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A Wicked Gentleman
 


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A Wicked Gentleman


  Acclaim for New York Times bestselling author

  JANE FEATHER

  and her previous historical romances

  “An accomplished storyteller…rare and wonderful.”

  —Los Angles Daily News

  “[A] boundary-pushing page-turner…Rich with details that put the ‘historical’ back into historical romance, this tale seethes with breathtaking tension.”

  —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

  “A perfect ending…delightful…fascinating and entertaining characters.”

  —Booklist

  A devour-it-like-chocolate page-turner that takes the reader through the vivid landscapes of the time.”

  —BookPage

  Also by Jane Feather

  Almost a Lady

  Almost a Bride

  The Wedding Game

  The Bride Hunt

  The Bachelor List

  An Original Publication of POCKET BOOKS

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  Copyright © 2007 by Jane Feather

  All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Pocket Books, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020

  ISBN-10: 1-4165-3954-9

  ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-3954-4

  POCKET STAR BOOKS and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

  Visit us on the World Wide Web:

  http://www.SimonSays.com

  A WICKED GENTLEMAN

  Prologue

  HE DUCKED INTO THE SHADOWS of the yew hedge bordering the square garden and held his breath, listening. He could hear nothing but he knew they were behind him somewhere in the darkness. They were as skilled at pursuit as he was at eluding it. He slipped his hand inside his shirt and felt the small, hard shape taped securely beneath his right arm. They mustn’t find it on him.

  No lamplight shone from the row of tall houses across the street. Even the servants were in bed at this unfriendly hour of the night. A fitful moon illuminated short flights of honed steps that led up directly from the pavement to the immaculate front doors with their gleaming brass knockers. Neat black railings enclosed the area steps that led down to the kitchen regions.

  Behind him something crackled…a squirrel rustling through the fallen leaves…but no, he knew it was them. He was unsure how many there were, but guessed at least two. He stroked the hilt of the short blade in its sheath at his waist. He could make a stand here, if there were only two of them. But if there were more they could come at him from all sides in the shadowy gloom of this cold February night.

  He was in motion almost before his mind was aware of it, breaking cover and racing across the street. And now he could hear them, feet pounding behind him. In the flickering moonlight he made out a carriage rounding the corner of the square, the four-in-hand at a near gallop under the direction of a whip-cracking young man and his two companions, swaying drunkenly on the box, their raucous laughter demolishing the quiet.

  Bent double, inches from the flailing hooves, he dived for the far pavement. The leaders, already panicked by the shrieking laughter and the out-of-control hands on their reins, lunged and reared at the thing suddenly rolling beneath them. Laughter gave way to shouts as the team lurched sideways and the carriage hung on two wheels, before losing purchase on the road and toppling over.

  The man paused for barely a second, assessing the noisy chaos behind him in the middle of the street. The horses struggled in the traces, their reins twisted. One of the leaders was on its knees.

  Mayhem enough to hold off his pursuers for vital minutes. He held still, his eyes accustomed now to the semidarkness, scanning his immediate surroundings. The elegant well-maintained facades of London’s aristocracy lined the square on all four sides. For the moment no house light yet shone in response to the mayhem. Something brushed against his ankles. He started and there was a protesting squall. A cat leaped between his feet and down the area steps immediately in front of him. He stared down into the black depths of the tiny yard. A pair of eyes gleamed as the cat jumped onto a low windowsill. Then it vanished.

  Instinct took him down the steps, feeling his way. Above him the sounds of chaos intensified. He pressed himself against the wall at the bottom of the steps and saw the cat’s eyes glaring at him from the windowsill. But this time they were inside the window, looking out. The window sash was raised about twelve inches, more than enough for a cat to wriggle through, but not for a man. He was a skinny man, to be sure, but no contortionist.

