A heartbroken belle. A missing suitor.
A heroic duke in disguise...
Lucas Wakeford, the Duke of Fountainhurst,
has the whole ton fooled about his daring double life.
Including his fiancee.
Presenting your official Sneak Peek at Chapter 1 of
DUKE OF SHADOWS
(Moonlight Square, Book #4)
~ On Sale Now! ~
Chapter 1: The Highwayman
Lady Portia Tennesley clutched the leather hand-loop to keep from bumping her head as the carriage pitched along slowly. The horses could proceed no faster than a walk now that they’d turned off the road into the dark woods.
As the way before them narrowed to a leaf-strewn trail barely wide enough for the coach, she could hear the wheels grinding, the fine wooden chassis creaking in protest as the town coach labored along over the rough ground.
All the while, heart in her throat, Portia stared out the open window at the silver blades of moonlight piercing the thick tangle of black, twisted trees that hemmed them in on all sides.
Pale shafts of moonbeams pierced the forest’s inky gloom here and there, angling in through the ancient oaks’ thick, gnarled branches, winding vines, and masses of leaves.
The effect was eerie, menacing, while the June frogs croaked and chirped on endlessly in the hot, humid night. Their undulating chorus was deafening inside the airless woods.
There had been a breeze out on the road, but the wall of trees blocked it now; the heavy air stank of mulch and moss, layers of rotting leaves, and lush vegetation.
It was hard to imagine that this wild place lay just a few miles outside of London. Tonight, the moonlit barrens of Hampstead Heath felt like another world.
A dangerous one.
Everybody knew the place had been the haunt of highwaymen for centuries, as surely as Cornwall equaled smugglers and pirates. At that thought, a bead of sweat trickled down her nape and soaked into the collar of the black lace mourning gown she had donned to help hide her identity.
“Ach, my old bones can’t take much more o’ this,” Mrs. Berry said grimly beside her, likewise holding on for dear life as the coach lurched along.
“It can’t be much farther now.” Portia gave the old woman a brave nod before glancing out the window again, her senses on high alert.
For all she knew, spies in the trees might’ve already noted their presence and were even now carrying news of their approach to their underworld captain.
She sincerely hoped she and the servants would not all be murdered—though it was a little late now to be having second thoughts about the wisdom of her scheme.
Holding her dread in check, Portia peered out the window, keeping watch for a telltale light through the trees ahead that might prove to be the bandits’ forest hideaway.
It had to be here somewhere.
As she searched the darkness, a moth fluttered haplessly into the coach, since the windows were down. Twin clouds of the creatures had been drawn to the feeble lanterns mounted on either side of the driver’s box.
This one took a clever shortcut, passing through the coach’s interior to go and explore the other light. It brushed past Portia’s nose on its way, tickling her with light, silky wings, teasing her.
She waved it off, scowling—insects made her think of her fiancé—but a moth was nothing. Up on the driver’s box, the mosquitoes were apparently feasting on poor Cassius and Denny, by the sound of it.
“Ow!” she heard Denny mutter. Tonight, the husky young footman played driver. “Little bastards are eatin’ me alive.”
“Mind your tongue!” scolded Cassius the valet, also seated outside. “There’s a lady in earshot, you dolt.”
“Oops, forgot. Sorry I cursed, Lady Portia!” Denny called back.
“Shh!” Mrs. Berry retorted, poking her mob-capped head out the window to scold him. “Keep your voice down, Thump! Or forget the mosquitoes; you’ll have us surrounded by criminals. Young numskull,” the portly old housekeeper huffed, drawing her head back into the vehicle.
Mrs. Berry had long worked for Portia’s former beau, the Honorable Joel Clayton. Along with his valet, Cassius, and trusty (if dull-witted) footman, Denny, a.k.a. Thump, all three of the missing dandy’s devoted servants wanted their handsome young master back nearly as bad as Portia did. Once the inspiration for tonight’s risky venture had flooded her mind about a week ago, she’d had a feeling they might be willing to help in her mission, so she had sought them out and told them her plan.
Sure enough, the trio had been eager to join in her quest.
