The masked man moved through the dimly lit corridor. Candles flickered in wall sconces and shadows mimicked his billowing cape. An open door yielded a shaft of light. He nudged it with gloved fingers and slid through.
A man stooped over the prime minister’s desk, sifting through the contents of a drawer.
“Do you find what you seek?” The masked man’s voice rasped through the air.
The intruder spun, scattering documents. He hastily stuffed one into his jacket, then his hand crawled to his belt. “Who are you?”
Color drained from the intruder’s face. “Caméléon?”
“Non!” His hands flew up to ward off evil. A dagger glinted as it fell from his fingers, and he stumbled back.
The Caméléon bore down. His hand closed around the intruder’s neck. A single squeeze ended his life. He pulled the document from the corpse’s pocket and ran a finger over the inscription, Marquis de Montfort. He slipped the evidence into his jacket and left as silently as he’d arrived. Stepping out through a side door, he inhaled, merged with a wall and waited, scanning the surrounds. Silver moonlight glazed an expanse of trimmed lawn, edged with tall trees.
Hoarfrost crunched underfoot as a cloaked figure stepped from the shadows and joined him. “Was the intelligence correct?”
“What about the body?”
“Leave it. Let it be a message to the bastard.” He removed the mask.
“There are many bastards eager for your hide, mon ami. You seem sure about who sent this man.”
“It can only be Pelham.”
“The prime minister? You can’t be serious.”
“Deadly serious.” The Caméléon flexed his fingers.
A carriage rattled over the cobblestones and stopped. They entered swiftly, and vanished into the night.
Reclining in an armchair, Marquis Blake de Montfort touched his trim beard, eyes prowling the gaudy throng. The Gallery in Kensington House hummed with fashionable courtiers. The marquis’ eyes narrowed.
Lord Perriepont, a middle-aged noble, strutted across the floor waving his arms. “The Caméléon has struck again, and this time, on our very doorstep.”
The courtiers twittered excitedly.
Perriepont glanced at the marquis then continued. “’Tis said he has the authorities running in circles. Last night, guards found a dead man in the prime minister’s offices. There wasn’t a mark on the man. It must have been the Caméléon. ‘Tis said he kills in seconds leaving no evidence.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “He may even be among us.”
The marquis raised an eyebrow. “Where do you garner such drivel, Perriepont?”
“Eh?” His eyes skittered. “I, ah, don’t recall, but ‘twas a reliable source.”
“Reliable? Don’t believe everything Wainford says.” Perriepont blanched and the marquis smiled faintly. “Pray continue with your inane discourse. I’m intrigued.”
“Indeed.” The marquis yawned and adjusted his black, knee-length coat trimmed with gold. He studied his long hands arrayed with exquisite rings and caressed a wedding band on his left pinkie. From across the Gallery, a musical laugh caught his ear. His heart jolted against his rib cage.
The curse always fell on him when least expected. Pain tightened his chest. A golden-haired woman twisted through his senses. Her perfume, her silky skin. Just as rapidly, two blood soaked bodies on a brig supplanted her. The vision of his little girl’s body sprawled across his wife choked him. Bile clogged his throat. Swallowing convulsively, he jerked free of the images and sat upright, fighting for air. Sweat beaded his powdered face.
Perriepont stopped mid-sentence. “Are you unwell, my Lord?”
The query snapped the marquis back to reality. “Doubtless I suffer an affliction caused by the hot air expelled from that vacuous mind of yours. You discourse at length on trivialities and bore me to distraction.”
“But I—I thought you were interested.”
“You do appear indisposed, though.” Perriepont worried the dewlap on his neck. “Shall I open a casement?”
“No. Shut your mouth and I’ll recover instantly.”
Perriepont mumbled an apology and retreated, bowing.
The marquis shifted his attention to the colorful menagerie of courtiers. Did others notice my lapse? But the glittering beau monde was preoccupied with Perriepont’s revelations. He expelled a long breath, flexed his fingers and willed his body to relax. He was once more master of his emotions. Flicking back layers of costly lace, he lifted a manicured hand and touched a death’s-head patch on his cheek.
Muted conversation, garnished with an occasional giggle, percolated through the long Gallery. Paintings lined the walls and gilded chairs held lonely vigil. Dowagers hovered near their marriageable charges and gallants sifted through the ornamented fare. This assemblage was a daily occurrence. The only thing that varied was the venue, dependent on where King George II held court.
The marquis raised his lorgnette and perused a lady. She simpered coyly, but he only lingered on her briefly, before seeking out another.
Lady Sybil Waterton glided towards him, her sky-blue gown sweeping the floor. She ran slender hands down the shimmering satin folds. Then one hand drifted to the pearl encrusted stomacher that accentuated her cinched waist.
He drew out a watch encrusted with diamond.
She struck a pose, one hand on her hip, lips curved seductively. “La, my Lord, I see you indulge your favorite pleasure, ogling the ladies.” Her sultry eyes fondled him.
“Favorite?” He arched an eyebrow. “And I hesitate to label my idle perusals with so grand a title as pleasure.” Balancing the watch on his thigh, he flicked open a gold snuffbox and took a pinch. A discreet sniff drew it in. “Nonetheless, are you sure you’re one of them?”
She flushed and applied her fan liberally. “I—I vow I can’t tell your meaning, my Lord.”
Sycophants surrounding the marquis sniggered and sidled closer.
He groaned and threw back his head. “Why are women such slow-witted creatures? I vow they’re no more than hosts for breasts and vaguely pleasurable vaginae.”
The ladies within earshot gasped and retreated, sensibilities brushed by his poison tongue.
