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William Curry damned the fact that Paris never truly settled. Long after the sun had set, long after midnight cloaked the streets in an inky stain, a subdued activity lingered in the deep alleys and twisted paths. Even at this late hour, people lurked in the patches of blackness, some scurrying for the safety of a warm fire, others stumbling drunkenly over the rain-slicked cobblestones in search of another tavern and another pint of grog. Such activities made a quick, unnoticed flight through the streets nearly impossible.
Gesturing to the men who followed him, Will abandoned all caution and quickened their pace. The news he had to convey was far more important than the risk of rousing the neighborhood — even though if any of these men were spotted by the wrong sorts of people, they might all end up swinging at the end of a rope. The odd contingency of roués, rakes, and outlaws had been dodging the mistakes of their pasts for years.
Such a fact only intensified the import of Curry's mission and he leaned a little closer to his horse's mane. After a quarter mile of traveling, he pointed to an inn on the far corner.
"There, up ahead!" Signaling to his companions to surround the entrance, he reined his animal to a halt. "Wait here. As soon as Slater has joined us, we ride."
The gelding had scarcely come to a jittery stop when Will swung from the saddle and loped toward the stoop. Flinging the door open, he headed directly for the stairs, taking them two at a time.
There would be hell to pay for his sudden arrival. Curry might have the advantage of being known as Slater McKendrick's closest friend, but the man had left specific orders not to be disturbed. To have trespassed beyond his wishes did not bode well for Will's reception.
Once at the upper landing, he hurried to the appropriate quarters. He stood with his feet braced, his fist poised, ready to issue a secret combination of knocks that he hoped would gain him entrance.
The sound, sharp and high-pitched, came from within, followed by a low, guttural moan.
"Slater?" Will pounded on the weathered boards. "Slater, are you ill?" When he received no answer, Will clasped the doorknob only to discover that the lock had been bolted on the other side.
Another cry came, higher this time. His friend was in trouble. Obvious trouble. Will slid his saber from its sheath. "Hold on, Slater. Hold on!"
He slammed his shoulder against the wood, but the barrier held true. Backing away and lifting his sword free from his body, he charged toward the portal full force. "Slaaaa-terr!"
Mere seconds before he would have connected with the solid planks, the door whipped open. Unable to stop, Will stumbled headlong inside, tripped on the rug, and fell face-first onto the bed. His sword clattered uselessly to the ground as he floundered, sinking deeper and deeper into a sea of coverlets and feather beds. When his struggles only intensified his predicament, he sputtered and grew still.
Bit by bit, his senses relayed to him the true extent of his folly. Satin and linen rubbed at his hands and slid against the leather of his shoes, but it was not only the covers that embraced him. To his astonishment, he became aware of the exotic scent of Arabian musk and the friction of sweat-beaded skin. Firm breasts cradled his cheeks, the fragrant mounds rising and falling in a quick pattern of breaths that caused the honeyed valley to press against him again and again.
Dear Lord, he had interrupted an evening of frolic! For this, the other man would accept no glib excuses for attempting to break down the chamber door. Taking a peek at the creamy breasts that had been nestled against his cheek, Will couldn't blame him.
"Explain yourself, Curry."
The low phrase slid out of the ensuing silence, accompanied by the cold kiss of steel pricking Will's neck.
"Slater, please, I had no idea." He lifted his head, connecting with the startled gaze of the woman he'd sprawled upon. "My humble apologies, mademoiselle," he offered, groping for a safe location to provide him with enough leverage to rise.
The keen tip of the sword digging into the base of his skull prevented him from moving. Reminded again of the seriousness of his untimely interruption, he became quiet. The two men might have a special bond fostered by years of traveling together, but that did not extend far enough to excuse disturbing an apparent liaison.
"I trust you have an excellent reason for your unannounced arrival."
The voice that melted from the shadows had become as familiar to Will as his own, its timbre dark, gravelly, with the almost imperceptible lilt of a well-educated man. Will had followed the evocative cadence through the densest jungles and fiercest deserts with the attitude of a devoted servant attending his master. He'd also noted the way the passage of time had added an edge, a bitterness, to the inflection.
"I told you I didn't want to be disturbed."
"I know, but —"
"Has my ship sunk?"
"No, I —"
"Has a plague swept France?"
"Is the inn on fire?"
"Then what are you doing here, Curry?"
Will's fingers curled into the duvet. The news he had to relay was important, yes. But there was no telling how Slater would react. No telling at all.
"Well?" The man behind him demanded, the sword point pressing more distinctly against its mark.
"She's on her way to England," he uttered quickly.
