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Authors: Lydia M Sheridan

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BOOK: Mr. Dalrymple Revealed
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“Ah, these dilemmas we must all face,” he murmured soulfully.
“Perhaps if I advance--oh, quite slowly, I assure you--to place these trifles
in your saddlebag--” His words trailed off as if the effort was much too
great.

Every instinct shouted at Kate to flee, but pride and a need
to pay the mortgage kept her rooted to the spot. She’d never failed yet to
come home with booty, and she wasn’t about to turn tail at this coxcomb.

At a loss for the first time in her illustrious career, Kate
nodded curtly.

“But don’t think to play me for a fool,” she warned, trying to
regain the upper hand. “Many’s the man I’ve shot for no more than the lint in
his pocket.”

The gentleman did no more than blink at this bloodcurdling
boast and minced forward, one hand outstretched with the spoils.

Diana, unsure about this unusual development, tossed her head
and danced a bit. Kate tightened her hold on the reins, giving a throaty
murmur to calm her horse. She held the pistol aimed steadily at the buck’s
head as he sauntered toward her and unbuckled the saddlebag. Kate didn’t take
her eyes off him for an instant.

Except for one second when the edge of the silk scarf
delicately touched her lashes, tickling unbearably. Instinctively, she
squinted and threw up her arm to rub at the offending lashes.

Without a moment’s hesitation, the fop seized his chance. His
right hand shot out, crashing into the small of her back. With a grunt of
pain, Kate fell forward onto Diana’s neck, only to be wrenched backwards with a
bone-shaking jerk. His fingers dug into her cravat, snapping her head
painfully, crushing her windpipe in an unmerciful grip.

Gasping for breath, Kate dropped the reins, clawing
frantically at her throat. The pistol dropped unnoticed from her grip, hitting
the ground just as the gentleman dragged her bodily out of the saddle. An
earsplitting crack shattered the night. Orange flame shot out of the muzzle as
the pistol exploded.

For an instant, all was still. Then Diana reared and galloped
off into the blackness of the wood. The guard looked as though he would have
liked to do the same, but a command from the gentleman had him running once
more to see to the horses.

Kate’s former victim threw her unceremoniously to the ground,
wrenched her arm behind her back, and knelt none too gently on her legs.
Terrified at the thought of being unmasked and helpless to escape his superior
strength, all those hours spent in deportment lessons at Miss Haver’s Academy
For Young Ladies came back to her and Kate did what any gently-bred female
would do under the circumstances: she pretended to swoon.

Her captor bellowed an order to the coachman, just coming out
of his own faint.

“You, man! I need some rope to tie him up.”

Experimentally, Kate opened one eye the veriest slit. When no
mud oozed in, she opened it a bit wider and took stock of the situation. The
driver was sitting in the road, rubbing his temple. With a low groan, he
motioned to the carriage. The gentleman, languid no longer, dashed to the door
and wrenched it open.

It was with the most exquisite pleasure that Kate heard the
unmistakable sound of a head hitting the top of the door jamb with a hollow
thump. She glanced about again. In the bright moonlight, she could see the
coachman holding the blunderbuss while the guard stood to the horses’ heads, so
she bided her time, awaiting a chance to escape.

A search of the coach proving abortive, the gentleman ripped
off his and the coachman’s neckcloths, and, quicker than one could say,
"Skullduggery on the King’s Highway!” Kate was trussed up neatly as a
chicken meant for roasting.

The chicken, as one might imagine, was mad as a hornet. She
should have made a dash for it when she’d had the opportunity, she fumed, her
wig slipping ever so slightly to the side. Odds were the coachman would have
missed a moving figure in the moonlight. Now, foiled by her own cleverness and
the deportment lessons of Miss Havers, Kate was in greater peril than ever.
Mentally cursing that blameless woman, she frantically thought for a way out.

By now Kate was so demoralized it was almost a relief when her
attacker picked her up and dumped her carelessly on the floor of the coach.
She lay where she fell, filthy, shaking, and wet, and wondered if the condemned
were allowed a nice coal fire before their execution. Before she could get her
bearings, the door opened once more. Kate looked up, ready for battle, but
only her hat sailed through the door to land on her shoulder, both much the
worse for wear.