He sighed theatrically. “Perhaps I should couch my words in simpler language, mademoiselle.” He toyed with the watch. “Do you count yourself among the chits I allegedly ogle?”
Lady Sybil stared at him, chin quivering. Her fingers twisted lace layers at daringly exposed breasts.
“What? No suitable riposte?” The marquis studied the watch. “It took you a total of one minute to make a fool of yourself.” He glanced at the collection of toadies. “Do you suppose we have a record, gentlemen? As I recall, the last chit took one and a half minutes.” His eyes grazed the gallants, known as the de Montfort set, and fixed on one. “Bentley, I believe you’re the official record keeper.”
Nodding eagerly, Bentley stroked his beard then fished in his pockets for paper and a pencil. Licking the lead tip, he scribbled, murmuring, “Lady Sybil Waterton, one minute.”
The marquis’ lip curled. Dear God, they take themselves so seriously.
Lady Sybil’s eyes swiveled from Bentley to the marquis. She pressed a wisp of lace to trembling lips.
The marquis’ laugh rang out. “Demme, I’m dashed, she’s going to cry.” He held a hand to his forehead.
“You’re beastly,” she whispered. “I don’t know why I bother to address you.”
Rising fluidly, he struck a leg and bowed. “Of course you do. I’m devastatingly handsome. My wealth is envied. I’m titled and, not to put too fine a point on it, the most eligible bachelor in London. Forsooth, I’m a wit of note, the nonpareil of society. Pray, forgive my churlish behavior, dear Sybil.” A crooked smile touched his mouth. “Shall we kiss and make up?” He leaned down and continued in a stage whisper, “Deny, if you can, that I cause your heart to flutter.”
With a choked sob, she drew back. “You’re odious.”
“Of course, but I beg of you, be clement, chérie.” He pressed a bejeweled hand to his chest. “Beneath this odious exterior beats the heart of a romantic that needs only be unlocked with the right words of tenderness, yet you utter such heartless sentiments.” He leaned closer until his breath brushed her cheek. “Release this poor tormented heart that shrivels daily for want of feminine charity. Let melodic words from your lips destroy the beast that guards it.”
She looked at him warily. Perfidy ever lurked beneath his silver speeches.
He ran one finger over her breasts, eliciting a tremble. “You display an ill-concealed desire for me to claim your precious maidenhead, if you’re indeed chaste. Here, take this ring as a token of my insincerity.” The marquis slipped a ruby ring from his finger and tucked it into her cleavage.
“Bastard!” She backed away. Fishing the ring from between her breasts, she flung the jewel at him and escaped in a flurry of satin. At once, the feminine ranks enfolded her.
He lifted one eyebrow and followed the course of the ring as it arced through the air. Catching it deftly, he laughed then drifted towards the women. “Shall I put the clutch of commiserating hens to rout?”
The gallants nodded eagerly and followed like a pack of hounds hungry for the kill.
One of the king’s aides halted the procession, bowing. “My Lord de Montfort, his majesty wishes words with you on an item of apparel.”
The marquis waved a hand at his minions. “Soften the ladies for me. Doubtless, the chits’ feathers are ruffled over the little incident. I shall return anon and rescue you from their pecking.” He sighed. “Demme, what a labor to be so in demand.” He fixed his lorgnette on the record keeper. “Bentley, that pubescent hair on your face is passé.”
Bentley’s eyes popped. “Passé? But, my Lord, you sport a beard.”
His nostrils flared. “Are you suggesting I’m unfashionable?”
“N—no, my Lord, absolutely not, but—”
“Don’t emulate me. I’m not flattered. Remove it.” He yawned and waved a hand. “Off you go, lads. Set the hens' hearts aquiver until the fox returns.”
They guffawed and approached their quarries, exchanging lewd observations.
The marquis’ lip curled with disdain. Silver heels clicking on the tiled floor, he minced off with the king’s aide.
Marquis de Montfort was a powerful man, but his power was not vested in parliament—it was more insidious.
Ryder Stanton, sixth Earl of Felton, bent and hissed in the governess’ ear, “That is my ward, madam?”
Amelia Norwood’s eyes darted from the earl to her charge then back. “Yes, my Lord.”
Steel eyes speared her. “You’re serious?”
Her voice shrank to a whisper. “Very.”
The one they spoke of was perched cross-legged on a chaise longue, skirts hiked over her knees, displaying an expanse of long legs.
“Calla is, ah, free-spirited.”
“Free-spirited? I call it undisciplined, even wanton—definitely wanton.” His eyes went to an Irish wolfhound at the girl’s feet, then to a black cat draped about her neck. “I thought she’d be much younger.”
Amelia smoothed her skirt with agitated fingers and pressed a brown curl into the snood at her nape. She stole a glance at his face. It was rigid with censure, reinforced by a tic on his lean tanned cheek. “She is a minor, my Lord.”
“I know that, but I thought she’d be suitably schooled.” Then he snorted. “Why aren’t I surprised, with a father like mine, discipline is a curse word.”
A statuesque blond moved to his side, her pretty face pinched. “This is not amusing, my Lord.”
“I agree, Miss Langford, but the situation is hardly of my doing.” He flexed broad shoulders, glaring at his ward bent over her drawing.
The tip of Calla’s tongue peeped out from full lips as she concentrated on her sketch. Her slender fingers, holding a charcoal stick, moved surely across the paper. She unfolded one long leg and lifted it. Her silk gown slid down, revealing a thigh as she turned her foot left then right. Balanced precariously, she hooked a chair with her toes and dragged it closer. Inching forward on her backside, she tried to rest her foot on the chair back.
