Lord Carlton’s Courtship
Gunshots pierced the chill night air, barely noticeable over the rumble of the approaching storm and the thunder of hooves as four desperate riders dodged through the well-prepared ambush. Lord Giles Carlton peered through the driving rain, urging his exhausted mount through the treacherous mud of the wide lane.
There was another round of shots and suddenly the horse closest to Giles’s stumbled, and the slight figure upon it slumped forward. With a muttered curse, Giles leaned sideways to grasp the reins of the frightened horse, gritting his teeth at the effort needed to keep both nervous thoroughbreds under control.
The night had turned into an unmitigated disaster. In the comfort of his elegant London home, it had seemed a simple enough task. He and his cousin, Jack Howe, were to travel to the coast and at an isolated spot retrieve a packet of letters smuggled in from France. Although Giles had sold out his commission the year before, he had often carried out such delicate missions in a purely unofficial capacity.
Now, fleeing through the night with gunshots ringing in his ears and the cold rain drenching his rough wool clothing, he desperately wished he had outgrown his thirst for adventure and remained in his safe, warm house.
Of course, it was too late for regrets. He had accepted the commission without hesitation, just as he had accepted all the other assignments over the past few years. He had always known that his luck might run out at some point.
Shoving aside these fruitless thoughts, he concentrated on his unfamiliar surroundings. Somehow he had to find shelter. Not only was he concerned with the condition of the silent youth at his side, but he realized it was suicidal to plunge through the darkness at such a speed.
Somewhere behind him, his cousin and the second man who had met them on the beach were attempting to avoid the gang of ruffians, but unable to relay any message, he could only trust in Jack’s ability to fend for himself as he veered the two horses off the road and entered the small copse of trees.
Retreating a few feet into the sheltering darkness, he drew the horses to an abrupt halt. Then, barely daring to breathe, he listened intently to the angry shouts of his pursuers as they raced by. For a moment he could imagine he was close enough to smell the stench of their filthy clothing, to feel the spray of mud from their horses hooves. But, unbelievably, they never bothered to glance toward the trees where he hid.
Still, even when it was clear that he had momentarily given them the slip, he remained frozen to the spot, silently hoping they didn’t have the sense to backtrack when they discovered they had lost their prey.
It wasn’t until the lad at his side gave a low moan that he unclenched his taut muscles and turned to deal with his silent companion.
“I think we have managed to elude them for the moment,” he whispered softly. “Are you hurt?”
“Yes, my shoulder.” The voice was barely audible, and Giles moved his horse closer.
In the darkness the form appeared pathetically small, and Giles gave a sharp frown. When he and Jack had met the two couriers on the beach, he hadn’t particularly noticed either of them. At the time he had been more intent on receiving the packet he’d been ordered to take to London, and only moments later they had been attacked. Now he wondered if the government had become desperate enough to recruit boys barely out of their short coats.
“Can you go on?” he demanded, his voice unconsciously harsh. “In time those brigades will realize that we are no longer ahead of them and come back to search the road.”
“I know.” There was a pause; then the soft voice continued. “There is a barn not far from here. Do you think we would be safe there?”
“A barn?” Giles thrust aside his irrational burst of anger. The child had suffered enough for one night. “Can you lead me there?”
“I think so.”
With an obvious effort the young man regained control of his reins, then cautiously began to head deeper into the thicket. Giles followed close behind, silently cursing his predicament. For all he knew Jack was still being pursued by the bloodthirsty gang, and he was lost in the soggy darkness with a wounded child.
Once more his thoughts veered to London and the various invitations he had declined. Although the Season wasn’t yet under way, there was always entertainment to be found. His hallway had been littered with various giltedged invitations, and he knew there would be several hopeful mamas fervently hoping he would make an appearance at their small gatherings.
He heaved a small sigh, deciding that perhaps his current troubles might not be so bad after all. Granted, he was human enough to appreciate the luxury and elegant ease of his life, but the price he paid was being forever hounded by suitable young women intent on capturing his wary heart.
There appeared to be no end to their feminine tricks and Giles had long ago given up hope of discovering a woman who could arouse more than a fleeting passion.
His father had warned him to live and love with honor—words Giles had taken to heart. How could he possibly honor a woman willing to sacrifice herself to the highest bidder?
“There it is.”
The muffled words diverted him from his dark thoughts, and Giles peered through the darkness to see the faint outlines of a large structure.
“Stay here,” he commanded. “I will check to ensure that it is safe.”
Without giving the lad time to argue, Giles slowly made his way to the edge of the trees. The storm was increasing in intensity, and the brilliant flashes of lightning enabled him to ascertain that the barn was well isolated and there appeared to be no sign of life. Beneath him the horse shied nervously at a loud clap of thunder, and with a decisive nod of his head, Giles returned to his companion.
