When a Rogue Meets His Match – Elizabeth Hoyt

There is never a good time to be accosted by highwaymen. However, whilst emptying one’s bladder is a particularly bad time. Messalina Greycourt froze, the last drops of her urine tinkling into the pretty china bourdaloue she held between her legs. She stood awkwardly in the carriage, both her maid, Bartlett, and her uncle’s wicked factotum, Mr. Hawthorne, having stepped out to give her privacy not two minutes before. Outside the carriage it was ominously quiet, as if the shouted order, “Stand and deliver!” had stilled everyone there as well. She swallowed as she strained to hear any sound. Boom! The gunshot broke the silence. Messalina let her skirts fall. The carriage door flew open, and Bartlett was shoved inside. For a second Messalina saw Mr. Hawthorne’s savage face, his wicked black eyes glittering as he ordered, “Stay.” Then the door slammed shut on the sounds of shouts, gunfire, and whinnying horses. Bartlett, normally a sturdy, practical woman, looked at Messalina with wide eyes. The carriage rocked as if something large had been thrown against it.

“How many highwaymen are there?” Messalina demanded. “I don’t know, miss,” Bartlett replied shakily. “Over half a dozen, I think.” Her gaze dropped to the bourdaloue still in Messalina’s hands, and she added more prosaically, “Oh, let me take that.” The bourdaloue looked like nothing so much as a gravy boat. Oblong and with a handle at one end, it was a delicate pink, gilded around the lip. Usually, of course, Messalina would hand it out of the carriage to Bartlett, who would dispose of the contents. Now her poor lady’s maid was left standing, holding a china vessel full of piss inside a rocking carriage. This was all Mr. Hawthorne’s fault.

If the man had simply let her stop prior to nightfall as Messalina had suggested, she— The door was wrenched open again and a large, filthy man filled the frame, his fleshy lips pulled back in a leer. Bartlett shrieked. Messalina snatched the bourdaloue from the maid’s hand and flung it in their attacker’s face. The china dish bounced off his forehead, dousing him in urine. Messalina pushed him hard. He tumbled backward out of the carriage. She slammed the door closed after him and looked at Bartlett. The other woman’s face was white. “That was…erm…quick thinking, miss.” Messalina straightened, trying and failing to control the heat rising in her cheeks.

“Yes, well. Needs must.” Outside, someone screamed and was suddenly cut off. Messalina found herself holding her breath in trepidation. The carriage door opened, and Gideon Hawthorne climbed inside. She let out her breath in a gusty sigh of relief before sinking to the carriage seat. “Oh, thank the Lord,” Bartlett said, exhibiting a hitherto unknown religious fervor. Mr. Hawthorne shrugged. “Or me.

” Messalina fought an urge to laugh as Bartlett plopped down beside her. Then she saw the bloody knife Mr. Hawthorne was holding. His enigmatic eyes met hers. “I trust you are unhurt?” He’d killed for her—and himself, of course. “I’m fine.” Mr. Hawthorne nodded and sat. He produced a handkerchief and began wiping the blood from the knife, staining the fabric bright red as he did so. Without glancing up, he murmured, “I always clean a knife immediately.

The blade can become dull if left…dirtied.” “I’ll be certain to wipe the blood from the many knives I carry,” she said tartly. “Do so. Besides,” he said with what sounded like perfect seriousness, “blood is ungodly hard to remove from fabric.” She stared at him, appalled. Mr. Hawthorne wasn’t a particularly big man. One didn’t immediately think on first glance, Here’s a fellow I should avoid at all costs if I value my life. It was the second look that did it. Then one noticed the competent, muscled frame, the dangerously economical way he moved, and his sudden stillness, as if he was gathering himself to attack.

And then there was his face. Mr. Hawthorne had the countenance of a devil. His eyebrows formed a deep V over his eyes, the outer edges winging up in a demonic slant. On his right cheek was a long vertical scar, thin and ominous. He was an intimidating man. A frightening man. When Messalina could stand the silence no longer, she cleared her throat. “Well?” He glanced up at her. His eyes were gleaming black like his hair.

