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Jack's hand held steady, his aim unwavering. His pistol was pointed straight at Hassan's evil heart. This time he would kill the bastard. This time he would.
But something moved in the shadowy dreamscape. A soft rustle sounded, impossibly close—just as his sleeping mind had known it would. Not Aswan. Smaller. Jack caught the faint scent of gardenias just a moment before he felt the press of cold steel at his temple.
A flood of fury and frustration swamped him. God damn it, now the innocent girl below him would die. He would die all alone up here in the pitch blackness of the Egyptian Hall gallery and an ancient treasure would fall into the worst of hands.
As it always did, night after night, an indescribable flurry of movement erupted as Aswan intervened. A woman's cry. A bright flash of light in the near darkness. And a searing pain that exploded in his arm and knocked him backwards.
Someone loomed over him. The sinister face swam in the darkness, but somehow he knew it was not the woman who'd shot him, nor was it the villain Hassan—it must be Batiste. Captain Batiste, the silent, invisible mastermind behind much of the plot to hurt his friends. The shadow began to laugh, and an old, cold rage burned deep in Jack's gut.
'So disappointing, Jack,' the figure whispered. 'I expected more of you.'
He scrambled backwards. It was not a stranger's voice reaching for him out of the darkness, but his father's.
Gasping, Jack jerked awake.
That damned dream again. He shook off the remnants of the nightmare and glanced at the clock on the wall—early afternoon. Had he fallen asleep in his chair? A heavy tome rested painfully against his injured arm. Hetossed it on to the floor and scrubbed his free hand against his scalp, trying to chase away the fuzziness in his head.
That night at the Egyptian Hall had not been his finest moment. Perhaps that was the reason he relived it repeatedly in his dreams. He heaved a massive sigh. He didn't regret mixing himself up in Lord Treyford's misadventures, and yet…
Trey and Chione had taken their family back to Devonshire. Soon they would be leaving for Egypt, embarking on an adventure that Jack couldn't help but envy. He'd held his breath, hoping to be asked along, but Trey and Chione were occupied with each other, and caught up in the wonder of what awaited them.
Jack had been left behind and he'd found himself strangely unsettled. He pressed his good hand hard against his brow. His preoccupation with Batiste had grown, becoming something closer to obsession. The villain had slipped away on the tide, leaving Hassan and his other confederates to be caught up in Treyford's net. The man's escape nagged at Jack incessantly.
He stood. He was due to meet Pettigrew, to test those devilishly bad-mannered bays the baron was trying to sell. Jack cast a rueful glance down at his arm. This was not the most reasonable course of action, but, damn it, the man had baited him. At any other point in his life, Jack would have ignored the baron's desperate manoeuvre. Not this time. Instead he had risen like a trout to a well-crafted lure. A stupid response. Immature. And yet another maddening symptom of his recent erratic temperament.
Jack struggled into his greatcoat and decided to stop by White's and pick up his brother along the way. Charles was in town to further his reform causes before the Parliamentary session closed, and to conveniently avoid the domestic chaos brought on by a colicky baby. And since he had been the one to introduce him to Pettigrew, then riding along with a crippled driver and an unruly team was the least he could do.
As he set out, a chill wind began to gust. The cold blast of air made his arm throb like an aching tooth. Jack huddled a little deeper into his coat and rifled in his pocket for Pettigrew's hastily scribbled address. He stopped short. The baron's dire financial straits had led him to take rooms in Goodman's Fields. An unsavoury neighbourhood it might be, but it was conveniently located near enough to the London docks—where the offices of Batiste's defunct shipping company were located.
Jack quickened his step. This might not be a wasted day after all.
Lily Beecham glanced at her mother from the corner of her eye. Mrs Margaret Beecham had turned slightly away from her daughter, avoiding the brightest light as she concentrated on her needlework. Slowly, surreptitiously, Lily tilted her head back and directly into the path of the afternoon sunshine.
Though it wasn't the least bit ladylike, Lily loved the warmth of the sun on her face. The burst of patterned radiance behind her closed eyelids, the brush of the breeze on her heated cheeks; it took her back, every single time. For a few seconds she was a girl again, in her father's arms, giggling like mad while he spun her round and his rich, booming laugh washed over her. Sometimes she could hear its echo still, the liquid sound of pure love.
