Standing in a field outside a duke’s mansion, in a drenching predawn downpour, surrounded by a crowd of equally drunken young men, Blake Montague decided that getting shot by an overbearing imbecile over a rude parrot and a card game possessed potent symbolism, if only he could fathom what it might be.
He had attempted to divert the sots with cards, but Bernie Ogilvie’s second insult had only added fuel to the flames, and Blake’s honor came into question. Over a bird. That had to be the effect of too much brandy on both their parts. He could not think why else a duke’s nephew would intentionally insult someone so far below him on the social scale.
Damn Jocelyn Carrington and her flirtatious eyes and bold insults. He should not have partaken of that last glass of brandy while attempting to ignore the arousing effect that vivacious Venus had on his frustration. He was a hopeless mutton-head when it came to champagne-colored curls and blue eyes.
More likely, he should not have attempted his friend Fitz’s trick with counting cards. Bernie didn’t like to lose.
Blake examined the assortment of bloodthirsty weaponry placed at his disposal. Shooting anything might relieve some of his many irritations. He’d far prefer to find a woman than a weapon for physical release, but he’d take what he could get.
Hair tied unfashionably at the nape, whiskers in need of scraping, and torso stripped to shirtsleeves, embroidered vest, and loosened neckcloth, Blake was aware that he looked the part of disreputable highwayman. Perhaps if he accidentally killed Bernie, he’d take up thievery for a living. But he had no intention of hitting a target as wide as his host. The dolt merely needed a layer or two of privilege removed from his hide.
“‘He’s a most notable coward,’” Blake pronounced, the words tripping effortlessly off his well-oiled tongue while he held up a pistol and checked the length of the barrel, “‘an infinite and endless liar, an hourly promise breaker, the owner of not one good quality.’”
Oblivious of his opponent huddled with friends farther down the hedgerow, Blake pointed an ornate Manton at the moon. “‘I desire that we be better strangers.’”
“Damnation, he’s quoting Shakespeare.” Staying dry beneath the spreading branches of an oak, Atherton did not seem overly anxious about Blake’s impending confrontation with death. “We could all drown out here before he’s done.”
Blake would miss his callous friends if he took up thievery. He wouldn’t, however, miss Miss Carrington’s infectious laugh. Or that riveting cleavage she’d flaunted all evening. Ladies be damned.
Bernie’s second sounded more concerned than Nick. “We’re supposed to resolve this, not let them further insult each other.”
“We tried,” Nick noted. “Ogilvie’s the poor sport here.”
“Montague cheated!” Ogilvie protested, as he had done ever since the drunken party had whooped its way from the duke’s mansion to this distant field. He ignored the proffered box of weapons while he affixed the duke’s molting parrot on a perch he’d planted in the ground. “It’s a matter of honor.”
The wet creature flapped its wings and squawked a bored protest. “Acck! Friggin’ cock snatcher. Roger her, boyo!”
The very words that had set Blake off this evening.
“‘Methink’st thou art a general offence, and every man should beat thee,’” Blake quoted, filling his weapon with powder.
Shoulders propped against the oak, Nick sighed in exasperation. “You’re not on the battlefield anymore, old friend. Let the poor boy toddle to bed and sleep it off. You may not mind fleeing the law for a stint on the Continent, but it’s a damned poor way to treat your host.”
“That’s Bernie’s choice, not mine,” Blake corrected, testing the sight on the barrel. “It is my duty to defend the delicate sensibilities of the ladies. How can I find a rich one so I might return to war if I allow them to be insulted?” Blake asked. “Although it is hard to come by a wife who wants me dead,” he added with drunken wisdom.
Bernie’s second lifted a questioning eyebrow.
“Not a quote,” Nick explained. “Blake needs a dowry to buy colors. He thinks he can run the war better than the current crop of hen-hearted rattle-pates.”
“You’re serious?” the other man asked in disbelief, water dripping from the brim of his hat.
Nick shrugged. “He possesses the intellect to run the country but hasn’t a ha’pence to his name. What do you think?”
“War heroes get titles.” Bernie’s second nodded in understanding.
“Acck, tup her good, me lad!”
Maintaining the deadly focus that had kept him alive on the battlefield, Blake ignored Nick’s idea of repartee. In boredom, he aimed the loaded pistol at the half-featherless creature, which was barely discernible against the backdrop of yew. “‘Scurvy, old, filthy, scurry lord.’” He fired a test shot in the general direction of the bird and hedge. A flurry and scuttle shook the evergreen branches, as if some animal’s sleep had been disturbed, and the parrot squawked incomprehensible curses.
“Not the bird, Montague!” Ogilvie shouted, seeming in more fear of the parrot’s life than his own. “His Grace will disown me! Someone move Percy behind the hedge.”
One of Bernie’s companions obligingly pulled up the perch and moved the scurvy lord out of sight, if not out of hearing. Obscenities and squawks screeched against the silent dawn, raising songbirds into protest.
“The ladies are leaving this morning,” Nick called from his position beneath the oak, making no effort to verify the safety or accuracy of the next pistol Blake hefted. “Shooting Ogilvie won’t do you any good now. Apologize and have done.”
