Valor of Love (Scandalous Scions Book 2), page 16
Everyone around the big table clapped again. Will pushed the knife into the cake and bore down on the handle. It sliced cleanly and everyone clapped again.
“May I say congratulations, my lord?” Paulson said, as he took the knife.
“You may,” Will said and plopped in his chair and picked up the wine glass once more.
“Twenty-one,” his mother said, raising her glass. “You’re getting too old for trouble, now, Will.”
Will rolled his eyes. “Are you about to tell me I should find a wife and produce an heir?”
“Why not?” his father said. He picked up Elisa’s hand. “I did just that when I was not much older than you.”
“Mother had to practically trip you into it,” Will pointed out.
Elisa’s eyes widened. “Ladies don’t trip people. How rude, Will!”
Vaughn touched her arm, calming her. “Seriously, Will. You’re done with university now—”
“For all the good it will serve,” Daniel said.
“Whatever do you mean, Daniel?” Elisa said, as Paulson set a plate with a sliver of cake in front of her, while Haywood carried a tray of the slices down the length of the table for him.
Daniel sat up and pushed his glass of punch away from him. “The atmosphere is so rarified—do you realized how little resemblance to real life their education is? It doesn’t teach you anything useful.”
Vaughn’s face darkened. “A university education is exactly as broad and deep as you wish to make it.”
“That’s the point. I don’t want it at all.”
“Daniel!” his mother cried. “Of course you must finish your education!”
“Unless you want to work on the docks, or some other real occupation?” Vaughn asked, his voice dangerous quiet.
Daniel threaded his hands together. “Actually, I intend to write.”
“Write?” his mother asked blankly.
“Journalism. Writing for the newspapers,” Daniel replied.
Both his parents stared at him, his mother with horror.
Emma came up to her mother’s chair and tugged on her arm. “Where’s Lilly?” she asked. “I want to give her a piece of cake!”
Elisa swept the little girl onto her lap and held her, her gaze still on Daniel.
“We’ll talk about this later,” his father said softly.
Daniel sighed. His father meant he would try to talk him into changing his mind, later. His father was in for a surprise.
* * * * *
There was nothing else either of them could say, so the return walk back to the cottage was silent. Jasper held Lilly’s hand until they were too close to the big house and might be seen. Then he moved the proper two feet away.
Lilly felt used up, like a lemon that had been squeezed to the pith. She had no more capacity to feel anything.
Far away, on the other side of the bluff, they could hear rifle shots and horns and dogs barking. The hunt was continuing.
They rounded the outcropping of the bluff that separated the cottage from the big house. Something whistled through the air and slammed into Jasper’s middle. He folded over and collapsed.
Blackawton stepped out from the other side of the outcropping and dropped the long log in his hand to the ground. “Lillian, my love.”
Horror rose up in her throat. Lilly gripped her skirts, turned and ran.
She heard Blackawton’s heavy steps behind her, gaining and gasped out her terror. He was faster than her. It was inevitable that he catch her.
He gripped her hair and yanked. She was jerked backward off her feet. She scrabbled at his hand, trying to take the pressure off her skull. She could feel some of her hair tearing from the roots.
Blackawton turned her around to look at him. His muddy eyes were filled with happy anticipation. “Take this as a measure of my devotion to you,” he told her. “I have found you in the wilds. I can find you anywhere.”
Then he grunted and fell forward, almost on top of her, his eyes rolling.
Jasper stood behind him, the walking staff in his hands. He was breathing hard and blood ran from the corner of his mouth.
Blackawton was laying on Lilly’s legs, pinning her down. She kicked, trying to get out from under him.
It stirred him. He rose up with a roar, yanking out a pistol from inside his jacket. He didn’t get to aim. At the sight of the pistol, Jasper stepped closer and brought the end of the staff around in a scything motion through the air. It slammed against Blackawton’s arm. The pistol went flying.
Jasper dropped the end of the staff down low and rammed it into Blackawton’s stomach, as Blackawton had done to him.
Blackawton bent over with a sickly gasp.
Lilly scrambled away from his feet and pulled herself up. She was shaking badly enough that her balance was questionable.
She watched as Jasper swung the staff one more time. This time the side of it slapped into Blackawton’s temple. He dropped like a stone and was still.
Jasper strode over to her and picked up her hand. “Can you walk?”
She nodded mutely.
“We must leave here. We’ll take Blackawton’s carriage.”
Only then did she see the rented hack standing on the gravel in front of the cottage. “Shelby!” she gasped.
They hurried into the cottage. Lilly couldn’t quite manage to run.
“Shelby!” she called.
“Here! I’m in here!” Shelby thudded on the kitchen door. A knife had been pushed through the handle, the point buried in the frame, pinning the door closed.
Jasper yanked the knife out with a single heft.
The door burst open and Shelby tottered to them. “He’s completely mad!” she cried, her cheeks red. “Oh, my lady, what a wicked man!”
“We can’t leave her here,” Lilly told Jasper.
“Yes. You, too, then, Shelby. Into the hack outside. Hurry.”
“My lady’s things! My hat!”
