Read I Loved a Rogue The Prince Catchers Online

Authors: Katharine Ashe

Tags: #Fiction, #Regency, #Historical, #Romance, #General

I Loved a Rogue The Prince Catchers

 

 

Dedication

To the circle story girls,

co-authors of my (our) first (insane) romances ~

Jill, Kate, Kathy, Susan, Susie, & Tenny

 

Epigraph

Y se alegre el alma llena

De la luz de esos luceros.

And his heart is filled with rapture

At the light in those lights above.

Charles G. Leland,

The Gypsies

“Every person pretending or professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means, or device, by palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose on any of his Majesty’s subjects; every person wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or wagon . . . and not giving a good account of himself . . . shall be deemed a rogue and vagabond.”

Vagrancy Act of 1824

 

Prologue

The Gypsy Boy

By a Pond in a Wood in Cornwall

September 1807

T
aliesin Wolfe had tasted blood before. At least twice a year his uncle split his lip with the flat of his palm. That made thirty-four split lips to date.

He’d tasted mud before too. When a man spent most of his time with horses, it couldn’t be avoided.

He had never before tasted them in the same mouthful. Hot blood. Warm mud. Anger hovering precariously between the two. And a fog in his head he’d definitely never known. Squire Shackelford’s son had not used his palm.

“What’s wrong, Gypsy boy? One jab and you’re already face down?” Shackelford jeered from behind him. Snickers came from the other boys.

“Five attempted jabs,” he corrected through gummy lips. Thomas Shackelford looked stupid, but Taliesin had always supposed he could count. He ran his tongue over his teeth. None broken. Small miracles. “You only struck me when those three bounders held my arms.”

Hard footsteps. “Why, you insolent—”

“Tommy, leave him be, why don’t you?” This from the stranger boy who’d stood back while the others had grabbed Taliesin. “It looks like he’s had enough, and I don’t know that your father would approve.” An uncomfortable chuckle. “Don’t you agree, Freddie?”

“I’d like to see you trounce him good, Tom,” young Freddie Shackelford mumbled. “But Rob’s right. Father won’t like it, you mixing it up with a Gypsy. Says every time you do it they filch another dozen fence posts.”

“Father should have driven them off his land years ago.”

“Filthy thieves,” grumbled one of the boys who’d held him still so Shackelford could connect his fist with Taliesin’s jaw.

“This one’s the vicar’s favorite,” Freddie supplied.

“The one that cuts the verge in the cemetery?”

“Does odd jobs around the vicarage too. Mother says he runs tame over there, but she can’t say it’s wrong because the vicar calls it charity.”

The world stopped spinning and Taliesin pressed his palms into the mud. He pushed his face and then his shoulders off the ground.

“Whichever one of them he is,” Thomas Shackelford said, “he’s done more than steal a fence post this time. Haven’t you, peddler boy?”

“Not a peddler.” Taliesin coughed on blood, his vision spotty. He blinked hard but saw only a blur. For a poor shot, when Shackelford did connect, he did so with mighty force. “Horse trader, you dolt.”

Footsteps again. Quick.

Boot
.

Ribs.

Pain.
Pain
.

Shackelford stepped back. Taliesin rolled onto his side. Fought for air. Sunlight cutting through the trees burst like stars.

“Come now, Tom,” Stranger Boy said in a constricted voice. “You don’t know that he did anything untoward with the girl. Why don’t you ask him first?”

Shackelford laughed. “They’re liars as well as thieves, Rob. He wouldn’t tell me the truth even if I asked him.”

“Ask him. If he lies”—another strained chuckle—“then you can trounce him as heartily as Freddie likes.”

Coward
. Stranger Boy knew Shackelford should back off, but Englishmen never raised a hand to help a Rom. Except the Reverend.

Sucking in air, agony slicing his insides, Taliesin pushed himself up again. This time he got his feet under him.

“All right.” Shackelford made a sound like a pig. “I’ll ask him, Rob. Then you’ll see how he couldn’t tell truths from lies if you spelled it out.”

Them
, not
it
. Truths. Lies. Plural. Not singular. Didn’t they teach grammar at fancy schools? How porridge-for-brains Thomas Shackelford got to be heir to the biggest landholder in St. Petroc, Taliesin would never understand. Even if he were lucky, Taliesin knew he’d never own more than a horse and the clothes on his back. Reverend Caulfield always said a man must rest content with the lot God gave him. The Apostle Paul, Colossians, chapter three:
Servants, obey in all things your masters . . . knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance.

Paul had obviously never been a Rom horse trader.

Fighting back the pain in his side, ignoring it like he’d learned to ignore taunting from Englishmen as a child, he straightened his shoulders. Black fogged his vision. He struggled on broken breaths. Broken
ribs
. Years ago he’d been kicked by a horse. He knew this pain.