“Well what?” Messalina’s own eyes narrowed. “Are the highwaymen gone?” “Of course.” He flicked the knife closed and somehow made it disappear into his coat before standing to knock on the roof. Hawthorne sat again, watching her unnervingly. There were only two servants in the carriage box. Even if Bartlett had overestimated the highwaymen, Mr. Hawthorne and his men had been badly outnumbered. “Did you worry for me?” His sly, rasping voice interrupted her thoughts. “No,” she said flatly. “You’d prefer a band of highwaymen to me?” His inflection had just a hint of the London streets.

“Yes!” “Fortunately,” Mr. Hawthorne said softly, ominously, “you’ll never have the chance to make that silly choice. Not while I have possession of you.” “Possession.” Messalina glared at him even as she suppressed a shiver. Why would he use that word? As if he owned her. “Whatever makes you think you can—” she began, and then she noticed that he had taken something from his pocket. He held her bourdaloue, pink and dainty, in his hands. “I think,” he said, examining the vessel with unseemly interest, “that this is yours.” Messalina’s mouth dropped open.

Bartlett snatched the dish from Mr. Hawthorne’s hands. “I never!” she muttered as she put the thing away. Mr. Hawthorne smirked, leaning back and tilting his hat over his eyes until only his curled lips could be seen. Messalina turned pointedly to gaze out the darkened window. A little over a week ago Mr. Hawthorne had waylaid her carriage in the north of England and informed her that her uncle, Augustus Greycourt, the Duke of Windemere, required her presence immediately. So immediately in fact that the duke had sent Mr. Hawthorne to personally escort her back to London.

She’d been forced to abandon both her carriage and Lucretia, her younger sister, with whom she’d been traveling. There had just been time for Messalina to indicate to Lucretia that she should go to their eldest brother, Julian, for help before she’d been whisked away. After that, Messalina had spent a week traveling with the odious Mr. Hawthorne. She darted a glance at him from beneath her eyelashes. Mr. Hawthorne was apparently asleep now that the danger was over. His booted feet were crossed at the ankles, his arms over his chest. The carriage lantern threw a glow on a sculpted chin and breathtakingly high cheekbones. His mouth was curved at the corners as if even in sleep he were privately amused at some lewd joke.

The upper lip was thin and strictly constrained to a classical Cupid’s bow, but the lower lip belied the upper’s repression with obscene plushness. He had the most depraved mouth Messalina had ever seen on a man. She looked away hastily. Mr. Hawthorne was a ruf ian. Messalina knew—as did everyone else— that he’d emerged from the worst stews in London. There were rumors that her uncle had found him earning his living by competitive knife fighting. Mr. Hawthorne had been but seventeen at the time. Up until ten minutes ago Messalina had always dismissed that gossip as far too lurid to be true.

She was beginning to revise that opinion. She eyed the white scar bisecting Mr. Hawthorne’s left cheek. It was thin and silvery like the trail of a teardrop. She would do well to remember that Mr. Hawthorne was a man accustomed since youth to savage violence. Messalina shivered in distaste and turned away again from her guard dog. Instead of woolgathering over Mr. Hawthorne, she ought to be considering Uncle Augustus’s purpose in summoning her. Mr.

Hawthorne had flatly refused to inform her why her uncle wanted her in London. Naturally that had meant she’d spent the past week becoming more and more anxious. Not that she let it show. Whether Uncle Augustus had decided to exile her to the American Colonies, present her with a new riding mare, or cut her living expenses entirely, she would meet the news equally phlegmatically. The Duke of Windemere gorged on fear. Better to remember the small amount of pin money she’d saved over the last few years. When Messalina had saved enough, she would take Lucretia and disappear into the Continent or the New World. A place where her uncle could no longer dictate their lives. “Ah, now we’re in London proper, miss,” Bartlett whispered, nodding to the bright lights outside the carriage window. “It’ll be nice to sleep in a decent bed after so many nights on the road, if you don’t mind me saying so.

” “Yes indeed,” Messalina replied, not bothering to whisper. Mr. Hawthorne didn’t react. He was either still asleep or pretending sleep, the better to spy on her. Messalina watched out the window as they trundled slowly into the West End, feeling quite weary and ready for a rest. It was nearly an hour more before the carriage drew up outside the towering classical facade of Windemere House, the London residence of the Dukes of Windemere. Mr. Hawthorne stirred immediately, sitting upright as alert as if it were morning, damn him. He looked at her, and for a moment she had the idea that his hard eyes had gentled. He seemed almost as if he wanted to tell her something.

