Authors: Nicole Byrd
This edition published 2010
© Cheryl Zach and Michelle Place
He should have guessed that redemption,
unlike a well-dealt hand of cards, would not be so easily grasped; perhaps
heaven always lay two steps beyond hell's gaping door.
"There– 'e's over
Gabriel Sinclair glanced quickly
over his shoulder. He had mingled with the last of the emerging theater-goers,
hoping to lose his pursuers, but the gang of ruffians who had followed him half
way across London was not so easily shaken.
Gabriel stepped sideways behind a
pudgy gentleman in an opera cloak, although his tall stature could not be
completely hidden by the shorter man. The skinny woman who clung to the other
man's arm looked up at him, flushed, and fluttered her lashes as she stretched
her too-thin lips into a wide simper. Gabriel returned the smile without really
seeing her. He had always had this affect on women; he hardly noticed anymore.
He was more concerned with
escaping the attention of the roughly-dressed men who hesitated at the edge of
the thinning crowd–too many even for him to fight his way through. His own
immaculate evening dress should have made him appear part of the tonnish men
and women leaving the theater, but the sharp-eyed man with the scar on his
cheek who seemed to be the leader of the gang was not so easily distracted.
"Nab 'im, ye brainless
Gabriel took one step farther into
the deeper shadows at the corner of the building, then turned and ran for his
But the alley was littered with rubbish
and one drunken street-sweeper who had evidently earned enough pennies to buy
himself the solace of a cheap bottle of gin. Slumped against the theater's
outer wall, he snored in drunken bliss, a strong odor of gin rising from his
open mouth like mist on the moor, almost strong enough to obscure the otherwise
prevalent stench of rotting garbage. His balding head reflected the dim light
from the avenue's street lamp beyond, the empty bottle was still cradled in his
lap, and his coarse-fibered broom blocked the narrow alley.
Gabriel saw the dirty broom in
time to leap over it, but he had to slow slightly; behind him, he heard a
muffled curse and then a crash as his closest pursuer was not so nimble.
Gabriel grinned, but saved his
breath for running. He was still not free of his stalkers. He covered several
more yards, then leaped across a puddle of stagnant water. As his feet again
hit the pavement, he blinked. In the corner of his vision, he caught a
reflection in the dank pool, a dark shape moving behind him. He heard the
splash of feet pounding through the water, followed by an almost indiscernible
whisper of sound. He whirled in time to see the cudgel descending.
Most men would have died then and
there in the refuse-strewn alley, but Gabriel Sinclair was not most men.
the blow easily, then caught the weapon at the bottom part of its arc and
jammed it upward hard against the villain's chin. With a grunt, the man fell. Gabriel
pulled the club free of his attacker's suddenly slack fingers and struck the
next ruffian hard in his stomach. The man bent double, cursing and gagging on
his own sour-smelling vomit.
something that didn't agree with you?" Gabriel asked, his tone pleasant. "A
spot of bad wine, perhaps?"
Warily, he eyed the remaining
three men, who drew back in alarm now that their victim held a weapon. Two of
the men held only rough truncheons, but the leader, his eyes narrowed, pulled a
long, evil-looking blade from his sleeve and stepped forward. The scar-faced
man smiled, revealing rotting teeth, and shifted the knife with an ease which
came of long practice.
Gabriel winced at a whiff of the
man's foul breath. He watched the villain's eyes instead of the narrow, lethal
weapon. Gabriel had not spent fifteen years living by his wits to no purpose;
he knew when it was prudent to fight and when to flee.
Of course, Gabriel thought with
his usual cynicism, Prudency has never been one of my virtues. He made one
quick feint with the club; the would-be assassin jumped back. Once more,
Gabriel took to his heels.
He turned the corner and had
traveled only a few yards when his path was blocked by a skinny man of almost
his own height, who paced up and down in front of the theater's back entrance.
The other man, who also wore evening
dress, tugged at his too-high neckcloth and muttered to himself as he perused a
sheet of paper. "Aunt Sophie has white hair and a long nose; Cousin Mervyn
has a fat paunch and thinning hair. No, that's Cousin Percival. Oh, hell's
bells–I'll never pull this off."