“What of it, Gypsy boy?”

He blinked and Shackelford’s scowl came into focus, the beads of sweat on his upper lip delicate, like dew, a high flush in his cheeks. Behind him, Stranger Boy’s eyes were like bluebirds, bright, free.

“My shirt.” Slurred, but it couldn’t be helped. His lip was starting to swell.

Shackelford’s pale brow puckered. Minutes earlier, when Taliesin had brushed off his attacker’s feeble attempts to hit him and went after his shirt tangled in the reeds at the edge of the pond, Shackelford’s friends had jumped him. Now he wouldn’t give them another chance like that, back turned, vulnerable. He had to have that shirt, though. He couldn’t don it now—didn’t think he could lift his arms. But he had only one shirt, and damn if he’d lose it because of imbecile Squire Shackelford’s imbecile son and school chums.

“Give him his shirt,” Shackelford grunted. One of his henchmen went to the bank, splashed in the mud, and cussed. But he snatched the shirt off the reeds and tossed it to Taliesin.

He wouldn’t ask for his coat or neck cloth, or his boots. They were behind the reeds on the other side of the pond. He would return later to retrieve them. If he could walk later.

Shackelford sneered. “Well, boy?”

“I don’t know what you want,” he said, rougher than he intended. No air for words. Pain everywhere.

“Liar,” a henchman said, but limply now. Taliesin almost sympathized. The heat hung so heavy, his bare skin wore it like a sleeve.

“What were you doing with the vicar’s daughter?” Shackelford demanded. “We saw her walking away from this copse not ten minutes ago.”

Ten minutes. Barely long enough to wrest control of the havoc she’d roused in him—
that she always roused in him
—before these louts had appeared.

“Vicar’s got three daughters,” he said, and this time the words came out strong, like the Reverend always told him to speak: humble before God but equal to any man.

Shackelford squinted. “Huh?”

“Which daughter did you see?” He lifted his chin, squelching a wince. “Whichever one it was, next time I’m at the vicarage I’ll make certain to tell her not to go wandering around alone.” He narrowed his eyes. “Never know who she might encounter.”

He’d gone too far. Too impudent. Too unwise. He knew it before the words slipped over his torn lip. But he was tired of Shackelford and every other boy in St. Petroc being allowed to talk to her in public—in the street, churchyard, shops, at the fair—when all he could ever hope for was a smile from a distance. Now he’d tasted her. Now he knew she wanted him.

He’d finally had enough.

“You insolent son of an Egyptian whore.” Shackelford gaped. “I gave him a chance, Rob. You heard me do it.” His pasty face flamed as he stripped off his coat. “Now, Gypsy boy, you’ll pay.”

Taliesin braced himself, the pain and heat nothing now to the anger surging in him, furious and fast. “Give me your best.”

Like a dog, Shackelford snarled and came at him.

He gave Taliesin his best.

 

Chapter 1

The Prodigal Son

Combe Park

Home of the Duke and Duchess of Lycombe

February 1819

“Y
ou’re a ghost.”

This comment came at Eleanor Caulfield’s shoulder, quietly. Eleanor ignored it and tried to concentrate on the echoing glory of the pipe organ, whose music filled the chapel.

“A living human’s cheeks cannot be so pale,” her youngest sister insisted below the hymn. Not whispered. Ravenna didn’t know how to whisper. “Yours are chalk.”

“They aren’t.” Eleanor did whisper. She’d nearly perfected the art. “Now, hush.” But she lifted a hand to her face. Clad in silk-lined kidskin fastened with tiny buttons fashioned from oyster shells—gloves borrowed from her other sister, Arabella, the Duchess of Lycombe—her fingertips pressed at her cheeks.

Cold. Like death.

The death of life as she knew it.

“Really, Ellie. You look like a princess,” Ravenna stripped off her shawl and covered Eleanor’s shoulders. “But you’ll catch a chill in this frigid sepulcher.”

The ducal chapel was hardly a sepulcher, rather, a lovely little space of honey-colored limestone and clear windows that allowed the winter sunlight to warm the assembled wedding guests one pale ray at a time. Still, she pulled Ravenna’s shawl over her bosom. With her hair cascading about her shoulders, Ravenna didn’t need it, and everyone always assumed Eleanor did. Thirteen years had not yet erased from her family’s memory the time when every wisp of air stealing through an open door had tipped her closer to death. The inflammation of the lungs she’d taken in her fourteenth year had lingered so long that no one ever thought she would fully recover.

No one, except one.

Today her bloodless cheeks had nothing to do with ill health or the February chill. At the foot of the chancel her beloved papa appeared sublimely happy as he wed a woman ideally suited to him.

