Gunshots shattered the silence, disrupting the peaceful ride through the English countryside.
Caroline Mary Richmond, her cousin Charity, and their black companion, Benjamin, all heard the noise at the same instant. Charity thought the sound was thunder and looked out the window. She frowned in confusion, as the sky above was as clear and blue as the finest of fall's days. There wasn't a single angry cloud in sight. She was about to comment on that fact when her cousin grabbed hold of her shoulders and pushed her to the floor of the hired carriage.
Caroline saw to her cousin's protection and then pulled a silver pearled pistol from her drawstring purse. She braced herself on top of Charity when the vehicle came to an abrupt halt along the curve of the roadway.
"Caroline, whatever are you doing?" The muffled demand came from the floor.
"Gunshots," Caroline answered.
Benjamin, seated across from his mistress, readied his own weapon and cautiously peered out his open window.
"Foul play ahead!" yelled the coachman with a thick Irish brogue. "Best wait it out here," he advised as he hastily climbed down from his perch and raced past Ben's view.
"Do you see anything?" Caroline asked.
"Only the groom hiding in the bushes," the black man replied with obvious disgust in his voice.
"I can't see anything," Charity remarked in a disgruntled voice. "Caroline, please remove your feet. I'm going to have shoe prints all over the back of my dress." She struggled to sit up and finally made it to her knees. Her bonnet was around her neck, tangled in an abundance of blonde curls and pink and yellow ribbons. Wire-rim spectacles were perched at an odd angle on her petite nose, and she squinted with concentration while she tried to right her appearance.
"Honestly, Caroline, I do wish you wouldn't be so vigorous in your need to protect me," she stated in a rush. "Oh, Lord, I've lost one of my glasses," she added with a moan. "It's probably down my gown somewhere. Do you think they're robbers, waylaying some poor traveler?"
Caroline concentrated on the last of Charity's remarks. "From the number of shots and our coachman's reaction, I would assume so," she replied. Her voice was soft and calm, an instinctive reaction to Charity's nervous prattle. "Benjamin? Please see to the horses. If they're calm enough, then we'll ride ahead and offer assistance. "
Benjamin nodded his agreement and opened the door. His imposing bulk rocked the vehicle as soon as he moved, and he had to angle his broad shoulders to clear the wooden doorway. Instead of hurrying to the front of the carriage where the stable horses were harnessed, he turned to the back, where Caroline's two Arabians were tethered. The animals had come all the way from Boston with the threesome and were presents for Caroline's father, the Earl of Braxton.
The stallion was fretful and the mare no less so, but Benjamin, crooning to both in the musical African dialect only Caroline fully understood, quickly settled the animals. He then untied them and led them to the side of the carriage.
"Wait here, Charity," Caroline commanded. "And keep your head down."
"Do be careful," Charity replied as she climbed back up onto the seat. She immediately poked her head out the window, completely ignoring Caroline's order of caution, and watched as Benjamin lifted Caroline onto the back of the stallion. "Benjamin, take care too," Charity called as the huge man settled himself on the nervous mare's back.
Caroline led the way through the trees, her intent to come upon the robbers from behind, with the element of surprise on her side. The number of shots indicated four, possibly five attackers, and she had no wish to ride into the middle of a band of cutthroats with such uneven odds.
Branches tore at her blue bonnet and she quickly removed it and threw it to the ground. Thick black hair, the color of midnight, pulled away from the inefficient pins and settled in curly disarray around her slender shoulders.
Angry voices halted them, and Caroline and Benjamin, well hidden behind the thickness of the dense forest, had a somewhat unobstructed view. The sight on the roadway sent a chill of apprehension down Caroline's spine.
Four burly men, all on horseback, surrounded one side of a beautiful black carriage. All but one wore masks. They faced a gentleman of obvious wealth who was slowly dismounting from the carriage. Caroline saw bright red blood flowing unchecked from between the man's legs and almost gasped aloud with outrage and pity.
The injured gentleman had blond hair and a handsome face that was chalk-white now and etched in pain. Caroline watched as he leaned against the carriage and faced his attackers. She noted the arrogance and disdain in his gaze as he studied his captors, and then saw his eyes suddenly widen. Arrogance vanished, replaced by stark terror. Caroline was quick to see the reason for the swift change in the man's attitude. The attacker without the mask, obviously the leader of the group from the way the others were looking at him, was slowly lifting his pistol. The bandit, no doubt, was about to commit cold-blooded murder.
"He's seen me face," the man said to his cohorts. "There's no help for it. He has to die."
Two of the robbers immediately nodded their approval, but the third hesitated. Caroline didn't waste time to see his decision. She carefully took aim and pulled the trigger. Her shot was true and accurate, a reflection of the years of living with four older male cousins who insisted on teaching her self-defense. The leader's hand received her shot, his howl of pain her reward.
Benjamin grunted his approval as he handed her his weapon and accepted her empty one. Caroline fired again, injuring the man to the left of the leader.
