Authors: The Runaway Duke
Copyright © 2004 by Julie Anne Long
Excerpt from To Love a Thief copyright © 2004 by Julie Anne Long
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First eBook Edition: September 2007
“When you stand in front of the fire, I can see your body through your nightdress.”
“Good,” Rebecca said. “Then look at me. It is what you want to do, is it not?”
“Becca . . . please. Go back to bed. Perhaps we can talk tomorrow.”
Rebecca inhaled deeply.
“I should like it if you made love to me.”
His hand still shading his eyes, Connor gave a short laugh.
“And how on earth would you know that, wee Becca?”
She struggled to keep her voice even. “Perhaps it makes you feel less afraid to treat me as a child, but I know for certain you do not see me as one.”
He looked at her then, helplessly. The firelight illuminated her through her nightdress, the heart-stopping curve of her breasts and hips, the long shadows of her legs. Something caught in his throat.
“You do not know who I am . . .” he faltered.
“Connor, I know you are something more than you claim to be. You are Irish one moment and as English as Wellington the next . . . but it matters little. I think I know the man you are, perhaps better than anyone.”
She moved away from the hearth and stood next to him. His arms, as if of their own accord, reached up for her . . .
Please turn to the back of this book for a preview of Julie Anne Long’s next novel,
To Love a Thief
, available April 2005.
To Daveed, dear friend, witty malcontent, fellow survivor of the corporate trenches—you cheered me on from the very beginning, and look what happened!
Throughout this process I benefited from the astounding generosity and support of so many people . . . my undying gratitude goes to Elizabeth Pomada, agent extraordinaire, who believed in me and found such a wonderful home for my novel; to Beth de Guzman and Melanie Murray at Warner, for their heady enthusiasm for
The Runaway Duke
—and Melanie, I can’t thank you enough for your patience, guidance, and humor. I’m so glad you’re my editor! And a special thank you to Diane Luger and Mimi Bark at Warner, too, for my beautiful cover. I feel blessed to be a Warner author.
And then there are the folks who kept me sane throughout:
Thanks to Lisa Martin, best bud, sister (at heart) and master craftswoman—what on
would I do without you, Lis? To David George, for loving the story from the very beginning, which pretty much guaranteed I’d finish writing it; to Ken Mierow, for graciously allowing his brain to be ruthlessly picked and for always,
knowing the right thing to say; to Doreen DeSalvo, for her humor and stellar feedback and friendship—I’m so glad
The Runaway Duke
brought you into my life, Doreen! To Steve Czerniak, for his ever-cheerful blunt appraisal, support and laughter—you’re a true pal, Esteban. To my sis Karen Crist and to Melisa Phillips, for endless encouragement and endless listening. And to Chris . . . just because.
And to everyone else out there who ever said something kind or positive or supportive: I’m living proof that your words made a difference. I hope you know who you are, and my deep appreciation goes to all of you, too.
e was dreaming, or he was awake; he couldn’t be certain anymore. Smoke and gunpowder scorched his lungs. His musket, slippery with sweat where his fist clutched it, was hotter than his lungs, and nearly slipped his grip as he fumbled to reload. His legs and arms had gone numb from exhaustion, and the sounds raging around him—screams of horses and men, the clash of metal, the thud of boots, the boom of cannons—pulsed, collided, fused into one sound. From somewhere within that one sound an echo of hideous pain howled, distinct, relentless.
“Son? Can you hear me, son?”
Someone grabbed him by his hair, grown long during the endless weeks of marching, and yanked his head back; he looked into the cold glinting eyes of his father, who threw him to the ground and kicked him in the ribs. And when he curled his arms around his knees to protect himself, his father kicked him again, and again, and then pulled him to his feet, because it infuriated his father when he could not see in his son’s eyes the pain he was inflicting. And then his father let him go, and when he looked up again, still fumbling to load his gun, he saw Roddy Campbell take a musket ball in the gut; saw the blood fountaining from him, saw Roddy flying backward to lie like so many others on the field, no longer a laughing Irishman who occasionally cheated at cards and always missed his mother, but a pile of rags and bones and meat.
“Tell us your name, lad,”
came the voice again, a sound disconnected from the wall of raging noise, soft but excruciating and unwelcome, because it wanted to drag him closer to the surface, where the pain was.