“‘I must be cruel only to be kind.’” Blake again sighted along the length of a barrel, in the direction of the hedge where the bird now resided.
The shrubbery rustled as if retreating from his aim.
“Shakespeare?” Bernie’s second asked.
“One never can be quite certain,” Nick concluded. “Montague’s brainpan is stuffed with an encyclopedia.”
Eager to escape the chilly September rain, one of the onlookers finally herded the duelists into position, back to back, and gave the signal for them to begin pacing off their distance. As Blake took long strides across the wet grass, a demonical shriek from the hedge—Ackkkk, kidnapper, murderer, help, hellllppppp!—dispersed the tension of the final count.
Undeterred by the parrot’s warning, Blake swiveled steadily at the count of ten and aimed his pistol. But Bernie was no longer in position.
Instead, coattails flapping, the duke’s stout nephew was racing for the shrubbery. “She’s stealing Percy!” he roared.
Sure enough, a dark, cloaked shadow—with a silly plume bouncing on its head—could be seen darting up the hill, into a grove of trees, the bird perch with it.
In disgust, Blake fired at Bernie’s hat, sending the inappropriate chapeau bouncing across the saturated grass with a hole through its middle. The rain had stopped as suddenly as it had begun, and a glimmer of predawn light appeared on the horizon. His opponent’s balding pate glistened as he fought yew branches in hopes of reaching his pet.
The bird screamed again from the field beyond the hedge.
Pointing, looking for all the world like a shorter version of the Prince of Wales, Bernie shouted, “A thousand pounds to anyone who catches her. Devil take the damned witch!”
“I say, did he promise a thousand pounds for that paltry poultry?” Blake asked, reloading the smoking pistol.
“He did, old boy, he did.” Nick unfurled himself from the oak’s trunk. “But everyone knows Ladybyrd took him. He’ll never see the creature again.”
Blake snorted. “For a thousand pounds, I’ll follow her to the Outer Hebrides.” Chasing Jocelyn Byrd-Carrington anywhere was just exactly what he needed. At this point, he would do so for nothing. He could still smell the damn woman’s exotic scent. Shooting her might be good for the soul and relieve the world of a foolish, bird-stealing widget.
“For all your education, you have ale for brains, Professor,” said Nick. “With that game leg, you can barely walk. You’re supposed to be recuperating. Haring after a crackbrain will only get you killed all the sooner.”
“She’s carrying a squawking damned parrot. How far can she get?” Donning his coat, Blake tucked the loaded pistol into his trouser band and trudged toward the hedge.
He had despised his enforced idleness. The last fumes of liquor evaporated with the exhilaration of action priming his blood. He didn’t know a woman alive who would travel without bags and boxes. If she was fleeing with the parrot, she wouldn’t part easily from them. Voila, she and the parrot would be found with the baggage.
Even if idle Bernie didn’t actually possess the full reward he’d offered, the duke might. Just five hundred pounds would buy Blake’s colors and free him from the need to marry for money. For the first time in recent memory, his spirits soared, and the thrill of the chase was on.
“Methinks he thinks too much,” Jocelyn crooned to the parrot, stroking it beneath the dark cloth covering the warm dry box she’d appropriated for the mistreated creature. The parrot batted its head against her soothing finger, then settled into sleep.
Shivering in her wet cloak, her mangled bonnet plume sticking to her cheek, Jocelyn tried not to think too hard about Blake Montague aiming a pistol in her direction, looking the part of a dangerous rogue.
Tucking the bird’s box among the rest of the baggage in the wagon, she heard the uneven crunching of gravel up the carriage drive and glanced toward the towering ducal mansion nearly a quarter mile from the stable where she stood. She had hoped the combatants were all too drunk or involved in the duel to follow her, but she didn’t underestimate the provoking soldier’s determination. The angry stride with a halting limp was probably his.
Montague was a lethal weapon. And for all his education, he didn’t seem to like anyone very much.
With no hope of reaching the house before he caught up with her, she abandoned the wagon and slipped into the shadows of the stable, out of the lingering drizzle. Nickers and whoofs and the pungent odor of manure permeated the morning air as the animals stirred in anticipation of their breakfast.
She’d learned the value of stealth and a good diversion while avoiding Harold’s rages. Spreading her thick cloak, Jocelyn pulled the hood over her bonnet and settled in a rear stall where a barn cat was nursing newborns.
“I know you’re in here,” a husky baritone called from the entrance. “I had hoped to have to hunt you down. You have disappointed me.”
Jocelyn wanted to ask what he intended to do, shoot her? But she saw no reason to disturb the kittens.
She suffered a nervous chill at the thought of being alone with an enraged man, but for all his brooding gloom, Mr. Montague was widely reported to be an honorable gentleman. He might scald her with the acid of his scorn, but a gentleman would never lay a hand on a lady. Behind him, dawn was lightening the wet day, silhouetting his square shoulders as he brushed raindrops from his hair. She wished she didn’t admire his physical strength so much. He had looked like a dangerous pirate in that duel, and his fencing this afternoon . . . Not to be considered. She had her goals, and Montague didn’t fit in with them.