“I think we must risk the barn. At least until the storm passes,” he said. “Can you make it there?”
“I’ll make it.”
Giles smiled slightly. The child had spunk, he acknowledged as he turned and guided his wary horse to the barn. Many men would have been complaining bitterly at the miserable conditions and a no doubt painful wound. And yet, this child had managed to find them shelter without a word of complaint. He sincerely hoped that meant the boy wasn’t as badly injured as he’d first feared. His doctoring skills were severely limited.
With his finely honed instincts on full alert, Giles cautiously approached the barn, pausing a moment before slipping off his mount and tugging open one of the large doors.
A pungent odor of dust and moldy straw instantly filled the air, but Giles ignored the unpleasant scent. At the moment the barn was as welcome as the finest home in England. Leading his horse into the musty shadows, he listened as his companion followed closely behind. Then, jumping off his exhausted horse, Giles moved to search his bag for the candle and flint he had placed in it earlier. After considerable effort there was at last a soft glow of light. Turning he watched as the slender youth began to slowly dismount, but even as he moved forward to provide assistance, the small form abruptly crumpled into a heap on the hard dirt floor.
With a soft curse, Giles hurried forward, swiftly moving the horses to the far side of the barn. Tethering their reins to a pole, he returned to the frighteningly still child, and carefully reached down to move the fragile body onto a pile of nearby hay.
A stab of anger shot through his heart at feeling the slight weight in his arms. For God’s sake, the boy must be even younger than I imagined, he thought in disbelief. Who on earth would allow a mere child to be placed in such a dangerous position?
It was something he was determined to discover as soon as possible. It was all very well for grown men to make the decision to risk their lives for the welfare of their country, but it was quite another to induce innocent children to do it.
With gentle care, he made the unconscious boy as comfortable as possible; then, turning, he cleared a space to set down the candle. In the feeble light he could make out the pale, almost delicate features of the lad, but attempting to ignore his disgust at a child’s having been injured in such a manner, he forced his gaze to the thin woolen shirt that was stained an ugly shade of crimson.
Uncertain what he could do in the rough confines of the barn, Giles decided to at least inspect the wound. If nothing else he could reassure himself that the boy wasn’t about to become a corpse.
Attempting to be as gentle as possible, considering his fingers were stiff with cold and the soggy fabric of the shirt refused to cooperate, Giles at last breathed a hiss of exasperation. The child might bleed to death at this rate, he acknowledged, and gritting his teeth, he grasped the material, about to give it a mighty yank.
Considering his recent run of luck, he wasn’t particularly surprised when the shirt abruptly ripped from shoulder to waist. He could only hope the unfortunate lad possessed more than one set of clothing. Heaving a sigh, he grabbed the candle and leaned forward to survey the damage.
At first his sole concern was centered on the torn flesh from which a small amount of blood continued to seep. But, as he peered closer, he was deeply relieved to discover that there wasn’t a serious injury. Clearly the bullet had merely clipped the top of the shoulder. A painful injury, no doubt, but not life threatening.
Satisfied the boy would survive, Giles was about to pull away when the candle flickered and instinctively his gaze followed the shadows dancing along pale skin. Abruptly his loud gasp filled the silent barn. For a horrified moment, Giles refused to accept what his eyes were telling him. It couldn’t be possible. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be possible. But even as he shook his head in denial, he knew it was the truth.
A woman. Hell and damnation, it was a woman.
Mesmerized by a combination of shock and utter disbelief, he stared wide-eyed at satin skin glowing with the rich luster of a pearl in the candlelight, and the unmistakable thrust of a rose-tipped breast exposed by the tattered shirt. Hardly aware of what he was doing, Giles reached out a hand and plucked the dark cap from her head, his breath rushing through his teeth as a cascade of deep auburn curls spread onto the hay.
Not just a woman, his bemused mind conceded, but an incredibly beautiful woman, despite the cheap male clothing and the dirt clinging to her delicately formed features. What color were her eyes? Green? With that hair it would be only natural …
A sudden wave of disgust rose through his body as he realized where his stunned thoughts were leading. With an almost violent movement, he was on his feet and striding angrily toward the neglected horses.
Had the government run completely mad, he seethed silently, searching for a brush to groom his weary steed. What could have possessed them to allow a woman to become entangled in such a dangerous liaison? Surely there had to be mistake? At least it had better be a mistake, he silently amended. Otherwise he would ensure that someone paid for this unforgivable act.
Consumed with anger, Giles devoted his time to caring for the horses, and taking a short walk around the barn to ensure that no one had noticed their arrival. Then, returning inside, he paused beside the slight figure stretched on the hay.
