June 18th 1816, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.
Clarissa Greystone stared at Miss Mallory in shock. "You are saying I have to leave?"
Miss Mallory, neat and round, took her hand to pat it. "Now, now, dear, I am not throwing you out into the street. You have been welcome here for the past year, but that year is nearly over. And this is a school, not a home for stray ladies. I have been in communication with the duke, and with Beth Arden, and both agree that you must begin to take your place in the world."
They were in Miss Mallory's private parlor in the school, a cozy room warm with pot-pourri and lavender linen that had always held pleasant memories for Clarissa. Miss Mallory had an office, and that was where a girl went to be scolded for misbehavior. The parlor was for special teas and treats.
"But where am I to go? The school has been as good as a home to me since I was ten."
"That is what you must think about, dear. I'm sure Beth would be glad of your company in time."
In time, because Beth Arden was expecting her first child soon. But even in time, Clarissa didn't want to live with the Ardens. She was fond of Beth, who had been her favorite teacher here, and who had helped her last year in London, but she disliked Lord Arden. He was a terrifying brute.
"Or the duke has offered you a home at Belcraven Park."
Clarissa almost shuddered. She'd visited there once to meet the man who had taken over her guardianship from her father. The duke and duchess -- especially the duchess -- had been very kind, but they were strangers, and Belcraven was a place of such massive magnificence she could never imagine living there.
"I think I would prefer a small house with a companion. Perhaps here in Cheltenham."
"No." Miss Mallory's voice was the one that all girls in the school learned to heed. "Not here in Cheltenham. You must start afresh. But a house and a suitable companion is a possibility. In London, perhaps. You should rejoin society, my dear."
"Rejoin society!" Clarissa heard her voice climb too high. "Miss Mallory, I was never part of it. I was a Greystone, and Lord Deveril's betrothed. Believe me, few doors were open. No, I will live quietly. Perhaps in Bath."
It was a dismal prospect. She'd spent most of her school holidays with her grandmother in Bath. Lady Molson was dead now, but the place was doubtless as stuffy as ever.
But safe. Perhaps.
"Or in a little village," she added. That was better. There she'd be less likely to be recognized as what society called the Devil's Heiress.
A shudder passed through her at the memories the name brought back. She rose. "I will think about it, Miss Mallory. When must I leave?"
Miss Mallory rose too, and gave her a hug. "Oh, my dear, there is no great hurry. We simply want you to begin to think on it. But I advise you not to try to hide. You have your life before you, and your fortune can make it a good one. Not many young women have the choices you have. It would be a sin to waste them."
Miss Mallory was a follower of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of The Rights of Woman, and she judiciously shared those beliefs with the pupils in her school, so Clarissa knew what she meant. Beth Arden was also an adherent, and had discussed these matters in more detail last year. After Deveril's death.
She should be delighted to be free.
It was all very well in theory to rage against the shackles of masculine oppression, but as Clarissa left the parlor she couldn't help thinking that it might be nice to be taken care of now and then. First a father, and then a husband -- if one had a good father, not one like Sir Peter Greystone.
As for a husband, she sighed. She had little faith in the notion of a good husband. A woman put her fate so completely in his hands, and he could be a tyrant.
Like Lord Arden.
Clarissa would never forget the awful argument she had overheard, and running into the room to find Beth on the floor, clearly having been driven there by Lord Arden's blow. The next day Beth had had an awful bruise.
She'd said it was over, was a problem that had been dealt with, but it had been a lesson to Clarissa. Handsome men could be whited sepulchers. On her twenty-first birthday she would have a hundred thousand pounds or more. Folly indeed to put it into the hands of a man, and herself totally in his power.
Going up the stairs and along the familiar corridor, every corner of the school was familiar. She wouldn't exactly say precious. Last year she'd been desperate to leave here and take up her life. Even though she'd known her parents didn't care for her, she'd leaped at the chance to go to London. To have a season. To attend balls, routs, parties....
She'd known she was no beauty, and would have no dowry to speak of, but she'd even dreamed of suitors, of handsome men courting her, flirting with her, kissing her, and eventually, even going on their knees, begging for her hand.
Instead, there'd been Lord Deveril.
She stopped and thrust him into the darkest depths of her mind. Loathsome Lord Deveril, his foul kiss, and his bloody death. At least he didn't wait for her out in the frightening world.