“I don’t think he can hear you, Doctor. I was able to give him some of the bark water, but the fever seems to have him now.”
It seemed important to tell the voice about Roddy. Someone should know, someone should acknowledge his fall.
“What did he say just then?”
“I believe we have our answer. He said ‘Roddy.’”
The doctor dropped his head to his chest with a deep sigh, then quickly lifted it again. Gestures of resignation and loss were indulgences here. He could afford them only sparingly.
“If this is Roddy Campbell, then the lad with his chest blown in must be young Blackburn. First name Roarke, according to Pierce, then a half-dozen other names, like any proper nobleman. Dunbrooke’s heir. We’ve lost the future Duke of Dunbrooke here tonight.”
“Oh,” said the woman, a sigh. They turned to look at the body of the young man whose face they had just covered. Awe of the aristocracy had been bred into the English bone for centuries, and even now, surrounded by the blood and misery of Waterloo, they mourned more than perhaps they ought to for the dead young man, simply because he was the eldest son of a very wealthy duke.
“Word has it that he enraged the duke by serving at all, let alone in the infantry,” the doctor said. “Bloody rash young fool. Send a messenger to Colonel Pierce—he personally saw these two lads loaded onto the hospital cart. He was fond of Dunbrooke. The rest of their regiment is dead on the field.”
“Does the duke have any other sons?”
“One other. Word is the younger son’s a bit of a rakehell.”
“I’ll pray for young Roarke Blackburn’s soul, then, may he rest in peace. Do you think Campbell will live?”
“If he survives this fever, yes, he will live, or at least it won’t be his leg that kills him. Give him some more of the Peruvian bark water when he’ll take it. The ball missed the bone, so he’ll likely keep his leg. Lucky chap, unlike his friend.”
His fever broke the next day and the searing pain in his leg became all too real evidence that he was alive. He opened his eyes to the shy, kind smile of the woman kneeling next to him—was this her house? It was a farmhouse, and bodies of soldiers—dead, dying, struggling to live—lined the floors, and the stench of suffering thickened the air. The woman offered him some water and called him “Roddy.” And as he had decided somewhere in his fitful sleep that his life thus far had been nothing but battles and that if he lived he would never do battle again, he saw this as a sign from God. He thanked God for the innate resourcefulness that allowed him to recognize an opportunity when it reared before him. He silently thanked his father for the cool control he had at his command, a control that had been forged from violence and manipulation. He thanked Wellington, who cared little what his men wore on their backs as long as they fought well and bravely, for no one would be able to identify him from his uniform. And he thanked Roddy Campbell for the temporary loan of his name, and was certain that Campbell would have been thoroughly amused.
In the chaos of Waterloo’s aftermath, it was easy to become someone else. When he was able to limp out of the makeshift battlefield hospital and away from the horrors wrought by Napoleon and his own countrymen, Roarke Blackburn, now known as Roddy Campbell, boarded a ship for England and disappeared into the English countryside, to a life empty of everything but the freedom to choose what came next. At the first pub he encountered, he offered a final silent prayer of gratitude and a toast to his unlucky friend, then retired Roddy Campbell’s name. He had decided to use two of his own names; since he had so many to choose from, it seemed the right thing to do.
Roarke Blackburn is dead,
he thought with a smile, and toasted himself.
Long live Connor Riordan.
“Jenkins—I mean, Riordan—may I beg a favor of you, m’boy?”
Connor stifled a smile and looked up from the saddle he was polishing. Imagine Sir Henry Tremaine “begging a favor” of his head groom. But Sir Henry was like that: kind and respectful, if absentminded—occasionally Sir Henry called him Jenkins, who was the gardener, and he called the gardener Riordan. Connor merely considered the extra layer of anonymity afforded by Sir Henry’s forgetfulness an added benefit of his employment. They’d met in a country pub a week or so before—Sir Henry had mistaken Connor for an Irish laborer, which was precisely what Connor intended to be mistaken for—and they had begun talking about horses, a comfortable, manly topic. At last, filled with bonhomie and ale, impressed with Connor’s extensive equine knowledge, Sir Henry had impulsively offered him a job.
Connor had thought. He knew horses; he had been wandering aimlessly for nearly a year. Some structure to his day, a kind employer, a small but sufficient wage . . . it had seemed like the perfect way to bide his time until he knew what he intended to do for the rest of his life.
