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"Miss Audacia." The tone commanded the slim figure clad in breeches to halt. "'Tis no day for a young lady to be about and, as I've told you, your appearance in those ... things is a slur on all modest women. Have you no care for what others think?"
"Oh, Miss Bea," moaned the impatient young woman, "let us not discuss Daniel's breeches again. Recall that we have an understanding that I may see to my toilet.
"I am certain Father will be wanting tea. Mustn't make him wait," Audacia Aderly warned the spinster housekeeper.
"My, yes. Tea. Tsk, tsk. How careless of me ... Miss Audacia, come back," she called as the girl slipped through the doorway.
"That young miss. What am I to do?" the housekeeper grumbled as she closed the door. "Why was it I ever agreed to her going about in her brother's breeches?" The tall, thin, grey-haired woman shook her head as she turned toward the kitchen.
"Oh, yes. It was that vile green coil of a snake she brought from behind her back shortly after she broached the matter." Miss Bea reassured herself it had not been a dreadful dream. "My, my. What shall become of her--gadding about in men's clothing, paying no mind to any of the decencies?" The worried woman looked about the kitchen.
"Now why did I come here? Oh my, the tea. Sir Aderly will be upset, I fear, at having to wait. If only I could prompt him to take as much note of his daughter's behaviour as of a late tea."
The crisp squeaking crunch of boots upon the January snow alerted Audacia to another's approach. Pushing the still, furry mound in her hand inside her overlarge greatcoat, she cinched the belt tightly to keep the young creature safe.In the clear, cold air, the footsteps carried clearly and bespoke the imminent arrival of two men. Fearful of discovery, Audacia eased her way behind a stand of young firs.
When the men were almost upon her, they halted. "The beast has rested here," a firm, unfamiliar voice said. "It must feel safe."
"Little does it know of your tenacity," the other replied.
"Geoffrey?" The whisper escaped her before Audacia was able to halt it. She slipped a hand among the fir branches, trying to catch a glimpse of the pair.
Their conversation ended, the men strode forward briskly, certain once more of the direction taken by their quarry.
As she edged from behind the firs, Audacia's searching eyes caught sight of the musket carried by the larger man. Anger roiled in her chest. He promised me!
"Are your lands free of ruffians?" the larger man asked in low tones when the two halted to rest.
"Ruffians? You are not in London now. I have never had any problem..." He stopped speaking at a signal from his friend.
"A lone man has been following us this hour past. No, do not look, he watches us closely."
"How do you know this? I have seen--heard--nothing," objected the other in muted tones.
"I caught a glimpse of the fellow when he travelled parallel to us for a time. A thin fellow of medium height but garbed in a greatcoat several sizes too large for him, with the oddest purple hat pulled down over his face. He dropped back when we slowed down."
"A greatcoat several sizes too large? A purple hat? But that would be ... No, there are none here who have reason to hide from me. You must have imagined it," the shorter of the two dismissed the notion.
"Let us go a little further and see if you cannot bring the wild dog down. I am almost as frozen now as I was on the infernal march to Corunna in aught-nine."
The other's eyes darkened with a haunted melancholy. He shifted the musket irritably. "Let's get it done then," he snapped and stalked off.
Squire Webster shrugged and frowned at his friend's reaction to his words. 'Tis I who lost the arm on that march, he thought, not you, Roland. What torments you, saddens you? Shaking his head, he trod after his friend, more worried for the other's state of mind than ever.
The Honourable Geoffrey Webster, tall, fair-haired, with warm, intelligent eyes that emphasized his slender face, and Roland Mandel, Earl Greydon, taller still, with a black mane and coffee-brown, impenetrable eyes boldly set in a strong square-featured face were long acquainted. Despite Geoffrey's being a younger son and Roland the heir of the Marquess of Mandel, they had become fast friends while at Oxford. It had been a sad day for Geoffrey when school came to an end and he entered the army while Roland went home to learn the duties of his title.
It was, therefore, with some surprise that Geoffrey learned that his friend had purchased a coronetcy, despite family resistance, when war was renewed in 1803. The two were one-and-twenty that year and went to war with the enthusiasm of the inexperienced.
The mud of Portugal, the suffering, and the endless lack of supplies soon dimmed the glory of the army. The hardships endured welded their friendship into a lasting bond.
The peninsular campaign began to fail badly after Wellesley's withdrawal as commander. Sir John Moore was at last forced to call for retreat when he learned Napoleon himself marched toward them.
It was on the beginning of that mad retreat to Corunna that Geoffrey had been wounded. Roland refused to leave him behind to the mercy of the French. He helped the surgeon remove the gangrenous arm and mourned its loss as if it were his own.