Neat and subdued in a modest gown of dove gray cotton, the Reverend Martin Caulfield’s bride lifted a serene face to her groom. Intelligent, interested in theology, moved by his sermons, and honestly pious, the widowed Mrs. Agnes Coyne was the perfect wife for the long-widowed vicar of St. Petroc. The moment she had moved into the village everybody agreed.

Eleanor rejoiced that her papa would find happiness in marriage again; his first wife had perished even before he discovered her and her sisters in the foundling home. But Agnes’s willingness to assist him with his work and her experience running a gentleman’s household pointed to one damning certainty: Eleanor was now superfluous.

Her heart beat at too quick a tempo, and so hard it seemed to drown out the hymn rolling from the pipes. Her papa’s newfound happiness did not cause this. That her life was upon the verge of changing dramatically did.

After years of silence on the issue, Papa had spoken: his eldest daughter should marry. Joy! Happiness! He was to find contentment in wedded bliss, and he wished for her the same blessing.

Agnes had concurred, compassionately, so that Eleanor could not but love her for it. No woman grown wished to live in another woman’s house, she’d said. “My son admires you quite sincerely,” she added, then with a smile: “How could he not?”

Now Mr. Frederick Coyne stood behind Papa on the opposite side of the chancel steps, ogling her without subtlety. Subtle ogling wouldn’t have impressed her either. His coat buttons as large as tea plates made her giggle. But his brilliantly orange spotted waistcoat and matching stockings actually turned her stomach. How sensible Agnes had spawned this specimen of ostentatious exuberance, Eleanor couldn’t fathom.

Frederick waggled his brows, then shifted his eyes to the exit, suggesting . . .
what?
That she steal off with him for a quick assignation in the middle of their parents’ wedding? Or perhaps he intended for them to elope entirely.

He’d said as much that morning when he found her alone at breakfast. “ ’Spect you’re at wit’s end now that Mum’s taking over the roost, m’dear. Nothing to do for it but get leg shackled right away. Now, there’s an idea! Why don’t we skip this dull hash, El, and show the parents how to do it right? Border’s only three or four days’ ride, if the weather holds. What say you?” Perusing her bodice, he’d waggled his brows then too.

If he looked at her breasts now, in church, she might laugh aloud.

And there was the trouble of it. Her palms were sticky-cold with nerves but she
wanted
to laugh.

She wanted to
sing
. Not as she sang on Sundays in church, but as loud as the lark that woke her each morning through her bedchamber window with its abandoned song.

She wanted to
dance
. Not decorously like she had danced at her sisters’ weddings attended by ladies and lords, but freely, wildly, gloriously, like the Gypsies who camped each winter in St. Petroc danced at the May Day festival.

She wanted to tear off her bonnet and feel the dangerous joy of wind in her hair and blazing sunshine upon her face while she galloped her horse along the edge of the cliffs. To suck the cold, salty air into her nostrils and fill her hungry lungs.

Quite simply, she wanted an adventure.

She had
always
wanted an adventure. Ever since as a girl she’d first read the books in her papa’s library, curled up in a window seat as the Cornwall winters blustered and batted the windowpanes, she’d made herself the heroine in the tales of knights and dragons and demons. Dreaming, always dreaming, while the world beyond the cozy safety of the vicarage—a world of workhouses and blisters and cruelties and starvation—no longer touched her.

Now she could have it
. Finally, nothing held her back. Not the vicarage, or the needs of the parish, or her papa. Agnes would care for those.

Nothing stood in her way.

Accustomed as she was to quiet, studious restraint, this abrupt freedom to abandon herself to the unknown both terrified and excited Eleanor.

Frederick adjusted his wide lapels and smiled invasively.

She should be flattered. Poor vicars’ spinster daughters weren’t often ogled by fashionable young gentlemen, or proposed to, even offhandedly, she suspected. Frederick wasn’t a trial to look at, with that thick swipe of hair over his forehead and hooded eyes. She’d even seen him reading a few of times. She could bear a husband’s fashion excesses if he read good books.

It was tempting . . .

His gaze slithered down her bodice.

Not tempting enough
.

Then again, she’d never been tempted by any man. Not by any
man
. Only a boy. Young and naïve at the time, she would have left the comfort and safety of the vicarage for him. She would have gone anywhere for him.

But that was ages ago and didn’t bear recalling, except that he had helped her to learn the inconstancy of the male heart.

Not her papa’s, though. Papa would never demand that she leave the vicarage. Neither would Agnes. If she remained in St. Petroc, she would settle into a life of their endless kindnesses, and her own pathetic superfluity would choke her to death. She had lived modestly for years. But she had never been a milksop. The one moment in her life when she had been on the cusp of becoming so, a wild Gypsy boy had shown her a much better alternative.
An adventure
.

