Sweet Rogue of Mine – Shana Galen

Someone was in the house. Nash Pope might be half asleep and half drunk, but he knew when someone was in his house. He was a trained sharpshooter, and his body was attuned to even the most subtle changes in atmosphere. Just a few minutes before, the air in Wentmore had been stale and still, the only sounds were of mice scampering in the attic and the creak and groan of the ancient timber beams and floorboards settling. But now the mice had gone silent and the air stirred. The house seemed to straighten and take notice of someone new, someone far more interesting than its current occupant. In the dining room, the curtains closed against the daylight, the lone candle that burned flickered as though the house exhaled softly in anticipation. Nash raised his head from the sticky table and heard the shuffle of feet and the squeak of a door hinge. He reached for his pistol. He didn’t need to see it. It was an extension of his arm and his favorite pistol by far. He owned at least half a dozen, including a brace of matching dueling pistols made by Manton, a pepperbox pistol made by Twigg, a more decorative pistol he’d purchased from the London gunsmith Hawkins—who liked to advertise that the former American President George Washington owned one of his creations—and this one, made by the Frenchman Gribeauval. Gribeauval had made Napoleon’s personal pistol, and though Nash was no admirer of Napoleon, he did admire the French armory of St. Etienne. Nash’s thumb slid over the polished walnut gunstock, over the pewter filigree, until his finger curled into the trigger guard as though it were a well-worn glove.

He lifted the pistol, not feeling its weight, though it was heavier than some, and then waited. It would do him no good to seek out the intruder. The world, what he could see of it, was gray and full of shadows. Better to let the interloper come to him. He could still shoot straight if he was still. All had gone silent. Perhaps the uninvited guest had paused to listen as Nash did. If the game was patience, Nash would win. As a sharpshooter, he had waited more than he had ever fired at the enemy. He often stood in one spot, unmoving, for four or five hours.

He stood in the heat or the cold or, if he was fortunate, in the cool, scented breeze of a spring day. The weather might change, but his rifle at his side never had. The rifle had been put away. He couldn’t sight in the rifle anymore, and it was basically useless to him now, but hitting his target with his pistol and one poorly working eye was possible. “Nash!” a voice called out. If he hadn’t been trained as well, he might have jumped. But Nash’s jaw only ticked at his name shattering the silence. The floorboard creaked again. The intruder was in the foyer. He was not directly outside the dining room.

The voice was still too distant. “Put your pistol down, Nash. I came to talk to you.” Nash did not lower the pistol, though the voice sounded familiar now. Stratford? No, this voice S wasn’t refined enough. Stratford had been here a few months before. Apparently, he’d sought out Nash’s father, the Earl of Beaufort, in London and told him Nash needed him. Stratford obviously didn’t know that the earl didn’t give a damn about Nash. He’d sent his solicitor, and Nash had fired the pistol he held now over the bald man’s head and sent him running back to Town. A door opened and the man said, “Nash?” It was the door to the parlor.

“Nash, if you shoot me, I’ll kick your pathetic arse all the way to Spain and back.” Nash felt his lips quirk in an unwelcome half-smile, as he finally recognized the voice. “And if I kill you?” Nash asked. “Then I’ll come back and haunt you.” Rowden was just outside the dining room now, standing at the door. Nash and Rowden had met in Spain, both serving in His Majesty’s army. They’d become close friends, even if their skill sets were quite different. “If I open this door, will you shoot me?” Rowden asked. “It depends,” Nash said, still holding his pistol at the ready. “Did my father send you?” A pause.

“Of course, he sent me.” Rowden spoke like he fought—directly and plainly. He did not pull punches. “Then don’t open the door.” “Shoot me and the next to arrive will be men from an asylum. Beaufort is ready to send you to an institution right now. Mayne and Fortescue managed to talk him out of it and arranged to have me sent instead.” Nash considered. The Duke of Mayne would have done the talking as he was the negotiator of the group. Stratford Fortescue would have decided to send Rowden.

Fortescue was always the strategist. “Why you?” Nash asked. Seeing that Mayne was the negotiator, it would have made more sense for him to come. “I needed the blunt.” Nash winced and set the pistol down. That hurt. His father was paying Nash’s friends to intervene. He expected as much from his father, who had given up on Nash a long time ago. But his friends…still, what could he expect when he had shot Duncan Murray this past summer? That misstep was bound to have repercussions. “I’m coming in,” Rowden said, his tone one of warning.

The latch lifted and the door opened. In the flickering candlelight, Nash made out a dark form. Of course, he remembered what Rowden looked like. He was broad and stocky with short brown hair and coal-black eyes. He had a pretty face, or he would have if his nose hadn’t been broken so many times. Nash remembered what every man he had ever served with looked like. His memory was more of a curse than a blessing, though, as he remembered every woman and, yes, child he had ever shot too. “You look like hell,” Rowden said, still standing in the doorway. “I wish I could tell you the same, but I can’t see worth a damn.” “Still feeling sorry for yourself, I see.