However, it was not for nothing that the Thoreaus came from a
long line of soldiers, statesmen, and scapegraces, and Kate’s usual spirits
swiftly reasserted themselves. Twisting to get a more comfortable position,
her mind raced to form a plan to forestall the inevitable unmasking.

To her intense surprise, the gentleman didn’t climb in after
her. She strained to hear the argument which sprang up outside. From what she
could make out, the driver wanted to take her to the nearest magistrate to
collect the reward on her head, while the gentleman, for some unfathomable
reason, was insisting on questioning the prisoner first. The young guard, as
might be expected, contributed little to the proceedings, seemingly stunned
with the glory of helping capture the Grey Cavalier.

Kate had no time to waste listening to the men argue. It was
a welcome surprise to find that her wrists had been tied over the cuffs of her
greatcoat. It was the work of a moment to wriggle them free. But despite this
lapse, no longer did she have contempt for the dandy she’d held up, and she
worked swiftly to pluck the knife from her boot and saw through the linen
binding her ankles.

Sliding the dagger back in her boot, Kate eased over to the
door, opening it with the greatest stealth. The men were still arguing, but
she had more important things to do with her time than sit there and listen.
Ever so gently she closed that door and opened the one on the far side. It was
child’s play to step out and tiptoe toward the wood at the side of the road.

Bent double, Kate crept to the hedgerow, careful to keep the
bulk of the coach between herself and the men. They were still shouting, and
she sent a silent prayer of thanks for small mercies.

Two more steps to the trees. Now one. Safe. Leaning against
a handy tree trunk, she paused to wipe her brow and listen. No shouts, no
pounding footsteps, so she started off again. Walking as fast as she could
through the black spinney, her foot unexpectedly came down on the one branch in
the wood not soft with rain. The snap echoed loud as a pistol shot. Confused
shouting came from the road behind her, followed by grunts and crashes in the
brush. In moment, they would be on her. In no more than the flicker of an
eyelash, which was what had gotten her into this mess in the first place, Kate
scrabbled for a rock. With all her strength she threw it as far as possible
into the thicket, then raced off as fast as she could in the opposite
direction.

Panting, sweating, she came to a halt. Her eyes were adjusted
to the darkness by now, but she could still barely see the hand in front of her
face. Blindly she waved her hands in front of her, but instead of trees and
brush, they felt only air. Squinting, she tried to make out what was in front.
A helpful ray of moonlight danced out from behind the clouds. She tripped
over a fallen tree and thudded heavily into a ditch.

"Hell's bells," she hissed, holding her shin in
agony. Cautiously, she peered over the ditch and thought very bad words. In
the dark she'd tramped in circles and was once more looking at the dandy's
coach. Suddenly, something warm and wet and soft snorted into her ear. It was
only by clapping her hand over her mouth that she managed not to shriek.
Instead, she reached up and petted Diana’s nose.
Good girl Diana,
she thought, but then she realized, no, not a good
girl. There was no disguising the sound of a horse in the underbrush.

A movement just beyond the coach caught her attention. Barely
breathing, she watched the road, her heart pound painfully in her throat. If
it was another carriage, she might as well hand herself over to the law at
once. Instead, Mr. -- Derwent? Dingleberry? -- whatever he was calling
himself, sauntered into view. For a few moments Kate watched as he paced
slowly down the road, obviously trying to peer into the black night to find a
clue to her whereabouts. If not for Diana, she’d bide her time in the ditch,
but she waited until he was out of sight once more and climbed out, covered
from head to toe in smelly, slimy muck. Again she grabbed a rock and threw it
across the road as hard as she could, then slapped Diana on the flank. The
horse, her patience evidently at an end, turned and headed in the direction of
Belleview. From the road came hollering and stomping as the guard and coachman
raced in the dark in what they thought was the Grey Cavalier’s path. Mr.
Dalrymple yelled from somewhere in the dark, “Don’t let him get away!”

On tiptoe, Kate crept toward the only certain hiding place
left.

 

*****

 

Edmund Robert James Middleton, the Marquis of Granville,
currently masquerading as the Honorable Frederick Dalrymple, listened to the
crash of the groom and coachman proceeding on their Cavalier hunt. Having more
sense than to chase a man dressed in dark grey through a pitch-black woods, he
absently placed a hand on a branch and thought.

