Authors: Katharine Ashe
efore breakfast, Constance rode with Lord Michaels and tried to gently pry from him details of his visits to Edinburgh the previous autumn and at Christmastime.
“Saint's brother did business with Loch Irvine. Shipping and that sort of thing,” he said with a vague wave of his hand. “Thought I'd buy into Tor's business.”
“Were you able to call upon the Duke of Loch Irvine at that time?”
“Oh, well, he wasn't in town except for a few days or so. But how do you like Sir Walter's latest? I didn't know what to expect after
, I'll admit. What a tome! But that story about the monks was smashingly good, don't you agree?”
The entire conversation went frustratingly thus. By the time Libby appeared on her horse, Constance had abandoned all hope of learning anything useful from the baron this day. Returning to the castle to change her gown for her
lesson, she was eager to poke at something with a sharp stick.
When she reached the hall, she knew she must be mad to have wanted this. Simply looking at him from across a roomâcross-armed, leaning against the opposite door, entirely in command of himselfâmade her marvel that she had even dared to touch him the day before. No wonder she had lost her head.
“Good morning?” He made a show of looking about the empty hall.
“Has arrived!” Eliza announced as she hurried in, embroidery bag in hand. “I cannot agree with this program. But as you are determined to it, I am glad that at least
”âshe looked pointedly at Saintâ“seems to have his wits about him.”
He pushed away from the wall and came forward. “Thank you for sparing your time, Mrs. Josephs.”
“As though I had any choice.” With a crackle of starched skirts, she seated herself in a chair set against the wall beneath a stand of crossed axes.
Constance ventured further into the room. “My companion does not want me to learn how to threaten her with a weapon at close range.”
“After my near encounter with a blade in your hand yesterday,” he said, “I don't think I blame her.”
“Good morning.” Libby stood in the doorway, her hair tied in a hasty knot. “What are you all doing?”
“Constance is taking instruction in fencing from Mr. Sterling. Sit here beside me, child.”
Libby obeyed. “I thought you dead set against it, Mr. Sterling. Lord Michaels even offered to teach Constance in your stead.”
“Mr. Sterling has relented.” Constance made herself walk to him. “Have you insisted we meet here so that I will be awed by this array of weaponry?”
“We are here because you must choose your sword.”
“I don't particularly like your father,” he said quietly to her. “But he has hired me to teach you how to fence.”
“He will not know if you do not.”
“But I will.” He allowed that to sit for a moment. “After you have learned the fundamentals of fencing, if you still wish to learn the use of a dagger, I will instruct you in it before I depart.”
She glanced at the walls. “Shouldn't I learn with a wooden sword first? For practice?”
“No need to dally with toys when we are both eager for haste. I will blunt the tips, in any case. Which of these will it be?”
“Among them all?”
“The saber is a cut-and-thrust instrument. We will leave it aside for the time beingâ”
“Since I have no plans to fence from horseback.”
“Or to join the army, presumably. Unless that is in fact your ultimate object?”
“Not currently. One never really knows, though.” She felt ridiculously buoyant. But speaking with him like this had always made her feel this lightness inside.
“Choose from the swords with straight blades and hilts like this.” He touched a sword attached to the wall. “This is a smallsword.”
“A gentleman's weapon?”
“Yes,” he said with a slight smile. “I haven't the expertise to teach you the Highland Claymore, and frankly you haven't the heft for it.”
His gaze slowly scanned her body and she felt flush from her toes to her teeth.
“Perhaps a longsword,” he said, decided huskiness in his voice.
Across the room, Eliza cleared her throat.
“I meant, haven't you expertise with a Claymore?” Constance managed to say.
“A man cannot be an expert at everything.”
“Said without any sincerity whatsoever. You do know how to wield a Claymore.”
“A bit.” His gaze dipped to her lips. “But there is nothing on earth that will entice me to place a weapon of that blunt power in your hands.”
Eliza cleared her throat louder. “I have eyes, sirrah.”
“Eyes that wield a dagger superbly, it seems,” he said to Constance, with a smile.
,” Eliza shouted.
“What are you sewing, Mrs. Josephs?” he called across the room. “Manacles suitable for a man's wrists, perhaps?”
“If it suits the man.”
He laughed. “Your companion hasn't any idea that I am not the party she should be concerned about here, has she?”
Constance's throat was dry. “You are no gentleman.”
“I don't recall ever claiming that I was. But then, you are not much of a lady, are you?”
“I thought we settled that last night.”
“I am still listening!” Eliza cried.
“So am I,” Libby said with a little frown. “But I don't understand the half of what you are saying. It is as if you are speaking in code. Are you a spy, Mr. Sterling? Are
“I am not, Miss Shaw, but I cannot speak for Lady Constance.” His gaze remained firmly in hers. “We did settle it,” he said in his hot brandy voice. “But I like seeing you blush.”
“Woe to you, sir, for the day your instruction takes root and I employ my new skill in silencing your tongue.”
It was the wrong thing to say. The easy amusement in his eyes became, in an instant, heat. And the desire in her responded.
“Haven't you swords that you typically use to teach?” she said in a voice like the bleat of a new lamb.
“I do. But as you are not a typical student, I am allowing you this choice.”
“Are you treating me as an eccentric?”
“An unwed duke's daughter of twenty-four years taking up fencing? Of course not.” He gestured to the walls covered with weapons. “You bought them. You choose.”
She chose her favorite, a slender blade with a hilt fashioned of gold and silver and formed into the shapes of wings on either side.
“Wise choice.” He detached it from the wall and gave it to her. It was much heavier than she expected, but the handle was comfortable in her palm.