“No time,” Jasper replied. “He’ll come around in a few minutes. If you think he was mad before, imagine him both mad and angry.”
Shelby gulped and nodded.
* * * * *
The driver tried to protest about his customer having priority. Jasper shoved a crown in his hand and the man tugged his brim and picked up his whip.
Once the carriage was rolling, Jasper leaned toward Shelby on the other seat. “Is there somewhere nearby I can take you? Somewhere safe?”
“My family are in Staithes,” she said. She was looking at Jasper, her eyes huge.
Jasper nodded. “We’ll drop you there.”
Lilly shifted along the seat. “Let me see your face,” she said softly.
“I’m alright,” he said. He waved her away. His hand shook so hard it was difficult to make out the gesture.
“Jasper.” She turned his face. The blood was still trickling. “Shelby, may I have your cap? I will buy you a new one.”
“Have it with my gratitude, my lady,” Shelby said, snatching off the white linen mob cap.
Lilly used it to dab at the corner of Jasper’s mouth, lifting the blood away. She took the moment she had her back to Shelby to study his eyes.
“I am fine,” he murmured.
“How can that be?”
“I’m too angry to succumb.” He looked at his hands, then curled them into fists, to hide trembling. “This has to end, Lilly. One way or another. Blackawton won’t stop unless someone stops him.”
“You said you cannot do that.”
“I know someone who can.”
* * * * *
Shelby cried as they dropped her at the edge of the road where it dipped down into the narrow valley of Staithes. She didn’t sob hysterically. Instead, tears dripped from her eyes as she climbed stoutly out of the carriage and shut the door.
“Take care of my lady, sir,” she told Jasper.
“I intend to,” he assured her.
As the carriage pulled away again, he pulled Lilly into his arms. His whole b
“I am. I suppose it must emerge somewhere, though. Hold me. I’m cold.”
She held him gladly.
Halfway along the route, the driver halted and called down for further directions. Jasper eased her back onto the seat. “There are no marked roads from here,” he told her. “I’ll have to sit up with the driver and show him the way.”
The carriage bounced and climbed over ruts and stones, rolling across the moors to some location that only Jasper knew. It moved slowly as the horse picked its way across the open land. The driver spent most of his time with his foot on the brake. Lilly heard the scream of the brake against the wheel as he controlled their descent down into the valleys.
The sun had set by the time the carriage stopped. Jasper opened the door and handed her out.
“We’re there?” she asked, looking around. It was another Yorkshire field, indistinguishable from all the rest.
“Nearly, but the carriage can go no farther. We’ll have to go on foot.”
As Jasper spoke, the driver whistled and clicked the horse into turning a tight circle, then set off along his own tracks, heading back to Staithes.
Jasper pointed to the southern horizon. A glow showed there. “If I haven’t missed my mark, that is the military camp and those are campfires glowing.” He took her hand. “One more stile, one more hill, then you can stop.”
* * * * *
The camp was huge. Lilly wasn’t sure what she expected to see when they crested the hill. A few fires, perhaps. A few tents, horses standing slack-hipped nearby and men gathered around the fire.
She had not expected this orderly, regimented field of tents and equipment. Even the fires were laid out in a pattern.
“I could walk into any encampment of any regiment in the world and know exactly where to find the commanding officers’ tent,” Jasper told her.
“Where is it?” Lilly asked curiously.
“The one in the middle, with the two guards at the front.”
“We’re not going there, though. The last person I want to talk to down there is the Major. I have to find Cary Shore and that might be more difficult, because he’s one of six captains.” He looked around. “We should not linger here on the ridge, where we can be seen.”
They moved down toward the encampment. It was apparently supper time, for the smell of cooking food—stews and meat and bread—wafted over them.
Lilly thought her hunger would be stirred by the scents for she had not eaten since breakfast, yet all she felt was the same hollow, scooped-out numbness she had felt since telling Jasper the truth about her.
It seemed odd that they could walk through an encampment of soldiers and not raise a single alarm, yet they had by-passed a dozen tents and three fires, all of them with cooking pots over them, plus groups of uniformed soldiers sitting about talking softly.
There were no red coats in sight. Everyone was in Undress uniform—the dark uniforms with the single red line of braid down the legs of the trousers. In that dim camp, it made the men not quite invisible. They certainly didn’t stand out as they would have in the red coats.
Jasper touched her arm. “Wait here for a moment,” he said, eyeing one of the campfires. He moved toward the fire. “Sergeant, a word?”
A man at the back of the fire got to his feet. “Yes sir?”
Jasper beckoned him and the sergeant moved around the fire and stood in front of Jasper. He didn’t salute, yet stood ramrod erect.
So did Jasper. It was as if being back in a military encampment was affecting him. “I’d be pleased if you could tell me where Captain Shore and his men are?”
The sergeant scratched as his full moustache. “Well, it might be a bit difficult to describe, sir…”
“Military notation will do,” Jasper said crisply.
The sergeant straightened up again. “Northwest, two, two, sir.”
“Thank you, sergeant.”