In truth, she got the feeling that Joel’s servants had been rather lost without some highborn person giving them any orders for over a year now, though they’d kept his fashionable bachelor apartments in tiptop order—as if the handsome rogue might come breezing in at any moment with a funny story about where the devil he’d been all this time.
Joel’s servants were all the more willing to heed Portia’s orders knowing she would have likely become the future lady of the house, if only their beloved Mr. Clayton had not disappeared without a trace.
Portia’s inspiration for how they might yet find and rescue him had filled them all with newfound hope, long after all hope seemed to have died.
And so here they were, creaking along through the woods. On their way to a meeting with a notorious brigand.
While Denny drove, slim, tidy Cassius played navigator. Sharp-eyed as he was—at least in matters of gentlemen’s fashion—the valet was in charge of following the mysterious instructions that the bespectacled newspaper reporter, Mr. Townsend, had entrusted to Portia in strictest secrecy about how to find the mysterious highwayman’s headquarters.
Townsend alone knew how to get messages back and forth to the legendary Silversmoke. Anyone wanting to plead for the famed outlaw’s help had to go through him. He was always the first to publish the latest tales of Silversmoke’s derring-do.
It was almost as if the reporter had inside information, and clearly, he did, for it was he who had set up tonight’s meeting for Portia.
No names, of course. It was also Mr. Townsend who had furtively given Portia all of her instructions on what to bring and where to go.
Apparently, Silversmoke trusted him. And so, the date and the time of their meeting had been set.
From the moment they had left Moonlight Square in London’s opulent West End tonight, Cassius, with Townsend’s directions in hand, had been directing Denny on which turns to take with the same meticulous care with which he would’ve ironed one of Joel’s fine bespoke shirts.
A sigh escaped Portia when she thought of her lost beau’s sartorial distinction, especially compared to her fiancé’s sad lack thereof.
Ah well. It was too late for her now, pledged to wed the duke, but if Joel was still alive and could be found, then at least his servants could keep their posts.
For her part, Portia would simply have to content herself with knowing he was safe. That would have to be enough.
But if the news was darker, if it turned out that her former favorite really was dead, then she didn’t care what became of her, so she might as well marry Fountainhurst as planned.
Such a grand match would be of great advantage to her family. Indeed, if she became a duchess, she might even be able to use her influence to help her wild elder brother reenter Society after his banishment.
If he ever came home to England, that was.
In any case, Portia knew perfectly well deep down that it was too late to back out of her lofty match now. She had stalled for as long as she possibly could, pushing the wedding back twice already with whatever excuses she could muster.
His Grace had barely noticed, thankfully. He seemed to shrug off her delays. At least, his letters gave no indication of annoyance, but it was hard to say, since the two of them had only been in the same room a total of three times.
Lucas Wakeford, the Duke of Fountainhurst, rarely came to London, so he’d written to her in reply, merely dashing off a line, saying: As it pleases you, my lady.
Beyond that, her rich, powerful future husband could not be bothered with her much.
Which was probably just as well. It seemed they both understood what this marriage signified: a typical, loveless alliance between two great houses.
And so much for her girlish dreams of ever finding true love.
It was foolishness, anyway, she supposed. Like Mama said, that was not how life worked. And so, months ago, resigned to her fate, Portia had thrown herself into planning her wedding instead of deluding herself with juvenile fantasies. She was a practical woman, after all, even a bit of a cynic.
If she could not have the man she really wanted, then she figured she would at least have the wedding of her dreams. Now the big day—the last Sunday in June—was exactly twenty-six days away, and nearly everything was ready.
But the moment she had completed her massive project, all of her gnawing questions about what the blazes had happened to Joel Clayton began returning to haunt her. Filling the void of her once again somewhat empty, if privileged, life.
Then, out of nowhere one day about a fortnight ago, she had noticed the Silversmoke stories right there in the newspapers.
Staring her in the face this whole time…
The idea had struck like lightning.
Whereupon she had become obsessed with the notion, as she was wont to do when some new project struck her. At once, she had dived into careful research on the gallant highwayman with the same attention to detail she’d given to planning her wedding day.