Miss Langford gasped, and the earl’s eyebrows shot up.
Amelia’s heart plummeted. She cleared her throat. “Calla, dear, have you forgotten we’re expecting the earl today?”
Calla spun her head to face them. Her backside slid off the couch. She squeaked and flailed wildly, launching the sketchbook and charcoal towards the earl.
The cat alighted nimbly as though accustomed to such occurrences. The hound moved swiftly from where she would doubtless land.
The earl caught the charcoal deftly.
Miss Langford gasped at the display of unmentionables, very skimpy drawers.
Calla landed on the floor with her foot still hooked on the chair, and her head hit the tiles with a resounding whack. She lay still, skirt rucked up around her waist, looking like a felled pheasant. “Damn!” she muttered.
“Calla!” Amelia’s face burned. Her eyes alighted on the sketch book as it landed with a dull thump and skidded along the floor coming to a rest at the earl’s booted feet. “Oh my.” She wondered what the odds were of reaching the sketchbook and closing it before they saw it.
Strong, tanned fingers grasped the book.
The earl’s lady moaned as her ice-blue eyes settled on the drawings.
He cleared his throat. “Miss Marshall seems to be, ah, gifted.” He handed the pad to Amelia, his face bland.
“Y—yes, she is.” Keeping her eyes downcast, she took the book, clutching it with whitening knuckles. “She was tutored in art since the age of, ah, seven” Hands trembling, Amelia closed the book on sketches of two pert breasts, a hand and a smear of charcoal where the foot would have been, all Calla’s body parts.
The earl coughed lightly and did the gentlemanly thing. In four strides, he was beside her. He bent, offering his hand.
“I’m quite able, thank you.” She lay on her back, looking up at him. “I simply need a moment to clear my head.” She lifted her head gingerly and rubbed the back. “Ouch, it hurts.”
“I’m sure it does. Are you all right?”
“Of course I’m not!” She squirmed, extricating her foot.
Amelia was quite faint. There was her pupil with legs spread out, wearing, not proper bloomers, but short, newfangled lacy things that she’d designed. Amelia spoke louder than she intended. “My Lord, perhaps we could adjourn to the drawing room whilst Miss Marshall gathers her wits.”
One of the earl’s dark eyebrows lifted. “Leaving your charge here, like that?”
“Exactly like that.” She sailed from the conservancy wrapped in her shredded dignity.
Rubbing his cheek, the earl cast one more glance at the sprawled girl. A tousled mass of long black curls framed her face. Her skin was startlingly white, but the thing that captured him were sapphire eyes fringed with decadent black lashes. Pulling free from the captivating image, he touched Miss Langford’s arm. “Would you like to stroll about the garden whilst I deal with this, my dear?”
Her eyebrows drew together. “The butler may show me to my bedchamber. I feel quite put out.”
“As you wish.” He bowed, jerking his head at the butler. “You heard the lady, Victor.”
Victor stood to attention, but a tic of humor tugged at his lips. “I shall direct m’lady to her suite immediately.”
The earl spun and followed the governess to the drawing room. He walked across Persian rugs scattered on the wooden floor and stood at the window, hands behind his military-rigid back, tapping his boots with the cane. It was bad enough curtailing his military career to undertake the duties of his title and manage the wealth that accompanied it, but the girl too? He was hardly prepared for her. His thoughts touched on his put out betrothed. I’ll have to deal with that later.
“My lord, would you like tea, coffee, or something stronger?”
He turned on his heel and stalked to where the governess sat. “Coffee is fine, thank you.” Hitching his trousers, meticulously maintaining the crease, he sat and set the cane down. He accepted the cup of coffee with a slight shake of his head as she offered him cream and sugar.
“I fear my charge made a bad first impression.”
Amelia’s color rose and she looked at him with desperate appeal in her gentle gray eyes. “She is young a—and unpolished.”
“I noticed the lack of refinement.”
“I’m sure she can be molded and will in time fit the roll of a lady, and not embarrass you over much, or—or at all, I’m sure.” Amelia dropped her gaze to the cup in her hand.
He lifted one eyebrow. “How much time do you think that will take?”
Her cup rattled dangerously on muslin-clad knees. “I—I’m not sure, my Lord.” She glanced up. “Your father loved her spirited ways, but perhaps he gave her too much latitude. There was talk of her going to Lady Sandering’s finishing school in Bath, but he was loath to part with her. He said finishing schools made girls prissy. Th—they were quite inseparable. She didn’t want to leave him either. They did go to Paris on holiday, a—and Italy and Venice—”
“You’re rambling, madam.” The earl scowled. “I’m certain my father gave her too much freedom, bearing in mind he was inclined towards unconstrained behavior.” He drained the cup of hot coffee in the manner of a man accustomed to completing insignificant things quickly, like coffee drinking. He returned the cup and saucer to the tray. Ignoring wafer-thin sandwiches, he picked up his cane and rose to pace the room or, more precisely, march up and down. Hands clasped behind his back, he swished the cane like a pendulum, indicating his chagrin. “I suppose she has no family, which is why she’s here.”
“Yes, my Lord. There’s also the matter of her inheritance. It needs to be managed and you’re now the executor.” She cleared her throat. “Also, undesirable suitors may need to be dissuaded. She’s marginally protected by her father’s will, which is in the safe-box behind your portrait in the study. The money remains in her name, even if she marries, but who knows what foolish things a girl in love might do.”