The Sargent nearly saluted. Lilly saw his arm come up, then he let it drop and moved back to the campfire. He looked over his shoulder at Jasper, frowning.
“I think you may have puzzled him,” Lilly told him, “although I confess I’m surprised no one is demanding to know who we are.”
“They’re on friendly soil and therefore have no need to set sentries. Everyone is off duty and consider it someone else’s responsibility to question strangers. Besides, the only people this far out on the moors are soldiers and sheep.”
“All the more reason to wonder where we came from, surely?” she asked, moving alongside him as he wove between tents and stacks of equipment, anonymous boxes and more that Lilly could not put a name to.
“Not when we walk through the lanes as if we have a purpose,” Jasper said. “The enlisted soldier is utterly uncurious about anything after hours.” He looked along the intersection they had reached and made a pleased sound. “There we go,” he said and moved forward, again.
Ahead of them was another camp fire with men sitting around it. As they drew closer, one of the men got to his feet and came forward. He was in uniform, his with more braid and with three stripes on the sleeves.
“Thomsett,” Cary Shore said and thrust out his hand. “What brings you here?”
“Exactly what I feared might,” Jasper said, shaking his hand. He drew Lilly forward. “We’ve had some trouble and it’s possible we will have more. The driver of the hack we used to get here was too easily bought for crown, which means he could just as easily be bought again and make triple profit for his efforts today.”
Captain Shore nodded. “What do you need?”
“For now, warmth, food and to relax for a while. It has been a long day.”
“That, we can do, as long as you don’t mind it a little rough, my lady?” he added. “There is silver service at the barracks but out here, billycans are the best we can do.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Lilly told him. “I’m sure I will cope.”
Shore turned and indicated they should follow him. He moved straight up to the fire and looked at the men crouched around it. “Lads, there’s someone here you all should remember, right enough.” Then he moved out of the way.
The soldiers around the fire stared as Jasper stepped forward. Then, to a man, they all shot to their feet and saluted, their hands quivering.
* * * * *
The men were polite when they realized a lady was among them. One of them put together two of the tin cans they squatted on, while another folded a blanket on top of the cans, for her to sit upon. Lilly tucked her billowed skirts in around herself as tightly as possible once she was seated, to give everyone else room about the fire.
Jasper, though, eschewed both a can to sit upon and the silver flask that was thrust at him. He sat with one knee bent, the other tucked around it. So did Cary Shore. It was an old campaigner’s way of sitting, she supposed.
The billycan they had referred to was a flat tin can with wire handles, open on the top. One was handed to Lilly with the wire handle wrapped in a cloth to protect her hands. A fork was produced for her, although everyone else seemed to be eating with their fingers.
She tasted a tiny portion of the stew in the can. It was piping hot and succulent, which made it easier to eat some of it, even though she was not hungry. The tea they offered, also in a tin mug, was more than welcome. She thanked each of the young men who hurried about catering to her sensibilities, which spurred them to greater efforts.
Jasper ate quickly, talking softly with Cary. She did not try to listen. She had no curiosity left in her.
She had nearly finished the tea when a roar of noise, loud enough to numb her ears, split the night air. With it came a hot wash of air that pummeled her back and threw her forward. Lilly just barely stopped herself from falling into the fire.
She turned to Jasper quickly. He was just picking himself up. His eyes were large and b
Lilly gripped him and shook. “Jasper!”
“The powder store! The powder store!” came the shout from far on the other side of the encampment.
Cary Shore got to his feet with a curse and looked in the direction of the call. So did Lilly. On that side of the camp, a fire blazed. It was huge, the flames leaping up into the night, turning parts of the camp into bright daylight.
“Is everything still kept in the powder store?” Jasper asked Shore.
“Everything,” Shore confirmed softly.
More explosions rent the night, sending up shooting, boiling clouds and forcing men to stagger away from the blaze.
Jasper turned to Lilly. “Wait here where it’s safe,” he said and turned and ran with Shore toward the fire.
Jasper could feel his innards trying to jitter apart in reaction to the explosions. He could barely think, although thinking wasn’t necessary. All that was necessary now was to bring the fire under control before all the ammunition and armaments were destroyed by the flames or exploded in the heat the fire was generating.
He slowed and stopped, as he realized he was reacting exactly the same way as every man here. He was behaving predictably.
With a groan he gripped his temples and pressed hard.
“Thomsett!” Cary called and waved him on.
“I’m going back!” Jasper shouted and turned and ran. With each additional explosion he flinched and his heart worked harder. He didn’t stop.
When he returned to the fire, no one was there.
“Lilly!” he shouted. “Lillian!”
Shore jogged up to him. “Sir?”
Jasper didn’t bother correcting him this time. “Blackawton has Lilly. He set fire to the stores to distract us, then took her while our backs were turned.”
Shore breathed deeply. “Tricky fellow. Military?”
“India,” Jasper confirmed. He looked around the camp, seeing it the way an invading army would measure it. “Powder stores way over there,” he said, pointing with his right hand.
“The tents! The tents!”
The fire was spreading.
“Lots of noise, lots of distraction,” Jasper added.
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