He had managed to work off his initial burst of fury, but at the sight of her lying so still and helpless, blood marring her white skin, he found his muscles once more tightening in anger. He wanted to confront whomever was responsible for the woman’s presence on the beach, but unable to release his mounting frustration, Giles could do no more than carefully cover her limp frame with his heavy coat and retreat a few feet to settle his lithe frame uneasily on the lumpy hay.
He was thoroughly exhausted, but he had no thought of sleep. Someone would have to keep guard through the remainder of the night, and since it was clear that his companion was incapable of lending any aid, Giles resigned himself to a long, miserable night.
Unknowingly his gaze returned to the fragile profile of the mysterious woman, but rather than futilely ponder on where she might have come from or how she’d become involved in this current dilemma, he instead thought back to the moment when everything had gone wrong.
There had been nothing to warn him that they were being watched. He and Jack had set off from the Posting Inn at the appropriate time, and hadn’t encountered a soul on their way to the secluded cove. Exactly as directed the two couriers had approached, using the correct password before handing over the well-wrapped package.
It was at that moment a fatal flash of lightning had streaked through the darkness and they had heard the sound of a startled horse. Almost as one, the four on the beach had turned and headed inland, startling the waiting gang enough to pass by them before they could attack.
It was mere luck they had managed to escape at all. Giles had little doubt the men were under orders to kill all four of them, and he could only wonder who had set up the well-planned ambush.
His mind instantly dismissed the woman and her unknown partner. The thugs had fired randomly at the retreating horsemen, obviously unconcerned as to whom they might hit. Besides, either of them could easily have killed him and Jack the moment they had approached.
No, it had to be someone else. Someone who had been intimately familiar with the details of the plan—and who wanted the packet, now safely stored in his bag, enough to kill for it.
Shivering slightly, Giles huddled deeper in the uncomfortable hay. He was desperately worried about his impetuously brave cousin. Had he somehow managed to escape the bloodthirsty gang? Would he have the sense to continue toward London or would he be foolhardy enough to return and risk his life in search of him?
Giles sighed, wishing he had left Jack safely in London. This wasn’t the first adventure his cousin had accompanied him on, and normally he enjoyed Jack’s ready humor and enthusiasm. It wasn’t until tonight that he fully realized the danger to which he had exposed the young man.
Sunk in dark thoughts as the night slowly passed and the storm eased, Giles eventually rose to stretch his knotted muscles. He was fairly confident the danger had passed, but his mind was far from easy.
There were still too many unanswered questions that had to be settled. Starting with the woman still lying peacefully in the straw. Taking a step forward, he came to a sudden halt as she stirred slightly, her heavily fringed lids fluttering slowly open.
Absurdly Giles found himself holding his breath as her confused gaze traveled over his mud-splattered clothing and tousled raven hair. Hazel, he thought inanely, meeting her wide eyes with an unconscious frown. He had been almost certain they would be green.
“Where am I?”
The voice was weak, but Giles instantly sensed the fear in her low words. Moving forward, he knelt beside her on the hay.
“To be honest, I haven’t the least notion. You led us to this barn after we managed to elude the gang chasing us.”
Her lids briefly closed, then once more lifted, the vivid beauty of her eyes pronounced even in the dim shadows of the barn.
“I remember now. They surprised us on the beach … I was shot.”
“Nothing serious,” he swiftly reassured her. “You should be healed within the month.”
She seemed to breathe a soft sigh. “I couldn’t tell. It felt as if my shoulder were on fire. Do you think they are gone?”
“Yes, I imagine they gave up several hours ago. Such men might be willing to attack the unwary, but I doubt they possess the ambition to search for armed men in such miserable conditions as existed.”
His brisk tone slightly eased the tension of her pale features, but his shrewd gaze didn’t miss the flicker of unease that entered her large eyes.
“I suppose I should thank you. I have no doubt that you saved my life.”
“Perhaps.” Giles gave an indifferent shrug. “But you were the one who discovered this barn. Without it, we both would have suffered through a very unpleasant night.”
“I am glad I remembered it was here.” She displayed a small frown. “Do you know what happened to my … companion? I can barely remember what happened after I was shot.”
Giles narrowed his gaze. The woman’s voice was soft, but there was no mistaking the cultured tone.
“No, but I trust he and my cousin are fine. Jack is a good man to have along in an emergency.”
She nodded her head, then flinched slightly as his heavy coat rubbed her tender wound. “I hope you are right.”
“Are you in pain?” He reached out an instinctive hand to check her injury, only to be halted as she hastily sank deeper into the hay.
“No, I’m fine. Just a bit sore.”
