Seduction on a Snowy Night – Madeline Hunter

Thirty miles out of Carlisle, the light snow turned to rain. For Adam Prescott, Baron Thornhill, it was a fitting end to a miserable journey. By the time the mail coach careened around a bend and slowed to a stop in the coaching inn’s yard, his greatcoat hung heavy with damp and a steady stream dribbled off his hat’s brim onto his nose. He told himself that even this was better than being inside the coach with Mr. Liddle, an odiferous gentleman whose fashionable garments did not mask a lack of washing. Adam felt bad for the two elderly ladies inside who could not take refuge in the open air on the top of the coach. One had gazed longingly when he did so himself at the first stop outside London. Now he climbed down to stretch his legs while the coach changed horses for the final stage of the journey. The other passengers hurried inside to warm themselves, but his mood did not beg for company. Rather he paced the yard for a few minutes, then took refuge under the inn’s eaves and watched the steady drizzle make tiny ponds in the dirt. Thirty miles more and he would be in another coach, this time with a warming pan and a fur rug, and with a velvet cushion under his ass instead of a board. No one would crowd him and no one would, heaven forbid, smell. After a pleasant afternoon ride through the country he would be welcomed into his cousin’s family for a week of unfettered luxury at someone else’s expense. And after that, an entire lifetime of comfort, if Nigel’s plan worked. With such promise awaiting him at the end of this journey, he shouldn’t even notice the rain or smells or his sore hindquarters.

He should be dreaming about the fortune within reach. So why wasn’t he? He had begun turning his mind to the unfortunate answer to that question when a disturbance distracted him. Scuffles sounded around the corner of the inn. Ruffians were engaged in a fight from the sounds of it. He took a step in the opposite direction; then a voice caught him up short. “Unhand me, you rogue,” a woman hissed lowly before she gave a short cry. Any inclination to retreat disappeared. He pivoted and marched to the end of the inn, then turned the corner. And found himself facing the end of a pistol barrel. He stared, frozen in place.

A young blond-haired man in a broad, rustic hat held the gun high, peering down its sights. Not that Adam noticed him much, due to that pistol being so close to his face. Nor did he much note the bit of skirt disappearing around the back of the inn, although he absorbed he had been the victim of a ruse. “You come this way now,” the man said, stepping back. “I said this way. Are you looking to see me fire?” Adam took a slow step forward. “I was merely distracted by how very large and black this end of a pistol appears when it is all but up your nose.” “A bit more now.” The man took another two steps back. Adam paced forward, wondering if this man really would shoot, or was any good at shooting if he would.

He could perhaps simply turn and run back around the building. The close proximity of that barrel to his head made him reject that rash idea. Even the worst aim would probably find its mark this close. “I must tell you that I have very little money on me.” The blue eyes taking aim wandered a moment, up and down. “A gentleman like you should have enough.” “You would think so, eh? Although, really, what is enough? I ask you, is there ever enough? Well, never mind. My situation is such that right now, on this day, I do not have enough, whatever your enough is. You chose the wrong gentleman. Now, Mr.

Liddle, when he comes out, is probably flush with blunt. He is the sort who always would be. I should warn you that he smells, so you won’t want to insist he follow you this closely. However—” Just then the horn sounded, as the coachman warned the passengers of an imminent departure. Adam cocked his head to see past the pistol. “I need to go now. What do you say we just forget about this? You go rob someone else, and I’ll be on my way.” “You aren’t going anywhere.” Sounds of feet and voices moving to the coach came around the corner. Adam patted his coat, opened a button, and reached toward his purse.

In doing so his hand hit the folded vellum tucked into his frock coat. “I’ll give you what I have, but I truly must return to the coach immediately.” “I don’t want your money.” “What then? My hat? It is a very good one. It is yours.” He removed it and handed it forward. “I’ve no use for it.” Probably not. And yet, perhaps once he did. This criminal’s speech lacked the tone and syntax one would expect of a pistol-toting thief.

At some point this man had been educated. “If not my hat and not my purse, then what do you want?” No reply came to that. They stood there not speaking while the feet around the corner stopped landing and the voices muted. They were still facing each other in silence when horse hooves began pounding the ground and the mail coach rolled away. With Adam’s baggage still tied to its back. Other wheels rolled, this time from behind the inn. A wagon came into view, with a woman wearing a large, deep-rimmed bonnet and heavy garnet mantle holding the reins. She let the ribbons drop, then climbed into the back. “Get in.” The man waved the pistol in her direction.

“Are you abducting me?” “I said get in.” Adam walked around the wagon and climbed in. The horse stood at attention. A very nice horse, from the looks of it. Deep chestnut, with good lines. Maybe six years old. Too fine to be dragging this wagon. Some bales of hay lined the edges of the open space of the wagon. The woman gestured for him to sit. Then she accepted the pistol from the man, who climbed to the seat and took up the reins.