  He put his hands beneath the window and pushed. It rose infinitesimally. But it had moved. The cat jumped down with a protesting meow. The man pushed again. A foot and a half would do it. He was calm even though every sense was stretched to catch the slightest sound, smell, the merest whiff of his pursuers. The window creaked, stuck, creaked again—then shifted just enough.

  He slithered through the space on his belly, kicking his legs like a novice swimmer, and fell to the flagstone floor, bracing himself on his flattened hands.

  There was a smell of damp, of kitchen detritus left overlong. The ashes in the range were cold. The flags beneath his feet were sticky with refuse. A rat scampered behind the wainscot.

  Harry Bonham ran his hands over the horse’s fetlocks. He had coaxed the terrified animal up from its knees, and now it stood, lathered and panting distressfully, head lowered, eyes still rolling. “How are the others, Lester?”

  “They’ll do, sir,” his companion stated, spitting onto the cobbles with an expression of disgust, as he added, “By some miracle.”

  “Aye,” the other said, straightening to regard the dispossessed coachman. “What of you, man? You hurt?”

  The coachman was surveying the tumbled carriage and his distressed horses with an expression of confused dismay. “No…no, sir. Thank’ee. Thank God, you were ’ere, sir. It weren’t my fault, sir. Them tosspots put a pistol to my head, snatched the reins. It was all I could do to ’ang on up there. Thank God you were ’ere, sir,” he repeated with the same bewildered defensiveness.

  Harry Bonham’s eyebrows flickered. As far as he was concerned, nothing could have been less fortuitous than the timing of this encounter. He glanced around. The three young men who’d been driving the carriage were picking themselves up from the cobbles. Their movements were uncertain and when they managed to stand they swayed like saplings in a gale. Their extravagantly high cravats and violently colored waistcoats identified them as aspirants to the Four Horse Club, Corinthians in the making.

  Harry’s lip curled. Idiot children of privilege, drunken sots with no more ability to drive a four-in-hand than to dig a ditch. And they had no idea what work their sottish prank had disrupted this night. A tongue of anger licked at his customary impassivity.

  He bent down and picked up the coachman’s long driving whip that had fallen to the street in the chaos. He flicked and caught the tip in his gloved hand, then advanced on the three youths.

  Lester nodded as if in satisfaction, and said to the coachman, “Help me get these beasts out of the traces.”

  The man hurried to oblige, although his eyes darted over his shoulder at the scene unfolding behind him.

  The three young men stared at the man coming towards them. He was impeccably dressed in black, and, if he’d been wearing the obligatory white waistcoat, could have been on his way home from Brooks’s or some such aristocratic haunt. But his coat was buttoned to the neck and he wore a bicorn hat pulled low over his forehead. His eyes were cold in the faint white m
oonlight.

  His hand flicked, the whip cracked, and the youths yelled more in bewildered outrage than fear or pain. It cracked again, and this time fear spurred their headlong flight. For a few moments that the coachman and Lester could only find comic, they blundered into each other, trying to find a route away from the fiery tip of the avenging whip, the relentless advance of the black-clad, cold-eyed avenger. None of it made sense. They’d done nothing wrong…nothing out of the ordinary. Everyone played such pranks, it was no worse than boxing the Watch.

  The whip-wielding stranger, however, maintained an almost indifferent silence as he went about his work, and finally, as pain penetrated the alcoholic anesthesia, they fled towards the darkness of the square garden, their pursuer in leisurely fashion flicking them on their way.

  Harry’s nostrils flared as they disappeared into the shrubbery. He caught the tip of the whip and coiled it neatly, turning back to the toppled carriage and the now-released horses. “Any serious damage?”

  “Off-side leader has a strained fetlock, sir,” the coachman said, stroking the animal’s neck.

  “Yes, I noticed.” Harry reached inside his coat and drew out a card. “Take them here. My head groom’s a wizard with fetlocks.”

  The man took the card and cast a questioning look at the man who had given it to him. “I can lead ’em there all right, m’lord, but what about the carriage?”