The idea was madness, of course; she knew that.
Yet, somehow, she could not resist pressing on. Poring over the stories in the papers about him, Portia had come to believe in him.
In Silversmoke, the legend.
To believe that he might really help her.
Heroes were in short supply these days, to be sure. But the mysterious outlaw would sometimes help people who had nowhere else to turn…
Finally deciding she had nothing left to lose, Portia had gone to see Mr. Townsend. A few days later, the reporter had sent back the thrilling answer that yes, Silversmoke would hear her case.
Of course, there were no guarantees about this night.
But she would be happy to pay him if only he would agree to take up her quest and find her missing beau—before she had to marry the odd, reclusive duke.
As the carriage crept on through the dark, mossy woods, suddenly, Cassius called out in a hushed voice, “There, ahead—I see a light!”
At once, both Portia and Mrs. Berry poked their heads out their respective windows. For her part, Portia could see nothing but more brambles, more trees.
Mrs. Berry, acting as chaperone, also pulled her head back in, then looked askance at her. “You still want to do this, milady?”
“It’s coming into view!” Cassius whispered loudly.
One of the horses let out a nervous whicker.
“Should I stop, ma’am?” Denny called back in a low tone. “I don’t think there’ll be enough room up there to turn around if we go much farther.”
She could feel the servants’ fear now that they’d found the place, could hear it in their voices, and though she was acutely aware of her own, it was up to her to set the example.
“Courage, everyone,” she told them. “There’ll be no turning back. Silversmoke himself promised us safe passage.”
“Not sure what the word of a highwayman’s worth,” Mrs. Berry muttered.
“Silversmoke is no ordinary highwayman, Mrs. Berry. If he were, we wouldn’t be here. Drive on, Denny,” Portia ordered him. “They’re expecting us. Delay will only look suspicious. Don’t worry, everyone, it’ll be all right. We have to do this. For Mr. Clayton.”
“For Mr. Clayton,” Denny echoed with resolve. “Aye, milady. If anyone can find ’im, it’ll be Silversmoke.”
Let’s hope so, Portia thought, and the coach rumbled on.
Tense with the knowledge that she was staking not just her own safety, but that of three other people on her faith that all the swashbuckling tales about the heroic outlaw were true, she decided with a gulp that this seemed as good a time as any to review them.
Before she lost her nerve.
He had gained the moniker of Silversmoke, they said, by his tendency to vanish or appear in a swirl of fog, always readily available in England.
How dramatic, she thought in sardonic amusement. Realistically, though, foggy nights must be perfect for robbing coaches, she decided.
Well, he was no Robin Hood, of course, but Silversmoke had developed into something of a folk hero because he only robbed from the rich and gave a portion of his proceeds to the widows and orphans of hanged criminals.
Nobody knew who he really was, but the poor had nothing to fear from him.
Indeed, one famous tale had recounted how he’d once come upon a wagonload of peasants heading north to find haymaking work. They’d been stranded on the roadside when their cart had lost a wheel.
They had been terrified of him and his gang, but instead of harming them, Silversmoke had ordered his men to help the humble folk. Once their wagon was fixed, he’d given them some money to buy food and sent them safely on their way.
An almost lordly gesture.
When he did stop coaches of the wealthy, he never took wedding bands or items of sentimental value.
And he never resorted to violence, unless some gentleman or his driver made the foolish mistake of trying to attack him first. The force he used in such cases was never known to be excessive.
He had never killed anyone that she knew of. Indeed, if he had, she would not be here. That would be too dangerous even for her.
In any case, all of Silversmoke’s heroics had inspired even the lawmen to turn a blind eye to his roguery—especially since the outlaw had been known to leave villains far worse than himself bound and gagged on the constable’s doorstep.
Like the savage apprentice master who’d been whipping his poor boys without mercy. Or the fraudster who had cheated an elderly couple out of their pension.
Or the trio of spurned swains who had ambushed and assaulted the coquette who’d rejected them all, leaving the poor girl unspeakably used and beaten unconscious.