She knew everyone was right. She couldn't stay here forever.
She glanced down at her clothes, the beige and brown uniform all the girls wore here. She had nothing else to wear other than the London gowns that lay in trunks in the attics. She'd never wear them again!
But she could hardly go on like this. She bit her lip on a laugh at the thought of herself -- plump and fifty -- trotting around Cheltenham in brown and beige, that eccentric Miss Greystone, with a fortune in hand and nowhere else to go.
But she had nowhere else to go. She would certainly never again live with her family.
She needed someone to talk to and knocked on the door of her friend, Althea Trist. Althea was the junior mistress who had come last September to take Beth Arden's position.
The door opened. Clarissa said, "I'm going to have to-" But then she stopped. "Thea, what's the matter?"
Her friend had clearly been crying.
Althea pressed a soggy handkerchief to her eyes and tried for a smile. "It's nothing. Did you want something?"
Clarissa pushed her into a chair and sat nearby. "Don't be silly. What is it? Is there bad news from home?"
"No.It's just the day. June 18th. The anniversary. Waterloo."
Realization dawned. "Oh, Thea! You must feel the pain all over again." Althea's beloved betrothed, Lieutenant Gareth Waterstone had died at the battle of Waterloo.
"It's foolish," Althea said. "Why today rather than any other day? I do grieve every day. But today...." She shook her head and swallowed.
Clarissa squeezed her hands. "Of course it does. What can I do? Would you like some tea?"
Althea smiled, and it did seem steadier. "No, I'm all right. In fact, I am to take the girls out soon."
"If you're sure...." But then it dawned on Clarissa. "Thea, you can't. You can't go to the parade! Miss Mallory would never have asked you if she'd thought."
"She didn't. Miss Risleigh was to do it, but she wished to attend a party. She is senior to me...."
"How callous! I will go and speak to Miss Mallory immediately."
She was already up and out of the door as Althea was crying, "Clarissa! Stop!"
She hurtled down the familiar stairs, back to the parlor to knock upon the door. The parade was in honor and memory of the great victory at Waterloo. Althea could not possibly be expected to go there and cheer.
The knock received no response, however. She made so bold as to peep in, and found the room deserted. She ran off to the kitchen, but there found that Miss Mallory had gone out for the afternoon. There were a great many parties taking place, and the better folk of Cheltenham had been invited to choice spots from which to watch the parade.
The school was closed for the summer, and only five girls lingered, awaiting their escorts home. There were only three teachers -- Miss Mallory, Althea, and the odious Miss Risleigh.
What could be done?
The girls could do without their trip to the parade, but Clarissa knew that dutiful Althea would never permit that. There was only one solution. She ran back upstairs to her room, put on the brown school cloak, and the matching bonnet, and returned to Althea's room.
Althea was already dressed to go out.
"Take that off," Clarissa said. "I am going to take the girls."
Althea stared. "Clarissa, you can't. You're not a teacher! In fact, you're a paying guest."
"I was a senior girl until last year. We often helped out."
"Not as escort on a trip like this."
"But," said Clarissa, "I'm not a senior girl any more. I'm only a few months younger than you are." A lock of hair tumbled down and she went to Althea's mirror to tuck it back in. If she was going to do this she had better try to look stern. Or at least sensible.
She pushed some more hair in and tried to straighten the bonnet.
"It is my responsibility," Althea protested, appearing behind in the mirror.
Clarissa couldn't help wishing she hadn't done that. Althea was a rare and stunning beauty, with glossy dark hair, rose petal complexion, and every feature neatly arranged to please.
She, on the other hand, had unalterably sallow skin, and features that while tolerable in themselves were not quite arranged to please. Her straight nose was too long, her full lips too unformed, and even her excellent teeth were a little crossed at the front. Her eyes were the dullest blue, her hair the dullest brown.
It shouldn't matter when she had a hundred thousand pounds and no need of a husband, but vanity does not follow the path of logic.
She put that aside and turned to put an arm around her friend. "There are only five girls left, Thea. Hardly a dire task. And you cannot possibly attend the Waterloo Day parade and cheer. If Miss Mallory knew, she would say the same. Now, go and lie down and don't worry. All will be fine."
