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The night was frankly miserable. Although the rain that had drenched the Kent countryside over the past two days had at last drizzled to a halt, the air was still thick with moisture and a blanket of fog lay over the slumbering villages and estates.
A miserable night to be certain. At least for decent folk. It was a perfect night for thieves, scoundrels and dastards. Too perfect, Josiah Wimbourne was forced to concede as he entered his small cottage and painfully tossed aside his brilliant crimson cape and hat. He should have known the magistrate would be on the alert. The muddy roads and heavy fog would slow even the finest carriage. Such easy pickings were far too great a temptation for any highwayman.
Especially for the notorious Knave of Knightsbridge. With a grimace Josiah crossed the small kitchen to settle in a chair near the smoldering fire. Only then did he glance toward his shoulder, which was still seeping blood. Damn his stupidity. He was nearing forty years of age. Old enough to know that it was a dead man who underestimated his enemy.
The previous magistrate might have been a blundering fool who was quite willing to turn a blind eye if the price was right, but this new man, Tom Harper, was cut from an entirely different cloth.
In less than a month he had proved to be impervious to bribes, intimidation and even outright threats. Nothing could sway his sense of duty or determination to uphold the king's law.
Even worse, the blighter possessed an uncanny knack for thinking precisely like a criminal.
Any other magistrate would look at the dismal weather and presume that any brigands would be cozily drinking ale at the local inn, or warming themselves in the armsof a willing whore. But not Harper. He had taken stock of the rutted roads and thick fog and known instinctively that the Knave would be out hunting.
Blast his interfering soul.
Unwittingly a small smile flickered over Josiah's weathered features. Despite the burning pain in his shoulder, and the undeniable realization he was in a precarious position, he could not deny a measure of admiration for the tenacious magistrate.
Since leaving his life in the navy, it was rare to discover an opponent worthy of his skills. Certainly not the Runners, whom his victims occasionally hired to track him down. Or even the militia, which had been called in by the local aristocrats who had wearied of having their elegant guests robbed traveling through Knightsbridge. How could he not respect the damnable cur?
His ridiculous thoughts were cut short as a slight, dour-faced servant entered the kitchen to regard him with a startled frown.
Foster had once been a trained manservant who had worked at some of the finest homes in London. A position he might still be holding today if he had not been caught forging his employer's signature to obtain a number of bank drafts. It didn't matter that he had used the money to assist a floundering orphanage rather than lining his own pocket. He had been found guilty and ordered to the penal colonies.
He had tossed himself from the convict ship and was near death when Josiah had fished him from the waters.
That had been nearly twenty years ago and Josiah had never had cause to regret his impulsive gesture. Foster had proved to possess unwavering loyalty and the skill to teach Josiah the proper manners necessary to pass for a true gentleman.
The fact that Josiah remained a scoundrel beneath his elegant image was entirely his own fault.
Noticing the blood staining his master's shirt, Foster hurried forward. "Good Lord, sir, you've been injured."
"So it would seem, Foster."
"Well, I've given you warning enough, the Lord knows." The servant gave a click of his tongue. "A man of your age should be seated by the fire, not tearing across the countryside as if you were still a strapping lad. Bound to come a cropper in the end. I suppose that demon-spawn beast you claim as a horse gave you a tumble?"
"No, I did not take a tumble, damn your impudence. I am neither a man in his dotage nor a greenhorn unable to control his mount, demon-spawn or not."
"Then what…?" Bending forward to have a closer look at the injury, Foster abruptly caught his breath. "Bloody hell. You've been shot."
"Yes, I did suspect as much." Josiah gave a muttered curse as he pulled his ruined shirt over his head and tossed it to the nearby fire. "Damn Liverpool and his wretched Tories. They take delight in taxing their citizens into abject poverty and then pretend horror when those citizens are forced to live a life of crime to survive."
"Liverpool shot you?"
Josiah gave a short, humorless laugh. "No, you muck-worm. It was the magistrate."
"Oh…aye." Moving to the cabinet, Foster wet a cloth and returned to Josiah's side. "Well, let us have a look."
