Another day, another suitor carried off in pieces.
Willa Trent sighed as she bent to pluck a stone from the country lane. Poor Timothy, so young to be scarred for life. He’d been so brave about it all.
“Don’t fret, Miss Willa,” he’d said. “I’m sure to be up and walking in no time.” And he’d smiled at her even while his leg was being splinted and his bleeding head was wrapped.
Well, no more. From now on, the affliction would be hers to bear alone. Not that it had ever harmed her directly, but then, if a future of lonely spinsterhood wasn’t harm, what was?
She drew a deep breath. That was the past—this morning counted as past, didn’t it?—and she had never been one to waste today on yesterday. Just as her dream of seeing something of the world had never come true, so her dream of belonging in a family of her own seemed as though it would never come true. She was sure that in time she would adjust.
Not that she was disheartened or anything of the sort, but she had decided to spend the rest of the day on her own, away from both the sympathy and the smirks of the villagers. With a sigh, Willa left the lane and returned to the field beyond the hedge. As usual, she was cheered by the hues of the evening sky and the green of the rolling Northamptonshire fields.
Which hid the despicable small secrets she was determined to uncover today. It was not yet hunting and trapping season, and she had just found another nasty saw- toothed trap near a clear-running beck. All she needed to do was trigger it before doing her best to smash it with a rock.
Willa closed one eye, just as she had been instructed to by the young boy who had lent her the slingshot. Unfortunately, little Seth wasn’t here now, so she couldn’t ask him which eye. She shrugged. One eye was no doubt as good as another. Aiming for the precise center of the round, flat trigger of the rusted poacher’s trap, she pulled back the strap of the slingshot as far as possible and let go.
Grim anticipation rose from deep within Nathaniel Stonewell, Earl of Reardon, as he urged his gelding to an ever-increasing pace down the Northamptonshire road. He was close behind his quarry now. Blunt took one stride for every two of Sir Foster’s lesser mount, ruthlessly eating up the distance between them.
This afternoon Nathaniel had paused in his pursuit to water Blunt at a coaching inn, only to learn that a man matching Foster’s description had passed through mere hours before. Since then, Nathaniel had kept Blunt to a punishing pace that only the greathearted thoroughbred could match. Night would fall soon, and Nathaniel had great hopes of catching up to Foster when the traitor took his rest in the village that Nathaniel had been informed lay shortly ahead.
Nathaniel’s eyes narrowed against the wind created by Blunt’s gallop and he rose in the stirrups, riding as lightly as a jockey, or at least as lightly as a man of his size could ride. So close . . .
Foster was a greedy coward but a cunning one nonetheless. If the last free member of the traitorous Knights of Fleur made it to the teeming streets of London, it would take an army to ferret him out. Nathaniel didn’t want an army’s help.
He wanted Foster for his very own. For the betrayal of England, Foster must pay. For the loss of everything Nathaniel had ever held dear?
For that, Foster would pay at Nathaniel’s hands.
A political cartoon had unintentionally revealed Nathaniel’s involvement with the French sympathizers, the Knights of the Lily. Of course, Nathaniel had infiltrated the group on behalf of the Crown, but the public could hardly be informed of that. In the end, this misconception had been useful in keeping the leader’s son, the apparently innocent Louis Wadsworth, free of public taint or scandal. This was not normally a concern of the Royal Four, but the Wadsworth munitions factory had been considered vital to the production of arms for the war with Napoleon.
So the elder, and now conveniently dead, Edward Wadsworth had been declared a hero for exposing the traitors, Nathaniel among them. Being a scandalous traitor was the perfect cover for Nathaniel’s true position as a secret power in the government.
Nevertheless, it was bloody painful to watch his treasured reputation shatter like crockery on the cobbles. Nathaniel’s personal honor was the armature of his nature, the very framework about which he lived his life. Now, the people of his acquaintance—some of them good, honest folk whose opinion he valued—would sooner seat a card-cheat at their table than the infamous Lord Reardon.
Your reputation is little enough sacrifice for your country, he reminded himself.