” Nash’s hand itched to lift the pistol again, but he was not hot-tempered. He would not have lasted a week as a sharpshooter if he had been. “What do you want, Payne? To what do I owe the pleasure of a visit from one of Draven’s Dozen?” Rowden pulled out the chair at the opposite end of the table and sat. Nash saw only a gray, amorphous shape but his other senses filled in the missing information. “Considering you’re one of us, I’m not sure why you’re surprised. We Survivors take care of our own.” It was a lie, but Nash decided not to point that out. Not yet. The Survivors were a troop of thirty highly skilled military men who had been recruited as something of a suicide band to kill Napoleon or die trying. Eighteen had died trying.

Twelve had come home. They had been brothers-in-arms, but Nash did not feel any fraternal affection now. The others were moving on with their lives, while he would be forever alone, locked in a world of darkness. “You’re thin,” Rowden observed. To a stocky fighter like Rowden Payne, thinness was a liability. “Don’t you eat?” “You must need my father’s money badly if you’re playing nursemaid now,” Nash said. Shot fired. “I want to keep you alive, and no one has to pay me for that.” Missed target. “I’m alive.

” But Nash knew that wouldn’t be enough. Not after the accident with Murray a few months before. Nash had known some intervention was coming. He supposed he should be glad the Survivors had convinced his father to send Rowden before the men from the asylum. Very little frightened Nash anymore, but the prospect of the next fifty years locked in an asylum drove a spike of fear into his heart. He would put the pistol in his mouth and pull the trigger first. “What do I have to do to keep the asylum at bay?” “So you haven’t completely pickled your brain yet.” “What do I have to do?” Nash repeated. He would do what was required and then, hopefully, the world would leave him alone. After all, he’d given his sight for King and Country.

Why couldn’t they leave him in peace? “I don’t have a comprehensive list,” Rowden said after a pause, during which, Nash assumed, he was looking about the dining room. “Off the top of my head, I would say this old pile needs some repair. It looks like there was a fire at some point.” Nash did not comment. “And clearly you need to ingest something other than gin.” Nash lifted his empty glass. “This was whiskey.” At least he thought it had been whiskey. Maybe it had been brandy. “You need staff.

” “No staff,” Nash said. Rowden let out a quiet grunt. “We’ll discuss it. But suffice it to say, I can smell you all the way over here. When was the last time you put on a clean set of clothes or took a bath?” “Will you scrub my back?” Nash sneered and then was sorry for it. None of this was Rowden’s fault. None of this was anyone’s fault. Nash had known the risks when he went to war. He just hadn’t thought anything would happen to him. He’d been so young.

Like most young men, he’d thought he was invincible. Rowden rose. “I’ll make you some coffee. We can start there.” Two hours later, Nash was willing to concede life might be easier if he had a few staff members. Not that he needed them to tend to him personally. He could damn well take care of himself. But he did grow tired of Rowden’s muttering as he crashed about in the kitchen making awful-tasting coffee, hauled water up to the tub in Nash’s bed chamber, and even laid out Nash’s clothing. The muttering had ceased once Mrs. Brown made an appearance.

Nash didn’t know why she still came every few days. She hadn’t been paid for months, and Nash wasn’t exactly welcoming toward her. Half the time he didn’t even eat the food she set in front of him. But he supposed he owed it to her that he had clean clothes and a bar of soap and something edible in the larder. Nash wanted to be left alone, and she did her best to leave him alone. That was why he hadn’t run her off completely. Now, dressed in clean, uncomfortable clothing with his too-long hair still damp on his neck and forehead, Nash made his way gingerly across the foyer. His belly rumbled. He’d had a bit of bread with the coffee and now his body seemed to want more. Nash thought he might see if any more food had been left in the dining room, but then he heard voices.

Rowden and Mrs. Brown were in there. Nash turned his head to catch their words. “—so glad you have come, Mr. Payne. I’ve been so worried.” “You’re a good woman to have endured all of this.” “Pshaw. My family has worked for the Earls of Beaufort for generations, and I remember Mr. Pope when he was just a baby.

I couldn’t leave him. He was always such a good lad. Not a bit of temper in him. Always smiling and laughing. Always with a kind word. It was the war what did this to him.” Nash didn’t know if Rowden answered. He couldn’t stand the pity he heard in Mrs. Brown’s voice, and he knew he would either explode in rage or get away. He chose the latter, and before he knew what had happened, he was outside, squinting in the sudden brightness.

He could see even less in the sunlight than in the shadows. The light seemed to wash away what little vision he had left in his right eye, making everything into a white blob. Nash closed his eyes and used his walking stick to feel for any obstacles before him. He remembered walking the streets of London with this same stick. He’d swing it about or twirl it, trying to appear dashing to the young ladies. Now he needed it to keep from falling on his face. How pathetic. He moved toward the back of Wentmore, where there had once been an informal garden of tall flowering trees, vines, paths, and foot bridges over babbling brooks. It was certainly overgrown now, but at one time he had known that garden so well, he could have walked it blindfolded. Ironic that now that was, in essence, what he would need to do.