And then it was over. The bandits, yelling obscenities and warnings, took off at a thunderous pace down the road.
Caroline waited until the sounds of horses faded and then nudged her mount forward. When she reached the gentleman, she quickly slid to the ground. "I don't think they'll return," she said in a soft voice. She still held the gun in her hand but quickly lowered the barrel when the gentleman backed up a space.
The man slowly came out of his daze. Incredulous blue eyes, a shade darker than Caroline's own, stared at her with dawning comprehension. "It was you who shot them? You shot..."
The poor man couldn't seem to finish his thought. The event had obviously been too much for him.
"Yes, I shot them. Benjamin," she added, motioning to the giant standing behind her, "helped."
The gentleman tore his gaze from Caroline and glanced over her head to look at her friend. His reaction to the black man worried Caroline. Why, he looked ready to faint. He appeared befuddled but Caroline decided that fright and the pain from his injury were the causes for his slow wit. "If I hadn't used my weapons, you'd now be dead."
After delivering what she considered a most logical statement of fact, Caroline turned back to Benjamin. She handed him the reins to her stallion. "Return to the carriage and tell Charity what has happened. She's probably worried herself sick by now."
Benjamin nodded and started off. "Bring the gunpowder just in case," Caroline called after him, "and Charity's medicine satchel."
She turned back to the stranger then and asked, "Can you make it back inside your carriage? You'll be more comfortable while I see to your injury."
The man nodded and slowly made his way up the steps and into the carriage. He almost toppled back out, but Caroline was right behind him and steadied him with her hands.
When he was settled on the plush burgundy-colored seat cushion, Caroline knelt down on the floorboards between his outstretched legs. She found herself suddenly embarrassed, as the injury was in such an awkward place, and felt her cheeks warm in reaction to the intimate position she was in. She hesitated over exactly how to proceed, until a fresh spurt of blood oozed down the fawn-colored buckskin breeches.
"It is most awkward, this," the man whispered. There was more pain than embarrassment in his voice and Caroline reacted with pure sympathy.
The wound was right at the junction of his legs, on the left inner thigh. "You're very fortunate," Caroline whispered. "The shot has gone straight through. If I can just tear the material a little, perhaps -- "
"You'll ruin them!" The man seemed outraged over Caroline's suggestion and she leaned back to look up at him.
"My boots! Will you look at my boots!"
He appeared, in Caroline's estimation, to be bordering on hysteria. "It will be all right," she insisted in a quiet voice. "May I please tear your breeches just a bit?"
The gentleman took a deep breath, rolled his eyes heavenward, and gave a curt nod. "If you must," he stated with resignation.
Caroline nodded and quickly pulled a small dagger from its hiding place above her ankle.
The gentleman watched her and found his first smile. "Do you always travel so well prepared, madam?"
"Where we have just traveled from, it's a fact that one must take every precaution," Caroline explained.
It was extremely difficult to edge the tip of her blade beneath the tight breeches. The material seemed to be truly molded to the man's skin, and Caroline had the vague thought that it must be terribly uncomfortable for the man to sit at all. She worked diligently until she was finally, able to tear the material at the junction of the man's legs and then split the fabric wide, until all of the pink flesh was exposed.
The gentleman, catching the unusual accent of the beautiful woman kneeling before him, recognized the colonial pitch in her husky voice. "Ah, you're from the Colonies! A barbaric place I'm told." He gasped when Caroline began to probe around the edges of the injury and then continued, "No wonder you carry an arsenal with you."
Caroline looked up at the stranger, surprise registering in her voice when she replied, "It is true, I am from the Colonies, but that isn't why I carry weapons, sir. No, no," she added with a vigorous shake of her head. "I've just come from London."
"London?" The stranger assumed his confused look once again.
"Indeed. We've heard stories of the mischief that takes place there. Why, the tales of countless murders and robberies have reached even Boston. It's a den of decadence and corruption, is it not? My cousin and I promised that we would take every care. A good thing, too, considering this treachery on the very day of our arrival."
"Ha! I've heard the same stories about the Colonies," the gentleman responded with a snort. "London is far more civilized, my dear misguided woman!" The gentleman's tone sounded very condescending in Caroline's opinion. Oddly enough, she wasn't put off by it.
"You defend your home, and I suppose that is honorable of you," Caroline replied with a sigh. She returned her attention to his leg before he could think of a suitable reply and added, "Would you please remove your neckcloth?"
"I beg your pardon?" the stranger replied. He was biting on his lower lip between each carefully enunciated word, and Caroline assumed that the pain had intensified.
"I need something to stop the flow of blood," Caroline explained.
"If anyone hears of this, I will be humiliated beyond...to be shot in such a delicate place, to have a lady see my condition, and then, to use my cravat...My God, it is all too much, too much!"
"Don't concern yourself over your cravat," Caroline soothed in a voice she used when comforting small children. "I'll use a portion of my petticoat."
