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London, Spring 1837
Lights shining in the high windows of the mansion's ground floor appeared and disappeared among the leafy branches of trees that swayed in the steady breeze off the river. The hour was shortly before midnight. In the walled park surrounding the house, an owl swept soundlessly from its perch. Wings barely moving, it soared over the open ground before descending rapidly to pluck a hapless mouse.
The man waiting in the dark shadows of the bushes saw the catch and smiled faintly. He, too, would hunt soon. Several hours before, he had gotten close enough to the house to confirm that the family was at dinner. He watched them briefly through one of the windows--Prince Alexandros; his wife, Princess Joanna; their nephew, Prince Andreas; and their daughter, Princess Amelia, were all relaxed and in good humor. They had no inkling that their privileged world was about to be shattered.
He had withdrawn to wait and now stirred a little, flexing muscles that would otherwise cramp as he remained concealed behind the thick bushes just inside the high stone walls. The night was cool and damp, but he scarcely noticed. He had known far worse.
He was a tall man, lean and very fit. For this night's work, he was dressed in the garb of a London office worker, a respectable man who earned his portion in a counting house, perhaps, or as a solicitor's secretary. A man neither poor enough nor rich enough to attract attention. His dark trousers and jacket, of plain but sturdy wool, made him all but invisible in the shadows. He had turned up the jacket collar for further concealment and pulled the brim of his felt hat down close to eyes that some had likened to the color of steel.
He was without weapons, although, to be fair, he would still have the advantage against most armed opponents. If the guards found him, he wanted to appear a harmless drunk who had wandered where he should not. For that purpose, he had rubbed dirt on the jacket and trousers such as would result from an inebriated climb over a stone wall, and he carried a half-empty bottle of whiskey in the pocket of the jacket.
By the look of it, the ruse would not be necessary. While it might be true that there was no residence better guarded in all of London, the patrols were at regular intervals, therefore predictable. That was expected. The security around the manor was intended to insulate its inhabitants from the waves of popular unrest that roared through London periodically, not from a lone man intent on gaining access.
Gray eyes flickered in the darkness. He waited, patient and watchful. The lights were extinguished on the ground floor as other lights appeared on the floor above. The family retired early by the standards of society. They preferred one another's company to the customary round of balls, routs, masquerades, assemblies, and the like. According to his information, they had no social commitments on this night. That suited his purposes perfectly.
The patrol was good; he scarcely heard it coming even though he was expecting it. The three men passed within a dozen feet of him. They did not speak and their steps were almost entirely silent. They were, he knew, part of the military force that was among the most feared in all the world. The warriors of Akora, the Fortress Kingdom beyond the Pillars of Hercules, had maintained that mysterious land's freedom and sovereignty for centuries. Ancient, legendary, and only recently beginning to emerge into the modern world, Akora fascinated many, but not him. He cared nothing for the place and hoped most sincerely to have nothing to do with it.
The patrol passed by him. He took a breath, cleared his mind, and ran across the open space of lawn. In little more than a heartbeat, he reached the bushes beneath the ground-floor windows. Crouching there, he paused and listened intently.
No sound from the house or the surrounding grounds suggested that his presence had been detected. Cautiously, he stood and looked into the now dark dining room. The servants had finished clearing the table and would be going to their own rest soon. Only the guards on patrol and on duty in the hall would be awake.
He moved again, around a corner to the back of the house, and looked up. Directly above him were the windows of what he had already confirmed was Princess Amelia's bedroom.
The patrol was returning. He pressed against the wall of the house, blending into the contours of stone and shadow, waiting.
When the patrol was gone, he took a length of black cloth from an inside pocket of his jacket, put it over his face, and tied it at the back of his head. Only his eyes remained visible.
He grasped the stones an arm's reach above him, his fingers digging into the mortar between them, and hoisted himself up smoothly and easily. His feet found the narrow indentation that was just deep enough for him to balance on. Steadied, he reached up again. Swiftly, silently he climbed the wall.
