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Fiery swords of lightning clashed across the sable sky. Great rolling clouds flung down a warning spatter of rain. Thunder growled in the distance, but the only sound in the dark, empty street was the frantic percussion of the girl’s running footfalls.
Every step jarred her in her thin kid half boots. Her dingy skirts swirled about her legs, threatening to trip her. Fleeing the glow of lanterns on the broad avenue, she raced up a murky side street, her long hair tangled and wild. Her pale young face was stark with terror as she glanced over her shoulder and pounded on, her fists clenched, her breath raking harshly through her gritted teeth.
With a small gasp, half a sob, she pitched around the corner ahead into a coal-black alley and immediately pressed backward out of sight into the shadowed alcove of a doorway. There, she held perfectly still, but for the panicked heaving of her chest. Don’t move. Don’t even breathe.
They were only seconds behind her.
The riders came with the storm at their heels— relentless, inescapable as the approaching tempest. Another throaty snarl of thunder vibrated the windowpanes of the darkened building where she hid. She huddled down against the bricks, trying to make herself smaller, for when the low rumble faded, another sound still remained—softer, but more terrible by far.
Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop.
The relentless cadence of hoofbeats grew louder. Becky Ward shut her eyes with a grimace of fear, a bead of sweat rolling down her cheek. The narrow alley funneled the sound of their approach: the squeak of well-oiled leather, the jangle and hiss of deadly blades, guns, pikes, and pistols—weapons that did not even have a name in English.
Not that the riders had been sent to kill her. Oh, no, she thought bitterly. The prince wanted her brought back to him alive. If she had one advantage, that was it.
She yanked in the muddied hem of her skirt a split second before they came trolling past the mouth of the narrow alley. She stood trembling in the muggy heat of the summer night, holding her breath, agonized with waiting as they stopped mere yards from her hiding place.
They nearly had her, and, expert trackers, the Cossacks knew it. Prince Mikhail Kurkov had sent four of his best warriors after her, though many more were at his beck if these should fail. From where she stood, she could see the looming silhouettes of the second pair.
Huge, menacing men with thick beards and elabor- ate moustaches, the battle-hardened Cossack soldiers wore dark gray coats over baggy trousers, which they tucked into their black riding boots. Beneath the brims of their foreign-shaped helmets, their inscrutable faces were browned and leathery from life in the saddle, their slightly slanted eyes cool and efficient. It was said they were descended from the Huns.
One sniffed the air, trying to scent her out, while the others glanced around, murmuring questions and replies to each other in a low, rapid tongue that she could not decipher. She swallowed hard as they split up to continue searching for her in pairs. The first two continued onward while the second turned their swift, rugged horses around and headed back toward the wide, lamplit thoroughfare, whatever it was called. Oxford Street . . . Piccadilly? Becky wasn’t sure. When they had gone, she nigh collapsed with exhausted relief, leaning all her weight against the locked door behind her.
For a fleeting moment she allowed herself to shut her eyes.
Another hairbreadth escape.
After four days of this, on the run, hunted from town to town as she had made her way southward to London, she did not know how much longer she could last. She had not eaten all day and had reached a foggy-headed state of fatigue. Fear seemed to be the only thing keeping her awake; but closing her eyes brought no respite, for it immediately called back the crisp, awful image stamped on her mind of her mighty cousin’s crime. How could Mikhail have done it, killed that man in cold blood?
Worst of all, she felt in part responsible. If only I had not tried to interfere. . . .
She flicked her eyes open again with a shudder, and her hand crept instinctively to the tiny seashell she wore on a ribbon around her neck. Somehow she drew another small dram of courage from her final token from her father. Must press on.
She had to reach the Duke of Westland before the Cossacks found her.
As lord lieutenant of Yorkshire’s West Riding, it was His Grace’s duty to handle Mikhail, since the murder had taken place in his jurisdiction. Becky had not bothered with any of the lower-ranking justice officials because of her cousin’s high rank; none but a very powerful man would dare to stand against the half-Russian prince, who had also recently inherited her grandfather’s British earldom. Old Westland was known for his courage and integrity; she clung to her faith that he would bring Mikhail to justice—provided she could gain an audience with him in order to report the crime.