If I were pretending to be a Cavalier
, he mused, eyes narrowed, still hoping to see a
movement in the thick woods,
where would I go
?

The answer came, bright as his pomaded hair in the moonlight.
Ignoring a shout of pain as the coachman tripped into or over something, Edmund
doubled back on his trail.

The coach still stood in the middle of the road. Hoping the
horses were tired enough not to bolt, he tossed a rock up and over so that it
fell on the road on the opposite side of the heavy carriage. Careful to keep
to the shadows, he edged to the side of the enormous vehicle, then leaned
forward to peek in the window.

The door flew open, catching him on the forehead, just where
he’d banged his skull earlier. The stars swooped down to whirl about his head,
but were not so disorienting that he failed to clamp his arms around the figure
exiting stealthily out of the coach.

Lithe and strong, the Cavalier struggled wildly, but Edmund
fought with skill. In truth, he was surprised how quickly the man’s strength was
spent. It seemed no time at all till Edmund was able to wrench the Cavalier’s
slender arm behind his back.

“Devil a bit,” he ground out as the Cavalier’s boot made
contact with his shin. "Stop struggling, man, before I break your arm.”
For good measure, Edmund curled his other arm around the fellow’s neck. The
man gasped, then abruptly fell forward in a dead faint.

Edmund chuckled, amused now that he had the upper hand.
“Excellent try, old fellow, but you’ll not be catching me twice that way.”

Deftly, Edmund twirled his captive about, bent down, and slung
him over his shoulder. Seeking privacy from the coachman and guard, he headed
for hedgerow at the opposite side of the road.

Against his back, the man’s head bobbed drunkenly. Either he
was an actor on the level of Kean himself, of he was really unconscious this
time, Edmund mused. As he stepped over the low ditch running alongside the
road, he shifted his burden, puzzlingly light for such a tall man.

In a clearing behind the hedgerow, Edmund dumped his captive
unceremoniously on the wet earth. The Cavalier moaned, turning his head
restlessly from side to side. Under the beard and mustache, in the faint
moonlight penetrating the leafless branches of the bush, his face looked
absurdly young, his frame oddly slender.

Warily, for Edmund trusted the rascal not at all, he stepped
closer. The Cavalier’s cloak fell back, revealing the outline of his torso. A
torso that was not hard and muscular, but curvy and soft looking. An
unexpected ray of moonlight glinted on a shiny red curl that had escaped from
under the blond locks.

Edmund rent the air with a curse. Bending over the body on
the ground, he dropped heavily onto the Cavalier’s legs, pinned her arms across
her chest, then reached up and tore the moustache off.

“Yeow!” the Cavalier screamed.

The prisoner opened her eyes and scowled into his face.
Undeterred, Edmund ripped off the beard as well, prompting another squeal.
Strong white teeth clamped hard onto his wrist.

He howled himself that time, but refused to release his grip.
As he lay on top of the woman, blue eyes glaring into gray, he became intensely
aware of the body beneath him. Warm and feminine and soft. Heat rose in his
body. A slow smile curved his lips as his eyelids became unaccountably heavy.

“A pleasure to meet you, Lady Highwayman,” he said. But
before his mouth claimed hers, she spoke. Hissed, actually.

“Unhand me, you dastard! Is this how you treat a lady?”

They were the last words he heard before a third blow to the
head knocked him out cold.

*****

 

“--then I bashed him on the head with a rock, tied him up and
went home,” Kate finished her confession, adding scrupulously, “Oh, and I took
his watch and things that were scattered in the road.”

From behind the screen dividing the confessional came a
strangled sort of choke.

“Father, are you ill?”

She heard the sound of a throat clearing. "No, I thank
you.” Father Flannery’s deep voice seemed to quiver as he continued. “Are you
sorry for your sins, my child?”

Kate thought for a moment about her late mama, and her horror
if she could know what Kate was up to, and the terrible predicament her family
would be in should she be caught and hanged: penniless, ostracized, the girls
unable to contract decent marriages, the boys running wild, with no schooling
and no one to care for them.

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