Finished with the news sheets, His Grace, Neville Perceval, the Duke of Anglesey drained his brandy glass, picked up his walking stick and high-crowned hat, and set out for home. He had a stack of estate papers on his desk that needed his attention. And his cousin Blanche had yet another mad scheme for improving the Manchester mills that he must discourage in some manner.
He couldn’t believe he was placed in the position of acting as a bloody tradesman just to keep his wretched cousin from sinking all her coins into improbable schemes for benefiting the welfare of mankind. Mankind was scarce worth the effort.
Neville allowed instinct to guide him home while he lost himself in thought. The Anglesey townhouse occupied a rather large chunk of real estate in one of the older sections of town, one where gaslights had not yet been installed. Accustomed to the dark shadows of trees from the park, Neville gave his surroundings little notice. Even the clammy fog obscuring the pavement did not deter him. He could find his way home blindfolded if needed.
Only the sound of a footstep where there shouldn’t be one finally dragged him from his reverie. One too many violent incidents in these past years of political chaos had taught him caution. Had someone followed him from the club? Why?
One of the things he had learned from Michael, Blanche’s new husband, was how to act quickly and defend himself. Over the years, his lessons with Gentleman Jackson had given him a much needed outlet for frustration. Neville needed no more than the snap of a twig to jump from absentminded thought to full alert.
The scoundrel crashing through the shrubbery caught the full force of the gold-plated knob of Neville’s walking stick. The second scoundrel suffered the brunt of Neville’s fist plowing into his face at such an angle that his jaw fell slack. Neville cursed as still a third leapt from the bushes, and footsteps behind him indicated he’d attracted a crowd.
Giving up any pretense of politeness, he flicked open the sword in his stick, slashed at the man advancing from his side, kicked at the one rising from the street, and heard the sweet sound of a groan as he connected with his soft target. Any triumph he might have felt dissipated the moment a cudgel cracked across the back of his skull.
With a growl of fury, Neville swung and slashed at his opponent, but he’d already realized the futility. There were just too many of them.
As someone grabbed his sword and twisted it from his hand, Neville plowed his fist into still another jaw and had the satisfaction of hearing it crack before the club came down on his skull again.
This time, the Duke of Anglesey crumpled to the street, swearing as the blackness of unconsciousness threatened. He had no heir. He couldn’t die.
“Fiona, where the devil have you been? We’ve been looking for you for hours.” Seamus clattered down the stairs, waving two sheets of expensive paper in his hand. “We’ve got letters from Blanche.”
“Lady Aberdare,” Fiona corrected wearily, pushing past her brother and up the massive front stairs toward the security of her room and a hot bath.
“She doesn’t stand on formality,” Seamus replied without heat, following her up. “She wants you to join her in London, says it’s much too boring otherwise, and Michael has business in the Lords, so she can’t leave. She says she’ll give you a come-out. You can find yourself a wealthy husband who can finance my campaign when I graduate.”
Fiona snorted inelegantly at this specious bit of selfishness as she continued trudging up the stairs. “Marry a wealthy widow and support your own campaign.”
“You can’t disappoint Blanche after all she’s done for us. I’m to escort you to London when I return to Oxford. It’s time you left the muck of this place and become the lady you’re supposed to be.”
Seamus was her elder by two years, but Fiona had decided long ago that his brains were ten years younger. “I am not supposed to be a lady!” she shouted down at him where he hesitated on the landing. “And I’m bloody well not returning to that den of iniquity they call London!”
“You have no choice,” he shouted back. “Michael has sent the fares and Uncle William has already arranged our transportation. We’re to leave the day after tomorrow.”
That she damned well was not. She had Aileen’s children to worry about. Someone must find them food and homes. And the other women without menfolk in the village would starve this winter if she did not find some means of providing for them.
Mr. O’Donegal was supposed to teach them the old ways of preparing the flax they grew this summer so they could earn coins by weaving cloth. She had hope that quality linen might save the village, once the money they’d raised at the festival bought the looms. Burke would see to that on trade day.
Fiona heard her Uncle William calling her from the study above. The emotion of the day finally hit her with the impact a cannonball. She couldn’t face him now. She simply couldn’t.
Without further thought, Fiona took the back stairs two at a time, rushing out through the kitchen and past the startled cook, heading for the stable. Once upon a long time ago the earls of Aberdare had kept the finest stables in all of Europe. Those horses were long since lost, and the new earl resided in England and had little use for more. But they still had two fine mares eating them out of house and home. Fiona had practically grown up on the back of them. They were her one comfort in times of distress.
The roan tossed her head and nickered in greeting as Fiona grabbed a bridle.