She knew how shallow aristocrats could be. After four days on the run, looking more beggar than lady of the manor, she was having doubts about whether she would even be received. The thought of being turned away at the door was too awful to contemplate. Westland had known Grandfather, she reminded herself. They had been political rivals rather than allies, but surely her grandsire’s name would be enough to make the great Whig duke listen.
Unfortunately, she had never been to London before in her life and had no idea where to find this place called St. James’s Square, where she had heard the duke kept his Town residence. The squad of Cossacks dogging her every step were not helping matters, for Mikhail did not intend to let Becky expose his brutal crime. No, he had other plans for her entirely.
Accustomed to submissive serf girls, the prince had become obsessed with trying to control her. With his hand around her throat and his cruel, hot whisper by her ear, he had made it clear how he would punish her defiance. I will teach you to obey, loobeemaya. Grand- father’s death had made him her legal guardian, but Mikhail was dead wrong if he thought he owned her like some sort of chattel. She’d rather die than be subjected to the brutal ravishment he had promised. The thought drove her on with grim resolve.
Gliding out of the alcove, she went cautiously to the edge of the alley and peered out. The Cossacks were gone. Glancing left and right, she slipped around the corner and continued on her way.
She hoped it wasn’t much farther, for her feet ached and she was starving. How many fancy garden squares could one city have? she wondered, but at least the elegant environs of the West End seemed much safer than the seedy tenement areas she had traversed at dusk. Now, however, past midnight, it was too dark to make out the street signs posted high on the sides of buildings. She stared and squinted at them as best she could, knowing that hunger and exhaustion would make it much too easy to become disoriented in the maze of this vast, dirty, bewildering city.
Oh, she missed her wide Yorkshire skies and silent, windy moors, and most of all, she missed her bed.
A sudden stab of lightning split the sky. Becky flinched, shrinking into her olive-colored pelisse. The churning clouds overhead were poised to launch their assault. She knew that she had to take shelter. It was futile to continue now. The intelligent thing to do was to find some unobtrusive place to hide from the Cossacks for the rest of the night and to escape the approaching storm’s fury.
In the morning when the light returned, she would be able to read the street signs again. She could even ask for directions when people appeared—not that she had had much luck in that vein. She glanced down at her rumpled, muddy clothes with a great sigh.
Thanks to her current state of dishevelment, every respectable-looking person she had approached for directions had brushed her off and quickly walked away, taking her for a beggar—or worse. Appearances, it seemed, mattered a great deal more in Town than they did in her rustic village of Buckley-on-the-Heath. She had even been proffered a most disgusting proposition from a well-dressed man old enough to be her father when she had walked by.
Startled by the lewd offer, she had fled, only realizing afterward that while she might have considerable freedom in the country, in Town, a girl walking alone—especially after dark—was universally mistaken for a harlot. That was why no one would help her.
Even the heartless jeweler whose shop she had ventured into upon first arriving in London had obviously reached the same conclusion. When she had nervously presented the great ruby secreted away beneath her clothing and asked how much it was worth, the jeweler had looked her over in her bedraggled state as though he suspected her of stealing it. He asked to see the authentication papers; Becky had never heard of such a thing, and in any case, had been compelled to flee her home without any forewarning. There had been no time even to gather some money or food or an extra set of clothes, let alone the proper documentation. Then she realized what the blackguard had been about—trying to swin- dle her.
With barely a glance at the enormous ruby, the jeweler had haughtily informed her it was a fake. Becky had been infuriated. He might think her a country bumpkin, but her mother had not raised a fool.
The Rose of Indra had been in her family for two hundred years. It was all the inheritance she could claim from her coldhearted noble relatives, and her only hope of saving her home and village from Mikhail. A fake, indeed! She had stormed out, disgusted, then decided to go straight to the Duke of Westland’s instead. The great Whig lord would just have to help her get a fair price for her precious jewel, in addition to helping her prosecute Mikhail for his crime. She only hoped that Westland would not take one disparaging look at her like everyone else had in this pompous city and turn her away, because if that happened, she had nowhere else to go.
She refused to give in to despair. Somehow she would survive. Why, Yorkshire folk were as ruggedly self-sufficient as they were mistrustful of outsiders, she told herself. She would jolly well survive on her own, just like Mama had taught her.