“Pinch the grip between your thumb and forefinger,” he said.
“That was a test, wasn't it?” She watched his face as she adjusted her fingers. “You wanted to see if I would choose a sword suitable to me.”
“Did I pass it?”
“You have chosen an Ã©pÃ©e. Favored by the French. It is a man's weapon.” He gestured to another sword. “It is heavier than a foil, which is more appropriate for a woman to wield.”
“Are you saying that I cannot manage this sword?”
“No. You have both height and strength. And you want to fight. You are unusual for a woman.”
“The desire to fight is not unusual for a woman.”
“The desire to use your body aggressively, however, is.” He smiled slightly, privately. Inside her, something shifted, tightened, and tumbled over itself in a mess of confusion. How he could do thisâbe so direct, tease, and yet play no gamesâshe did not understand. She had never known a man who did not keep secrets or pretend to be what he was not. And she had never fallen apart from any other man's smile.
“Teach me,” she said, and hardly knew whether she wanted him to teach her how to fence or how to be honest.
LIZA'S USUAL HABIT
after breakfast each day was to nap in the parlor. This daily nap did not require a chair; the cushioned bench at the edge of the ballroom to which they
had all moved seemed to suit her just as well. Not an hour into Constance's lesson, soft snores sounded across the floor, mingling with the patter of raindrops on windows. Libby had long since gone off in search of Dr. Shaw and Lord Michaels, and Constance had not seen her father since before dinner the previous night.
They were alone.
He said nothing of this flaw in his condition for teaching her. His focus seemed entirely on instructing her how to stand, hold her sword, and extend her arm so that the tip of her sword hit a padded wooden mannequin where he directed. Her focus might have been on these things too if she weren't distracted by the evident strength in every movement he made.
“I admit that this is more difficult than I anticipated. And tiring,” she said after some time practicing the simple arm extension that he demonstrated with such easeâand missing the target on the mannequin nearly every time. Each time he grasped her blade to readjust her position, it made her nerves jerk.
“If it were easy, everyone would do it,” he said.
“Will you now insult me further?”
“Would you like that?”
“Then I will not.”
“You are unobliging.”
“And you are leaving your arm and hand open to attack. When fighting with a dagger or knife, any vital region might be the target. But in this your opponent will seek first to disable your sword arm.” He moved to face her, switching the sword into his left hand. “Look at the angle of my blade in
, the position of my hand and arm and how the guard protects them from your blade. Study them.”
Men had begged her to stare into their eyes as they declared their devotion. They had entreated her to admire their horses, phaetons, dogs, estates, and occasionally even their
drawings and paintings. No man had ever told her to study his body.
“Do you have a picture of it now?” he said.
She could only nod.
“Now, imagine that you stand before a mirror and that I am your reflection. Follow my movements.” He extended his sword arm, and she mimicked him.
His blade tapped hers back into place.
“Wasn't that right?”
Her fingers and wrist ached. She repeated the extension. Again he readjusted her position with his blade, then his hand.
Watching him so closely and ignoring what it did to her insides made her tongue sharp. “You move too swiftly.”
“This is not swift.”
“It is to
Eliza's snore jolted, then subsided into a regular pattern anew.
“A swordsman's calm is his greatest asset,” he said. “Anger, frustration, even fear will make you clumsy, hasty, and careless. Whatever your opponent's skill, if you meet his attack with calmness, vigor and judgment, you are more likely to win.”
She pulled a long breath between her teeth. “I shall keep that in mind.”
“Mimic my movements. Imagine it just as when you were a child and you played the mirror game with other children.”
“I never played a mirror game with other children.”
“Ah,” he said. “Your parents imagined you too good for the local urchins.”
“No. My mother did not like other people in our house. She was . . . ill.”
“Your cousins, then?”
“They lived at a distance.”
He seemed to consider his next words. “Your former betrothed? Both of them? You told me once that you spent every holiday of your childhood at their estate.”
“They did not play with me. They ran away from me.” She tried to smile, but it slipped. “I was not betrothed to the present marquess.”
He went still. “Never?”
She shook her head.
“And you had no playmates as a child?”
“I had my horse. Now may we continue with the lesson?”
He said nothing, and then after a moment: “Watch, and do what I do.” He switched the blade to his right hand.
“Just now,” she said, “you used your left hand as easily as your right. Are you ambidextrous?”
“Not naturally. My master insisted that I become proficient with my left hand as well as my right.”
“He instructed me to use only the leftâat all timesâfencing, eating, writing. Each time I accidentally favored the right, he struck it with a switch made of sugarcane.”
“Motivation, indeed. How long before you became proficient enough with your left hand so that he ceased the punishment?”
“Three hundred and fifty-one days.”
The urge to seize his right hand and press her lips to it was too strong.
“That is barbaric,” she said.
“Rather, civilized. I was born the son of a merchant of little character and empty pockets. My teacher wished to make me a gentleman. He told me to learn how to use my left hand as well as my right in the event that I should ever lose the use of my right hand. So I set for myself the goal of one year. I considered those fourteen days short of a year a victory.” He took the sword into his left hand and flourished it. “I am still more accurate with the right hand, and quicker.
But my teacher was wise. He knew a man is only weak when he allows himself to be unprepared.”
“Invincible,” she said. “You seem to have learned that lesson well.”
“Well enough. We are finished for today.” He withdrew the Ã©pÃ©e from her hand.
“Will you disappear now as you did yesterday, not to be seen again until midnight?”
“Yesterday I had good cause to disappear.” His gaze seemed to drink her features one by one. “Even if I did do the same today, it should not matter to you.”