The gentleman still held a rather crazed look in his eyes and continued to protect his precious neckcIoth from her grasp. Caroline forced herself to maintain a sympathetic expression. "And I promise that I'll not tell anyone about this most unfortunate incident. Why, I don't even know your name! There, see how simple it all is? For now I shall call you...Mr. George, after your king. Is that acceptable?"
The wild look in the man's eyes intensified and Caroline gathered that it wasn't acceptable at all. She puzzled over it a moment and then decided that she
understood this new irritation. "Of course, since your king is indisposed, perhaps another name will better suit. Is Smith all right? How about Harold Smith?"
The man nodded and let out a long sigh.
"Good," Caroline stated. She patted his kneecap and quickly climbed out of the carriage, then bent and began to tear a strip from the bottom of her petticoat.
The sound of horse and rider making a fast approach startled Caroline. She froze, realizing that the pounding noise was coming from the north, the opposite direction from Benjamin and their hired carriage. Was one of the bandits returning? "Hand me my pistol, Mr. Smith," she demanded as she quickly replaced the dagger in its hiding place and threw the strip of petticoat through the open window.
"But it's empty," the man protested in a loud voice filled with panic.
Caroline felt the same panic try to grab hold of her. She fought the urge to pick up her skirts and run for help. She couldn't give in to such a cowardly thought, however, for it would mean leaving the injured gentleman alone, without protection. "The pistol may be empty, but only you and I need know that," Caroline insisted with false bravery. She accepted the weapon through the window, took a deep, calming breath, and said a silent prayer that Benjamin had also heard the approach of this new threat. Lord, but she wished her hands would quit shaking!
From around the curve, horse and rider finally came into view. Caroline focused on the animal, a gigantic black beast at least three hands taller than her own Arabians. She had the wild thought that she was about to be trampled to death and felt the earth tremble beneath her. She held her pistol steady, though she did back up a space, and dangerous though it was, she had to close her eyes against the dirt flying up into her face when the rider forced his mount to stop.
Caroline brushed one hand against her eyes and then opened them. She looked past the magnificent beast and saw a gleaming pistol pointed directly at her. Both the snorting animal and the pistol proved too intimidating and Caroline quickly turned her attention to the rider.
That was a mistake. The huge man staring down at her was far more intimidating looking than either the horse or the weapon. The tawny brown hair falling against his forehead didn't soften the man's hard, chiseled features. His jaw was rigid and clearly defined, as was his nose, and his eyes, a golden brown that didn't give the least hint of gentleness or understanding, now tried to pierce through her, undermine her good intentions. His scowl was hot enough to burn.
She wouldn't allow it, she told herself. She stared back at the arrogant man, trying not to blink as she held his gaze.
Jered Marcus Benton, the fourth Duke of Bradford, couldn't believe what he was seeing. He calmed his stallion while he stared at the lovely vision before him, the blue-eyed beauty who held a pistol aimed right at his heart. The entire situation was difficult to take in.
"What has happened here?" he demanded with such force that his stallion began to prance in reaction. He was quick to get the animal under control, using his powerful thighs as leverage. "Quiet, Reliance," he stated in a harsh growl. Yet he seemed to contradict his firm command by stroking the side of the horse's neck. The unconscious show of affection was at great odds with the brutal expression on his face.
He wouldn't break the hold of his gaze, and Caroline found herself wishing that it had been one of the robbers returning after all. She worried that this stranger would quickly see through her bluff.
Where was Benjamin? Caroline thought a little frantically. Surely he had heard the approach. Why, the ground still trembled, didn't it? Or was it her legs that trembled?
Lord, she had to get hold of herself!
"Tell me what happened here," the stranger demanded again. The harshness in his voice washed over Caroline but she still didn't move. Nor did she answer, afraid that her fear would be apparent in her voice, giving him the advantage. She tightened her grip on the pistol and tried to slow her racing heart.
Bradford chanced a quick look around. His favorite carriage, loaned to his friend for a fortnight, stood at the edge of the roadway with several hideous bullet holes in his crest. He caught a movement inside the vehicle and recognized his friend's mop of blond hair. Bradford all but sighed with relief. His friend was safe.
He knew, instinctively, that the woman standing proudly before him wasn't responsible for the damage. He saw her tremble slightly and seized the opportunity.
"Drop your weapon!" It wasn't a request. The Duke of Bradford rarely, if ever, requested anything. He commanded. And under usual circumstances, he always received what he wanted.
Bradford was forced to decide that this didn't qualify as a usual circumstance when the chit continued to stare up at him, ignoring his order altogether.