  Harry shrugged. “An expensive toy for spoiled brats. It’s no concern of mine. But the horses are.” He turned away, then said over his shoulder, “Giles makes an excellent rum punch…tell him I say you’ve earned it.”

  The coachman touched his forelock. “Aye, m’lord. Thankee, sir.”

  “And if I were you, I’d choose my employers with more care,” Bonham said. “I’ll tell my agent to expect you tomorrow. We need a coachman.” He raised a hand in farewell and stepped out of the road onto the narrow pavement.

  “We lost him,” he stated, looking along the row of elegant houses fronting the square. Anger flickered again behind the cool green eyes. “Those damned drunken louts…”

  “Aye, sir,” Lester agreed, keeping his tone neutral. His master’s fury, cold and all but tangible in the frosty night, was as much directed internally as it was against the follies of misguided youth. The viscount had allowed his focus to blur. But Harry Bonham was incapable of ignoring one downed horse and three panicked ones plunging in their traces in imminent danger of broken legs.

  “So where did he go?” It was a considering murmur as Harry scanned the houses. “He didn’t double back to the square.”

  “You’re sure of that, sir?” Lester looked uncertainly across the street. “In that mess, anyone could have gone anywhere.”

  “No,” Harry said definitely. “I knew who was on the street.” He stroked the knuckles of one hand, frowning in reflection. “Light the torch, Lester. Let’s see what we’ve got here.”

  There was no longer any need to rely only on moonlight. The cacophony in the street had brought lamplight to a dozen windows around the square. No one had ventured into the street, however. It was the Watch’s business to deal with a midnight fracas. A cat circled Harry’s ankles, purring like Cleopatra. He looked down at it. Golden eyes gazed back. The animal arched its back coquettishly and sniffed his boots. Harry liked cats almost as much as he liked horses. He bent to scratch its neck and inhaled a musty, damp smell from its fur.

  “So where did you come from?” he murmured.

  As if in answer, the cat leaped away from him and shot down the steps to a basement area a few feet away.

  Gut instinct stirred. Long ago Harry had learned to trust it. He could almost smell his prey. “Douse the torch,” he instructed in a bare whisper. Instantly they were in semidarkness, the only light from the occasional lamps in the adjoining houses and the first faint gray of the false dawn.

  Harry moved as silently as the cat down the steps into the area. He saw the slight opening in the window and pressed himself into the darkest corner of the tiny yard, certain now that his quarry had gone to ground through that window. He didn’t hear Lester but felt him scrunched into the opposite corner of the yard in the shadow of the steps. There was no point going in after the man. Blundering around in a dark and unfamiliar house would do more harm than good. The man had to come out sometime and logic dictated that he use the same route. If he slipped out through a door, he’d be unable to lock it behind him, and he couldn’t afford to leave any sign at all of his intrusion. Not if, as Harry suspected, he was going to leave something behind for later retrieval.

  They waited. The darkness even in the basement area diminished shade by shade. The light was almost gray when they heard the faint scrape of the window. Saw the slithering shape. They waited until the shape materialized, rose slowly from a crouch. And as it did so, realized that he had company.

  Lester jumped on him, and the two went down in a scuffling heap. There was an instant when Harry, drawing his pistol, couldn’t distinguish Lester from their quarry amid the tangle of limbs. Then something flashed bright in the confusion and Lester gave a cry of mingled pain and surprise. He released his grip on the man, who was instantly gone like a wraith up out of the darkness of the area, up the steps to the street.

  “Dear God,” Harry muttered through his teeth, torn for the barest second between chasing after the fast-moving shadow shape of his quarry and tending to his injured companion.

  “Go after him, sir.” Lester pressed his hand to his chest. “’Tis but a scratch.”