Then the carriage door opened, and a footman handed Messalina down. She glanced up from shaking out her skirts and couldn’t quite suppress a start. Augustus Greycourt, the Duke of Windemere, was waiting at the top of the stairs. He was a jollylooking man, short and round, with a face that might seem kind if one was unaware of the rot within. Hawthorne came up beside her and took her arm. She glanced at his hand, confused. He had missed a bit of blood on his thumbnail. She shuddered. “Ah, Messalina,” Uncle Augustus said. “I was beginning to think you’d be late to your own wedding.

” Messalina felt a chill run down her spine. Her wedding? Uncle Augustus continued, smirking, “But how could you be late when your bridegroom is also your escort?” Slowly Messalina turned her head. And met Mr. Hawthorne’s diabolically gleaming black eyes. * * * Gideon Hawthorne had always thought that Messalina Greycourt had the most fascinating eyes. They were gray—a cool, clear gray—with a ring of near black around the iris. He watched as those intriguing eyes filled with loathing—for him. Gideon looked away. He’d always known that she’d hate this plan. Still he felt a twinge—a very small twinge.

Gideon’s gaze slid to Windemere. What was the old man doing? Messalina was a headstrong, smart, and stubborn woman. The duke knew she wouldn’t agree easily to a forced marriage. And yet his words were calculated to make Messalina dig in her heels. But perhaps that was what Windemere wanted: a fight that could end only one way—with the duke triumphant and Messalina humiliated. Gideon would have to make sure no such thing happened. Windemere grinned. “Come, girl,” he called to her. “Bring your fiancé inside so we can have a coze in my study.” Messalina’s features were blank.

Most would have no clue that she was frantically thinking underneath her guarded expression. But Gideon had spent years watching Messalina’s face. He knew he had to prepare both his offense and his defense. His grip tightened around her upper arm. It was unlikely that she’d run off into the dark streets of London—Messalina was no fool—but the old man was doing his best to provoke her. And Gideon would be damned before he lost her now. His touch seemed to wake her. Messalina blinked and tried to pull her arm from his hand. She glared up at him when he refused to release her. Gideon let a small smile curve his lips—better a scowl from her than to be ignored.

Windemere interrupted their silent skirmish. “You’ve declined all the suitors I’ve put before you, Niece, but you shan’t wriggle free from marriage tonight. I’ve already sent for the bishop. If you want to marry in something other than stained traveling clothes, you’ll have to hurry.” Gideon shot a narrow-eyed glance at Windemere. The duke beamed down on them, damn him. Gideon leaned close to Messalina, murmuring, “We’d best go in.” “Naturally you’d say that,” she snapped in reply, but she stepped forward to climb the steps. As they drew level with the old man Messalina said simply and certainly, “No.” There was his girl.

Gideon couldn’t help his silent satisfaction even if her stubbornness wasn’t to his benefit. Her flat refusal finally drove the idiot smile from the duke’s face. “What did you say, sweet niece? Pause before you speak, for I know you’ve been hoarding your pin money.” She paled. “What have you done?” “I have done nothing,” Windemere replied. “Hawthorne, however, has taken your little purse into his possession.” “Of course Mr. Hawthorne did.” Messalina’s glance at him was searing. “I do hope you enjoyed rummaging in my trunks.

” Gideon raised an eyebrow, irritated by both her scorn and her words. “I assure you, I was quite bored.” That for some reason provoked a blush. “You’ve rifled through that many ladies’ possessions?” Before he could reply, the duke interrupted. “Enough!” Windemere said impatiently. “Messalina, you have no hope—not even any expectation of hope—of escaping me. Go to your rooms and prepare yourself for your wedding.” He paused and then said with studied nonchalance, “Unless you’d prefer to have Lucretia take your place?” Gideon felt a muscle twitch in his jaw. He’d agreed to marry Messalina and only Messalina. He had no intent—or desire—to marry Lucretia Greycourt.