Silversmoke had deposited all three of her attackers bruised beyond recognition and full of broken bones outside the local jail, neatly packaged for the gallows.
The magistrates always knew when it was his work because of the little domino game piece that they would find hanging on a string around the neck of each miscreant.
His calling card, as it were. One that even the illiterate criminals could read.
The man had style, Portia mused. Even Joel would have agreed, and he would know, having been a leading dandy in Society.
It was said that the criminal class feared Silversmoke like the devil himself, but ladies swooned when he robbed them—and not from fear.
From what she had read in the papers, it seemed like half of the highwayman’s female victims became infatuated with him after some midnight encounter on the roads.
Portia shook her head. No doubt the famed outlaw cut a dashing figure when he emerged in the moonlight astride his equally famous black horse, Tempo, and bellowed those fearsome words every traveler dreaded to hear: “Stand and deliver!”
But how could these fainting ninnies in the papers swear he was such a beautiful man when he worked under cover of night and wore a mask?
That was what she wanted to know.
Poppycock, she decided, for she had always prided herself on being a very practical, clear-headed, down-to-earth sort of person.
Well, except for tonight, of course.
No, indeed. Tonight’s little jaunt to a meeting with the brigand in his hideaway was not at all the sort of thing that a young lady betrothed to a duke would normally do.
Fountainhurst had better never find out about this, she thought uneasily.
Eccentric or not, he was still a duke. A jilt from the likes of him would end any girl in Society.
As for Portia’s parents, she knew they would positively lock her in a tower until her wedding if they had any idea where she was right now. She hated to disobey them—especially after all the trouble Hunter had caused them years ago.
But perhaps if her brother had not sailed off halfway around the world chasing fortune and adventure, then he could’ve helped instead of her having to turn to a blasted highwayman.
Not that she resented him for his absence, she quickly amended.
But, heir to the title or not, Hunter was quite the black sheep of the family, which was why Portia always did her best to make her parents happy—insofar as two such discontented souls could be made happy.
Fortunately, they were both preoccupied tonight. Mama was out getting tipsy once again with her glamorous friends, and Papa had nodded off in his favorite chair, as usual, after another prodigious supper.
The Marquess of Liddicoat was presently snoring with his feet up on the ottoman back at their home in Moonlight Square in the company of his parakeet, with no idea that his youngest daughter had tiptoed out to sneak off to a reckless tête-à-tête with an outlaw.
Which just went to show how desperate her situation had become, how acute her distress.
Silversmoke was officially her last hope. But would he accept the mission?
Was he really a hero under that mask, or just another villain?
It seemed she was about to find out. We’d better not be late.
Eleven o’clock was the time set for their meeting. Glancing at the locket watch she had worn around her neck, she saw with relief that, so far, she was on time.
While the carriage crawled along through the dark forest, Portia pondered the question of exactly how Silversmoke might set about finding Joel once he’d considered the matter.
He had his ways, she supposed.
He must have friends in low places, given his criminality. No doubt he could ask questions and make inquiries where a highborn lady had no hope whatsoever of succeeding. God willing, he could succeed where even Bow Street had failed.
If he agreed to help her, that was.
Instead, he might have a hearty laugh at her gullibility for believing all those florid tales, and order his men to butcher the four of them and dump their bodies in the woods.
Cheerful thought, that.
Her heart lurched, but she quickly warded off dread with a cheeky mental jest. At least then I won’t have to marry Fountainhurst.
Would His Grace even notice, I wonder?
That grim bit of levity helped shore up her resolve as the light among the trees ahead finally materialized into a little thatch-roofed pub with a dozen saddled horses tied up outside.
“Would you look at that,” Mrs. Berry murmured, staring.
It seemed they had reached the outlaws’ hideaway at last—either that, or this was some magical trap conjured by woodland fairies.
Scanning the dodgy place while Denny drove the carriage right up to it, Portia wondered if she’d lost her wits entirely. Come, you don’t actually mean to go through with this, do you? You cannot go into that hellhole.
Hunter wouldn’t even go in there.
The decrepit tavern sat alone in the middle of the forest, sullen under its sway-backed thatched roof. A chipped, painted placard hung above the door pronounced it The Blind Badger.