Neville’s duties kept him from traveling often. He had never visited Ireland for pleasure, and had certainly never expected to be fascinated by greenery lush to the point of opulence. Dusk created dancing shadows over the rolling fields he could well imagine peopled by cavorting elven folk. The mist and the lowering sun spun even the animals in the field into creatures of imagination.
The blows to his head must have warped his brain. The persistent headache had faded recently, lulling him into a false sense of well-being. The pain returned full force now, after an exhausting day of riding rough roads and losing himself in the byways by failing to understand the directions given when asked. If he didn’t find Aberdare shortly, he’d be forced to sleep in the hedgerows.
Glancing toward the setting sun in hopes of seeing civilization ahead, Neville nearly fell from his saddle as a silhouette of a fey creature on horseback flew from the woods, hair streaming in silken lengths behind her. He imagined a lady centaur, or a fairy thieving some poor farmer’s best mare.
Not once did he consider that the animal had taken control and endangered its rider. Even through the lengthening shadows Neville could see slim limbs and confident hands guiding the racing animal over potholes and ruts and into a breathtaking leap over a crumbling rock wall. The amazing sight not only tore the breath from his lungs, but aroused a lust he’d neglected for so long, he scarcely recognized it for what it was.
Forgetting headache and weariness, he steered his mount on a connecting path with the wayward rider’s. Despite her apparel, he knew the equestrian was female. She was a woman wearing breeches. Perhaps she had a liberal view of other things besides attire.
Her mount nearly collided with his in the shadows of the trees as she raced across the road he traveled. She reined in, rearing her horse to a halt. “Who the devil are you?” she demanded imperiously.
Instead of grinning at her brash introduction, Neville scowled at the familiarity of a voice he hadn’t heard in years. “Fiona MacDermot! You damned well haven’t gained a particle of sense since I saw you last.” So much for any brief hopes of pleasure.
The feminine figure stilled, then as recognition dawned, she responded in outrage. “His bloody majesty, it is! And a fine damned ending to one of the worst days of my life this is. If it’s paying for me sins I am to have the likes of you about, then I’ll do penance and never sin again.” She swung her horse around and started to ride away.
Realizing she could lead him to Aberdare, Neville grabbed her reins, earning a crack across his gloved hand with her riding crop for his imposition. He snatched the weapon from her grasp before she could strike again. “Bigad, I can’t believe Blanche wants a hoydenish creature like you anywhere near her. What the devil are you wearing?”
“Why, and it’s me finest skirts, I’m sure,” she replied mockingly. “Do not the ladies of London know the fashion?”
Neville had the distinct recollection of his urge to beat her the last time he’d seen Michael’s cousin. She had the tongue of a harpy and the soul of a demon. She’d been a skinny nineteen and wearing rags and baggy gowns. He couldn’t remember her ever looking like a wood sprite with curves to match the lushness of his surroundings. The only thing that kept him from an unholy state of lust was her stench.
“What have you been rolling in? A sty?” he asked unrepentantly, ignoring her mockery.
“Sure, and would your nobleness know what a pig smells like? Let go my reins. I’m going home.”
“So am I, and I’m not letting you out of my sight while I do it. There are brigands in these woods this time of night.”
“Do you need me to protect your precious hide?” she asked with grating innocence. “Sure, and a fine nobleman like yourself might look out for the dirty Irish bastards who’d steal the hair off your head did you let them.”
“Shut up, Fiona, and start moving. I always knew my cousin was dicked in the nob, but now I’m certain she’s lost all wit to ask the likes of you into her home. Michael should put a snaffle on you.”
“A snaffle! Damn you for an arrogant…”
Neville jerked her rein when she tried to twist her horse away. “Stop it, Fiona. Behave like an adult for a change. If you’re old enough for a come-out, you’re old enough to mind your tongue. I’ll not have you embarrassing Blanche if she insists on your company.”
“I’ll have you know I’m twenty-one and long past the age for a come-out. I want no part of the lady’s invitation. Lady Aberdare is all that is kind, but I have no such opinion of London society. So you and my brother may return to merry old England without me.”
“I don’t think it works that way,” Neville replied grimly. “I gave my word I’d escort you to London safe and sound, and I have no intention of going back on it.”
The ache in the back of his head pounded in earnest at this reminder of his obligation. He was here as a kind of holiday, a break from his duties after the painful and humiliating incident that had left him bleeding and unconscious in the street. He’d never quite understood why the scoundrels had left him alive. He might have been happier had they not.
As it was, the overwhelming concern of everyone from the lowliest maid to the prime minister himself had driven him out of London. He’d dallied at Anglesey rather than make the journey to Ireland as he’d been instructed, but he hadn’t been able to put off the task any longer. He was here now, and he was leaving in two days’ time. And the imp from hell and her brother were going with him.
For Blanche’s sake, Neville would take Fiona to London in a sack if necessary.