For several minutes, Will's statement hovered in the air about them. He'd mentioned no specific name, but he knew his friend understood the import of his words by the quiet intensity that began to pulse in the limited space of the chamber. The man's weapon eased away and Will dared to breathe.
Will was more than happy to comply. "A thousand pardons, mademoiselle," he muttered when he finally managed to wedge his hands against the bolster and push himself to his feet.
The woman smiled as he tugged at the hem of his vest and smoothed his hair. Her gray eyes sparkled in amusement and more. Curiosity. Interest. "It was entirely my pleasure. I assure you."
"Where is she?"
The cryptic demand for information caused Will to wrench his attention away from the nubile female. Although the thought should have occurred to him, he was not at all prepared for the sight of his friend, clad in no more than the steel of his sword. Even at nearly two score years, Slater McKendrick cut an impressive figure, one honed by battle and hardship and sheer strength of will. His hair and eyes were black as the night itself, his form tall and ruthlessly fit.
"Rudy and Louis just arrived from delivering our latest shipment. Earlier this week they saw Crawford's clipper, The Sea Sprite, at Calais. The ship was taking on supplies and passengers for a channel crossing. When they recognized the only female being led aboard as Miss Crawford herself, they bribed one of the seamen into telling them that The Sea Sprite will stop at a deserted spot in southern Cornwall — a small town known as Tippington. The passengers will disembark at dawn on the last day of the month."
"Excellent." Slater adopted the focused energy of a stalking panther. "What arrangements have you made for our departure?"
"Manuel has already prepared your ship. After taking us to Tippington, he will sail on to London. There, he will send word for your estates to be prepared and a coach to be sent to meet us. After that, he will wait for further orders should it prove necessary to leave England again."
Slater nodded in approval. In seconds, he had collected his scattered belongings and dumped two leather haversacks in Will's arms. Then he buckled his scabbard around his waist and proceeded to finish arming himself: a knife in his boot, a pistol beneath his waistcoat, a dirk up his sleeve.
"What time is it?"
"Just past twelve. We'll have to hurry if we plan to intercept them. Each hour is of the essence."
"Assembled and waiting."
Slater McKendrick's normally sober features lightened somewhat. "Let's ride. Come the last day of the month, we'll be ready to meet her ship." The crisp edge to his tone deepened. "Her father should arrive in Tippington soon after — if he hasn't already."
Will watched in avid fascination as Slater bent low over the bed and scooped the woman hard against his chest. The kiss they shared was openly carnal, a meshing of mouths, tongues, and desires. Will shifted in discomfort, feeling distinctly like a bawdy-peeper as the embrace continued long past what he would consider proper.
He was not surprised by the dazed look the woman wore when Slater backed away. She seemed to have completely forgotten that they were not alone in the room as she rose, her bosom heaving. She clutched a coarse sheet to her neck. The swathe of fabric draped enticingly over one breast and flowed past her hips to tangle under her knees, leaving most of her evident charms completely and brazenly bare.
If a woman had looked at William Curry with half her evident passion, he would have stripped naked and stayed for a month, but Slater appeared entirely unaffected.
"But —" Will had not the time to voice his protest as McKendrick moved into the hall, the length of his stride attesting to his newfound purpose. Rousing from his own stupor, Will followed.
"Shouldn't we leave her a coin or two?"
Slater didn't pause. "My dear friend, the Marquise du Laque does not accept money for her favors."
Will's jaw dropped. A marquise — and a married one at that. Great bloody hell, the man had nerve.
Outside the inn, Slater McKendrick strode toward a riderless steed being led out of the crush of attendants and animals. Behind him, Curry gave the carryalls to one of his companions and quickly mounted a lathered horse.
A rush of energy began to infuse Slater's veins as he swung into the saddle and gathered the reins in one fist. This night had been a long time in coming, but now that it was here, he felt no regrets for what he was about to do.
Aloise Crawford was about to return to England. After nearly a decade and a half of waiting, Slater had finally found her. The time had long since come to liberate her from Crawford's care and exact his revenge against the man who had branded him a murderer and outlaw.
Inhaling the warm coal-tainted air, Slater could almost believe he caught a wisp of the country buried in its scent. Clover, sea mist, and rich loam. His frown grew fierce. Damnation, how he'd missed his home. Missed the sky hanging over his head like an endless azure bowl and the cool kiss of the surf come dawn.
Fifteen years ago, he'd been forced to abandon his birthplace and his identity in haste and despair. He'd journeyed pell-mell across the width of England, obtaining a position on the first ship heading anywhere away from his homeland. In all the intervening years, he'd never set foot in Britain, knowing that to do so would mean certain death. Crawford had seen to that. Just as expected, the man had wasted little time in ruining his name.