“I shall examine it another time.” Swinging to face the governess, he ran his fingers through short, groomed hair then, realizing his error, smoothed it. “Mrs. Norwood, I’m a bachelor and unaccustomed to governing females, much less a capricious one. Soldiers are what I’m familiar with. Though, I have no doubt I’ll manage to control her, with your help.” He fixed her with a commanding eye. “I will have your assistance, won’t I?”
“Her education is finished as far as my tutoring is concerned. I have another post with younger children in Wales.”
“Out of the question, I’ll double your salary, treble it. The girl needs a chaperone. Besides, I have no idea what young women require.”
She clasped her hands tightly in her lap. “Very well, my Lord. I’m extremely fond of Calla, ah, Miss Marshal, and I’m happy to remain.” She smiled slightly. “Especially in view of your generous offer.”
“How the hell did this girl deal in society without discipline?”
Amelia frowned and straightened. “She’s a wonderful girl. An overly strong hand would destroy her.”
“Nonsense, discipline makes for character. She must attend finishing school and prepare for her season, then I’ll ensure she’s suitably married.”
“She won’t agree to finishing school and is not partial to having a season. She has several young men that express affection for her, but she’s never shown interest in them.”
His cane stabbed the floor with a resounding whack. “This is not a democracy, Mrs. Norwood. I do not need her consent to send her to finishing school or have her season. Nor do I need her agreement on my choice of husband for her.” He waved a hand then thrust it firmly behind his back, as though it erred and moved independently. “She will therefore attend finishing school and have a season. Naturally, I’ll interview these gentlemen you speak of to assess their value and intent.”
They both turned to a commotion at the door.
“How dare you! I will not be married off or told—”
The wolfhound darted in front of Calla to chase the cat clawing its way up her gown.
She stumbled. “Ouch—silly mutt, mad puss—damn, your claws hurt!” She plucked at the cat on her shoulder. “Goodness, the two of you sleep together and now you’re mortal enemies.”
The earl’s eyebrows rose as she danced about the room in a flurry of skirts, dodging the dog and trying to extract the cat now tangled in her hair.
He attempted to step out of her path as she careened towards him, but too late. She collided into him and air escaped his lungs with a whoosh. Automatically, his arms encircled her to stop her fall. The earl cursed as the cat discovered the refuge of higher ground and clawed a path to the top of his head.
A bloody trail followed in Wagner’s wake as he raked the earl’s cheek then settled like a feline hat on the immaculate head.
The hound, realizing his quarry had escaped, dashed between the earl’s long legs, tripping him.
The earl headed inexorably for the floor.
Amelia surged to her feet, one arm extended as though hoping to avert a calamity.
The earl made a valiant attempt to maintain his footing. But the Persian rug slid and he measured his length on the polished wood floor with a resounding crash.
Calla landed on top of him. She scrambled to a sitting position, straddling the noble’s hips. “Stop, you idiotic hound and demented cat! Stop!” She bounced twice to indicate her displeasure, eliciting a groan from the earl as air left his beleaguered person.
Deprived of his mountain refuge, the cat screeched and took off, every hair on his body erect. Tongue lolling, the hound gleefully gave chase and ran over the earl, planting a paw on his chest and imprinting the pristine buff waistcoat with a large pugmark.
Lying dazed for a moment, the earl finally struggled to a sitting position. Grasping what came to hand, to remove Calla, he encountered smooth thighs. He lifted her off hastily. “Damn it, girl, what the hell is wrong with you? You’re a bloody walking disaster.”
“Unhand me!” She wriggled free and jumped to her feet.
Sitting cross-legged, head hanging, he stared at blood dripping on his garments. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the blood from his face. “I think I should be the one demanding to be unhanded.” He picked up his cane and rose with as much dignity as possible. Effecting what repairs he could, then he eyed her sternly. “You have definitely been allowed free rein for too long. Go to your room this instant, young lady!” He pointed a finger imperiously towards the door. “I shall deal with you later.”
Calla tossed the rebellion of black curls over her shoulder and glared at him, hands planted on slender hips. Bright spots of pink bloomed on her cheeks and her eyes flashed. “No! And I will not be dictated to.”
“You will do as you’re told,” he rasped, bearing down on her.
“Turner,” she squeaked, backing away.
The hound came to her aid. Without hesitation, he grabbed the earl’s ankle in massive jaws.
“Desist, you infernal hound!” The earl brought his cane down on the dog’s shoulder.
Turner yelped and released his victim then sat, staring at him indignantly.
The girl flew at him, her small hands clenched.
The earl’s eyes widened.
“How dare you!” she screamed and proceeded to pummel his chest.
“Stop your nonsense, damn it!” He dropped the cane to grasp her wrists and contain the furious assault upon his person.
Teeth bared, she lashed out with her feet. “How dare you set upon poor Turner with your cane?”
Flying knees caught the earl squarely on the thigh and he grimaced with pain. “Stop this instant, girl, or I shall set upon your derriere with my cane!”
Amelia grasped Calla’s waist, dragging her off. “My Lord, please let me deal with her.”
He glared at the girl then her dog. “With pleasure, madam.” He wagged a finger under Calla’s nose. “Your time of reckoning will come!” Turning sharply on his heel, he vacated the conflict with a limp.
Amelia frowned. “What on earth were you thinking, Calla?” She cast her eyes nervously toward the door.
“If that straight-laced general thinks to control me like one of his soldiers, he’d best think again.” She tossed her head. “He may look like a young version of Papa Charlie, but he falls far short of being like him. I don’t like this earl at all.” Shaking her head emphatically, she retrieved Wagner from the mantelpiece and stalked out. Turner followed meekly.