She sat on another bale, facing Adam, the pistol firmly grasped in her hands. “I know how to use it,” she said. Her voice riveted his attention. Low, throaty, melodious, it was the voice of a mature woman but one still young. He peered at her through the drips of rain separating them, those coming off his hat and her bonnet, and all the ones between. He saw a face as young as her voice sounded. Not a girl, but not middle years yet either. Maybe twenty-five or thereabouts, he guessed. Her hair, barely visible deep inside that bonnet, looked to be dark, and her eyes showed an arresting deep brown color. Her complexion appeared fresh and lovely and exceedingly pale in a good way, not pallid and unhealthy.

The wagon began moving. He waited to see if anyone was out in the yard. If so, he intended to call out for help and risk that pistol going off. She said she knew how to use it, but very few women really did. Unfortunately, the rain had sent everyone to shelter, even the grooms and inn’s servants. He could see some faces at the inn’s windows as they rolled onto the road. “I don’t know what this is about,” he said, loudly enough for the man to hear, too. “However, you are committing a serious crime.” No reply came. “If you hope to ransom me, it won’t work.

No one will pay. You will be stuck with my keep to no purpose.” Nothing. “I will be missed. My baggage is still on that coach. When it arrives and my property is there, but I am not, a search will be made.” That at least caused the woman to blink. “They will decide you slipped and fell into the stream behind the inn and the rain washed your body down a ways.” “You have a spirited imagination. They will think nothing of the sort.

“ “It is the most logical explanation, and being lazy they will accept it. It will be weeks before they suspect something else might have happened. In the meantime, with Christmas soon, no one is going to spend much time looking for a stranger.” “I am not entirely a stranger to these parts.” “We know who you are.” Did they now? “If you know who I am, then you know that you risk your necks with this rash act. I am a peer and the Home Office will involve itself if I disappear. My cousin is also a peer and he will not look well on you once you are discovered.” “We know the power of the Marquess of Haverdale. His view of us will not matter by the time he learns of this.

” So he would learn of it, eventually. At least they didn’t intend to shoot him and bury him in a shallow grave. He had not led the best of lives, but even he did not deserve that. The rain fell harder. Adam gave up trying to fight the results. He relaxed on the bales and let the weather do its worst. He speculated on what addlebrained scheme these two had concocted. “Keep it dry, Caro,” the young man said over his shoulder. The woman draped her mantle over the pistol and tucked her bared hands underneath. Adam noticed how red and raw they appeared.

“You are both going to hang. How sad. It is a disgusting way to die. Have you ever seen it? I’ll beg them to transport you instead, but my cousin will insist you hang and a marquess normally gets what he wants.” The man looked over his shoulder. “You talk too much. Watch him closely. He is trying to distract you.” “I won’t be distracted. You watch the road.

The rain is making parts barely passable.” “I am not trying to distract her. I am just passing the time with conversation.” “Too much conversation,” the man muttered. “It’s a wonder all those ladies can abide your company.” So they did know something about him. “Where I come from, conversation is expected. I am considered clever, even witty.” “Part of your charm, is it?” The woman offered a thin smile with the question. “In these parts we save talking for when we have something to say.

” If there was to be no conversation it could be a long journey. They turned off the main road and jostled down a much poorer one. The wagon bounced in and out of ruts. He began to stretch out on the bales, thinking a nap might spare him an hour of wet silence. As he did he noticed that the pistol no longer aimed right at him but rather down at the wagon’s floor. The fingers holding it became visible as the mantle edged back. “Have you no gloves?” he asked. “Not ones fit for this.” Not leather then. Knit.

He sat upright and peeled off his gloves. Recently purchased but not yet paid for, the gloves with their softness had seduced him as surely as a woman’s velvet skin. He handed them toward her. The woman hesitated. She glanced at the man’s back, then took the gloves. She had to set the pistol on her lap in order to pull a glove on her left hand. It was too big, but the fine lambskin meant it would not be too clumsy. Still, it interfered with getting the other glove on her right hand. Adam leaned forward, took her hand in his, and pulled the glove on for her. He took the opportunity to push the leather lower on the fingers so it fit fairly well.

She watched with wide eyes. She glanced once at her companion in crime, then down again at what he did. He picked up the pistol and put it back in her hand. She flushed at the evidence that he had indeed distracted her, but not with words. She grasped the pistol with determination while he set about making the glove fit better on her left hand He looked into her dark eyes, so in contrast with her white skin. She was a handsome woman, with a face that would still be attractive thirty years hence, when the fashionable beauties of the day had long lost their prettiness. When she smiled a severity in her expression disappeared. He peered into the bonnet’s shadow while something nudged at his memory. “What is your name?” he asked. “Caroline.

” “I should not address you with such familiarity.” “I would prefer that you do not address me at all.” “Then I will pose a question while I have your attention. Have we met before?” She just looked at him. The wagon suddenly halted. “What are you doing? Caro, are you mad? We know he is a rogue and a rake.” She and Adam both turned their heads to where their driver glared over his shoulder. Not at their faces. His scowling gaze rested lower, where Adam still held a gloved hand in his own. Caroline snatched her hand away.

Adam lounged back on the bales and smiled apologetically. The wagon moved again. And just then, at that moment, the rain turned to snow.


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