Messalina inhaled sharply as the duke laid down his trump card. She lifted her pigheaded little chin, but the slight tremble in her voice betrayed her. “I will never marry your henchman, nor shall my sister.” Gideon cleared his throat and gave the duke a pointed look. “It is chilly, Your Grace. Would you not like to talk with your niece inside by that fire you mentioned?” The duke hesitated, clearly not pleased by Gideon’s suggestion, but he grimaced and strode into Windemere House. Messalina didn’t move. Her head was held high, but her eyes were wide and frantic. She was obviously shaken by the threat to her beloved sister. Gideon said quietly, “Will you stay here until you turn to stone out of pride?” “You wouldn’t care,” she shot back viciously.

“You have no idea,” he said truthfully, “how much I’d care.” She stared incredulously at him. He held her clear gaze. Those eyes would be the death of him. “Better to go in, yes?” Messalina blew out a breath and muttered, “I don’t think I have a choice.” “No,” he said gently, “you don’t, but I’ll make it as easy as I can.” She huffed and went in. Windemere waited in the entry, his happy mood returned. Messalina eyed him warily, then said, “I need to refresh myself. If you’ll excuse me, Uncle.

” Gideon let his hand fall, and she jerked away to hurry up the grand staircase. He fought a sigh. Now was not the time to tame her. That would come later. The duke growled, “She’ll try to escape out the back.” Gideon didn’t bother looking at him. “My men are already guarding the doors, Your Grace.” Windemere grunted. “Good. Come with me.

” He turned and walked across the red-white-and-black marble floor of the entry hall, servants falling away before him. Gideon followed silently. A footman pushed open the door to the great library as the duke approached. “Shut that door,” Windemere snapped to the footman once they’d entered. “And make sure no one disturbs us.” The door closed without a sound. The duke sank into a high-backed chair. Gideon didn’t bother taking a seat. Windemere eyed him with a disgruntled expression, and Gideon felt his upper lip lifting. It was almost funny.

His work under Windemere had been both unlawful and at times brutal. Gideon probably knew more about the old man’s dealings than any other person alive, which gave him a certain amount of power over Windemere. But at the same time, the duke knew exactly what Gideon had done in his service. Gideon had no doubt at all that the old man had kept records and whatever evidence there might be. The duke could have Gideon hanged with a word or two in the right places—if he didn’t mind falling with Gideon. Their past was a double-edged sword neither was particularly anxious to handle. Windemere grunted. “If she escapes, I’ll not offer her to you twice.” Gideon let a mocking smile twist his lips. “Which is why I’ll not let her escape.

” “You had bloody well better not,” the duke growled, obviously irritated by Gideon’s insolence. “The wench is worth a fortune. Not only will you lose her as a wife, but I’ll take her dowry out of you if she runs.” Gideon didn’t bother replying. He’d heard this all before, an endless, dusty rant filled with grievances and threats. Windemere suddenly smiled, making Gideon come to full alert. “Although if Messalina were to disappear, it might save me much trouble.” “I would protest violently if that were to happen,” Gideon replied softly. “You’ve promised to give me Messalina.” The duke scowled at his threat and then waved his hand.

“A fortnight locked in her room with naught but water and pap should make her soften. The gal has never wanted for a meal or anything else. She’ll soon come around.” “No doubt,” Gideon said carefully. If he showed too much concern, the old man would follow through on his threats, and Gideon didn’t want Messalina starving—or worse. “But you said you’d already sent for the bishop. Was that a bluff, Your Grace?” “No.” The duke scowled. “I’ll have to send him away again, and the bishop will want his guineas even if he does nothing in return. Churchmen are a greedy lot.

” Then it was up to Gideon to convince Messalina to wed him if he didn’t want any further delays. He started for the door. “Where are you going?” the duke called peevishly from behind him. Gideon turned. “To persuade Miss Greycourt to attend her own wedding.” Windemere snorted. “Easier to find a Wapping Docks whore without the pox than to win over the chit.” Gideon lifted an eyebrow before turning back toward the door. The duke called behind him, “Just remember: no matter what she decides, you’ve already made the bargain and given your oath. You’re my man and you’ll do as I wish.