Not now, though. Now she heard only the unnecessarily loud clearing of her mother's throat. 'Lilith, this is a public thoroughfare, not the back pasture at home.'
'Yes, of course, Mother.' Lily straightened in her seat. She glanced down at her copy of Practical Piety, but she'd read Hannah More's work many times over already and now was not the time to risk her mother discovering the thin volume she'd tucked inside. She got to her feet and began to pace behind the table they'd been asked to tend for Lady Ashford's Fancy Fair and Charity Bazaar.
The majority of the booths and tables in the countess's event had been strung along Rotten Row in Hyde Park, where they were sure to catch the attention of those with both the inclination and the wherewithal to purchase ribbons, bonnets and embroidered penwipes in the name of charity. The Book Table, however, along with the Second-Hand Clothing and the Basketry tables, had been pronounced more likely to appeal to the masses, and had thus been placed outside the Grosvenor Gate, right alongside Park Lane.
'It is somewhat frustrating, isn't it, Mother—that we've sat here all day, just outside the most famous park in London, and we've yet to set foot inside?'
'Not in the least. Why should such a thing vex you? This park is full of grass and trees just like any other.' Mrs Beecham's needle did not pause as she glanced up at her daughter. 'We should count ourselves fortunate to have been asked to help today. It is an honour to be of service to such a noble cause.'
'Yes, of course you are right.' Lily suppressed a sigh. She didn't know why she should be surprised at the disappointments of the day. The entire trip to town had been an exercise in frustration.
Long ago her father had talked to her of London. He had perched her on his knee, run his fingers through the tangle of her hair and spoken of great museums, elaborate theatrical productions and the noisy, chaotic workings of Parliament, where the fates of men and nations were decided. He had spun fanciful stories of her own future visits to the greatest city in the world, and she had eagerly absorbed every tale.
But her father had died before his stories could come true and Lily's busy, happy life had been abandoned for sober duty and sombre good works. And so, it seemed, had her dream of London.
Her hopes had been so high when her mother had announced that they were to travel to town and spend the month of May. But over the last weeks, joy and anticipation had dwindled. She had trailed her mother from one Reformist committee to another Evangelical meeting and on to an Abolitionist group, and the dreadful truth had dawned on her. Her surroundings had changed, but her situation had not.
'Mr Cooperage will make a fine missionary, don't you agree?' her mother asked, this time without looking away from her work. Lily wondered if it was giving her trouble, so intent did she appear.
'He will if the fancy work inside the park proves more profitable than the Book Table. Even with the Cheap Repository Tracts to sell, we haven't raised enough to get him a hackney across town, let alone passage to India.'
Her mother frowned.
Lily sighed. 'I don't mean to be flippant.' She stood on her toes to peer past the gate and into the park. 'There does seem to be a bigger crowd gathered inside.'
Her mother's scowl faded as a young woman strolling past on a gentleman's arm broke away to approach their table. Lily returned her friendly smile and admired the white lute-string trim on her violet walking dress.
'Good afternoon,' the young woman said brightly. 'But it seems as if you are out of A. Vaganti?' She nodded towards Lily's chair and the volume now peeking from the staid pages of Mrs More's work. 'I've already read The Emerald Temple. I was wondering if you might have the newest Nicolas adventure, The Pharaoh's Forbidden City?'
Mrs Beecham darted a sharp glance in Lily's direction. 'No, but we have several more improving works. Bowdler's Shakespeare, for instance, if fiction is what interests you.'
The young lady gave a soft, tinkling laugh. 'Oh my, no! Surely it is a shame to allow that man to chop apart the works of our great bard? What harm is there in Shakespeare? It seems I've read or seen his works from the cradle!'
She tilted her head engagingly. 'Forgive me for being bold, ma'am,' she said with a smile. 'How wonderful you are to give your day to helping Lady Ashford's good cause.' She dropped a curtsy. 'I am Miss Dawson.' She cast an encouraging glance at Lily.
Hurriedly, Lily returned the curtsy. 'My mother, Mrs Margaret Beecham.' She gestured and smiled back. 'I am Miss Beecham.' Something about the girl's friendly countenance had her blurting out, 'But please, you must call me Lily.'
'Beecham?' the girl asked with a frown of concentration. She eyed Lily curiously. 'You test my recollection of our ponderous family tree, but I believe we have relatives of that name. Might you come from Dorset?'