She rushed out before Althea could protest any more, but only ten minutes later, she could have laughed aloud at that prediction.
One, two, three, four.... -- she anxiously counted the plain brown bonnets around her -- five. Five?
She whirled around. "Lucilla. Keep up!"
The dreamy ten-year-old turned from peering at a gravestone in Saint Mary's churchyard, and ambled over. Unaware, she caused one hurrying woman to stumble back to avoid running into her.
Clarissa rolled her eyes but reminded herself that a noble deed lost its luster if moaned over. "Hurry along," she said cheerfully. "We're almost there!"
At least the youngest girl was attached to her hand like a limpet. It would be nice, however, if Lady Ricarda wasn't already sniveling that she was scared of the graves, she was going to be sick, and she wanted to go back to the school, now.
"We can't possibly go back now," Clarissa said, towing the girl out into the street. "Listen, you can hear the band." She glanced back. "Horatia, do stop ogling every man who walks by!"
Horatia Peel was fifteen and could be expected to be some help, but she was more interested in casting out lures. She'd pushed her bonnet back on her head to reveal more of her vivid blonde curls, and had surely found some way to redden her lips.
At Clarissa's command, she turned sulkily from simpering at a bunch of aspiring dandies. She was not a hard-hearted girl, however, and took Lucilla's hand to make sure she didn't wander off again.
Clarissa's other two charges, Georgina and Jane, were devoted eleven-year-old friends, arm-in-arm in deep conversation. They were no trouble except for their dawdling pace.
Afraid to speed ahead in case someone disappeared, Clarissa gathered her flock in front and nudged them forward like an inept sheep dog. It would be wonderful to be able to nip at some dawdling heels!
What would the world think if it could see her now? The infamous Devil's Heiress, with a dubious past and a fortune, dressed in drab and in charge of a bunch of wayward sheep....
"Walk a little faster, girls. We're going to miss the soldiers. Horatia, keep going! No, Ricarda, you are not going to be crushed. Lucilla, look ahead. You can see the regimental flag."
She blew a corkscrew curl out of her eyes, reminding herself that this was a good deed. It would be horrible for Althea to have to be here. For her part, she didn't mind some cheering and celebration. It was exactly one year ago today that loathsome Lord Deveril had died. One year since she'd been saved. Bring on the flags and drums!
She counted heads again. "Not long now. We'll find a good spot to watch our brave soldiers march by."
Her forced good cheer dried up when they popped out of the lane and into Clarence Street. People must have come in from the surrounding countryside for the festivities. The place was packed with a jostling, craning, chattering, pungent mob and all the hawkers and troublemakers such a throng attracted.
A bump from an impatient couple behind moved her on into the thick of the crowd with everyone around pushing for a good spot.
One, two, three, four, five.
"Let's go toward the Promenade, girls. The crowd may be thinner there."
"I want to go home!"
"Ricarda, you can't. Hold tight to my hand."
Hawk had a flock of schoolgirls in his sights.
After intensive investigations in London, he had come to Cheltenham in search of the heiress herself. She was clearly key, and she was being kept out of sight. He'd discovered that she wasn't living with her family, or with her guardian, the duke. He had eventually learned that she was supposed to have spent the past year back at her very proper Cheltenham School. He had trouble imagining the Devil's Heiress at Miss Mallory's School for Ladies at any age -- though he gathered it had been the work of her grandmother -- but certainly not at nearly twenty. It was a blind for some other, more lively, lodging, but it was where he had to start.
He had spent the day hovering, watching for someone willing to gossip about school matters. He'd had no luck since the school was officially closed for the summer, though he had learned from a butcher's boy that there were some staff and a few girls still there.
Now, at last, he had possibilities. The pupils all wore a kind of uniform of beige dress, brown cloak, and plain brown bonnet, but two of the flock were within flirting age -- a lively blonde, and the plain young woman who seemed to be in charge.
He focussed on the plain one. Plain ones were more susceptible. However, as he followed them into a churchyard, he began to think that the blonde would fall more ripely into his hand. On leaving the school, she'd begun to push her bonnet back on her head, gradually revealing more and more curls. Even with a plump child by the hand, she was dawdling behind with the clear intent of flirting with any man who showed interest.
