I cannot believe --"
Juliet was gazing out the window into the darkness again. "He told you about me, then?"
"Told us? His letters home were filled with nothing but declarations of love for his 'colonial maiden,' his 'fair Juliet' ... he said he was going to marry you. I ... you ... dear God, you have shocked my poor brain into speechlessness, Miss Paige. I do not believe you are here, in the flesh!"
"Believe it," she said, miserably. "If Charles had lived, you and I would have been brother and sister. Don't die, Lord Gareth. I have no wish to see yet another de Montforte brother into an early grave."
He settled back against her arm and flung one bloodstained wrist across his brow, his body shaking. For a moment she thought the shock of her revelation had killed him, and the jerky movements of his body were the reflexes that follow death. But no. Beneath the lace of his sleeve she could see the gleaming whiteness of his grin, and Juliet realized that he was not dying but convulsing with giddy, helpless mirth.
For the life of her, she did not see what was so funny.
"Then this baby --" he managed, sliding his wrist up his brow to peer up at her with gleaming eyes -- "this baby --"
"Is your niece."