She scratched mama cat’s head to reassure her as her pursuer stomped from stall to stall, waking the mares. Fortunately, the stallions were stabled elsewhere, or they’d be breaking down their doors at this intrusion.
She’d stationed herself so she could see the length of the barn and knew when he drew near. Her dove gray cloak blended nicely into the shadows this far from the door. When his tall outline loomed close, she pulled back her hood so he could see her white face against the stall. Good soldier that he was, he spotted her instantly.
She surreptitiously studied Mr. Montague’s stern, steely-eyed expression as he approached. She knew the value of most of the young men of society, and Blake Montague’s worth lay in his intellect, not in his pockets.
Except—the sight of the distinguished silver in his thick hair produced an oddly delicious shiver of excitement. She must admit that he was a handsome, if formidable, figure of a man—not one easily manipulated by the deceptive smiles and beguiling ways she’d learned to employ.
She was entirely too aware of Blake Montague’s powerful body as he regarded her as if she were a strange insect. His square jaw and angular cheekbones were made harsher by the bronze of a Portugal sun. Sinfully dark-lashed eyes accompanied his thick, overlong locks, creating an almost poetic image, if only the streak near his temple didn’t look like a dangerous lightning bolt.
It was that intense, hawk-eyed expression he bestowed upon her that set her nerves trembling, nearly preventing her from teasing him as she might tease another man.
She could almost swear he growled as he limped forward. She held a finger to her lips to indicate quiet. He quirked a menacing dark eyebrow at her.
“Quit posturing and admit the bird is better off free,” she whispered.
If he’d worn a hat, she thought he might have stomped on it. Picking up a kitten, she returned his glare. “What else could be done but let free such a rude creature?”
“You did not let a tropical bird loose in chilly England. You may be nicked in the nob, but no one ever said you were stupid.”
She slanted her eyes thoughtfully. “Actually, Harold said it quite often. And my brothers-in-law had occasion to mention it once or twice. Mr. Ogilvie certainly said it over these past days. I think I prefer nicked in the nob. What, precisely, does that mean?”
He ignored her effort to distract him. “The bird belongs to the duke. You cannot keep it. It’s theft. Just tell me where you’ve hidden it, and I’ll see it’s returned without question.” He crossed his arms over his soaked coat and glowered.
Jocelyn beamed at him in return. “Nature cannot be owned, sir.”
He blinked as if he’d just realized she truly was dimwitted—the reaction she was most accustomed to receiving. In keeping hapless Richard and his fowl from being murdered by angry family and strangers alike, she’d learned to act helpless. They usually quit shouting when she presented guileless smiles and pretty pleas.
Mr. Montague recovered more quickly than most, unfortunately. He reached down, grabbed her arm, and hauled her to her feet, much to mama cat’s consternation. “That’s the most preposterous idiocy I’ve heard all week, and I’ve heard a lot. Where is the bird?”
“Really, sir, you’ll ruin the drape of my gown.” She probably ought to be afraid. Blake Montague was more raw male than she normally encountered. He didn’t stink of perfume or hair pomade but male musk, perspiration, and damp wool. His hands on her weren’t the polite escort of a gentleman. She sensed he was passionately determined for reasons she could not perceive, but she couldn’t believe he would harm her because of a bird.
“Would you like me to summon an audience?” he asked maliciously. “What would Lady Bell have to say if we were discovered here alone at dawn?”
Jocelyn cocked her head thoughtfully. “Oh, something pithy and intelligent like birds of a feather flock together. Or dross sinks to the lowest depths.”
She thought she almost caught a quirk of amusement in the curl of his lip, and a thrill of totally unjustified pride swept through her. She really ought to be concerned about her reputation, but he was a rural baron’s youngest son, and until recently, she had been no more than the impoverished daughter of a deceased viscount. Their families were of Quality, but not of vast import to society.
But Lady Belden had been more than kind to her, and Jocelyn always tried not to disappoint her hostess. She set the kitten down and left the stall so the mama cat might rest easy. “Wouldn’t you rather explain your interest in a half-dead old bird than cause a scandal?”
“Personally, I’d wring the foulmouthed featherbrain’s miserable neck, but Ogilvie has placed a thousand-pound reward on its return, and I have good use for the blunt.”
“Your mother said you had given up on buying colors!” Jocelyn declared in dismay. “You’ve already been grievously injured. It would be suicide to return to the battlefield.”
Blake Montague bared his strong white teeth and hauled her past the stalls. “I have an entire family smothering me with such witticisms, thank you. What I choose to do is no concern of yours. Now tell me which of these stalls contains the damned bird, or I shall open them all.”
“Then I hope you enjoy chasing the duke’s cattle,” she replied merrily.
Montague shot her a disgruntled look, studied her amused expression, and withdrew a pistol from beneath his coat. He aimed it at the luggage cart that was clearly visible through the barn doors. “What if I proceed to shoot those boxes?”
Jocelyn shrieked, jerked his arm downward, and the delicate firing mechanism of the expensive pistol exploded.
In dismayed horror, Jocelyn covered her mouth to prevent crying out as Montague lifted his boot to reveal a smoking hole through the toe.