Could this actually be Miss Greystone? He'd not expected to find her in the school at all, never mind in schoolgirl clothes, but she seemed the type. Pretty, and a complete minx. She didn't look nineteen, but such things were often deceptive. Nor did she look evil, but in his experience, that meant nothing. He could certainly imagine Deveril drooling over such a tender morsel.
The girl slowed even more to dimple at a group of young would-be gallants.
Hawk moved in.
He was within five feet when the plain one turned. "Horatia, do stop ogling every man who walks by!"
"I wasn't ogling, Clarissa. You're so mean!" But the minx did rejoin the others.
Hawk fell back to regroup. The plain one was Clarissa Greystone? He'd had a clear look at her face when she turned, and she was definitely nothing special to look at.
As he discreetly followed, he realized that it had been an error to assume beauty. "Lord Devil" wouldn't have had much choice in brides. Few upper class families would consider such a fate for a daughter. The Greystones were just the type that would.
They all gamed, and father and sons were drunks as well. Lady Greystone was a wanton. She was growing virtuous with age, but only because her raddled looks were ceasing to attract. Hell, when he'd struck up a conversation with her in the course of his investigations, the damn woman had propositioned him!
He'd assumed Clarissa Greystone would be like the rest of her family, but she seemed to be a cuckoo in that nest.
Or, more likely, she was brilliantly disguising her true nature.
That explained it, and it pointed right at guilt. Most people who stole gave themselves away by immediately enjoying their spoils. Not clever Miss Greystone. Perhaps she was even pretending to be in mourning.
The old excitement stirred. The excitement of challenge, of a worthy opponent. It was comforting, too. With a clever enemy, there was no need to feel squeamish about tactics.
Clever, but guilty as the devil. A week in London sifting fact from fallacy had proved his father right. That will, in fact everything surrounding Deveril's death, stank to high heaven. Strings must have been pulled for it not to have been investigated more.
Lord Devil had not been accepted in society until nearly two years ago when he'd suddenly acquired a fortune. No one knew where from, but everyone assumed it was dirty money.
He'd been partner in a popular bordello run by a woman called Therese Bellaire, which was an interesting tangent. Hawk happened to know that Therese Bellaire had been part of Napoleon's inner circle -- mainly pandering for his intimates and senior officials. She had been in England in 1814 as a French spy, working for the reinstatement of her master.
Madame Bellaire had fled before she could be arrested, presumably leaving the bordello to her partner, but its sale would not have produced a fortune. Deveril had been involved in other things, however. Gaming hells. Opium dens. White slavery. Regardless of where the money had come from, it had gained him the entree with the less discriminating members of fashionable society. He'd leased a handsome house in the best part of town, and not long afterward, his betrothal had been announced to Miss Greystone.
Soon after that, he'd been murdered.
It had all the marks of a cunning and cleverly executed plot, and far beyond the talents of the Greystones. He didn't yet know who was behind it, but he would.
In a mere week he had some threads in his fingers. The forger was probably too clever to reveal himself, but Hawk had found the names of the two missing witnesses on the records of a ship bound for Brazil. Strange destination for a couple of London roughs, but they'd presumably been paid off and told to make themselves scarce. It would be interesting to follow up on it, but he didn't have time now.
He'd dug up another of Deveril's henchmen. They could hardly be called servants. After a jug of gin, the gap-toothed man had remembered some prime whores Deveril had sent to the house while he'd been on duty there.
"Night of the big celebration, it was," the man had remembered. "When we heard about Waterloo and the whole of London set to celebrating. We were stuck there, and these prime titties came knocking, but then their men came and dragged 'em away. One of 'em knocked Tom Cross out with a skillet, she did! He called her Pepper, and she certainly made him sneeze."
Lazily, Hawk had asked. "Why did she do that, do you think?"
"He paddled her for being saucy. I bet her pimp paddled her harder. Seems as if they were off trying to do a bit of business of their own. Shame, though," he said, sagging lower over his drink. "Never so much as got a feel, I didn't."
"You didn't look them up later?"
"No names. Anyway, the next day they found bloody Deveril's body and that were the end of that. Duchess," he said. "Her sister called her Duchess because of her airs and graces. Wanted to drink out of a glass, she did."
For a wild moment, Hawk had thought of the Duchess of Belcraven, but she was an exquisite middle-aged Frenchwoman. He still wondered about the role of the Duke and Duchess of Belcraven in the Deveril affair, but the duke was widely known as a man of dignity and strict principles.