Josiah sucked in a sharp breath as the servant pressed the cloth to his wound. "Have a care, Foster. It hurts like the very devil."
Foster continued rubbing at his shoulder, indifferent to Josiah's muttered oaths.
"Only a crease, thank the good Lord, but a deep one." He stepped back to regard Josiah with an expression that managed to be even more dour than usual. "You'll be needing stitches."
"I feared as much." Josiah gave a shake of his head. It wasn't his first wound and doubtless wouldn't be his last, but it was damn well inconvenient. "Don't stand there gawking, Foster. Fetch the needle and thread. Oh, and the brandy. If I'm to endure your ham-fisted surgery then I have a feeling I shall want my wits dulled to the point of insensibility."
Without warning Foster was backing away, his hands lifting in dismay. "Fiend seize it. I'm a manservant, not a damnable sawbones. If you need stitching then call for old man Durbin."
"And have him spread the tale of my injury to the entire neighborhood on the first occasion he is in his cups?" Josiah growled. "Don't be more a fool than you have to be."
"What does it matter?" Foster shrugged. "No one takes notice of his drunken babblings."
"I assure you the magistrate will take great interest in any babbling that concerns a wounded gentleman," Josiah confessed, grimacing at his stupidity. "He knows he managed to shoot the Knave of Knightsbridge this eve. You might as well put the noose around my neck and be done with it."
There was a pregnant pause as the servant sorted through the words and at last comprehended the danger of their situation.
"Bloody hell," he breathed, a frown tugging his shaggy gray brows together. "I suspected that the man would prove to be a pain in the arse. Can't abide a gentleman who is forever sticking his nose into the business of others."
Despite his pain, Josiah's lips twitched at his servant's indignant tone. "I believe, my dear Foster, that he perceives it his duty to stick his nose into whatever business happens to be conducted in his district."
"Oh, aye, determined to make a name for himself in London, no doubt. Don't matter how many decent folk he has to hang."
"Or indecent folk, as the case may be."
Foster gave a snort as he tossed the bloody cloth into the sink. He was a simple man. A man who possessed his own unique sense of right and wrong. And nothing could convince him to consider his master a dastardly criminal.
A pity not everyone was so sublimely indifferent to his wicked habits, Josiah acknowledged wryly.
"He ain't nothing to old Royce," Foster groused. "Now, there was a magistrate who knew how to do his duties."
"He also had the decency to accept a friendly bribe when offered," Josiah lightly teased.
"Aye, a man of sense."
"And an unfortunate appetite for cheap gin and cheaper whores that managed to land him in an early grave." Josiah gave a shake of his head, wincing as a pain shot through his shoulder.
"We may rue his loss, but it will not alter the fact that our mission has become considerably more dangerous, old friend."
"Mayhap you should lay low for a while." Josiah attempted to get comfortable on the wooden chair. He wanted nothing more than a hot bath and a soft bed, but he knew that he had to tend to his wound before either was possible.
Which meant convincing his stubborn companion to get on with the bloody business.
"Never fear, Foster, this damnable wound has seen that I will be laying low for several days, if not weeks. And speaking of wounds, you're stalling. I have no intention of bleeding to death because you are too squeamish to stick me with a needle."
Foster gave a shake of his head. "Nay, sir."
"Fine, then fetch the blasted needle and I'll do it myself," Josiah commanded, his patience at a limit.
"Perhaps I may be of assistance?"
Both men stiffened at the sound of the soft, decidedly female voice. Briefly closing his eyes, Josiah wondered why he had ever left his bed that morning. Surely the gray weather and chilled breeze should have warned him to pull the covers over his head and give it up as a loss?
Unable to avoid the inevitable, Josiah slowly turned his head to discover his only child standing in the doorway of the kitchen.
No, not child, he corrected himself. Somehow his Raine had managed to transform herself into a woman while she was being schooled in that damnable French convent.
A remarkably beautiful woman.
As always he was forced to battle a small measure of astonishment.