A pair of small windows flanked the gabled entrance, and feeble orange light glowed through their panes. The roof’s straw thatching hung low over the windows so that they resembled the heavy-lidded eyes of a mean drunkard, peering out upon the world waiting for someone, anyone, to pick a fight with him.
Portia pressed her lips together as a bead of sweat slipped down her cheek.
“Are you going to get out, milady?” Denny called nervously. “Or should I just drive ’round?”
To her relief, she now saw that escape was an option, after all—thank God.
There was a sort of rough drive that encircled the building. They could still go around it and hurry back out of this criminal-infested wood the same way they’d come in. Drive hell-for-leather back to London.
And leave Joel to his fate…
“Milady?” Denny repeated, sounding even more worried.
Portia didn’t answer, debating with herself. For another long minute, she just sat there like a lump, paralyzed with last-minute jitters.
“Are you all right back there, ma’am?” Cassius asked, his crisp voice tight with alarm.
“Um…” she said, gripping the handle of her reticule. The night was much too hot, and all the air seemed to have been sucked out of the coach.
In the small clearing around the bandits’ hideaway, though, she could see the night sky, feel a hint of a breeze.
High above, the white moon half-masked its face with a scarf of wispy clouds, and the stars twinkled merrily around it.
This is it, she told herself, chewing her lip. Yes or no? Go or stay?
Glancing around, she saw a couple of ill-made carriages parked out of the way. A battered whiskey gig, a farmer’s wagon.
A curl of smoke rose from the chimney poking up through the roof’s mass of mangy-looking straw. They must be cooking for their patrons.
Portia grimaced. She could not imagine eating anything in such a place. The food was no doubt revolting. Indeed, the whole place looked altogether dodgy—but who was she fooling? This entire misadventure was dodgy.
She’d be lucky if she didn’t go in there and get herself killed.
But all the newspaper stories she’d collected, everything she’d read about Silversmoke, gave her one last shred of hope that there might still be a way to find out what had become of the young man she had expected to marry.
She simply had to know once and for all what had really happened to him, if she was ever going to be able to move on with her life. The answer to this mystery, no matter how gory or grim, would at least bring the matter to a close in her heart. This ignorance was torture—being left in the dark, only given answers that she could not bring herself to believe.
Her parents said to let it go. Papa had never liked him anyway. Oh, he liked her fiancé well enough, though; Lord Liddicoat had once served on some boring Parliamentary committee with the duke’s late father, ages ago.
Since he had respected the last Duke of Fountainhurst so well, her sire hoped the apple would not fall too far from the tree.
Mama, for her part, claimed that having a duchess for a daughter would be the crowning achievement of her life. Besides, Portia was already twenty-three. Why, her elder sister Sarah (the perfect one) had already birthed two children by the time she was Portia’s age, and even though Mama would admit that Joel had been dashing, Fountainhurst was a man of consequence.
Even Portia’s best friend, Serena, the Duchess of Rivenwood, had gently pointed out that Joel’s courtship of her hadn’t seemed all that serious, anyway.
“But he was never serious about anything! That’s why I liked him. He was fun!” Portia had exclaimed, but Serena just sighed.
Blast it, what the devil had happened to him?
A grown man could not simply vanish off the face of the earth without explanation, without a note, without a reason, without a body being found!
It didn’t add up!
Yes, she knew he was impulsive—it was part of his charm—but to stay away for a year without contacting anyone, even his mother? It wasn’t like him.
Something was wrong. Very, very wrong.
Where had he gone? If someone had done something to him, she wanted to know who, and what, and why. She had always been intensely curious, even as a child, annoying her parents and tutors alike with the endless questions that streamed from her lively mind: Why is the sky blue? How do birds fly?
Can I fly, too? How long is forever?
How big is the world?
To think that this, the most important question of her entire twenty-three years, should still go unanswered was more than she could stand.
Well, she might have been pledged to wed another in the meanwhile; so be it. But she refused to let the world just forget about poor, rakish Joel and move on as though he had never existed.