Caroline concentrated on trying not to tremble as she studied the man looming above her like an angry cloud. Power surrounded the scowling man like a winter cloak, and Caroline found herself frightened by the intensity of her reaction to him. He was, after all, only a man. She shook her head and fought to clear her thoughts. The stranger looked arrogant and pompous and, from the apparel he wore, was obviously very wealthy. His waistcoat was a rich burgundy color, styled in the identical manner as Mr. Smith's forestgreen jacket. His golden buckskins were just as fashionable, and as tightly fitted from the way his muscles bulged through the material. The Hessians shone with polish and attention, and the cynical-looking man even wore the same type of neckcIoth.
Caroline remembered the injured man's worry that one of his acquaintances would hear of his awkward situation and remembered too her promise to tell no one. The stranger glaring at her definitely looked the type to spread stories, in Caroline's opinion. Best to send him on his way.
"Madam, do you suffer a hearing impairment? I told you to drop your pistol." He hadn't meant to yell but he felt captive, both by her weapon pointed at him and, he admitted to himself, by her eyes, daring him. They were the most unusual color.
"You drop your pistol," Caroline finally replied. She was pleased that her voice didn't tremble overmuch and thought that she sounded almost as angry as he did. It was a small victory, but a victory all the same.
Caroline's back was to the carriage and she therefore didn't see the injured gentleman wave a greeting to the stranger trying to frighten her to death.
Bradford acknowledged the wave with a curt nod. His eyebrow arched in a silent question to his friend and his gaze suddenly lost its cynical look. It was as if a filled chalkboard had suddenly been erased, and Caroline found herself wishing his intimidating aura of power would also disappear as quickly.
She wasn't given more time to consider her adversary's change in disposition. "It appears that we have a standoff," the man stated in a deep, rich voice. "Should we shoot each other?"
She wasn't amused. She saw the corners of his hard mouth turn up a bit and felt her spine stiffen in reaction. How dare he assume such a bored and amused attitude when she was so frightened.
"You'll drop your weapon," Caroline insisted in a soft voice. "I won't shoot you."
Bradford ignored her order and her promise and continued to study her with lazy appreciation as he patted his stallion's neck. It was obvious that he valued
the animal, and Caroline suddenly realized she possessed a new weapon.
He, of course, would never give in. He would bend to no woman! Bradford had seen his opponent tremble a moment before and knew that it was just a matter of time before she crumbled completely. He reluctantly admired her courage, a quality he had never encountered in a female before, but considered that, brave or not, she was still a woman, and therefore inferior. All females were basically the same; they all...
"I won't shoot you, but I will shoot your horse."
Her ploy worked. The man almost fell off his stallion. "You wouldn't dare!" he bellowed in pure outrage.
Caroline's answer to his denial was to drop her arm so that her empty pistol was aimed directly at the proud beast's head. "Right between the eyes," she promised.
"Bradford!" The voice, calling from inside the carriage, put a halt to the duke's overwhelming desire to leap from his horse and throttle the woman before him.
"Mr. Smith? Do you know this man?" Caroline called out. She never took her gaze off the angry stranger now dismounting and watched with great satisfaction as he replaced his pistol in the waistband of his breeches. A wave of relief overtook her. He hadn't been too difficult to convince after all. If this Englishman was a typical example of the fashionable ton, then Caroline considered that her cousins just might be right. Perhaps they were all pansies.
Bradford turned to Caroline, interrupting her thoughts. "No gentleman would ever threaten -- "
He realized, even as he made the rash comment, how totally absurd it was.
"I've never claimed to be much of a gentleman," Caroline returned when she realized he wasn't going to finish his sentence.
Mr. Smith poked his head out the window and let out a small groan when the quick movement caused him pain. "Her pistol's empty, man. Don't get all apoplectic! Your horse is safe." There was a snicker of amusement in his voice and Caroline couldn't help but smile.
Bradford found himself temporarily sidetracked by the woman's beautiful smile, the mischievous sparkle that radiated in her eyes.
"You were certainly easy to convince," Caroline noted. She immediately wished that she had kept her thoughts to herself, for the man was now advancing upon her at an alarming pace. And he wasn't smiling. He obviously suffered from lack of humor, she considered, as she backed up a space.
His scowl removed any possibility of attractiveness. That, and his size. He was much too tall and too broad for her liking. Why, he was almost as huge as Benjamin, who, Caroline was relieved to note, was quietly stalking up on the stranger behind his back.
"Would you have shot my horse if your pistol was loaded?" The stranger had developed a rather severe twitch in his right cheek, and Caroline, lowering her pistol, decided that it was best to answer.
"Of course not. He's much too beautiful to destroy. You, on the other hand..."
Bradford heard the crunch of gravel behind him and turned. He came eye to eye with Benjamin. The two men regarded each other for long seconds and Caroline realized he wasn't at all cowed by her friend's presence. He seemed only curious, a notable difference from Mr. Smith's reaction.
"Would you hand me the medicine, Benjamin? Don't worry about that one," she added with a motion of her head in the arrogant man's direction. "He appears to be a friend of Mr. Smith's."
"Mr. Smith?" Bradford asked, turning a puzzled look at the man smiling at him through the carriage window.