Sighing, Amelia sank to the couch and poured another cup of tea. She wasn’t sure she liked the earl either, and the future looked to be a stormy business if he intended trying to control Calla.
A fragrant breeze wafted in through the open window and Amelia leaned back in the Chippendale chair.
It seemed a like yesterday that Calla’s parents had died in a storm crossing the Channel from France, leaving five-year-old Calla orphaned. The late earl was Sir Marshall’s close friend and Calla’s godfather. Since there were no living relatives to care for her, the earl accepted the responsibility. The child gave him a new lease on life. They adored each other, and she filled his twilight years with joy. She replaced the son who was never home, nor wanted to be.
The elder found a kindred spirit in Calla and they were, in a way, soul mates. The two were seldom apart and he encouraged her painting and love of music. The earl refused to arrange a marriage for her, declaring that it smacked of slavery. And there was no way in hell his beloved Calla would suffer the fate of a loveless marriage. The girl blossomed under his gentle hand.
Amelia feared this new earl would crush Calla with what promised to be a harsh hand. She knew, from occasional comments, that the old earl and his son seldom agreed. He loved his son deeply and wanted to see him free of the restraints forced on him by his draconian mother. But it seemed the son enjoyed restrictions. On leaving home, he’d embraced military life.
Sighing, Amelia put the cup of cold tea down. She’d garnered from Victor and the older servants, that the young earl favored his mother’s character.
Pounding hooves broke her reverie and she surged to her feet, running to the window. “Oh no, not now, Calla!”
The girl tore past like a maniac, astride her dappled gray stallion. To make matters worse, she rode bareback.
Amelia pressed a hand to her breast. “I fear things are going to become very stormy.”
BREATH OF THE WILD
1872 Cape of Storms
The girl shuddered as a scream spanned the sultry air. It snapped, reduced to hysterical pleading.
Men cursed and the pleading dwindled to a whimper. Boots echoed against the Fort walls, moving with purpose.
Veins pulsed at her temples and her heart thudded against her ribs. She pressed her back to the stone wall.
The whimpering and boots stopped.
Barely breathing, she edged along the rough wall, clutching a heavy camera against her chest. It cut into her arms, but she felt no pain. Her entire being focused on the men chasing her.
The sun slipped behind the mountains cradling the Cape Colony, and twilight brushed thatched, lime-washed cottages with shades of apricot. Sweat trickled down the girl’s face and between her breasts, and her legs threatened to give way.
Footsteps scraped on the stony ground, advancing slowly.
They know where I am! Catching her lower lip between her teeth, she looked about wildly for an escape route. From her alleyway refuge, she fixed on a pockmarked road ahead.
In the distance, pounding hooves accompanied the rattle of carriage wheels. Holding her breath, she tried to judge the moment when the vehicle would pass. The carriage could be a way out of this plight she inexplicably found herself in.
The guttural voice of a driver encouraging his team, enforced by cracks of his whip, goaded her into action. She snatched her breath and tore from hiding. Her kid boots beat a tattoo on the dirt road as she raced to the vehicle. Cambric petticoats and the gray silk skirt hampered her progress as she dashed into the open.
A pursuer roared, alerting his comrades. Like rodents, four men peeled from between houses and gave chase, brandishing pistols.
Struggling to keep hold of the camera and a bag, she ran, looking over her shoulder.
They gained ground.
Chest burning with the effort, she increased her pace.
The lead horses reared and shied away as she careened into their path. The girl squeaked and ducked to avoid flailing hooves.
The driver cursed, battling to keep his team under control. Finally, he brought the carriage to a halt. The door flew open and a tall, impeccably attired, man with unruly black hair stepped out. “What the hell are you thinking? We almost ran you over!”
Panting, she stumbled on loose stones and fell against his chest. “T—those men are chasing me, sir!”
He lifted her bodily, camera and all, then bundled her into the carriage. Turning rapidly, he faced her attackers with two drawn pistols. “Keep back, you mangy bastards or I’ll blow your damn heads off!”
The pursuers skidded to a halt. Their eyes shifted to the driver who also had two pistols leveled at them. The men lowered their heads and growled impotently at the girl huddled in the carriage. “We’ll find ye, girl, ye can count on that,” snarled one of the four. Brushing his crumpled jacket irritably, he swept a grimy hand through the air and turned, stalking away with his cohorts.
The gentleman watched them narrowly until they disappeared from sight then climbed into the carriage. “Go, Jo!” He studied the girl with lively interest. “What are you doing alone on the streets?”
Sweeping a strand of tawny hair from her damp face, she tried to bring her breathing under control. “I—I was on my way to London Hotel, which I was told is within walking distance. I stopped to take photographs of people at the bay. I’d just exposed and fixed my negatives and packed my camera, when the four men I last photographed ran towards me. They drew pistols. That was when I decided discretion was called for. I grabbed my stuff and ran.”
“Do you have any idea what they might have been doing that they didn’t want you to photograph?”
She frowned, trying to recall what she’d seen. “I was arbitrarily taking photographs. I saw those four men with a black man in tribal garb. He was the one who actually caught my interest. So, no, I have no idea what they were up to.”
“I’ll report this incident to the authorities. We can’t have innocents attacked on the streets.” He smiled crookedly. “Especially one as lovely as you.” He canted his head. “What’s your name? I’m James Granger.” He held out his hand.
She took his hand. “Dara Claiborne.”
“Claiborne? Your father or . . . .” he murmured, rubbing the side of his straight nose, “husband, wouldn’t happen to be a Ronan Claiborne, would he?”
“He’s my father.”