Since their return to England, they had seen each other only once. Geoffrey had returned to his estate in Warwickshire to nurse his wound and Roland had gone back to the peninsula with Wellesley and then to Waterloo.
Greydon sold out of the army shortly after the great battle at Waterloo and in this year of 1816 still tried to forget the war with far less success than those who had danced their way through the Congress of Vienna. His chance encounter with Geoffrey in London before Christmas had led to Roland's coming to Warwickshire for a visit.
"There." Roland dropped to a knee ahead of Geoffrey. "See the black patch?" he asked, pointing to a cluster of birch. "This shall be the end of that lamb-eater's days." He raised the musket to his shoulder and took aim. Geoffrey stood absolutely still, hoping the cocking of the Brown Bess wouldn't alert the wild dog. Then he head angry steps approaching behind him.
"Geoffrey Webster, you promised you wouldn't allow anyone to--No!" Audacia plunged forward, pushed Geoffrey aside and down when he tried to stop her, and tumbled against Lord Greydon just as he fired.
The wild dog instantly rose and fled. Its life would have been forfeit had not the lean figure jarred Greydon at the instant he pulled the musket's trigger. Flinging aside the shot piece, his lordship lunged for the great-coated figure as it scrambled to its feet. He twisted the boy to face him with his free hand.
Something in the angry eyes sparked a response within Audacia, but her wrath refused to acknowledge it. She lashed out at the earl's shins with her stoutly booted foot. "Release me, you oaf. Who are you to lay hold of me?
Geoffrey, where are you? Tell him to release me."
"A devilishly conceited lad," Roland commented, holding the twisting, kicking handful at arm's length, "to take the liberty of using your given name. A lesson he's needing."
Sitting in the snow where he had fallen, Geoffrey erupted in laughter.
"The least you could do is tell me what you deem fit punishment for this miscreant," Roland demanded, irritated by his friend's mirth. "Or do you intend to do nothing?"
"Geoffrey, make this bear release me this instant," a fiery-faced Audacia demanded.
"You know the lad?" Greydon asked as his friend's laughter lessened enough to allow him to rise.
"That I do. Let loose your hold, friend."
Greydon released the collar of the greatcoat, and immediately his attacker kicked him in the shins once again. With a swift move of his offended leg, he knocked the boy to his seat in the cold snow.
Great, grey eyes ablaze with anger bore into his. "You--you oaf of a bear. Why not use the musket on me?"
Greydon pushed the "lad" flat on his back. "Your parents did a sad job of your manners, lad. You've poor words to say after friend Webster's loss."
"Loss? That poor beast? Why I am no more able to defend myself than it," sputtered the prone figure, a prisoner beneath the man's hand.
"That poor creature," Greydon said scathingly, "was a wild dog. A lamb-eater that happens to have attacked my friend's flock." His jaw locked. He jerked upright and angrily retrieved his musket.
Open-mouthed, Audacia sat and stared after him. "Is what he says true, Geoffrey?"
"Yes, my unhesitant, daring 'friend.' How oft must you be admonished to caution?" he asked, extending his hand to help the seated figure rise.
"In truth, I thought," she began contritely, "that is, I had heard you had a London visitor who loved to hunt and ... well, that--that person had no reason to treat me thus."
"You are fortunate I don't warm the leather of my belt on your backside, lad," Greydon told Audacia as he rejoined them.
"You wouldn't dare," she threw back haughtily.
"Geoffrey, hold this musket," Greydon said stepping forward towards the lad who was glaring a dare.
Seeing the thunderous look upon the man's face, Audacia backed away and finally broke into a run. She escaped into a nearby thicket.
"Hold, Roland," Geoffrey said, his hand on his friend's arm. "No harm or insult was meant." He broke into laughter. "If you could have but seen yourself..."
"The lad needs to be disciplined. Has he always been allowed to roam about interfering as he liked?"
"I imagine there are those who have tried a hand with him, but I can imagine none coming out ahead in such a confrontation." Webster studied his friend's serious frown and again burst into laughter.
"Perhaps the joke would be best shared," snapped the earl. "Do you think nothing of your 'precious' lambs?"
Or of yourself? he thought. Shadows haunted his darkening eyes as he covertly assessed his friend for any injury from the fall, Geoffrey's pinned empty sleeve a constant reminder of his debt.
"There will be another day to put an end to the wild dog. My men will be set to the task," Geoffrey said, trying to assume a more solemn expression. He slapped the earl on the back. "The joke will be shared soon enough. In good time, my friend."