Authors: Kate Rothwell
Her Mad Baron
Her Mad Baron
April 2013 Kate Rothwell
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Cover Artist: Angela Waters
This e-book is a work of fiction. While reference might be made to actual historical events or existing locations, the names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
THIS BOOK WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AS THE MAD BARON by SUMMER DEVON
Warning: This e-book contains sexually explicit scenes and adult language and may be considered offensive to some readers.
He lay flat on his back, unable to move. Dim memories of waking other times floated into his sluggish brain. He was coming to, rather than waking, like the time he’d been slammed against the stable wall and hit his head. But that happened ten years ago. Years ago. Please, he hoped he hadn’t gone back to that time.
“Where…” His mouth was dry and tasted of metal.
“You’ve been ill, dear,” a woman’s cheery voice said near him. “When I got here, you were fairly burning up. Mr. Grub was most anxious. But now we’re feeling better, aren’t we? Ready for more nice broth?”
He tried to move his hands and remembered he’d been tied to a bed. Which bed? He opened his mouth to protest. A man said, “Feed him. It’ll help.”
Warm broth trickled down his throat. “That’s the way, dearie.”
Choking and sputtering, he swallowed and tried to speak, but every time he opened his mouth, she spooned in more of the lukewarm slop.
His eyelids felt so heavy he could barely lift them. When he finally did, he wished he hadn’t. The stout woman leaning over him had two heads. Two smiling, nodding heads. At her shoulder, a dark mass swirled and thickened into a skull that grinned down at him.
He croaked in fear, blinked and tried to look into her face again. Only one head now, but as he watched, her chin lengthened and shimmered. A hand with a spoon came at his face and turned into a snake.
He twisted his head and yelled. “Get it away.”
“Poor thing.” The woman poured more broth into his open mouth.
Let me go,
he yelled again, but suspected he’d said nothing aloud.
Someone else spoke. “Not right in the head.” He wasn’t so far gone not to understand they were speaking of him.
A fresh moment of panic hit him.
“Who?” But no one answered him. Perhaps he hadn’t spoken.
My name is Nathaniel
, he reminded himself before he passed out again.
The next time, he heard someone else speaking, a vaguely familiar, cultured voice filled with pity. “Lady Margaret would be glad to have someone else deal with a problem like this. She’d approve of a quiet solution. Some place off in the country.”
The man was right. Nathaniel must have gone mad. His mother would be very glad to hide him away.
He would spend the rest of his life hallucinating and in shackles in an insane asylum. Memory came and went, but now he vividly recalled descriptions in articles he’d read about such institutions.
This time he didn’t struggle to remain awake when the thick darkness began to fall.
As they hiked along the edge of the moor, Duncan told Florrie about the man they were out to rob.
“The old eccentric’s been suffering with some mysterious ailment for a long time. My guess is he’s gone soft in the head. He keeps the collection locked on a top floor—never looks at his treasures, just stores them like food in a pantry.”
“That’s a pity,” Florrie said and quickened her pace to reach the copse of trees and get out of the open. She wanted to run, but a young lady didn’t run in public, even if the young lady was a thief.
Duncan sped up too, though he gazed around, playing the role of a man on a foot tour determined to enjoy the dramatic, sweeping landscape of the moor even on a gloomy spring day. The feather on his peculiar Alpine hat ruffled in the breeze. Her brother wore the hat because he insisted it fit the part of hearty traveler. She supposed the gaudy object drew enough attention no one would recall their faces once they left the area.
He puffed a bit as he caught up with her. “It’s a good thing the stuff’s locked away. The household may not even notice the results of your visit until we’re long gone.” For a moment the sun appeared from between clouds and flashed on his glasses. “No need to look so hounded, Florrie. It’s a quiet place. I told you, never anyone about this time of day.”
“I pray you’re correct.” She’d only just arrived in Derbyshire from London and had to rely on Duncan’s three days of watching and “research.”
They emerged from the grove, and Florrie caught sight of a great stone building looming ahead. She drew in a sharp breath. “That’s a fortress. Why on earth didn’t the baron pay? And just a small dagger?”
Her brother’s eyes gleamed the way they always did when he discussed Papa’s work. “Yes, with a silver hilt with the snake theme. Purely decorative, I suspect.”
That sort of detail meant her father had labored over the knife for weeks. Most of the men who’d bought his works had paid promptly—but not all. Some, like this obviously wealthy baron, took advantage of the fact that their father had been a gentleman and wouldn’t do more than present a bill. Papa would certainly never be vulgar enough to insist on being paid for the many hours he put into each blade.
Florrie stopped trying to work herself into an indignant rage and returned to the practical matter at hand. “You’re certain it’s something short? Most of Papa’s rich clients liked swords.”
Duncan shook his head and led her back to the protection of the trees. “I swear, only a dagger. Papa modeled it on some a poem about a pair of lovers’ suicide pact.”
She smiled. “Yes, I can imagine. I suppose it’s a dreadful poem?”