He sagged against the squabs theatrically. “Thank God. Couldn’t bear to think of such a gorgeous creature being married to—being married period.”
Dara giggled. “Goodness, my father is over eighty.”
“Exactly my point.” He lifted her hand to his lips, eyes sparkling. “I’m always pleased to make the acquaintance of a beautiful lady, albeit under rather unpleasant circumstances.”
She smiled, liking his roguish face. “I can’t thank you enough, sir.”
He waved an elegant hand. “Always enjoy a rumble. Besides, it’s not every day I get to rescue a damsel in distress. No lady should go unescorted in the streets of our colony.”
“My luggage was taken to the hotel and I was exploring. My train leaves for Stellenbosch in the morning.”
His wide mouth split into a grin, crinkling the corners of his eyes. “Stellenbosch? Excellent. Your father’s estate is a few miles from mine, we’re neighbors.”
“Do you know my father well?”
“Not really. He isn’t at his estate a great deal.”
She nodded, thinking of her somber father constantly pouring over ledgers or in conference with dour businessmen. Her eyes swept the dandy, who was clearly a man of substance. He wore a tight, deep green velvet jacket with a high collar. A white lace stock, adorned with a diamond pin, was tucked into an embroidered cream waistcoat.
Granger crossed long legs, encased in tailored black trousers, and smiled lopsidedly. “I’m devilish pleased I came along when I did. Crime increased in the Cape Colony when the government imported navvies from England to build railway lines.” He flipped open a gold case and withdrew a cigarillo, lighting it. “But they afford one a good brawl occasionally.”
Dara peered through the window. “May I impose on you further, Mr. Granger? I’m afraid those men mistook another lady for me and may have hurt her.”
“We can’t have that.” He rapped on the roof and put his head out the window as the carriage slowed. “Go back to the Fort, Able. I believe we have another lady in trouble there.”
The carriage wheeled about, but when they arrived where Dara thought the woman was attacked, there was no sign of her.
“Perhaps she wasn’t hurt and ran off,” Granger said, getting out and looking around.
“I think they realized fairly soon that it wasn’t me.”
“Probably just a Cape Malay or half-caste. No lady would walk alone,” he said brusquely, climbing back into the carriage. “Let’s get you safely to the hotel.”
She frowned. “Just a Cape Malay?”
He grinned. “Colorful mixture of people here at the colony, freed slaves, Dutch, French, Hottentots and, of course, the English. Lots of half-castes, but we all rub along fine, have our social places, naturally.” His green eyes danced. “A lovely little thing like you will cause a deal of interest among the young bucks. Not many marriageable girls in this part of the world.”
Her frown deepened. “I am not on the market, Mr. Granger.” Her quiet tone sliced the air like a razor.
He chuckled. “Ah, another suffragette.”
She smiled tightly and inclined her head.
Laughing, he slapped a hand to his forehead. “Gads, their numbers increase.”
Dara looked at him blandly. His reaction to liberated women was not unusual. She sat back, surveying the small town as they sped along wide dirt roads. Whitewashed cottages and small flat roofed shacks lived alongside large gabled houses with high thatched roofs. Almost all had verandas covered with grapevines. The carriage came to a halt outside a narrow Georgian style establishment with London Hotel emblazoned over the entrance.
Granger reached through the window, unlatching the door, then kicked down the step and alighted, extending his hand. “Safely at your hotel, Miss Claiborne.”
Dara took his hand and stepped out, clutching the camera under her arm. She smiled brightly. “Thank you and I’m obliged for your rescue.”
“You’re welcome. Perhaps we could have dinner this evening?”
“My train leaves early on the morrow, so I’ll probably retire soon after dinner.”
“I’ll waste away, yearning for you until we meet again.” He kissed her hand, holding it longer than necessary.
Dara laughed. “I think you kissed the Blarney Stone, Mr. Granger.”
“Ah, ‘tis undoubtedly me muther’s Irish blood.” He grinned and bowed with a flourish. “I bid you sad adieu, my lady. I’ll report your incident. The authorities may need to contact you, but luckily I can identify the brigands so you may not have to bother your pretty head with the sordid details.”
She ground her teeth, but kept a smile on her face. “Once again, thank you.”
“It was more than a pleasure,” he said softly and turned, swinging jauntily into his carriage and saluting her. “Adieu, sweet keeper of my heart.” He rapt on the roof and his carriage took off at a fine pace.
Smiling and shaking her head, Dara turned and faced the hotel, tingled with excitement. At last, she was in Africa. The London Hotel boasted two stories and sparkled with a new coat of whitewash. The small paned windows glinted pink and indigo in the setting sun. She closed her eyes, nostrils flared, and sucked in the extraordinary odors. The smell of earth and wood smoke, melded with a seaweed scent blowing off the ocean.
“Your first time in Africa?”
Her eyes snapped open and she smiled sheepishly at a gentleman lifting his hat and opening the door for her. “Yes.”
He nodded. “We have a beautiful land.”
“Yes, you do.” Smiling, she hoisted the camera to a more comfortable position.
“Allow me to take that.” He held out his hands.
“I’m quite fine, thank you.” She stepped through the portals.
He followed her. “At least allow me to ring the bell for you.”
“Thank you, but I can manage.” Setting the camera on the desk, she rang.
He raised his hat again and bid her farewell.
Containing her excitement, Dara wondered if her father’s manager and friend, Mr. Randall, had already prepared for her safari. Hopefully, he wasn’t too old and infirm to endure a trip to the interior.