There was a stone balcony outside the princess's windows. He swung onto it, dropped, and listened again for any sound that would warn he was detected. When none came, he slowly eased the French doors open.
The room was dark, but he could make out the placement of the furniture, particularly the bed hung with gauzy curtains.
His quarry lay on her side. He could not make out her features, but he knew well enough what she looked like, having observed her for several days as she went about London. She was not precisely beautiful, but her face had a certain unique appeal and, so far as he had seen, there was nothing lacking in her figure. He had also noticed her to be an exuberant woman, confident and outgoing, given to frequent smiles and ready laughter. That seemed at odds with her reputation, namely that she was cold and proud, an unfeeling breaker of hearts, a spinster at twenty-five despite her family's wealth and power.
If the lady's unmarried state troubled her, there was no sign of it. Lost in sleep, she breathed slowly and deeply. For just an instant, he felt . . . not doubt precisely, never that. Just a twinge of regret that he hadn't been able to come up with a different plan.
But he wasn't a man to linger over his shortcomings. In a single movement, he brushed aside the curtains and seized hold of her. She woke instantly with a gasp that was smothered by the covers in which he quickly rolled her. Although she struggled fiercely, within seconds he had the gag in her mouth and a hood secured over her head.
Far from being cowed, her efforts to escape redoubled. She was surprisingly strong. No match for his strength, of course, but still she proved more than a handful.
He might have cautioned her to stop, but he could not risk her recognizing his voice. Instead, he tightened his grip warningly. But not, it seemed, quite enough. To his astonishment, his squirming, struggling captive got an arm loose and promptly landed a solid punch to his jaw.
Only a lifetime of self-discipline stopped him from cursing out loud. He wrapped her ever more tightly in the covers and moved quickly to the door.
The inside of the house was not patrolled. That, too, he had confirmed during his surveillance. The guards were stationed only in the central hall.
He avoided them by using the back stairs frequented by the servants. The going was difficult because the squirming bundle in his arms refused to desist. Trussed as securely as a Christmas goose, the princess continued to struggle. It was all he could do to keep hold of her without actually causing her harm.
He reached the ground-floor landing and paused.
She could not escape him, of that he had no doubt. But neither did he underestimate his potential peril. If she managed to get out more than a muffled cry . . .
The Akorans would take him prisoner, but he doubted very much that they would turn him over to the British authorities. Everything he knew about them suggested they would handle the matter themselves in their own way, presuming they didn't just kill him outright.
She'd damn well better be worth all the trouble.
He opened the door and stepped outside. If his calculations were correct, he had not quite five minutes before the patrol passed again. Enough time to cross the lawn, get through the trees, and scale the wall.
Or it would be if Shadow was on post.
He was, as evidenced by the large shape concealed in the foliage of the upper branches of the trees, and by the rope tangling down the near side of the wall. With an inner sigh of relief, he dumped his unwilling burden into the sling at the end of the rope, secured her firmly, and tugged to signal Shadow. Immediately, the sling began to rise. He watched long enough to confirm that his captive was still struggling fiercely, before climbing the wall himself. Settled beside Shadow, who gave him a quick nod, he helped hoist the sling.
Scant seconds before the patrol was due to return, it was done. With his quarry slung over his shoulder and Shadow following close behind, he ran down the road and around a corner to a waiting carriage.
The wheels were turning even before the door was closed.
What in bloody hell? this couldn't be happening to her! She absolutely could not have been taken from her well-protected home in the dead of night, snatched by some lout with hard hands, strong arms, and apparently no desire to live much longer.
Not a word, not a sound out of him, not even when she landed a punch that at the very least should have prompted a curse. And that, more than anything, worried her.
Either a mute had kidnapped her or her captor was a man of uncommon self-control who knew exactly what he was doing.