Gabriel tried to sidestep him, but
the man moved in the wrong direction, toward him instead of away. Gabriel
skidded into the thinner man, sending the paper flying into the air. Knocked
off his feet by the impact, arms flailing, the other man sprawled across the
wooden steps that led to the rear entrance.
"Sorry!" Gabriel kept
his balance, but barely, and he dropped the club. He glanced at the theater's
back door, but it looked firmly locked. Then, even as the footsteps from the
alley came closer, he heard the sound of horses' hooves.
A vehicle was approaching, not a
hackney, which he might have hired, but someone's private carriage. To his
surprise, it drew up before them.
"One of you the Marquis of
Tarrington?" the driver called down to them both.
The man draped across the steps
gaped up at the coachman, then waved his hand feebly. "Uh, that–that's
him, right there."
Gabriel turned sharply to look
down at the unknown man. "What?"
But the door of the carriage swung
open in invitation just as he saw three of the ruffians turning the corner,
their weapons held ready. And a fourth, one of the men he'd knocked down in the
alley, stumbled after them, his expression murderous.
"Get in, if you please, my
lord," the driver called.
Gabriel was not one to turn down a
gift from providence. He jumped into the carriage, slammed the door shut, and
the vehicle pulled away. Through the window, he saw the gang members stare
blankly at the departing rig.
gentlemen," Gabriel called. Then, laughing, he leaned back against the
thick soft nap of the velvet squabs. What a way to return to his native land!
Taking a deep breath, Gabriel
relaxed for the first time since he had set out for the evening toward the
high-class gaming club that he had never reached. He had seen poor losers in
his time, but never one to rival Barrett's murderous ire.
Of course, few gamesters had lost
a stake the size of Barrett's last wager. An estate in the south of England–a
landed property suitable for reestablishing the fortune of an impoverished
younger son, a black sheep who had left England in disgrace years before.
It was the opportunity Gabriel had
been waiting for–a way to return with dignity, with style, and to prove at last
to his father, to his whole censorious family, that Gabriel was not the
ne'er-do-well they all believed him to be. He had always vowed he would never
return with his tail between his legs, in poverty and dishonor, begging for
He had been stroking the smooth
mahogany panel of the door, and his long fingers clinched involuntarily into a
fist. No, he would come back successful or not at all. He would show them he
had survived, more than survived, triumphed! An estate of his own, with rents
to collect and a handsome house to make into his home–it would change his life
If he could just live long enough
to collect his winnings.
Barrett, the disgruntled card
player who had lost his own birthright over a hand of cards, had conceived of
an ingenious if not terribly original way to wipe out his debt of honor.
Dead men could not collect their
But Gabriel did not intend to die
for someone else's convenience. If that were the case, he would have given up
long ago, in all those years of wandering, of card-playing, of existing on the
fringes of civilized society, living by his wits, his charm, his handsome face,
and his sharp mathematician's mind.
He looked out through the glass
panes once more, absently noting changes in the London cityscape. Here was a
newly refurbished mansion, there a new shop boasting elegant ladies' hats
trimmed with tall ostrich plumes or delicate silk roses. The street lights were
more prevalent than he remembered on his first boyhood trip, glowing with the
steady flame of gas instead of oil.
And he had changed, too, perhaps
more so than the country, the city, he had left behind. He glanced down at his
own sun-bronzed fingers–harder and leaner, surely, than the pampered white
hands of the boy who, heart-sick, had turned and walked away from his father's
sharp-tongued disinheritance. The man who returned would establish his own
place without seeking his father's blessing. Yes, by the heavens, he would, and
his father and older brother could choke on their own bile!
The carriage slowed to allow an old-fashioned
coach to move out of its path, and Gabriel heard the driver cursing from his
front perch, and the other vehicle creaking as it rolled ponderously across the
intersection. Shutting his eyes, Gabriel smiled. The curses sounded as lyrical
as a Mozart overture–they were in English, after all, not French, not German,
not Spanish, not even one of the polyglot dialects of the West Indies. And the
smells of the street–manure and rain-washed brick and sweating horses–these
were also the smells of London, not the spicy odors of a Tobago market or the
sewage-laced stench of a Venetian canal. He was home again at last, and this
time–this time, no one would drive him away!
The carriage moved forward again,
and Gabriel wondered where the carriage was taking him. He didn't really care
as long as it gave him a momentary respite from his attackers. Judging by their
zeal, they had been promised a small fortune for his death–and considering what
Barrett would save by it, Gabriel didn't wonder at his enemy's generosity.