Pieces that didn't fit always told a story, however, and that one would too, in time.
Time was so damnably short.
Those whores had been distraction for the planting of the will. He was sure of it. And it seemed likely that Clarissa Greystone had been one of them.
The one called Pepper and Duchess, who'd knocked a man out for daring to spank her for being saucy? It had fit.
He contemplated the harried figure ahead of him, dragging one whining child along the crowded street, chivying the others in front of her like a demented sheepdog, rat-tails of hair escaping from her bonnet.
Could there be more than one Clarissa in Miss Mallory's school?
"I can't see!" Ricarda screeched, still clinging.
They were in the Promenade, a much wider street, but could still see only a solid line of backs. Clarissa was ready to admit defeat, but then the adults in front made way and a smiling countrywoman said, "Come on forward, luvs. We can see over your sweet heads."
With the music coming closer, and the drums shaking the air, Ricarda transferred her clutch to Lucilla's hand and slipped forward. Georgina and Jane went too. Then the adult ranks closed between Clarissa and most of her charges.
She went on tiptoe to watch the four girls. They were standing still with other children at the front, but Lucilla was capable of wandering off in any direction, and now she'd probably take Ricarda with her.
Constantly checking the four brown bonnets, Clarissa was only aware of the parade as approaching drums. She glanced once and saw the Lord Mayor still some distance away, marching along in his robes and chain of office accompanied by his mace-bearer. Beyond, she saw the aldermen, a cart or two, and the magnificent scarlet of the local regiment.
The sight of the redcoats did catch her for a moment. So many brave men, and so many others, like Althea's Gareth, lost in the wars against the Corsican Monster. Over ten thousand dead at Waterloo alone....
How did one imagine ten thousand dead, all in one place?
She pulled her mind back to simple things, to counting her charges. One, two, three, four
Horatia. Where was Horatia?
With a puff of relief, she saw her right beside her. Horatia couldn't have much of a view -- she was shorter than Clarissa -- but of course the minx was not interested in the mayor, or even the soldiers. She was dimpling at the handsome man by her side.
A handsome, dangerous man. Horatia was trying out her flirtatious techniques on a rake of the first stare. Clarissa was frozen, not knowing what to do.
Then the man glanced over Horatia's bonnet to meet Clarissa's eyes, his own shadowed by the tilted brim of his fashionable beaver hat. His slight smile deepened. It was an insolent, blatant challenge to her ability to protect her charges. She seized Horatia's wrist and dragged her sideways, taking her place and then pointedly ignoring the scoundrel. To Horatia she hissed, "Admire the soldiers. They're doubtless safer."
She'd like to claim immunity to handsome rakes, but her nerves were jangling like a twanged harp. Who was he? Certainly no provincial dandy. Beautifully cut olive coat. Complex, snowy cravat. An indefinable but unignorable air. Her brief stay in London had taught her something about judging men of the ton and he was top of the trees.
Another quick glance confirmed her assessment. All the gloss and arrogance of a London beau, and a handsome face as well ....
He suddenly looked sideways, catching her, and that amused challenge returned to his eyes.
She jerked her eyes away, away toward the approaching parade, grateful for once for the close bonnet that would hide her blushes. She remembered to go on tiptoe and check. One, two, three, four.
Horatia by her side, an older couple beyond her.
Safe for the moment.
Apart from the something from the man on her other side. She'd met handsome beaux and wicked rakes in London and been able to laugh at the folly of other females. That was remarkably easy when neither beaux nor rakes paid her any attention.
This rakish beau should be the same, and yet she felt a prickling awareness -- as if he was studying her.
She would not look to see.
Then the sway of the crowd suddenly pushed her against him, and he put his hand on her arm to steady her. She felt it. She felt his hand, felt his whole body against her for a shocking moment -- arm, hip, and leg -- before she pulled apart. She suddenly felt like Ricarda, panicked and longing for the safety of the school.
Which she had to leave soon.
Very well. She would soon have to leave the school, have to venture into a world full of handsome men. She must learn to cope. After all, she had a fortune. There would be fortune hunters.