It was awful to see how people just stopped caring as time passed, but not her. She refused to let him simply fade away like an old castle ghost.
If he was alive out there somewhere, the way her intuition swore he was, then someone had to find him and help him.
That someone was Silversmoke. The bold stranger who defended the weak. Protected the innocent. Lent his strength to those who seemed like lost causes.
There was just one problem.
If she was wrong about him, and dared set foot inside The Blind Badger…she might never come out alive.
The servants were asking what to do, but Portia wasn’t listening. For it was then that a bit of motion in the shadows under one of the huge old trees near the tavern caught her eye. She turned, homing in on it.
A silver beam of moonlight slanting down from the sky illuminated a magnificent black horse tied up there, saddled, grazing.
He was the color of midnight, with four white socks, and Portia drew in her breath with wonderstruck recognition.
Why, the highwayman’s trusty steed matched the papers’ description exactly! With that, her hopes surged and her heart started thumping.
There, you see? The horse at least is real. And if that part’s true, the rest of it is probably true, as well. Suddenly, her trek out here tonight did not seem as mad as it had moments ago. This might actually work!
For Joel, she decided. And with that, she pulled her black lace veil down over her face, opened the carriage door, and climbed out.
“Whatever happens, do not leave without me,” she said.
“Never, milady,” Cassius vowed.
Denny swung down from the driver’s box. His artless eyes were wide with fear, but his jaw was squared. “Shall I go in with you, milady?”
Portia was taken aback by the young footman’s brave offer. He might not be overly bright, but what a kindhearted fellow. “Thank you, Denny, but no. His message said to come alone.”
Mrs. Berry reached out and squeezed Portia’s hand. “Oh, be careful, dear.”
“I will.” She nodded back with gratitude.
Resolved on her course, Portia turned to face the bandits’ hideaway and ignored her pounding heartbeat. Lifting her chin, she took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and marched bravely toward the door.
To her surprise, it opened before she reached it, swinging on its hinges with a loud creak. Portia froze as light poured out from inside the tavern, along with the rough, idle clamor of men laughing and enjoying their ale. A cloud of tobacco smoke wafted out, and the sound of music sawing away on a fiddle.
Then a slim, sinewy figure appeared in the doorway: the long-legged silhouette of a rugged older man in a slouchy coat, with a halo of longish pewter hair and a silver mustache to match.
“Well, girl?” he grunted. “Ye comin’ or not?”
Portia faltered, clutching her reticule as a belated wave of dread besieged her.
Faced with her first real live outlaw, she couldn’t answer for a heartbeat, her voice stuck in her throat. But she refused to show herself a coward. So she steeled her nerve, straightened her spine, and walked briskly toward him.
“Yes, ahem. Thank you.”
The silver-haired brigand waited, tall and lean. As she neared him, she saw he had piercing dark eyes and a grim, harrowed face tough as leather.
Though he was armed to the teeth—pistols, dagger—she sensed neither hostility nor particular interest from him; he merely held out his hand, waiting.
Portia realized with a blink that she was meant to give him the little ivory domino that Townsend had entrusted to her. “Oh—er, one moment, please.”
She reached into her reticule and fished around inside it for the token, the journalist’s warning ringing in her ears, that the game piece was imperative for her safety in these parts.
First, the domino would certify to Silversmoke that she was indeed the visitor he had agreed to see. Second, Townsend said that if any other gangs bothered them out on the roads, she need only show them the token and the domino’s four black dots—one for each member of her party. This would serve as a sign to even unlettered criminals that she and her attendants had business with Silversmoke, and must be allowed to pass unharmed unless said criminals wished to deal with him.
Blast it, where is it? She groped around for it frantically amid the contents of her crowded reticule, to no avail. What if I can’t find it? What then?
Just when she started to panic, her searching fingers found it at the bottom of her bag. She clasped the ivory game piece in relief, pulled it out, and placed it shakily in the older fellow’s palm.
Through the black lace of her veil, she saw him glance down at its four black dots, then at her coach, narrowing those shrewd, canny eyes.
“Three servants and you, ma’am. That’s all you’re cleared for.”