'Indeed, yes,' Lily replied. 'We are in town for a few weeks only.'
'It's a pleasure, Lily.' She looked over her shoulder as her companion called her name. 'Oh dear, I must run.' She leaned in close. 'That is my betrothed, Lord Lindley. We both adore A. Vaganti, but he would never admit to it in public' She grinned and, reaching across the table, pressed Lily's hand. 'I feel sure we shall meet again.'
Lily watched the young lady take her gentleman's arm and head into the park. A little sigh escaped her. She might have been friends with a girl like that, had her father not died. She let herself imagine what might have been, for just a moment: friends, novels, walks in the park. Perhaps even she might have had a beau? She flushed and glanced at her mother, who regarded her with a frown.
'I hope you are not still mooning about participating in the social whirl?'
Lily took notice of the sharp note in her mother's voice and then she took her seat. She picked up her book, and gazed down at it for several long seconds. 'No, of course not,' she answered. A soft breeze, warm and laden with the green scent of the park, brushed her cheek. With sudden resolution, Lily pulled the adventure novel from its hiding place and opened it.
The heavy weight of her mother's gaze rested on her for several long seconds. Suddenly her mother let out a sigh that echoed her own. 'I do hope that young lady will buy something inside. Mr Cooperage's work is so important. Think of all those lost souls just waiting for him!' She resumed her needlework, then paused to knot her thread. 'We've had so little interest out here, I had begun to wonder if Lady Ashford might better have chosen the Hanover Square Rooms for her fair.'
'I'm sure it will all turn out well,' Lily soothed. 'You know the countess—she will have it no other way.' She smiled. 'And the crickets were singing away when we arrived, Mother. That's a definite sign of good fortune.'
Her mother's needlework went down, but her brow lowered even further. 'Lilith Beecham—you know how it upsets me to hear you spouting such nonsense!' She took a fortifying breath, but Lily was saved from further harangue by a shrill cry.
They turned to look.
'Mrs Beecham—you must come!'
'It's Lady Ashford,' Lily said in surprise. And indeed it was the countess, although clad as she was in various shades of blue and flapping a large white handkerchief as she sailed towards the gate, she resembled nothing so much as a heavily laden frigate storming a blockade.
'My dear Mrs Beecham…' the countess braced her hand on the table for support while she caught her breath '… it is Mr Wilberforce himself!' she panted. 'He has come to thank us and has brought Mr Cooperage along with him.' She picked up one of the Repository Tracts and began to fan herself with it.
Lily looked askance at her mother's stunned expression. William Wilberforce, the famous abolitionist and one of the leading members of the Evangelical movement, was Margaret Beecham's particular idol.
Mrs Beecham found her tongue. 'Oh, but, Lady Ashford— Wilberforce himself! What a coup!' She stood and pressed the countess's hand. 'How wonderful for you, to be sure.'
'And for you, too, Mrs Beecham,' Lady Ashford said warmly, recovering her breath. 'For I have told Mr Wilberforce how easily the charity school in Weymouth went up, and how thoroughly the community has embraced it. It was largely your doing, and so I told him. I informed him also of your tremendous success in recruiting volunteers. He wishes to meet you and thank you in person! His carriage is swamped right now with well wishers and so I have come to fetch you. He means to take us both up for a drive and he'll drop you right here when we've been round the park.'
'A drive?' Lily saw all the colour drain from her mother's face. 'With Mr Wilberforce?'
'Come now!' Lady Ashford said in imperious tones. 'We must not keep him waiting!'
'Oh, but I—' Mrs Beecham sat abruptly down again.
'Come, Mother,' Lily urged, pulling her back to her feet. 'You've worked long and hard. You deserve a bit of accolade.' She smiled at the odd mix of fear and longing on her mother's face. 'It is fine,' she soothed. 'He only wishes to acknowledge your efforts.'
'We must go now, Mrs Beecham!' Lady Ashford had done with the delay. She reached out and began to drag Lily's mother along with her.
'Oh, but Lilith—' came the last weak protest from Mrs Beecham.
Posted September 17, 2011
A great sequel to An Improper Aristocrat. Really liked the scholar hero who could also be a man's man. The heroine had an interesting background, and the romance between them was intense. Liked how this wrapped up the last villain from the previous book and I really liked the end where we got to visit with characters from before.
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Posted January 12, 2010
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Posted December 29, 2009
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