Slater straightened, squinting into the night, suddenly anxious for what was to occur. He'd traveled the globe and seen wondrous places, but his bones yearned to reside in Cornwall. At the thought of traveling back, the guilt and anger that he'd harbored in the very core of his soul began to intensify, burn, spurring him on.
It was past time to return.
It was past time to force a reckoning.
Signaling to his companions, he touched the horse's flanks. "Make your way to the ship as swiftly as you can. We're off to Tippington!"
Aloise Crawford waited until three in the morning to escape.
Mere hours ago, her father's ship had dropped anchor near the small village of Tippington and Aloise knew without a doubt that if she didn't take this opportunity to run away, she would be taken ashore, bundled into her father's carriage, and driven directly to Briarwood where she would be forced to marry a man she didn't know and didn't love. It had happened twice in the past; she couldn't believe that he would do anything else.
Aloise had no intention of submitting to his plans. Lying stiff as a corpse on her narrow berth, she counted the passing minutes like beads on a rosary. One hour bled into two, then three, each moving with the inestimable laggardness of an inchworm measuring a stalk. To anyone who might have entered her cabin, she gave every appearance of sleeping. She kept her eyes closed and her features sweetly serene. But inside ...
Inside, an unbearable tension coiled like a steel spring. Her mind centered on a single objective. She would manage to flee from her father. Today.
Her lashes opened and forest brown eyes probed the blackness, searching for any minute detail which might jeopardize her future freedom.
Aloise didn't know the precise moment she'd begun to formulate her plans. Surely, not the first time Mr. Humphreys had come to fetch her from Sacre Coeur Academy — an exclusive French school for young ladies of breeding. She'd been sixteen then and a little wild. Her instructors had referred to her as a "challenging" student, kindly omitting that the term had been awarded due to Aloise's lack of decorum and not to a lack of intelligence. However, until her father's secretary had arrived, Aloise hadn't realized how she'd grown so unaware of the realities of life.
Within moments, Mr. Humphreys had informed her that her father had begun to make arrangements for her to become a bride before the month's end. In the meantime, she was to prepare herself for such an event by being fitted for a wedding gown — a rather garish red wedding gown, in her opinion — that had been ordered by her father to set off a collection of jewels he'd chosen to be her only dowry.
Aloise supposed the seeds of her imminent escape had been sown that night. Her father had paraded enough of his own wives in front of Aloise for her to determine she was too young to be consigned to such sugar-coated imprisonment. Each time he'd remarried, she'd been summoned from Sacre Coeur, taken to London, and introduced to his new mate. Then she'd been sent back to France with her determination to avoid a similar fate intensified threefold. There were things she needed to do, places to see, adventures to experience.
Three weeks later, Mr. Humphreys returned to tell her a mate had been selected and she was to dress for the nuptials and don her dowry. At that moment when Mr. Humphreys had opened a slender velvet envelope to reveal the necklace she was to wear, Aloise had been more than a little suspicious about the jubilant news. At last she understood her father's motives for such a match. Apparently, Oliver Crawford had decided that she must marry into a title. And it wasn't her wit, her charm — or even her body — that her father used as a bargaining tool. Instead, he attracted her prospective mates like drones to a honey pot by promising that her dowry would include the famous Bengal Rubies. The same stones he had ordered her to wear.
Where her father had managed to land such a prize, Aloise couldn't even begin to imagine. All of England had become familiar with the intricate history of the gemstones as well as their supposed blessing — or curse, depending on how one viewed such matters. The huge collection of jewels was supposed to reward the pure in heart with riches beyond measure and damn all others. There had been rumors at one time that the stones had been given away by His Majesty to a commoner for faithful service, but Aloise knew her father could never be awarded such a prize.
Nevertheless, she hadn't openly complained when her father had essentially bribed a man to wed her, bed her, and claim her as his spouse. She reluctantly accepted the impending marriage, hoping that — if all else failed — at least she would be liberated from Sacre Coeur and her father's will. She'd journeyed to the outskirts of Dijon where Mr. Humphreys had rented several rooms at a local inn. By midafternoon she had been bathed, powdered, and perfumed in anticipation of her bridegroom's arrival.
She discovered the necessity of the precautions as soon as her husband- to-be arrived. At eight-and-forty, Lord Greenby's eyes were slightly crossed and horribly nearsighted. He couldn't see her clearly, but — to an amazing degree — he certainly managed to smell her. Once they'd been left alone he began stalking her like a hind after a rabbit.
Poor, poor, Lord Greenby. That night he'd choked on a chicken bone during their betrothal dinner. Within days, Aloise had buried her suitor and had herself been immured behind the high stone walls of Sacre Coeur.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Bengal Rubies"
Copyright © 1993 Lisa Bingham.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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