She swallowed and focussed on the passing parade, on a cart carrying a portly man dressed as Napoleon, looking beaten and downcast. On another containing men dressed as the Duke of Wellington, Nelson, Sir John Moore, and other heroic leaders. A Saint George passed in front of her in Roman armor, spear in hand, foot on the neck of a vanquished dragon which wore the French tricolor. She rather thought St. George was Mr. Pinkney, who ran a small circulating library, and was the least martial man imaginable.
"No stop," said the man who was still pressed by circumstances too closely beside her.
She had to turn her head. "I beg your pardon, sir?"
"His spear is a throwing spear, not a dragon-killing one. It has no cross bar. A common mistake in art. If he managed to impale a dragon, the beast would run up it and eat him. Of course the maiden might applaud."
"What?" Clarissa was beginning to fear that the man was mad as well as bad. But, Lord, he was handsome, especially with that twinkle in his eye!
He glanced at the white-robed woman at St. George's side, presumably the rescued maiden, but also managing to look like Britannia. "If her rescuer died in the attempt, she would be free without having to be the victor's prize."
The maiden was the mayor's pretty daughter, and she certainly wouldn't want to have to be too grateful to Mr. Pinkney. Clarissa was unwillingly beguiled by the man's nonsense -- and by the effect of teasing humor on already fine features -- but she firmly turned her attention back to the parade.
All around her the crowd was booing Napoleon and applauding the heroes. Then it burst into huzzars for the real heroes, the veterans of the great battle who marched to cheerful fife and the demanding, tummy-quivering thump of the drums.
She joined in, waving her plain handkerchief.
"Clarissa! Clarissa! Did you see that? He blew me a kiss! He did! Oh, wasn't he the most handsome man you have ever seen?" Horatia was literally bouncing up and down, her curls dancing and her cheeks bright red. Clarissa smothered a laugh. The officer in question was quite ordinary, and much older than Horatia's usual practice ground, but he was in a moment of glory and he had noticed her, and so he was an Adonis.
But then a sudden squeal sent panic shooting through her. Ricarda! She stretched on tiptoe again but the girl seemed all right. The scream had probably been caused by a horse dropping a steaming mound on the road in front of her.
"They are all quite safe," said the rake. "I can see them easily and will tell you if anything untoward occurs." It was most improper for two strangers to be talking like this, and yet the situation made it impossible to object. She turned to him again. "Thank you, sir."
The angle of his head moved the shadow of his brim and she was caught by startlingly blue eyes. Cornflower blue made brighter by skin that was browner than fashion approved. That, a silly detail like that, was probably what made him seem more dangerous than the general London beau.
Or perhaps not.
She seemed trapped, and then those intent eyes crinkled slightly with humor that she was invited to share.
She hastily turned her own boring gray-blue eyes forward, but she suddenly felt completely unlike herself.
As if she might do something outrageous.
By gemini! Was he flirting with her?
But men didn't. Even during her horrible time in London, men hadn't flirted with her.
So what was the rake up to?
Ah. Trying to get around her to Horatia, of course. Not while she had blood in her body.
Horatia, however, craned past Clarissa. "You're very kind, sir! Little Lucilla, the plump one, daydreams so. If she took it into her head to wander in front of the horses, she'd do it."
"No she wouldn't," Clarissa said. "Ricarda would scream the heavens down."
"Ricarda is scared of horses, sir," said irrepressible Horatia, innocently smiling in a way designed to invite a man to her bed.
"Watch the parade, Horatia," Clarissa commanded. "It's nearly over."
Horatia pulled a face, but obeyed.
After a few moments Clarissa risked a glance at the rake. He was looking ahead, not at her.
Victory! He knew his evil plans were thwarted.
She smiled to herself at sounding like a character in an overly-dramatic play, but she was feeling victorious. See, it wasn't so very difficult to deal with importunate men.
One skirmish won was enough for the day, however. Thank heavens this would soon be over and she could herd her flock back to the school.
As soon as the last marchers passed and the crowd began to break up, she pulled the four younger girls into a bunch around her, making sure that Horatia stayed close too. The rake moved on without a backward look.
Folly to feel disappointment at that.
"Come along," she said briskly. "It's all over now."
Anxious to be done with this, she nudged her group into the thinning crowd. It wasn't as easy going as she'd expected. The crowd had not truly thinned out. Instead, it swirled chaotically.