” Gideon paused with his hand on the door handle. His knuckles went white as he tightened his grip. “I’m unlikely to forget. Your Grace.” With that he left the room. Gideon closed the library door behind him and took a moment to inhale, leaning against the door. Almost a year ago he’d decided that it was past time to leave the old man’s employ—both because he hated the tasks Windemere set him and because he wanted to concentrate on his own business. But leaving the employ of the Duke of Windemere wasn’t such an easy thing. Gideon’s knowledge was dangerous to the old man. He’d rather not end as a corpse floating on the Thames.

So Gideon had waited, judging his exit carefully. When he at last told the duke that he planned to leave, Windemere had surprised him by offering a prize that Gideon simply couldn’t refuse: Messalina Greycourt. But first Gideon had to secure his lady—preferably without the duke starving her. He straightened and snapped his fingers. A slight shape slunk into the light, transforming into a disreputable youth with a broken nose and the innocent wide blue eyes of a baby angel. The youth—actually a young man, for Keys was older than he looked—straightened and nodded. “Aye, guv?” “Where is she, Keys?” Keys rolled his eyes skyward. “Upstairs in ’er rooms last I checked with Reggie.” Gideon nodded. Now he had to worry that she might try to escape and that the duke would follow through on his casual threat against Messalina.

“Do the rounds, make sure Pea has his gang in the garden and at the sides. Then come in and stand with Reggie. Clear?” Keys merely touched a finger to his forelock and slipped away. Gideon mounted the grand staircase to the upper level, the red marble steps curving back on themselves like a coiling snake. The muscles in his arms and legs felt bunched, ready to spring after quarry. Perhaps it was the excitement of fighting off the highwaymen earlier. Perhaps it was the thought of all he so nearly had in his grasp. Or perhaps it was her. She’d been only a girl when he’d first entered the old man’s service. Young and long limbed, not a child at fourteen, but certainly not yet a woman.

He’d made note of her along with all the Greycourt siblings: Julian, the eldest, as trustworthy as his uncle. Quintus, who had been a sot at the age of eighteen, still mourning the death of his twin sister, Aurelia. Messalina, grave beyond her years. Lucretia, the youngest, pretty and mischievous. To Gideon, Messalina had been simply one of the aristocracy. Born to lounge about in silks and jewels, eating Turkish delight with soft white fingers while the rest of the world slaved. She was just like every other highborn lady. And yet he’d watched her, even then. He’d spied from the shadows, a rough St Giles lad, invisible among the duke’s dozens of servants. Gideon might be only a couple of years older than Messalina, but they were worlds apart.

He’d observed as she’d grown into womanhood, as she donned rustling dresses and put her hair into intricate loops on top of her head. Watched as she laughed at the young fops who gathered around her like wasps drawn to spilled beer. She wasn’t for him, that was always clear. Even so, he’d not been able to tear his gaze away. She made something inside him want. Messalina had been the star he longed for but couldn’t reach—and the old man knew it. Gideon scowled as he made the upper floor. He didn’t like the fact that Windemere had been able to read him so easily. His desires and thoughts were his own, and it was simply too dangerous to let others see inside. But fourteen years ago, when he’d first entered the duke’s employ, he’d been young —seventeen—and less used to hiding his every expression.

Her rooms lay down a long hallway. Gideon nodded to Reggie, large and looming in the shadows several steps from the door. “Careful, guv,” Reggie called softly. Gideon shot him a look. He hardly needed a warning from his own man. He pushed the door open, raising his right arm to protect his head at the same time. She came rushing at him, a small marble statuette in her hands. Marble. He couldn’t help a flare of admiration. He wrenched the statuette from her hands and caught her.

“I see you’re bent on murder, Miss Greycourt.” She twisted like an eel, trying to escape, but he held her firmly by both wrists. When she realized she wouldn’t be able to free herself, she attacked, kicking at him, even though she was hampered by her own skirts. He crowded her with his body, forcing her to retreat until her back hit the wall. For a split second he studied her, trapped between the wall and him. Her heavy black hair was uncoiling around her face, her cheeks flushed pink from exertion. She glared up at him with gray eyes that held storms and dire warnings. But there was no fear in their clear depths, none at all. Something inside him exulted that she couldn’t be cowed, even by him. He bent his head, aware that he was close enough to seize her lips beneath his, and murmured, “Now then, I think we need to talk.

.

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