Then he’d broken her heart.

The medieval tales she loved were full of unexpected pitfalls and disasters, of course. That was to be expected. She could have an adventure now, only different in one crucial detail. An adventure that
did not
involve a man could be ideal.

Drawing a slow breath to bank the fledgling excitement that curled through her now, fire licking at kindling, Eleanor turned her eyes away from the happy couple to the chill winter day beyond the chapel window.

And ceased to breathe entirely.

A horseman rode up the drive from the house toward the chapel. The great black beast, powerful in neck and legs, thundered forward, its hooves marking the earth upon impact. The rider controlled the animal with ease, his greatcoat flaring out over the horse’s haunches. Eleanor could not see his entire face; his hat brim masked it. But she knew him from the confident grasp of his gloved hands upon the reins and from the manner in which he rode, as though he might command the world from that horse, and could.

She knew him because every day from September through April for seven years of her young life she had watched him ride. She had memorized him.

That boy
.

The co-author of the single real adventure of her life.

Taliesin Wolfe.

Long ago she had trained her heart to take no notice of anything concerning him, not the infrequent letters he sent to Papa, nor her sisters’ accounts of seeing him in London occasionally. Now that heart betrayed her: it leaped into a gallop faster than his horse’s.

Beside the chapel he dismounted. A groomsman appeared and took the reins, but the beast swung its head around and bared its teeth, and the groom stumbled back. Taliesin placed his hand upon the thick ebony neck and the animal swiveled its face to him. With horses he had always had a rare magic; a natural wisdom and potent touch, like the wizard of Arthurian legend after whom he had been named: Taliesin the Merlin. This magic still seemed to be his. Lowering its head, the mighty beast went docilely with the groom.

Alone on the drive, Taliesin stood still for a moment as he removed his gloves, his black hat and dark overcoat making him a roguish shadow against the pale gray day. He seemed entirely out of place and yet perfectly at ease.
As always
.

Any moment he would look to the window and see her gaping. She must look away. As he’d always done as a boy, he would sense her attention upon him and he would—

He didn’t. With the loping grace that had characterized his movements as a youth, he went forward and out of her sight. She’d barely time to register the raucous thud of her heartbeats before the door to the chapel opened and he entered.

In the building.

Mere yards away.

After eleven years
.

The brisk chill of the day seemed to cling to him in the high color upon his cheeks and the tousle of his satiny black hair.

And the kindling within Eleanor burst into flame.

Eleven years of modesty. Eleven years of careful reserve. Eleven years of regretting the only adventure she’d ever had. Now he stood before her again, dark and lean and staggeringly virile. And like a sleeping princess in a fairy tale brought back to life by magic, every morsel of her maidenly body awoke.

“Tali!” Ravenna exclaimed below the swell of the organ.

“I told you he would come,” Arabella murmured from her other side.

She
had
?

“Good heavens, Ellie,” Ravenna said in her ear. “Now you look positively fevered. Are you sure you’re well?”

The music ended on a single, dramatic chord. In the sudden silence the prodigal Gypsy’s boots clunked on the church floor. Eleanor’s papa turned his head around, and his face opened in happiness.

“In the name of God above,” the priest began, and everybody looked at him. But to Eleanor, even the impact of her papa entering into marital bliss could not now compare to the sudden appearance after so many years of Taliesin Wolfe.

In the last of several rows of empty pews, he stood imposingly erect, still, and dark, his presence making shadows where none had been before. With a lift of lashes, dark and thick like a starless night, he met her gaze directly. Slowly, the corner of his mouth tilted up.

Confusion. Indignation. Anger.

Heat
.

All tangling together in the pit of her stomach and down to her fingertips. He had always done this to her—turned her insides out and her outsides quivering. Now after years of absence he was doing it again with no more than a mocking semi-smile.

She refused to succumb. The years had taught her. They had changed her.

Clearly they had changed him too. All sharp jaw, long limbs, sunken cheeks, and deep eyes as a boy, when he began to grow into his bones he had become an impossibly handsome youth. Watching him at a distance or walking beside him, she had found it difficult not to look too long at him, like a hunger that refused to be satisfied.

In appearance he was no longer that boy. His taut jaw and too-long hair and the silver rings in his ears were the same, but all else had changed. Fine clothing, broader shoulders, and the hardness in his black eyes marked him as a stranger now. And yet still she could not look away.

He bowed.

To her.

He
bowed
.

When had he learned how to bow? When had he thrown off the urchin who teased her and competed with her and made her crazy? When had he become this gentleman? And when had God decided that after a life of maidenly quietude she had sinned so greatly that she deserved to again meet the single person who could make her sin again?

HER
CHEEKS
FLOWERED
with pink and fire lit her eyes as she returned his stare as though he’d no business in this place.

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