"Today he is Harold Smith," Caroline went on to explain. "He doesn't wish me to know his real name, as he is in a rather embarrassing position. I suggested
calling him George, after your king, but he took immediate offense so we settled on Harold."
Charity chose that moment to come bounding around the comer of the lane, her full pink skirt held well above her shapely ankles as she ran. Caroline welcomed the interruption, as the frowning Bradford was staring at her in a most disconcerting way. Did all the English look so confused all the time?
"Caroline! The groom refuses to come out of the bushes," Charity rushed out when she could gain her breath. She came to an abrupt stop next to Benjamin and favored him with a quick smile before she looked at Bradford and then past him, to the man staring at her from the carriage window. "Has the danger passed? The groom has promised to return to his post if I will only return and tell him that all is well. He sent me to find out," she explained. "Caroline, we really should turn right around and return to London. I know I'm the one who insisted on traveling to your father's country home, but I see the foolishness of my suggestion now. Cousin, you were right! We'll settle in your father's townhouse and send a message to him."
Charity, chattering away, appeared to Bradford to be a walking whirlwind. His attention kept turning from one woman to the other and he found it difficult to believe that the two were actually related. They looked, and acted, nothing alike. Charity was petite, around five feet two inches tall in Bradford's estimation, with golden curls that couldn't keep still, and hazel eyes that sparkled with mischief. Caroline was a good three or four inches taller than her cousin, with black hair and thick dark lashes that framed the most stunning clear blue eyes. Both were slender. Charity was pretty; her cousin quite beautiful.
The differences didn't stop with their appearance. The little blonde appeared to be flighty, and her gaze lacked both concentration and substance. She hadn't been able to took him right in the eye, and he decided that she bordered on being timid.
Caroline gave the appearance of total confidence, her gaze direct. She could, and almost did, stare him to his knees. The two cousins were opposites, Bradford acknowledged, charming and intriguing opposites.
"Mr. Smith, this is Charity," Caroline stated with an affectionate smile directed at her cousin. She deliberately ignored Bradford and justified her slight because the man continued to frown.
Charity hurried over to the window of the carriage, stood on tiptoes, and tried to look inside. "Benjamin told me that you were injured! You poor man! Are you feeling better now?" She smiled and waited for an answer as the injured gentleman frantically tried to cover himself. "I'm Caroline's cousin but we have been raised as sisters for as long as I can remember and we are very close in age. I am just six months older." This explanation having been given, Charity turned back to smile at Caroline, displaying twin dimples in the process. "Where is their groom? Do you think he's also hiding in the bushes? Someone really ought to look around, I do suppose."
"Yes," Caroline answered. "That's a splendid idea. Why don't you and Benjamin try to find him while I finish tending to Mr. Smith's leg?"
"Oh, where are my manners? We should all introduce ourselves, although this is a most unusual circumstance, and it is difficult to know just how one is to proceed."
"No!" The scream issued from inside the carriage with a force that almost rocked the vehicle off its wheels.
"Mr. Smith would prefer to remain a stranger to us," Caroline explained in a gentle voice. "And you must promise, as I have, to forget this accident." She pulled her cousin aside and whispered, "The man is terribly embarrassed. You know how these English are," she added.
Bradford, standing close enough, heard the explanation and was about to question Caroline's last remark when Charity said, "He's embarrassed because he was injured? How very odd. Is it severe?"
"No," Caroline assured her. "At first I thought it was, but that was because there was so much blood. But it's in an awkward place," Caroline finished.
"Oh, my!" Charity drew the statement out with a rush of sympathy. She shot a took at the man inside the carriage and then turned back to Caroline. "Awkward, you say?"
"Yes," Caroline replied. She knew her cousin wished a full description but, out of deference to Mr. Smith's feelings, didn't tell her any more. "The sooner we finish and get on our way, the better."
"Because he is being most dramatic over his injury," Caroline returned, letting her cousin see her exasperation. She wasn't telling Charity the whole truth and admitted that much to herself. She wished to hurry because of Mr. Smith's overbearing friend. The sooner she got away from him, the better. The man frightened her in an unusual, irritating way and Caroline didn't care for that feeling at all.
"Is he a dandy?" Charity whispered the question as if it were a dread disease.
Caroline didn't answer. She motioned to Benjamin and then accepted the satchel of medicine. She climbed back into the carriage and said to Mr. Smith, "Don't concern yourself over Charity. She isn't wearing her spectacles and can barely see you."
Benjamin listened to the explanation and then offered his arm to Charity. When she didn't immediately take it, he grabbed hold of her arm and slowly led her away. Bradford watched the twosome, trying to figure out who and what was going on.
"You might as well see the mess I'm in," Mr. Smith called out to his friend. Bradford nodded and walked around to the other side of the carriage.
"There are few men I would trust to keep silent about my predicament, but Bradford is one of them," he explained to Caroline.