Although he had been considered a handsome enough fellow in his day, and his long-departed wife had been a pretty maiden, there had been no warning that together they would create a…masterpiece.
There was no other word to describe the young woman standing before him.
Wreathed in the light of the flickering candles, her beauty was luminous, her ivory skin glowing with the perfect sheen of a rare pearl and her dark eyes faintly slanted and surrounded by a lush thicket of lashes that lent an air of smoldering mystery. Her nose was a tiny, straight line that contrasted with the full bow of her mouth. And just beside that lovely mouth was a tiny black mole that seemed deliberately placed to provoke a man's attention.
At the moment her sweet face was still flushed from sleep and her heavy amber curls were pulled into a simple braid that hung nearly to her waist. With her slender body modestly covered by her threadbare robe she should have appeared a dowdy child. Instead she was as radiant and fresh as an angel.
Josiah gave a rueful shake of his head. When Raine had been but twelve years of age it had nearly broken his heart to fulfill his late wife's desire to have her daughter schooled at the same convent that she had attended as a child. To have Raine so far from him seemed an unbearable sacrifice.
But he couldn't deny a small, sensible part of him had been relieved to whisk her from the neighborhood.
Even then she had shown the promise of great beauty, and Josiah had been deeply aware that all too soon the lecherous gazes of the various noblemen would be turning in her direction. They would consider such a delectable morsel within such easy reach an irresistible temptation, and would have spared no expense or effort to lure her into their bed.
No, it had been for the best that she had been locked away from the world's dangers.
Of course, now that she had returned he could not deny that the old troubles had merely shifted to new troubles.
She might have acquired the sort of mature sophistication that would allow her to resist being seduced, but she possessed no connections, no dowry to tempt a nobleman into considering her in a more permanent role. And just as bothersome, her newfound elegance ensured that she no longer mixed easily with the local farmers and merchants.
She had no ready place among the community, and no mother or sisters to provide her companionship.
Heaving a rueful sigh, Josiah held out his hand. "Well, well. I suppose it was too much to be hoped such commotion would not arouse you, pet.You might as well come in."
Her finely arched brows drew together as she moved toward his chair. "You have been injured."
"That seems to be the universal agreement," he said, turning his head to regard the silent servant. "Foster, pour me a brandy and then tend to my horse."
"Thank the Lord," the man muttered as he readily moved to pull a bottle of brandy and a glass from the nearby cabinet. Leaving them on the table, he turned for the door.
"Foster," Josiah called softly.
"Make sure there is no evidence from this night's work. Our stable is bound to receive more than its share of interest over the next few days."
Foster gave a slow nod. "The magistrate won't find so much as a mouse dropping when I am through."
"Magistrate?" Raine demanded as Foster slipped through the door and closed it behind him.
"It's a long and rather tedious story, I fear."
His daughter gave a lift of her brows. "Actually I suspect that it will be quite fascinating."
Josiah grimaced. "Fascinating, perhaps, but at the moment I prefer that you fetch a needle and thread and sew your poor father back together again." His hands tightened on the arms of his chair as he battled a wave of pain. "Unless you intend to stand there and watch me bleed to death?"
She gazed at him for a long moment, not missing the sweat that lightly coated his strained features before she gave a slow nod of her head.
"Very well, Father."
He breathed a sigh of relief as she readily left the room and returned a short time later with her needle and thread in hand. Unlike Foster she had never been a squeamish sort. Indeed, Raine had always possessed more pluck and backbone than any of the lads in the neighborhood. There was not a tree she wouldn't climb, a roof she wouldn't leap from, a lake she wouldn't attempt to swim across.
She also possessed the sort of sharp intelligence that was bound to lead to awkward questions.
The thought had barely passed through his mind when she poured a large shot of brandy directly into the wound and gave a small sound of shock.
"Dear Lord, this is…this is a bullet wound."
Josiah grunted as the brandy seared his wound. "And what would you know of bullet wounds, pet?"
Moving to stand behind his shoulder, Raine carefully began her surgery.
"Father, I want to know what happened."