  “Nonsense, man,” Harry said brusquely. “It’s too late, he’s long gone, and that’s no scratch.” His voice filled with concern as he knelt beside Lester, tearing open his shirt. “You need a surgeon.” He unbuttoned his own coat and pulled a pristine cravat from around his neck. Wadding it, he pressed it against the wound. “Hold it there, and I’ll be back in five minutes.”

  He ran to the corner of the square where the first hackney carriages were emerging to face the new day. Within minutes, Lester, swearing with reassuring vigor at every jolt, was ensconced in the carriage and the coachman instructed to take him immediately to 11 Mount Street.

  Harry remained where he was, looking up at the house towering above him, its lightless windows facing the street. Somewhere in there was what he sought, and if he couldn’t put right this night’s work, God only knew how many people would die. He needed reinforcements, and quickly. He strode off in the direction of Pall Mall.

  Chapter 1

  ABSOLUTELY OUT OF THE QUESTION.” The emphatic statement was accompanied by an equally emphatic palm slapping onto the cherrywood table.

  There was silence. The four elderly men sitting along one side of the table regarded the woman seated opposite them with expressions of serene confidence. Judgment had been pronounced by the patriarch, there was nothing more to be said.

  Cornelia Dagenham looked down at the deeply polished surface of the table, thoughtfully examining her companions’ bewhiskered reflections. They all radiated the pink-cheeked untroubled certainty of those who had never faced a moment’s opposition or an instant of want in all their privileged years.

  She raised her head and gazed steadily across the table at her father-in-law. “Out of the question, my lord?” Her voice held a note of faint incredulity. “I don’t understand. A short sojourn in London is hardly an outlandish proposal.”

  It was the old earl’s turn to look incredulous. “My dear Cornelia, of course it is. Never heard such an outlandish proposal.” He glanced to either side, seeking confirmation from his peers.

  “Quite right…quite right, Markby,” murmured his immediate neighbor. “Lady Dagenham, you must see that it would be quite improper for you, a widow, to set up house in town.”

  Cornelia twisted her fingers together in her lap to keep them from drumming her impatience on the tabletop. “I was not suggesting setting up house, Lord Rugby, merely visiting London with a close friend and my sister-in-law for a few weeks. We would put up at
Grillons Hotel, which you must admit is the height of respectability. We are all past the age of discretion, all perfectly capable of chaperoning ourselves without causing a raised eyebrow, even if we were interested in taking part in the season, which we are not. It will be educational for the children—”

  “Nonsense,” the earl of Markby interrupted, slapping the table again. “Utter nonsense. You and your children belong here. Your place is to supervise the care of Stephen’s son and heir, my heir indeed, until he’s ready to go to Harrow. And that care is to take place at Dagenham Manor as his father would have wished.”

  Cornelia’s lips tightened, and a tiny muscle in her cheek jumped, but she kept her voice quiet. “May I point out, my lord, that Stephen left the sole guardianship of our children to me. If I consider a trip to London to be in their best interests, then that is my decision, not the family’s.”

  The earl’s pink complexion darkened to a deep red, and a vein stood out on his temple. “Lady Dagenham, I will brook no opposition in this matter. As his trustees, we are responsible for Viscount Dagenham, my grandson, during his minority—”

  “You are mistaken, my lord,” Cornelia interrupted with an upraised hand. She was very pale now, and her eyes, usually a warm and sunny blue, were bleached with a cold anger. “I and only I am responsible for my son during his minority. That was a decision my husband and I made together.” She placed her hand in her lap, holding herself very still, her eyes never leaving the earl’s.

  He leaned forward, and his own gaze was narrowed as he stared at her. “That may be so, madam, but your trustees hold the purse strings. You can do nothing without funds, and I promise you, ma’am, those funds will not be released for such an irresponsible jaunt as this.”

  “Indeed, Cornelia, do but consider.” A new voice joined the confrontation, but with a conciliatory edge to it. “You have no real experience of town. A single debutante season cannot give you the sophistication, the town polish you would need for such an excursion.”

 
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