“Yes,” she forced out, nodding.
“Hidin’ anything?” He flicked a skeptical glance over her, and Portia suddenly realized he was asking if she was armed.
“Oh, goodness, no!” She did not see fit to tell him that even if she had a gun hidden somewhere on her person, she’d have no idea how to use it.
Now, if it was a ladies’ archery set, that might be a different matter, but she only shot at straw targets, anyway, never people.
He harrumphed but took her at her word. “I’ll not search a lady.”
I should think not. She stiffened indignantly, remembering her station as the daughter of a marquess and a future duchess.
He did not look impressed. “Name’s Gower. Follow me,” said the man. She thought he said Gower, anyway; it was hard to hear his low rumble of a voice as he turned away. “Don’t mind the boys. They won’t harm ye unless they want their throats cut.”
Her eyes flared at such casual talk of violence, but Gower stepped inside, and she knew she must follow.
Casting one last, uncertain glance over her shoulder at the coach and staring servants, Portia hesitated, on the brink of ghastly regret for ever starting this. But, bracing herself, she quickly hurried after him.
When she stepped over the threshold of the tavern, she beheld a snug, low-ceilinged tavern with a bar on her right and a few long tables in the middle, where some twenty rough-looking men were eating, smoking, playing cards.
Others threw darts at a board on the left-hand wall, while the fiddler perched atop a stool in the corner played a melancholy tune.
The moment the men saw her standing there, dead silence dropped.
The music stopped, the gang of highwaymen turned, and Portia faltered as she got a better look at them through the screen of her black lace veil.
Egads, they looked dangerous. Highly disreputable, all. Lowlifes, even. Messy, dirty, bearded. Disheveled, tattooed. Young and old alike, they were tough men, mean-eyed, hard. Every last one of them, staring at her.
Portia’s mouth went dry. Oh, Lord Jesus, help me.
She began shrinking back instinctively against the door, which now bumped her in the backside and shoulder blades as it swung shut behind her.
Gower beckoned impatiently to her, and she took two swift steps after him, doing her best to ignore the rest of the wild tribe.
Unfortunately, they started smiling at her from all directions—and that was more terrifying still.
“Well, what ’ave we ’ere?”
They began getting up off their barstools and rising from their seats, creeping closer, tankards in hand, flashing broken-toothed smiles as they leered.
“Buy you a drink, love?”
“What’s ye look like un’er that veil?”
Without warning, raucous catcalls erupted, and lewd offers were hurled at her from all directions of acts she’d never heard of, terms whose meanings she did not know and did not care to learn.
Overwhelmed by this onslaught of crudeness aimed at a lady who had been sheltered by her parents like a pearl in a velvet box since her childhood, Portia suddenly feared she might cry from overwhelming dread at their attentions.
She had never encountered such people before, not directly. Not up close.
They were pressing in around her on all sides like a hungry pack of wolves, and in her moment of hesitation, the clear path between her and Mr. Gower had vanished, leaving her surrounded by over-friendly criminals.
One leaned closer, actually sniffing her. “Mmm, smells good.”
Suddenly, a deep voice boomed like a thunderclap out of the back of the pub: “Touch her and you’re dead!”
Portia jumped, but the bellow brought instant silence.
“Clear a path for her. Now,” the man said in a whiplike tone full of ruthless authority.
Portia could not yet see the owner of that voice on account of the men blocking her view.
“The lady is here to see me,” he added darkly. “She is under my protection. You’ve been warned. Bring her to me, Gower.”
“Just havin’ a little fun, sir,” one of the ruffians mumbled as the horde melted back from her path.
Portia’s pulse was still pounding as Gower stomped back to seize her by the wrist. The pewter-haired man shot her a look of annoyance.
“Told you to keep up,” he muttered, then led her safely the rest of the way through the tavern. “Keep yer eyes to yourselves!” he barked at the brigands, who slunk aside and returned to their drinking and darts, snickering at her, as though they had only been testing her mettle, anyway.
Portia was shaking as Gower pulled her toward an inglenook in the back.