Heart hammering, Amelia struggled against her own terror. At all cost, she had to keep her mind clear. Better to concentrate on anger so great it pushed out fear. There were two men . . . she thought. There might be more, but there had to be at least two to have gotten her over the wall. Neither had spoken, and the hood drawn over her head assured she could see nothing.
What was their plan? Ransom? Something worse? Her parents had never mistaken ignorance for innocence. All their children, herself included, had a sensible appreciation of the world, both its glories and its dangers.
But so far, at least, she was unharmed. Even when she struck out at him, he did not retaliate beyond holding her more tightly. What did that mean?
Did it matter? Whoever they were, whatever their intent, they had to be mad. Her father, uncles, brothers, and cousins would never rest until she was both safe and avenged. If she could speak, she could try to convince him to stop now, before it was too late for him and anyone else involved, but the gag was tight around her mouth. She could breathe around it well enough, but could make only the most muffled sounds.
The hood over her head shut out all light, while the covers kept her tightly trussed. She could not see, speak, or move. So completely was she cut off from the world, that she could smell only the fabric close around her head and nothing else. But she could hear and feel.
The clatter of the horses' hooves rang sharply, telling her they were moving over cobblestone streets like those near her home. But in which direction? To the south lay the river and the docks. Did he intend to take a ship, to spirit her far away? Her dread took a further leap forward but she refused to give into it. If ransom was his goal, as she had to hope, it was unlikely he would remove her very far from London.
If not a ship, perhaps they were heading for one of the coaching roads that ran in all directions from the capital. The roads were much improved of late. Given good horses, great distances could be covered more quickly than ever before.
There was even the new railroad, in operation only a little more than a year, connecting London to Greenwich, but surely he would not use that. The railroad continued to attract great attention, and besides, it did not run at night.
Whatever his intent, each passing moment took her further from the hope of rescue.
For an appalling instant, tears threatened. She choked them back, but the tight, desperate sound penetrated the gag. She felt her captor stiffen, and on a sudden urge, coughed again.
His hand settled on the blankets near her face. Or at least she thought it did. It was damnably hard to tell.
What if she truly was choking? Why would he care unless he had some concern about keeping her alive? If he did, she might be able to use it to her advantage.
Gag be damned, she filled her lungs and summoned a desperate, hacking cough strong enough to convince anyone that she was in danger of expiring.
The blankets were loosened! She still couldn't see anything, but she could feel the cool night air. Another deep, prolonged cough set her throat to aching, but it didn't matter. She could move her arms and legs. Never mind that punch, he needed a good, swift kick.
She couldn't see to aim, but she hit some portion of him all the same. His chest . . . his thigh . . . whatever it was, it felt like steel. She almost feared that she had broken a toe, but it didn't matter. His hold on her loosened just enough. Her hand found the latch on the carriage door. She had it turned and the door opened, a rush of air heralding her success. In another moment, she would be out of the carriage. The fall would hurt, but anything was better than captivity. Even so, blinded by the hood, she hesitated the merest fraction of an instant.
Disbelief surged through him but did not dull the lightning-fast reflexes that had kept him alive through times far darker than these.
He had planned so carefully, thought out every step, considered every contingency. Or so he had believed. But he hadn't counted on a woman who didn't have the sense to know when she was bested.
Heedless for the moment of any consideration except preventing her escape, he gripped her firmly. Though she struggled still, he wound the blanket so tightly around her that finally she could not move at all. Any further sounds she made were too muffled for him to hear, which suited him perfectly.
They rode on through the night. Amelia did not try again to escape, but she remained stiff and unyielding against him. Another woman, caught in so desperate a situation, might have lapsed into exhausted sleep, but Amelia did not. Although he could not see her face, he knew by the feel of her in his arms that she remained entirely conscious. No doubt she was also deeply apprehensive. As there was no possibility of offering her any reassurance, he did not try. But he was relieved when, several hours outside of London, they at last reached their destination.
From the Paperback edition.