Stellenbosch, Cape Colony, 1853
Ndlam hobbled past grass beehive huts, leaning heavily on his knobkierie. He nodded at a troop of warriors strutting past, spears glinting in the sun. Bare-breasted maidens huddled in collaboration, eyeing the warriors and giggling into pink palms. Scowling them to virtuous silence, Ndlam hid a smile.
The girls averted ardent eyes and returned to grinding corn with smooth rocks, singing softly.
Ndlam bent low and shuffled into his hut. With a sigh, he sank onto a lionskin and warmed his hands over a fire. Savoring the warmth, his eyes followed the smoke curling through the center roof hole.
Two boys crawled through the door and stood, clasping hands.
“Greetings, Phalo.” The elder’s eyes shifted to a gangly boy. “I see you, Roark.” Ndlam stirred the embers of the fire with a stick, amusement twitching on his lips. “You two look serious.”
Phalo cleared his throat. “Roark will speak for himself.”
Ndlam inclined his head. “Speak, boy.”
Tawny hair fell to the boy’s shoulders and his eyes were riveted to the floor. “In my spirit, Phalo is my brother and you’re my father.” He lifted his head. “I ask to be acknowledged as your son.” His black eyes held desperate appeal. “I’m amaXhosa in my heart and soul.”
“You speak eloquently for your ten summers.” Ndlam studied the lad, his heart heavy. He’d loved the boy from the day they met five years ago. “You’re not of my loins, Roark. You belong to the white men.”
Roark shook his head violently. “I don’t belong to the umlungu. I have no father or mother. The amaXhosa ancestors sent me. I know they did.”
Ndlam smiled. “I will consult the elders.”
Roark stepped closer, eager. “When will—”
Ndlam lifted a wrinkled hand. “I will speak when I speak.”
Biting his lip, Roark stepped back, head bowed. “As you will, inkosi.”
Three weeks passed before the elders called Roark. He stood before them in the center of the village fingering his loincloth, heart pounding.
Ndlam crooked his finger. “Kneel.”
Dust puffed up around Roark’s bare feet as he shuffled closer and dropped to his knees, hands tightly entwined in front of him.
The elder cleared his throat. “Since you have no parents, we agree the ancestors sent you. You are now my son. You will be named Isigidi because you have the look of a lion.” Ndlam smiled faintly. “You are my white son of the day, but Phalo will always be my true son of the day and night. You will be circumcised when the time comes and trained as a warrior, but you can never inherit the title of chief, even if Phalo dies.” The elder closed his eyes, gumming shriveled lips.
Eyes fixed to the old man, Roark tried not to fidget. Had the elder dozed off?
“Also, you may not couple with or marry an amaXhosa maid. You are a gift from the ancestors in my latter years. I have five wives, but only one son. My sixteen daughters have brought me much wealth, so I’m blessed and will perhaps have many grandsons.” He smiled slightly. “And now I have you.”
Roark could barely contain his joy. “Then I can live with you?”
“No, my son,” Ndlam said gently.
“You know the laws of the umlungu. They will look for you, and when they find you, our people will suffer.”
Roark leapt to his feet. “I have no place among the white men!”
Ndlam shook his head and waved him away. “I have spoken. You must go. Phalo, stay.”
Head bowed, Roark backed away and crawled through the low door. Changing into his short breeches and shirt behind the hut, he carefully folded his loincloth and put it under a rock. Then he loped through the village, waving at people, his people now. Pride swept through him. He belonged—he had a father. The only bitter note was not being allowed to live with the amaXhosa. But he was a son and that was enough.
A lourie swept overhead on iridescent green wings, emitting a loud cry, “Go-away-go-away.” Then it disappeared into the forest.
Grass brushed his legs as he ran to the farm along a game path, his bare feet sending up puffs of dust. He lifted his face to the filtered sun and closed his eyes, breathing in the bush scents.
The stench of alcohol filled his nostrils. He stopped, eyes snapping open.
Hans stood in Roark’s path, towering over him. “You sneaky little bastard! What are you doing with these savages?”
“N—nothing, mynheer. I—I was just exploring the bush.”
“Ja? Then what’s he doing here?”
Roark looked over his shoulder. “Phalo?” He flapped a skinny arm. “G—go!”
Hans’ meaty hands gripped Roark’s shoulders, and he shook the boy until his teeth clacked. “Lying bastard!” A fist slammed into the boy’s cheek. Hans grabbed his shirt and delivered a blow to his temple.
Phalo raced towards them, wielding a club. “Leave Isigidi alone!”
“Isigidi, eh?” Hans laughed and swung a hairy arm, knocking Phalo off his feet. “Piss off, spawn of a savage!”
Ndlam emerged from between the trees, holding a spear. “You would be wise to leave, Mynheer Vermark,” he said in English, his voice low and measured.
Advancing, Hans sneered. “Since when does a black savage talk back to his betters? I’ll kill you!”
The spear came down, the long blade aimed at Han’s throat. “I told you to go!”
Emitting a feral growl, Hans drew a pistol.
Roark flew at him, grabbing his arm. Exerting every ounce of strength, he tried to wrestle the pistol from Hans. A deafening shot reverberated. Sand burst up at Roark’s feet.
“Little prick!” Hans flung him away, snarled, and turned to Ndlam. But now he faced a hundred Xhosa warriors armed with spears and stabbing blades. Sweat glistened on Hans’ bovine face. He ran stubby fingers through his short red hair, and his eyes skittered over the finely-honed warriors. Stuffing the pistol in his belt, he backed away. “The authorities will hear of this and kill the lot of you!” He jerked Roark off the ground and stormed off, dragging the hapless boy by his ear.