Caroline didn't comment. She saw that the injury had quit bleeding. "Do you have any spirits with you?" she asked, completely ignoring Bradford when he entered the carriage and sat down across from Mr. Smith.
The carriage was much larger than the hired conveyance Caroline had acquired, but Bradford's left leg touched her shoulder nonetheless as she knelt before Mr. Smith. It would be inappropriate to suggest that he wait outside until she was finished cleaning and binding the wound, since Mr. Smith had invited him inside, but all the same, she couldn't help but wish!
"A portion of brandy," the man answered, turning her thoughts back to him. "Do you think a stiff drink might be the thing?" he asked as he pulled a gray container from his breast pocket.
"If there is any left," Caroline answered. "I'm going to pour some on the injury before I bind it. Mama says that spirits stop infection," she explained. She didn't add that her mother wasn't sure about this theory but practiced it anyway, decreeing that it certainly couldn't hurt. "It will sting and if you wish to yell out, I'll not think less of you."
"I'll not make a sound, madam, and it is ungallant of you to suggest that I would," the man stated with a pompous air just seconds before the liquid fire touched his skin. He then let out a full scream of protest and almost came off the seat.
Bradford, feeling completely helpless, grimaced with sympathy.
Caroline grabbed a small jar of yellow powder that smelled of stale rain and wet leaves and sprinkled a liberal amount all over the wound. She then took the long strip of petticoat and worked with as much speed as possible. "The medicine will numb the area and seal it too," she told him in a gentle voice.
Bradford fell victim to the husky, sensual pull in her voice. He found himself wishing he could change places with his friend and had to shake his head over that ridiculous thought. What was the matter with him? He felt bewitched and confused. It was such a strange reaction to a woman, one he had never experienced before, and he found he didn't like it at all. She challenged his control. God's truth, it almost frightened him, this intense reaction to the black-haired chit, and Bradford was suddenly like the bumbling schoolboy of years gone by, unsure of how to proceed.
"I have behaved like a coward, screaming like that," Mr. Smith whispered. He mopped his forehead with a small square of lace and lowered his eyes. "Your mama is a barbarian to use such vile methods of treatment."
Bradford, seeing the distress in his friend's face, knew how difficult it was for him to admit to any flaw but decided that if he tried to dissuade his thinking, he would only make it worse.
"Mr. Smith, you barely made a peep," Caroline contradicted with firmness. She patted his knee and glanced up at him. "You've been so brave. Why, the way you stood up to those bandits was most impressive. " Caroline saw that her praise was having its effect. Mr. Smith's pompous air was gradually returning. "You have been courageous and have nothing to carry on about. And I will forgive you for calling my mama a barbarian," she added with a gentle smile.
"I was rather bold with the scoundrels," Mr. Smith acknowledged. "Of course, I was helplessly outnumbered you understand."
"That you were," Caroline returned. "You should be very proud of your conduct. Don't you agree, Mr. Bradford?"
"I do," Bradford immediately replied, immensely pleased that she had finally acknowledged him.
Mr. Smith grunted his pleasure.
"The only coward in the vicinity is the Irish groom I employed," Caroline remarked as she began to wrap the long string around Mr. Smith's thigh.
"You don't like the Irish?" Bradford inquired with a lazy drawl. He was intrigued by her vehement tone of voice. Caroline glanced up at him with eyes that sparkled her anger, and Bradford found himself wondering if she would love as fiercely as she hated. He then pushed the ridiculous notion aside.
"The Irish I have encountered have been scoundrels," Caroline admitted. "Mama says that I should be more liberal in my understanding, but I find I cannot."
She sighed and turned back to her duties. "Three Irish attacked me once, when I was much younger, and if Benjamin had not intervened, I don't know what would have happened. I would probably not be here to tell about it."
"I find it difficult to believe that anyone could get the better of you," Mr. Smith interjected.
It sounded like a compliment and Caroline accepted it as such. "I didn't know how to protect myself then. My cousins were terribly upset over the incident, and from that day on, they all took a turn teaching me how to defend myself."
"The woman's a walking arsenal," Mr. Smith commented to his friend. "She says she protects herself against London."
"Are we to argue over the differences between the sophisticated Colonies and your shameful London once again, Mr. Smith?" Caroline's voice was filled with laughter. She teased, more to take the man's thoughts off his pain than anything else. With gentle, sure motions, she tied the long strip around and around his thigh.
Mr. Smith had slowly lost his pained expression. "I am feeling remarkably better. I owe you my life, dear woman."
Caroline pretended she hadn't heard his fervent statement and quickly turned the topic. She was always uneasy over compliments. "You'll be dancing within a fortnight," she promised. "Do you attend the grand functions of the ton? Do you, as they say, belong?"
The innocent question caused Mr. Smith to cough. He sounded like he was strangling on something caught in his throat. Caroline watched him for a second and then looked over at Bradford. She saw the amusement in his eyes and thought that the smile around the comers of his eyes almost made him look handsome.