Giles arched a chiseled brow, the brilliant blue of his eyes filled with wry humor.
“I fear that it is a little too late for modesty. Unfortunately there was no one here but myself last night to see to your injury.”
An unexpected flush bloomed beneath her pale cheeks. “I see.”
His firmly sculptured lips twisted. “I did not, at least not until too late. I assumed that you were a young boy.”
Her lids dropped in painful embarrassment. “I never expected … I did not think anyone would know.”
“Clearly you were mistaken,” he retorted firmly, ignoring the vulnerable image she made with her vibrant curls haloing that pale face and the full softness of lips trembling with emotion. He wanted an explanation for her outrageous behavior. “Now, I think it is time you told me exactly what you were doing in that cove last night.”
Beguiled by her blushing confusion, he was caught off guard when her gaze abruptly lifted to stab him with a sparkling glare.
“I don’t see why that is necessary. I am grateful for your assistance, but I think it is best if we remain anonymous.”
“Don’t be absurd.” Giles gave a disbelieving frown. “I can hardly escort you home without at least knowing your name. This situation is going to be difficult enough to explain as it is. I sincerely hope your father doesn’t see fit to call me out.”
“That’s hardly likely, considering that he is dead,” she retorted bluntly. “And there is no need for you to escort me anywhere. You have the letters you came for; you should be on your way to London.”
Naturally he ignored her last foolish words. There would be no argument about his seeing her safely home, no matter what the damage to her reputation. But he did find himself curious about her family. What sort of people would allow this young innocent to roam through the night, disguised as a boy and interfering in matters she had no business knowing about?
“If you have no father, then who is your guardian?”
For a moment he thought she meant to ignore his question, but finally she gave a restless movement.
“I assume he has no knowledge of your adventure?”
She paused, an odd flash of pain rippling across her face. “No.”
“I am relieved.” He tilted his dark head to one side. “No doubt in the future he will be more diligent in his responsibilities. It was sheer insanity for you to enter into such a dangerous charade.”
Once more the hazel eyes flashed. “And what of you?”
“Me?” His brow rose in surprise.
“Was it insanity for you to be at the cove last night?”
He experienced a flare of unexpected amusement at her sharp tone. The chit certainly had spirit.
“Perhaps, but at least I am capable of taking care of myself.” He forced himself to lecture her severely. “Can you imagine what would have occurred if those ruffians had managed to waylay you? Trust me, you would have been pleading for death long before they eventually disposed of your body.”
She gave a small shiver at his deliberately blunt words, and he felt a twinge of guilt at forcing her to contemplate such sordid thoughts. Still, he silently reassured himself, it was best she realized the extent of her folly. Perhaps the next time she would think twice before capering off on some madcap scheme.
“Please, I do not wish to discuss last night,” she managed to murmur weakly. “My shoulder aches, and I am desperately thirsty. Could I have some water?”
He allowed himself to smile at her very feminine complaints. He’d been starting to wonder if she possessed any womanly qualities. At least in more than just the physical sense, he corrected, a sudden heat flickering through his lower body as he recalled the exposed beauty of her slender form. Almost instantly he was on his feet, disgruntled by his vivid memories.
“If I remember correctly there is a stream not too far away,” he said rigidly, keeping his expression unreadable. “You rest here, and I will be back in a few moments.”
“You are so very kind,” she muttered, her lids drooping with a mixture of pain and exhaustion.
With a wry smile, he wondered if she would think him so kind if she knew precisely what thoughts had been burning in his mind; then, with a small shrug, he turned and headed for the bag he had left beside the horses.
Within moments he had extracted a fine silver flask, and with one last glance at the sleeping woman, he quietly made his way out of the barn, leaving the door wide open in case she should call for help.
It was a fine morning, he discovered, heading toward the line of trees they had traversed the night before. Overhead the early morning sun attempted to dry the lingering wetness of the tender spring grass, and the air was spiced with the pungent scent of wildflowers. A perfect day for a ride, he decided, feeling unexplainably lighthearted for a man in his position.
No doubt it was mere relief after the traumatic night, he concluded, halting beside the small stream. A natural reaction to a near-death experience.
Bending down, he was in the act of filling the flask with the chilled water when a sudden noise had him jumping to his feet.
Spinning about he rushed back toward the barn, his instincts on full alert. But despite his speed it took several moments to at last reach the edge of the thick woods, and even as he stepped clear of the trees a horse galloped past him, headed for the wide fields that surrounded the barn.
For long moments he stood in frozen amazement, watching the tiny woman disappear over a low hill. Then he gave a disgusted shake of his head.
For the first time in his life, Lord Giles Carlton had been neatly outwitted. And by a pint-sized chit with more courage than sense.