Eva clapped a hand to her mouth and fell to her knees, pulling Roark into her arms. Tears filled her gray eyes as she touched his swollen face. She glared at Hans. “What have you done to him?”
Hans scowled, legs astride and thumbs hooked into his belt. “I caught him messing around with the savages.”
Eva blinked and stared at him. “What do you think Mr. Thompson will have to say about this?”
Hans’ brow folded in consternation. He sniffed and swept a finger under his bulbous nose. “I’ll tell him the savages beat the boy. Ja. And then I’ll tell the commandos. They’ll kill those heathens.”
“No!” The protest burst from Roark’s swollen mouth. He clutched Eva’s hand. “Please, they’re innocent!”
Eva clasped him to her breasts. “Hush, I’ll deal with this.” She scowled at her husband. “You will do nothing of the sort. One word to the authorities and I’ll tell Mr. Thompson about the money.”
Hans blanched and licked his thick lips.
Eva held his gaze steadily, her gray eyes shards of ice. “One word, Hans, and you’ll end up in the Fort.”
He nodded and shuffled out.
Eva released a long breath and cradled Roark. “I’m so sorry, my baby.” Her tears dripped onto his mutilated face. “Hans is a coward. One day he’ll reap the evil he’s sown.”
The sun passed its zenith as Roark finished his chores. He was late. Taking a shortcut through a neighbor’s farm, he ran to the forest, a bag slung over his shoulder. Tavia wanted to meet at the treehouse and show him her new kitten. She claimed it had blue eyes, but all new-born kittens had blue eyes. What did she know? She was still a baby.
“Well, well, look what the southeaster brought in. A real live bastard.”
Skidding to a halt, Roark’s heart dropped. He shouldn’t have taken a shortcut through the Stander farm. His eyes skittered from one boy to the next. The three brothers were yet another torment in his life.
The brothers advanced, hands on their hips. “Why you going through our pa’s farm, shitface?”
“I was in a hurry. I’m sorry.”
“Where you going to in such a hurry, then?” They took a step closer, looming over him.
Quaking, Roark stood his ground and glared up at them, hatred coiling through him. “None of your business!”
The eldest brother glanced at his siblings. “Jannie, Koos, do we let a bastard talk to us like that?”
Koos, the youngest, snickered. “We can to teach him manners.”
Jannie sniffed, piggy eyes sweeping Roark. “Maybe he’s going to his black brother.”
Koos danced around Roark, fists up and swiping his nose with a thumb. “What you want, Arno? Want me to box his pretty girl-nose, huh?”
“Maybe he’s a girl dressed as a boy.” Arno advanced. “Let’s have a look, eh?”
Roark dropped his bag and scuttled back, heart hammering in his chest. “Stay away from me!” He backed into a tree, trapped as the huge brothers closed in. “Touch me and there will be consequences. Mevrou Vermark will call the law!”
Arno threw back his head and guffawed. Then he stopped, mouth twisted into a cruel snarl. “Maybe if I knock your teeth out you won’t talk such nice English, eh, bastard?” He reached down and grabbed Roark’s short breeches and yanked, then canted his head. “Not a bad size piel, eh? Too big, maybe. We can cut a piece off.”
Breath escaping in short gasps, Roark held his trembling knees together and clutched his genitals. To his shame, tears trickled down his cheeks. “Leave me alone,” he whimpered, hating his weakness.
Arno drew a hunting knife. The cold steel glinted wickedly, then he grabbed Roark’s penis and stretched it.
Pain seared through Roark and he screamed, nose streaming and tears pouring down his face. Urine trickled down his legs, completing his humiliation.
Arno released the penis and wiped his hand on Roark’s shirt. “That’s disgusting!”
The brothers howled with laughter.
“The bastard is a pissing snot-nose now,” Jannie crowed.
A shadow fell over them. The brothers looked up and screeched. “The forest ghost!”
Roark stared at the massive cloaked figure and his senses swam.
The cloaked figure whirled a cane and brought it down across the brothers’ backs. “Go!” the figure rasped. “If I see you in my forest again I’ll maim the three of you.” The cane came down again, connecting with their backsides.
Screaming in abject terror, the Stander brothers took off.
Roark pulled up his breeches, eyes wide as he stared at his savior. “T—thank you, sir.”
A gravelly voice emanated from within the hood, concealing the man’s face. “Don’t let fear be your bedfellow, boy. And take the other path in the future.” Then he turned, cape swirling, and disappeared.
“I—I will.” Wetting his lips, Roark stared at the spot where his rescuer had been. Shaking uncontrollably, he sank to the ground and wept.
Tavia stepped from the undergrowth, her slate-blue eyes huge in her pale face. She clutched a kitten to her narrow chest. “Who was that, Roark?”
He jerked to his feet, hastily wiping tears and mucus on his shirt sleeve. “Go away, Tavia.”
Her pink mouth quivered. “Don’t you want to see my kitten?”
He glared at her. “How long have you been hiding there?”
“I heard a scream and came running just as that cloaked man appeared and chased those horrid Stander brothers away.” She moved closer and smiled, holding the kitten out. “It must have been the Stander brothers screaming.”
He wasn’t going to tell her otherwise. He stared at the pale gray cat with a black face and paws. “The eyes really are blue. What sort of cat is it?”
“A Siamese. Papa got her for me from Europe.”
“It’s an unusual cat, very pretty.” He picked at bark on the tree. “What’s its name?”
Tavia shrugged. “Don’t know yet.” Dimples danced on her cheeks. “I was hoping you’d help me find one.”
“I have to go.” Whirling, he raced down the narrow path before Tavia noticed his wet breeches.