Another voice from the past, Lord Liverpool’s voice, echoed the thought: How can you claim willingness to sacrifice your very life if you aren’t willing to give up something less tangible as well?
The Prime Minister had been quite correct of course. Nathaniel had been utterly willing to take the title of traitor to protect the interests of England. Willing and most able.
That didn’t mean he had to like it.
It was the Prime Minister’s opinion that not only was Nathaniel’s disgrace royally convenient, but it also provided a marvelously devious cover for the Cobra.
After all, who would suspect that the man known far and wide as Lord Treason in fact was a member of the elite and untouchable secret order known as the Royal Four?
Yes, it was all very convenient and desirable—and the least he could do for his country. It was marvelous how his “exposure” and subsequent shunning by Society at large had left him with so much time to attend to those little matters deemed of interest by the Four.
Like Sir Lucian Foster—an active, if somewhat cowardly, member of the Knights of the Lily during the latest contretemps who had fled the country before he could be apprehended. Now he was back on British soil.
The Knights of the Lily were dead and it was unlikely that they would ever rise again, but Foster was a loose end that Nathaniel, for one, wanted tied neatly away. Preferably with a noose.
Nathaniel’s family had denounced him. His countrymen hated him. He was known far and wide as Lord Treason. He had paid his price. Now it was Foster’s turn.
A grim, predatory smile crossed Nathaniel’s lips as he bent his head farther into Blunt’s whipping mane and urged the gelding to even higher speed.
I have you, you bastard.
That is, he did until all hell broke loose.
The curious thing about slingshots, Willa discovered, was that they rarely shot straight. Or perhaps that had been the wrong eye, after all.
The pebble in the sling took off in quite a different direction from the gaping-jawed trap at which she had aimed. Willa took some pride in its speed until she realized she had missed.
The stone shot straight toward the road, piercing the thick hedge in its way with a mere whisper and a snap.
Thunk. The stone hit something hollow. Crack. That sounded like the snapping of a branch. Thud. Something hollow hit the road, she was sure of it. Buzz. Buzz? Insects? Angry insects, from the ferocity of the hum.
No one was on the lane, she told herself. Likely nothing would—
The thunder of racing hooves cut the evening air even as she had the thought.
Oh no. Not neigh!
There came another high equine scream and a startled curse. Next were thudding hoofbeats and the sound of something much more solid hitting the ground.
Then ominous quiet.
Willa ran after her missile, following its beeline path. Torn from a stem, a single leaf drifted from the bushes between her and the road.
Willa squirmed through the hedgerow with no regard for her gown or her hair. Not that her pins were still in place after her evening’s romp in the fields. She’d been gone from home since Timothy had been carried off to the doctor in the next village, and her hair was some the worse for it.
She popped through the hedge to see a heap of something lying in the lane. Tiptoeing closer, she strained to see what it was. Oh dear. The something heavy that had fallen was a man. A very large man.
“Ouch,” she murmured. She knelt and pushed back the overlong fair hair that covered his face.
The view was only half-reassuring. He was a youngish man, so she needn’t feel as though she had thrown someone’s grandpapa off his horse. He was also a good deal more delicious than any grandpapa she had ever seen.
If Adonis had owned perfectly chiseled cheekbones and sculpted sensuous lips, he might have been nearly as handsome as the man in the lane. He looked like a fallen archangel with a bump on his temple. Willa reached for some more images of perfection to compare the man to, but frankly, her imagination fell short. He was, quite simply, devastating. She felt something twist just a little below her belly at the fellow’s masculine perfection.
Still, he was quite pale and definitely unconscious. That was no doubt due to the large rock embedded in the dust of the lane whereupon his head lay.
Only a few feet away lay the shattered remains of the hornets’ nest. Several furious insects still clambered over their ruined home, but the majority of them must have taken off after the poor horse.
Willa bit her lip. It was a huge nest. She stood and peered apprehensively down the lane toward the village. The hornets wouldn’t leave the nest undefended for long. Willa snapped her skirts to shoo the remnants of the nest from circling her hem. Already they were showing interest in the two humans in their vicinity. The man must be removed before the majority of the insects returned.