The informal garden was one of the reasons his father had given Nash the care of Wentmore. The estate was not his, of course. All of the Beaufort properties would go to Nash’s eldest brother when he inherited the title. But no one in the family had wanted Nash at the estate in Richmond. It was too close to London. Too close to Society, where everyone might see the horror of his injury. So they’d sent him north, to Wentmore, which was buried in the countryside and close to nothing but a tiny village named Milcroft. The family had come here when the children were young as Lady Beaufort thought it was quaint and had wanted to expose the children to “simple people.” And indeed, the area surrounding Milcroft was inhabited by dairy maids, blacksmiths, bakers, a country doctor, a vicar, and many crofters—some of them Beaufort’s tenants. The people had been kind and welcoming, and Nash had spent a few weeks each year running about barefoot along Wentmore’s extensive grounds.

How he had dreaded returning to the formalness of the estate in Richmond and, when he grew older, the schoolroom. Although he had patience and focus, Nash had never been a good student. His mind worked quickly, solving problems and working out rationales. But his professors seemed to drone on and on about the same material until Nash was bored senseless and stopped listening. He had done well enough as most of his studies required rote memorization and he could memorize easily, but he had never truly excelled. Nash paused now, having lost himself in his thoughts and remembrances and tread deep enough into the garden that the sunlight had been somewhat obscured, and he could make out shapes here and there. He hadn’t been outside in weeks, but from the crisp feel of the breeze, he knew it must be autumn, late September or early October. He could imagine the colors—quite a bit of green and patches of yellow and red and brown as well. In the distance, he heard the burble of the brook. He would walk toward it and sit for a while on the footbridge, listening to the water rush by.

It seemed no matter how much his life changed or how many years passed, that water was always traveling under that bridge, undeterred. Using his stick, Nash moved toward the sound of the water. He had a good idea where he was now, could picture the path in his mind. Of course, it was more overgrown than it had been before he’d left for the war and the brambles caught on his trousers, forcing him to pause every few minutes to free himself. He wasn’t even sure if he was still on the path—or if there was a path—but the sound of the brook grew clearer. Nash lifted his walking stick to feel for the wood of the bridge and hit what felt like a tree trunk. He moved around it, to the left, thinking maybe he was too far south of the bridge. But then the ground began to slope downward, and he realized that he had misjudged. The bridge was on higher ground and he was now on the banks of the brook. He swung his stick again and, moving forward a bit, he finally found the gentle rise that led to the bridge.

He turned that way, but his foot was mired in the soft earth of the bank. He pulled it free, but he’d had to lean on his stick to do so, and then that had become stuck. Nash had to yank it out, which threw him off balance and his foot sank back into the mud. So much for his clean clothing. His trouser legs must now be muddy almost to the calf. He vaguely remembered hearing thunder a couple of nights ago and the crash of heavy rain on the roof. If he’d remembered before he would not have headed for the brook. Without his sight, everything was so goddamn difficult. Before he would have walked directly to the bridge, dangled his feet over, and sat for as long as he liked. Now he couldn’t even manage that because he couldn’t navigate well enough to stay out of the mud and muck.

He pulled his foot free again, and struggled to take a step, but he only sank into more mud. Was he moving toward the brook or away from it? He’d become disoriented and made himself pause to listen. He needed to pinpoint the location of the brook and move away from it. Nash went still, cocking his head to listen. He heard the rush of the breeze through the tree limbs, the chirp of birds high ahead, the singing of a woman, and the burble of the water. The water was to his… Nash frowned. Singing? “I met a young girl there with her face as a rose And her skin was as fair as the lily that grows I says, My fair maid, why ramble you so Can you tell me where the bonny black hare do go” Her voice was clear and sweet, but Nash knew this song and it was anything but sweet. He tried again to wrest his foot from the mud, but he all but lost his balance and only righted himself at the last moment from falling backward and landing arse-first in the mud. “The answer she gave me, O, the answer was no But under me apron they say it do go And if you’ll not deceive me, I vow and declare We’ll both go together to hunt the bonny black hare” The voice was closer now, the song sung lustily and without any self-consciousness. She obviously did not realize she was not alone.

Nash tried to clear his throat as her voice came closer, but she was singing too loudly to hear. “I laid this girl down with her face to the sky I took out me ramrod, me bullets likewise Saying, Wrap your legs round me, dig in with your heels For the closer we get, O, the better it feels” Nash was still now, wanting to hear the rest of the song. He’d heard the bawdy song many times in one tavern or another, but never sung with such abandon or enthusiasm. Indeed, on that last line, she had belted out, “For the closer we get, O, the better it feels.” “The birds, they were singing in the bushes and trees And the song that they sang was” “Oh!” Her singing had ended abruptly, and Nash realized she’d seen him. “What are you doing here?” she asked. Nay, it was more of a demand. As though she owned this garden, and he were the one encroaching. Nash tried to stand up straight and turn his face toward the sound of her voice. She was on the other side of the brook, as near he could calculate, possibly on the other side of the footbridge.

“I think the better question, miss, is what you are doing on my land and how quickly you can leave. Unless you fancy a charge of trespassing, that is.”

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