When they'd hurried here everyone had been streaming in one direction, but now people went all ways at once. It was market day and many were heading there, but others wanted to get to the taverns, to homes, or to the fairground which had been set up on the outskirts of town.
The mob pushed and pulled, like a monster with a hundred hands snagging at one child or another. Ricarda began to cry again. She let go of Lucilla, and clutched Clarissa's skirts. Clarissa reached out to keep Jane and Georgina close.
Then a mighty voice rang out. The town crier. "Oyez! Oyez! Mr. Huxtable, landlord of the Duke of Wellington, is rolling out three casks of free ale so all can toast our noble heroes!"
Oh no! As the crowd's mood changed, Clarissa was already gathering her flock close. Lucilla, her butterfly attention caught by something, swirled off between an enormous man and two elbowing lads. Clarissa just managed to seize the back of the girl's cloak and haul her close -- at some risk to the poor child's neck!
She shed her own cloak, letting it fall to be trampled. "Hold tight to my skirt!" she commanded. "Jane, Georgina, do the same. Horatia, help me keep everyone together. We'll stay still for a moment to let the crowd pass."
She put every scrap of calm and confidence into her words, and the girls did press close, but staying still was easier said than done. Most of the crowd seemed hell-bent on the free ale, and the rest were struggling to get free.
Rocked and buffeted, blank panic seized her.
Cries and screams all around flung her back to other screams, and blood.
To the thunder of a pistol.
Blood, so much blood....
And a woman quoting Lady Macbeth. "Who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?"
Darkness crept in at the edge of her vision....
No. Stay in the present. The girls need you. You will not fall apart again in a crisis!
She pinched her left hand hard to get her wits back, then clutched terrified Ricarda close. She began to ease her little group sideways to a nearby brick wall where perhaps the mob would flow past them.
"Stay close!" she yelled. "Hold on!" Her voice seemed swallowed by the cacophony around, but the girls were all with her, clinging, dragging on her arms and gown.
The press of squirming, elbowing bodies had her sweating with heat and terror, but she would not weaken. Lose their footing here and they could be trampled. The stench turned her stomach. Her foot slid on something squishy, almost making her fall. She prayed it was as innocent as a piece of dropped fruit.
One, two, three, four, five.
Horatia -- good girl -- had wrapped an arm around her waist so they were locked into a huddled unit.
Then her bonnet was knocked forward over her right eye, so she couldn't see from that side at all. She didn't dare raise her hand to straighten it for fear of losing one of the children. The crush was so tight, she'd never get her arm down again. All the younger girls were wailing now, and she wanted to wail herself. But she was the protector here. "It's all right," she said meaninglessly. "Hold tight. It will be all right."
When someone crushed into them from behind, she didn't hesitate to jab back with her elbow.
There was an "Ooof!", then strong arms came around them and a voice said, "Hold back, hold back, make way, make way there...." He didn't shout -- in the tumult there would be no point -- but somehow his commanding tone seemed to cut through and create a moment's pause so they could slide sideways.
The crowd sealed tight behind them, but his voice opened the way until they landed entangled against the wall.
There was no indent here, however, no doorway to press back into. No barrier except a simple iron lamp post. Had they fallen out of the pot into the fire? They could be crushed. Terrified screams said that might be happening elsewhere in the maddened crowd.
But the man grasped the lamp post and made himself a barrier the crowd must flow around, creating a tiny pocket of sanity. Clarissa held her crying charges closer, trembling. "It's all right, dears," she said again. "Don't be afraid. This kind man is making sure we don't get hurt."
It was, of course, the wicked rake, to whom she'd been so cold. Horatia had better instincts. He was a true hero. He had rescued them, and was now their protector.
Pictures of locations related to The Devil's Heiress.
The Devil's Heiress is the third story in the trilogy THREE HEROES, published in June 2004 by NAL. ISBN 0-451-21200-2 If you wish, you can order it now from AMAZON.COM or look for it at your favorite place to buy books
The other stories in the trilogy are THE DRAGON'S BRIDE and THE DEMON'S MISTRESS. All these stories were previously published in 2001, but now they are brought together in a trade paperback collection that forms a true trilogy, and all for the great price of $14 US. THE DEMON'S MISTRESS and THE DRAGON'S BRIDE were both finalists for the RITA, romance's top award.
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