She patiently waited for him to answer her, as Mr. Smith, continuing with his coughing and gasping, just didn't seem capable of the task.
Bradford wasn't a fop, she thought as she awaited his reply. It was actually a bit of a disappointment to acknowledge that. No, he didn't act like Mr. Smith at all. Oh, they were dressed in the same type of garment, but Caroline didn't think that Bradford carried a handkerchief made of nothing but lace. She didn't believe that his thigh would feel so much like the skin on a new baby's backside either. No, it would probably feel tough...and hard. He was so much more muscular than Mr. Smith too. He didn't run to flab at all. She imagined that he could easily crush an opponent with his weight alone. How would he be with a woman? Caroline felt her cheeks warm at her mind's alarming fantasy. What was the matter with her. To actually try to visualize a man without his clothes on, to consider what he must be like when he touched a woman. Lord, it was all unthinkable!
Bradford saw the pretty blush and believed that she thought Mr. Smith was laughing at her. He immediately answered, "We do belong to the ton but Mr. Smith attends more of the gatherings than I." He didn't add that he rarely attended any of the parties anymore and considered it all a trial to his patience. Instead of voicing his true feelings, he inquired, "You mentioned that you are visiting your father? You live in the Colonies then? With your mother?"
Bradford wanted to find out as much as he could about Caroline. He refused to acknowledge his sudden compulsion to gather as much information as possible and pretended, even to himself, that it was a mild interest and nothing more.
Caroline frowned. It would be rude not to answer the politely phrased questions, yet she found she didn't want to tell either of the gentlemen anything about herself. She would be in London for only a short time if her plans didn't go astray, and she didn't wish to form any friendships with the English. Still, there didn't seem to be any way around the expectation on both men's faces. She had to say something. "My mother has been dead for many years," she finally stated. "I moved to Boston when I was just a little girl. My aunt and uncle raised me and I've always called my aunt Mama. She did raise me, you see. And it was easier...to fit in," she added with a negligent shrug.
"Will you be staying in London long?" Bradford asked. He leaned forward, placing his large hands on his knees, obviously intent on hearing her answer.
"Charity would like to attend some of the functions while we are here," she replied, avoiding the real question he had asked.
Bradford frowned over the way she had skirted his question and then said, "The season will soon start. Do you look forward to your adventure?" He forced the cynicism out of his voice, admitting that he didn't want to spoil her innocent expectations. She was a female and therefore had to be eager to participate in the frivolousness of it all.
"Adventure? I hadn't thought of it in quite that way. I'm sure that Charity will enjoy the parties," she answered.
She was frowning up at Bradford and he was struck with the thought that her gaze, when directed with such force, could well make any man stutter and lose his train of thought. Of course, Bradford hastily reminded himself while he tried to remember what it was they were talking about, he had seen too much, experienced too much, to be taken in by the wiles of any chit. He was, however, growing more alarmed at his own undisciplined reactions. By God, he had never been so affected, so overwhelmed, by a woman before. What the hell was the matter with him? It must be the heat, he reflected, even as he vowed, in that instant when their gaze held, that he would know all about the woman kneeling before him. She glowed with innocence and promises of real warmth to a man who had been out in the cold for such a long time.
The spell holding Caroline captive by Bradford's dark eyes was broken when Mr. Smith cleared his throat and inquired, "You don't look forward to the season, do you?" He seemed, to Caroline's way of thinking, to be completely astonished by his own question.
"I haven't given it consideration," Caroline answered. She smiled and then added, "We have heard such stories! They are a prickly, closed group and one must always be terribly correct. Charity fears that she will do something that will embarrass my father her first night out. She wishes to be correct, you see."
Her voice sounded strained and Bradford became all the more intrigued.
Mr. Smith commented, "I predict that you'll be the talk of London." His voice sounded smug and arrogant.
He had meant it as a compliment and was confused when Caroline nodded and frowned up at him. "That is Charity's worry about me. She fears I'll do something quite dreadful and all of London will hear of it. You see, I am rarely correct in anything that I do. My mama calls me a rebel. I fear she's right."
Her comment about her character was made in a very matter-of-fact voice.
"No, no. You mistake my meaning," Mr. Smith stated. He waved his handkerchief in the air like a flag. "I mean to say that the ton will embrace you. I predict it."
"You are most kind," Caroline whispered. "But I hold little hope. It doesn't signify, as you English are fond of saying, for I'll be returning to Boston. It doesn't matter if I'm cut by Pummer himself."
"Pummer?" Both Bradford and Mr. Smith stated the name together.
"Plummer or Brummer," Caroline returned with a shrug. "Mr. Smith, if you would just move your leg a little so that I can catch this loose end. There, now I can proceed."
"Do you mean Brummell? Beau Brummell?" Bradford asked, a smile in his voice.