“I haven’t read it.” He took off his glasses and cleaned them with his soft chamois. “Listen, Florrie. Do take a look around in there. If you find anything else worthwhile, just remember the old skinflint baron can’t take anything with him where he’s going.”
“You are a devil,” she said lightly as she took down her hair and ran her fingers through it. She redid the plait and pushed it into her customary bundle at the back of her head, thrusting in pins, hard. Loose strands as she climbed would be a disaster.
They stopped near the base of a large elm tree. He dropped his haversack on the well-groomed grass and rummaged around while she unbuttoned her skirt, let it drop and smoothed the trousers she wore. She stepped out the skirt and handed it to him.
“You look marvelous in that getup,” he said dryly as she squatted to tie the thin, rubber-bottom shoes he’d had specially made. “Quite the fashion plate.”
He touched the nerve left raw by Jimmy, her ex-fiancé. She pulled the laces tighter. “Do you want me to climb in a bustle? You harp at me to do this sort of thing and then complain when I dress the only possible way I can.”
“Yes, yes, very well. Don’t snap at me, Florrie. Just a bit of teasing.”
She got to her feet and gave her brother a nod to show she forgave him. He didn’t truly judge her climbing, not the way Jimmy would, the hypocrite.
She looked up and down the impressive stone walls. Such a great fall it would be. The heady mix of eagerness and fear caused to her heart to speed up.
“The building won’t be as easy as Haddon Hall, but it’s manageable.” She eyed the handy decorative gargoyle and protruding rocks here and there. “Grim. I fancy it could be an insane asylum or girls’ school.”
Nothing moved, and she heard only the faint rustling of trees touched by the wind. “The place does appear as quiet as you claimed.”
“Of course it is. It’s only got the one inhabitant, very few servants and no tours allowed.” He sniffed as if insulted that she would question his research. “
the baron’s heavily drugged in his final days, they say. Orders for laudanum and other paregorics for pain from the chemists, they tell me, and patent drugs arriving through the mail. They suppose he’s holding on to see his heir.”
She didn’t ask who “they” were. Though Duncan would never tell her, Florrie knew he hadn’t spent his nights alone. He liked to get his information from buxom females, and the inn he’d picked seemed well-stocked with the sort of female he enjoyed. Dunc insisted that getting back their father’s work, their heritage, was the reason he planned these break-ins. She suspected he liked playing a part and seeking out information. They’d both inherited a good portion of recklessness.
He cleared his throat and shuffled his feet on the grass, obviously anxious to melt back into the sparse collection of trees at the bottom of the wide lawn. The coward. “What do you think?” He gestured at the wall. “The waterpipe and the windows? I looked it over yesterday, and that’s my best guess.”
She pushed a stray tendril into the bundle of hair and grabbed up the rope he’d pulled from his bag. “Yes, that’ll do nicely. What an enormous pile of granite. I might as well face a challenge on my last outing.”
“Yes, but Florrie…” He sounded petulant. “Surely you can—”
“No, you managed to talk me into fetching Papa’s work, but no more. We’ve been lucky enough no one’s noticed that the blades are the only things stolen, don’t you think? No, of course you don’t or you wouldn’t keep at me like this. Duncan, I’m not doing this again, not even if you should suddenly locate yet another of Papa’s blades that wasn’t paid for.”
“You sound suspicious, love. But you know that those rich people are terrible about paying their bills and—”
“I believe you. But this is the last time.”
The glint in Duncan’s eye told her he wasn’t going to give up the argument. He rarely did.
“Dunc, save your breath. I am not a criminal.” She was, she supposed, but four times wasn’t horrible. So far she hadn’t even had to break a window. She gave a tiny huff of impatience. After years of listening to her brother, she knew justifications when she heard them—even from herself.
Duncan put a hand on her shoulder and kneaded it. “All right, all right. No more climbs. Do stop looking like a martyr. You know you enjoy it.”
She turned away. No point in denying that she loved the climbing. The reflection that she might fall, even the thought that she might get caught, seemed to add a needed spice to her life.
Once they opened the shop Duncan planned, perhaps she’d occasionally go out and climb walls in secret, just to feel her heart beat as hard and fast as it did now. She wiped the perspiration from her hands on the cloth he held out to her. “Right. I best be going before the sun finally breaks through the clouds and shifts to this part of the heap.”
She began the slow, careful climb up via the drainpipe. The pipe could have held Duncan’s weight and the stone windowsills were large enough so she didn’t even have to stand on tip-toe. She had a nasty moment when the rope she’d slung over the spout protruding above her, slipped and slithered down onto her shoulder. No possible safe way to throw it again—she’d climb without the safeguard of the rope. She clung to the chilly stones and carefully examined her next hand and foot holds before inching along.
Take the time to wedge the fingers and toes properly
, Jimmy had instructed Duncan.
Don’t let fear hurry you.
After several feet of this painstakingly slow movement, as well as listening for Duncan’s warning whistle, even Florrie felt she’d had enough excitement. At least she hadn’t required the rope, though she was high enough she didn’t like to look down.