And where was the real Marquis of
Tarrington? Still inside the theater, wooing some second-rank actress in her
tiny dressing room? He would be annoyed that his carriage had picked up the
wrong occupant. Why on earth had the driver not recognized his own employer? As
to that, why did the man Gabriel had flattened confuse him for this Tarrington
fellow? There were puzzles here, but Gabriel always enjoyed a good intrigue; he
had spun enough of them on his own.
Now the carriage slowed again. It
was stopping, this time, in front of an impressive mansion where a footman
sprang to attention, ready to swing open the carriage door.
Now for the discovery, Gabriel
thought. He had no real plan, but something would come to mind. It always did. With
only mild anticipation, his heartbeat quickening just a little, he straightened
his well-tied cravat and bent to exit the carriage.
To his surprise, when he stepped
down to the uneven stones of the street, the footman showed no sign of
recognition–or, to be more accurate–of non-recognition.
"Your lordship." The
servant bowed slightly and stepped back so that Gabriel could move toward the
spacious house that rose before him, its tall windows glowing, showering shafts
of light outward to brighten the darkness of the street. Already he could hear
the sound of a pianoforte and the faint murmur of well-bred voices.
Gabriel ascended the broad steps
with measured slowness. This was not the Marquis' own residence, then, and
there seemed to be a good-sized party going on inside. Was he here as a guest? Did
this mean that he–Gabriel–could keep up the pretense a few minutes longer? Why
not, he thought with typical insouciance. He had always loved a good party.
He nodded to the liveried footman
inside the doorway and paused to glance into the tall looking glass on the
wall. He had lost his hat during the chase, but his dark hair was in place, his
evening attire still immaculate despite his last mad dash through the littered
alleyway. He flicked one almost invisible speck from his dark coat front,
smoothed his lapel, then relaxed his shoulders and prepared to climb the
staircase toward the next floor, where the sounds of chatter and the clinking
of glasses could be plainly heard.
God, but he could use a glass of
wine! Gabriel hoped that the master of the house, whoever he was, had a
discerning palate and a good wine cellar; that earlier run for his life had
left Gabriel with a dry throat and a giant thirst.
The other guests seemed to be
already assembled; he climbed the wide staircase alone. At the worst, that
meant all eyes would be on him when he entered the double doors, flung open to
welcome the party-goers. At its best, perhaps he could hide amid the crowd long
enough to enjoy a glass of burgundy, a brief respite before he was off again on
the run. It had been his way of life for so long that it no longer seemed
strange. Only this time, his purpose was not just another easy conquest or high
stakes card game; this time, he had a real goal–the estate that he meant to
live long enough to claim. He had something to prove, to his father, to his
brother, to his hawk-nosed great-aunts, and perhaps even to himself.
With these thoughts still
simmering in the back of his mind, Gabriel composed his expression to one of
well-bred indifference, with only the faintest hint of polite greeting. He
stepped up to the doorway.
Without apparent prompting, the
footman declaimed in echoing accents: "The Marquis of Tarrington."
A silence in the big room, which
was crowded with men in dark evening suits and brightly-clad ladies of all ages
and shapes. The chatter of conversation died, and at the very end of the room,
an elderly lady raised her lorgnette to stare at him through slightly
Gabriel waited for someone to cry
out, "Impostor! That is not the marquis!"
Silence, still. He glanced quickly
around the edge of the crowd until one woman, standing a little apart, caught
his gaze; his breath caught for an instant in his throat before exiting through
slightly unsteady lips.
She was tall for a woman, slim but
exquisitely formed, her curves evident beneath the soft folds of her blue
evening gown. A pity it was cut a bit too high at the neckline; he was sure
that her bosom was worth closer inspection. Her flaxen hair had been pulled into
a simple but severe twist on the back of her head, and her perfectly-shaped
oval face was still as she gazed back at him through icy blue eyes. Her
features were regular and classically beautiful, but it was the spirit inside
those cool eyes that held him, that spoke of passions that even the woman
herself might not guess at. Gabriel, who had not been called a rogue in seven
languages without good reason, sensed heat beneath the frigid demeanor as
surely as a beast scented danger.