"Yes, that is probably the correct name. We were told by Mrs. Maybury, before we left Boston, that this Brummell rules the ton, but of course you must know that. Mrs. Maybury had only just arrived in the Colonies before we left, so we believe her story to be accurate. "
"And what was her story?" Bradford asked.
"That if Brummell decides to cut a lady, then she might as well join a convent. Her season is ruined and she must go home in disgrace. Can you imagine one person having such power?" She asked the question of Bradford and glanced up at him. She immediately wished she hadn't. Of course he could imagine such power, she told herself. The man probably invented it. She sighed with frustration and lowered her gaze. Bradford's closeness was beginning to irritate her. She looked up at Mr. Smith and saw his distressed frown. "Oh, have I made the bandage too tight?"
"N-no, it's fine," Mr. Smith stammered.
"You must understand that I personally do not care if Brummell cuts me or not. London holds no promise for me. Still, I do worry that Charity will be affected by my behavior and possibly hurt and I don't wish to see her humiliated. Yes, that is a worry."
"I have the feeling that Beau Brummell will not cut you or your cousin," Bradford predicted.
"You're far too beautiful to be discarded," Mr. Smith interjected.
"Being attractive should have nothing to do with being accepted. It is what is inside a person that matters," Caroline advised.
"Besides that noble fact, I hear that he values his grays exceedingly," Bradford commented, his tone dry.
"His grays?" Caroline asked, clearly confused.
"His horses," Bradford answered. "I've no doubt that you'd try to shoot them if he dared to cut you or your cousin."
His expression looked serious but his eyes had turned warm and teasing. "I would never!" Caroline said.
He smiled then and Caroline shook her head. "You jest," she stated. "There," she said, turning back to Mr. Smith. "I've finished. Keep this medicine and have the bandage changed once a day. And don't allow anyone to bleed you, for heaven's sake. You've lost enough blood."
"Another one of your mama's practices?" Mr. Smith inquired with a good deal of suspicion in his voice.
Caroline nodded as she moved out of the carriage. When she stood outside, she turned and propped Mr. Smith's legs on the opposite seat, next to Bradford's looming form. "I fear you're correct, Mr. Smith. Your lovely boots look ruined. And your tassels are coated with blood. Perhaps if you wash them with champagne, the way Mrs. Maybury explained that Brummell does, then they'll be just the thing again."
"That is a most guarded secret," Mr. Smith decreed with indignation.
"It can't be much of a secret," Caroline replied. "For Mrs. Maybury knew all about it and it appears you do too." She didn't wait for a reply to her logical statement and turned to Bradford. "You'll see to your friend now?"
"We've found the groom," Charity called out just as Bradford nodded to Caroline. "He has a bump on his head the size of a church steeple, but he's coming around."
Caroline nodded and said, "Good day to you both. Benjamin, we must go now. Mr. Bradford will tend to Mr. Smith."
The black man said something to Caroline in a language Bradford had never heard before but he knew, from the way that Caroline smiled and nodded, that she understood perfectly.
And then they were gone. Neither gentleman said a word as they watched the black-haired nymph lead her cousin down the road. The Duke of Bradford jumped out of the carriage for a longer look while his friend stuck his head out the window and also watched the retreat.
Bradford found himself smiling. The little cousin with the blonde curls was talking to Caroline, and the silent black man, with his pistol drawn, followed behind, obviously intent on seeing to their protection.
"My God, I believe I've contracted the king's madness," the injured man stated. "The chit hails from the Colonies," he added with a hint of a sneer in his voice, "and still I find I'm infatuated."
"Get over it," Bradford advised, his voice curt. "I want her." His tone didn't suggest an argument, and his friend wisely agreed with several vigorous nods. "I don't care if she is from the Colonies or not."
"What a stir you'll cause if you pursue her. If her father isn't titled...Well, it simply isn't done. Remember your position."
"And you therefore condemn it?" Bradford asked the question with quiet interest.
"I do not. I would support your cause. She saved my life."
Bradford raised an eyebrow and his friend hurried to answer his unspoken question. "She came upon the rascals and shot the gun right out of the leader's hand. Just seconds before he was going to shoot me."
"I've no doubt that she was capable of doing just that," Bradford commented.
"Injured another one in the shoulder."
"Did you notice how she evaded my questions?"
Mr. Smith began to chuckle. "I didn't think it was possible to see you smile, Bradford, and yet this day I have seen you do nothing else. The ton will be agog with speculation. You won't have an easy time of it with the chit. I envy you the challenge."
Bradford didn't reply but turned and again stared off into the distance, toward the curve in the road where the threesome had disappeared.
"She's going to cause quite a reaction when the fashionable ladies see her. Did you notice the color of her eyes? You'll have to fight for her attention, Bradford. My God, man, will you look at my boots!"
The Duke of Bradford ignored the request. And then he began to laugh. "Well, Brummell, do you dare cut her?"
Copyright © 1986 by Julie Garwood