It was sectioned off from the rest of the pub by a shoulder-high oak partition topped by wooden spindles that reached to the ceiling.
A dark red curtain hung across the opening where this partial wall ended, but it was pushed to the side like an open door.
Gower hurried her through it, and as soon as she stepped into the dimmer, lower-ceilinged inglenook, she found a booth tucked away there; a lantern hung above a dark wooden table full of nicks and scars.
The smallest of cooking fires burned in the nearby hearth, where a large, black-clad man stood leaning in the shadows, one arm braced on the rustic log mantel.
He turned at their arrival—large, muscular, imposing—and the second Portia saw the black half mask concealing the upper portion of his chiseled face, she knew she was in the presence of Silversmoke himself.
He nodded to Gower, who seemed to understand his young chief without a need for words; the silver-haired man instantly turned around and pulled the curtain shut for privacy, remaining with them just long enough to toss the domino to Silversmoke.
The highwayman caught it out of the air in a black-gauntleted fist, glanced at the game piece, then at Portia.
He studied her for a moment from behind his mask with searing intensity. “I see you found your way to me all right,” he murmured, his voice taut, low.
“Y-yes,” she said with a terrified gulp.
“And you’re aware that revealing this location would be…a serious breach of trust.” The slight pause, as though searching for the right words, made her think this was a speech he gave to everyone who came seeking his help, but perhaps he’d softened the threat just a little for a lady.
One, especially, who’d just had the daylights scared out of her.
“I do,” Portia managed more firmly, though her voice was still little more than a shaky whisper after her moment of panic in that other room. “Th-thank you for seeing me.”
She felt somewhat safer now, since he had single-handedly held the others at bay with a word. In truth, this man looked even more dangerous than his followers, but unlike them, he kept a respectful distance, much to her relief.
Silversmoke nodded and gestured toward the booth. “Why don’t you have a seat and tell me why you sought me out?”
“Y-yes. Thank you.” As she sank down, weak-kneed, onto the bench, her back to the oaken partition, he nodded Gower’s dismissal.
The older man silently withdrew. As the lusty young stallion of a highwayman took a seat in the booth across from her, Portia passed a wary glance over him, admittedly intrigued by him now that she was calming down.
All his clothes were jet-black: snug breeches with a black leather gun belt slung around his lean waist, a pistol on each hip. He’d rolled up the sleeves of his loose midnight shirt, which hung open at the neck.
She caught a startling glimpse of muscled chest, then snapped her gaze back up to his face.
Though a black silk bandanna was tied around his head, hiding his hair and hanging down his nape a few inches from where he’d knotted it at the back of his skull, it only made the firm, proud angles of his cheekbones and scruffy jaw seem all the more severe.
She could not tell the color of his eyes, shadowed behind his mask, but his sculpted lips fascinated her for an instant.
Suddenly, she could understand the swooning.
Her terror from the other room was fading fast in the intimacy of sitting three feet from an underworld legend.
She was awed by his size, easily six foot four. She marveled at the breadth of his shoulders, the girth of his chest, the power in his thickly muscled arms.
He drew off his gauntlets and set them on the table, where she only now noticed a trencher with a hunk of brown bread, a wedge of cheese, and a few slices of apple sitting beside a tankard of ale.
There was also a knife stuck upright in the table for some reason. She stared at it, feeling as though she had stepped into another world, one where she had no idea of the rules.
If there were any rules.
As Silversmoke reached for his tankard, she stared at his hands. They were large, thick, and strong. Used to wielding weapons and taking what he wanted from life.
Through the screen of her lace veil, she stared at him, pondering the many dangers this man could pose. If he did anything horrible to her, even Hunter would have trouble punishing the likes of him.
The highwayman took a swig of ale, giving her a moment to collect herself after her fright. Then he rested his elbows on the table and loosely laced his fingers, watching her. “You’re quite safe now, ma’am.”
Portia eyed him skeptically.
“Why don’t you start by telling me about whatever trouble brought you out here to see me tonight.” His lulling baritone soothed her as she held his steady gaze, then his tone turned matter-of-fact. “What seems to be the problem?”
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