Squatting next to the man once more, Willa gave him a gentle poke on his upper arm.
“Please wake up, sir.” It was much like poking a rock. She poked a bit harder, but there was no response. Willa took hold of the man’s coat with two hands and tugged.
“Oh . . . my.” Gasping, she let loose. He hadn’t moved an inch. “You are rather well grown.”
Willa was already quite tired from her eventful day, and her back ached at the thought of moving such a big parcel. Then, taking a deep breath, she drew upon her natural optimism. Perhaps she simply needed a better grip.
Gingerly, she picked up his arm and slid her hands down to grasp his wrist. It was a large wrist and an even larger hand. Willa could scarcely wrap her own fingers around it. Backing up until his arm was outstretched, she gave a mighty heave.
The man flipped neatly over and Willa landed on her bottom in the dust. Well. That had done very little good, but it had given her an idea. She would roll him from harm’s way.
A bit gingerly, since she was quite unused to touching another person’s . . . person, Willa stretched the gentleman’s limbs straight up and down, like a child about to roll down a grassy hill. Then, crouching behind him, she put her shoulder into it and flipped him onto his face.
“Oh dear. I am sorry.” Well, it couldn’t be helped. Best to get it done quickly, before he suffocated.
Again she flipped him, and again. With a great deal of unladylike grunting and perspiration, not to mention all the fascinating things that she learned about male physiology in the process, Willa maneuvered the man to lie in the grassy channel beneath the hedge.
Flopping him onto his back for the last time, with a groan, Willa found herself half-lying across his chest, breathing heavily. What a great fellow he was.
How very tiring.
Willa blew back an errant strand of hair. It had come entirely undone during her exertions. As she pulled it back to retie the ribbon, she examined her victim by the last dim trace of sunlight.
His face was all romantic lines and sensual strength. His golden hair was thick and much too long, but she rather liked the way it fell past his jaw. His unshaven face bristled with just a touch of golden-brown beard.
All in all, a somewhat lawless specimen. It made her wonder if he was something of a rebel. His collar was plain but fine, his cravat simply tied, elegant but not foppish in the least.
His face was also rather dusty after all that rolling. Willa pulled out her handkerchief and moistened a corner of it with her tongue. Moira would have conniptions if she knew, but no one was around to see Willa do such a common thing and she couldn’t bear to see her fellow so rumpled.
Gently wiping his cheeks and brow, she wondered who he was and from whence he’d come. If she didn’t know him, then he didn’t live nearby. Derryton was well-known for its fine ale locally, but it wasn’t really on the way to anywhere from anywhere, so few truly exotic travelers journeyed through it.
His breath came evenly on her face and his heart beat in regular time next to her ribs. Willa had some experience with injuries—at any rate with witnessing them. He didn’t seem to be in any immediate danger from his fall.
Nevertheless, she ought to fetch help for him soon. She lifted her head slowly to peer through the grass at the broken nest. It was now so covered with angry hornets that the nest itself was hidden beneath restless winged bodies. She could feel the concerted buzzing vibrate through the very ground. Yet more were coming to land with every passing moment.
It was a sobering sight. Hornets in such numbers could be dangerous indeed. Slowly, projecting harmlessness with every fiber of her being, Willa sank back down next to her latest victim. “Vespa crabro,” she explained to him in a whisper. “The common hornet. Really quite docile and pretty . . . normally.” She listened to the furious drone just a few feet away.
“Unless the nest is disturbed, of course,” she continued, her words a mere breath on his unconscious ear. “I’d describe that nest as quite disturbed. Ruined even. But don’t feel too badly, for with the passing of summer they would have only lived a few months more at most.”
She heaved a weary sigh and settled more comfortably into the tall grass. “We merely need to stay quite still and wait. They’ll settle down at dusk and I will fetch you some help from Derryton.”
Dusk was not far away. In fact, one could hardly call it day anymore, the way the blue twilight was taking over the sky. It was getting chill as well, a sure sign that the mist would rise. Excellent. The chill would slow the hornets’ defensive fervor and the mist would confuse them yet more.
Then she would fetch help. She sighed. There was bound to be a row when she did. And she was so terribly tired of being the cause of uproar.
Oh, she knew they all loved her, but the horrid thing about being an orphan raised by an entire village was that everyone felt quite free to criticize one. And they did.
Bad enough that she had stayed out so late, but to have caused such an accident when she ought to have been safe by the hearth? She’d never hear the end of it.
No one would be mollified by her reason that it had taken all evening to find the traps laid by old Mr. Pratt and trigger them with the sling she’d borrowed. She’d told John that she was only going to seek out the last of the ripe wild currants.
Her guardian didn’t approve of poaching, but he didn’t think it was Willa’s place to stop it. Of course, it also wasn’t her place to fell innocent strangers on the lane.
Perhaps if her handsome fellow came walking into the village under his own power, there would be less of a ruckus over her latest escapade. She craned her neck to gaze hopefully into his face.
No such chance. He was most assuredly not in walking condition. Resting her chin on one fist, she gazed at him. She had never been so near a man, especially one so fine.
None of the men she knew would come close to her, fond of her as they might be. Not a one of them would so much as give her a kiss, not after what happened to poor Wesley Moss. And now, with Timothy, her reputation would no doubt spread far beyond.
Why, she might go all the rest of her days without being kissed. Since this man was already unconscious, she may as well take advantage of a unique opportunity.
She leaned over him again, given courage by the growing darkness. He smelled wonderful, like spice and horse and a heady scent she didn’t have a name for but that she responded to anyway.
Taking another deep breath, Willa fancied she could smell adventure on him. This was a man who had smelled the scents of the world, she would wager. He’d breathed in exotic scents like those of the dusty streets of Cairo or the perfumed salons of Vienna.
He might even now be on his way to London. This road didn’t go there, but Willa knew that it eventually met a greater road south of Derryton, although she had never been that far. Imagine, London!
Willa shook her head. She was being silly. Yet simply the way the man’s lips had felt under her fingertips made her all breathless and fairly dying of curiosity.
No one was about. No one would ever, ever know.
Sliding slowly up her fellow’s chest in a fashion that made her catch her breath in a whole new way, Willa hesitated. Was it wrong to kiss someone without his permission? Timothy had very politely asked her first. Not that it had done him any good, what with the broken bones and all.
“Would you mind terribly if I kissed you?”
Well, she could quite truthfully report that there was no protest. After running the tip of her tongue over her lips, Willa pressed them to her handsome fellow’s mouth.
It was lovely, to be sure, but somehow not what she was expecting. With a disappointed sigh, she slid off his chest and lay low in the grass beside him.
He was terribly untidy, with his coat twisted about and his limbs splayed. If she left and someone else discovered him like this, he’d likely be embarrassed by his disarray. Not to mention that settling him would provide an excuse for her to touch him once more.
By the time she’d gotten him rearranged to her satisfaction, she was out of breath again. Wasn’t it odd how touching a hard thigh or a large, roughened hand could take one’s very air? Perhaps she should stop touching him if she wanted to ease her breathing.
Leaning on her elbows and tipping her head back, Willa contemplated the growing dusk. She could leave him as soon as the hornets settled. She would go before long, for he had not woken yet, and that was not a good sign.
Just as soon as the hornets settled . . .
Copyright © 2005 by Celeste Bradley. All rights reserved.
Celeste Bradley is the New York Times bestselling author of Scoundrel in My Dreams, Desperately Seeking a Duke, and the Royal Four and Liars Club series, among many others. Prior to giving writing a try, Celeste was a professional artist. Believing that storytelling is as much of an art form, she applies those skills to writing. She is a two-time RITA Nominee and winner of the prestigious Historical Storyteller of the Year from Romantic Times Book Reviews. Mother of two teen divas, Southern-born Celeste lives in the Southwest. Her hobbies include gardening, jewelry making and collage. She feels very strongly that literacy can change lives.