“A favor, sir? But of course. How can I be of assistance to ye?”
“Well, ’tis my daughter, you see . . .”
“Your daughter, sir?”
“My youngest. Rebecca. She’s in a tree. Something to do with a hound.”
It seemed that Daisy, a big old brown hound Connor had met just a day ago, had died in her sleep during the night. Shredded with grief, Rebecca had taken to the largest apple tree in the orchard shortly after breakfast. Suppertime was growing nigh, and she showed no signs of desiring to set foot on the ground ever again, regardless of the shouted coaxing that her mama and papa had done from below.
“I’m not as spry as I once was, Riordan, and I wondered if you’d mind going up after her? She’s a stubborn little thing, and a bit of a hoyden at times, but very dear in her way.”
Connor had a soft spot for stubborn hoydens. “I’ll have a go at it, sir.”
He followed Sir Henry to the tree, an impressive tree to be sure; it sprang up out of the ground like an immense gnarled hand. He scaled it and found a pale, redheaded twig of a girl, all long limbs, fierce expression, and tear-streaked cheeks, huddled on a thick branch.
?” she demanded imperiously, sniffling, when his dark head came into view.
“I’m Connor Riordan, m’lady. I work with your da’s horses in the stables. I understand you are Rebecca. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Oh! Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Riordan.” Connor smiled; her startled imperiousness had given way to politeness, as though she was loath to make anyone feel unwelcome. “You’re not English, are you?”
“No, m’lady. Irish as St. Patrick.”
Rebecca nodded, studying him curiously now.
“’Tis a sad thing about Daisy, eh, lass? She was a fine hound. I liked her very much.”
“You met her?” Rebecca asked, half hopeful, half suspicious. Her eyes began to tear again.
“Oh, yes, I had the pleasure of making her acquaintance yesterday. She had very kind eyes, a lot of gray around her muzzle, and a particularly nice smile for a dog. She looked a bit tired, but happy to meet me.”
Rebecca began blinking rapidly, because the tears were coming again, but she laughed a little, too. “Her back legs hurt her, and she couldn’t see very well anymore, and she had more gray fur than brown on her face. I think you are right—she
very tired. But she was my best friend, and I will miss her very much.”
“Oh, you are a lucky lass then, if you were her best friend. Daisy was very lucky, too, to have you for a friend. And she’s lucky to have folks who miss her. I wish I could have known her better.”
Rebecca nodded somberly, reflecting on this philosophy.
“What do you think Daisy is doing now?” she asked in a near whisper, as if fearing the answer.
“Oh, she’s most definitely in heaven, Rebecca, chasing her tail, and maybe some rabbits, too, and every now and then she catches one. But they have an agreement, she and the rabbits—it’s just a game of tag, no eating allowed. She has the hind legs of a pup. She’ll have scraps from God’s dinner table every night.”
Rebecca laughed again, then swiped the back of her hand across her eyes. She looked a little relieved at his answer.
“The vicar isn’t certain whether animals go to heaven,” Rebecca mused. “But I thought that Daisy might.”
“I will tell you a secret, Miss Tremaine: vicars do not always know the answers to the big questions. But do not tell the vicar that I told you that.”
Rebecca nodded. “I believe you are right. Our vicar doesn’t seem to like it when I ask questions, but I cannot help it. There’s so much that wants questioning.”
“I’ll wager you ask
questions,” Connor said with a grin.
Rebecca nodded somberly, as if this went without saying.
“Did you know your da bought a new horse today? A young Arabian colt, name of Maharajah. A big gray fellow. I think we all need to make him feel welcome. Would you like to meet him?”
After a moment of reflection, Rebecca nodded, and Connor held out his arms, an eyebrow cocked.
“I can get down on my own,” she said with an indignant sniffle.
“I know, lass, but you’re tired, aye? Everyone will think I’m a hero if they see me helping you down, and I’d like to impress your da, seeing as how I’m new here. What do you say? Will you help me out?”
Rebecca smiled, mulling this over. And at last, she gave in and trustingly hooked her hands around Connor’s neck.
And so Connor shinnied down the tree with one arm wrapped protectively around the gangly little girl. She seemed to weigh barely anything at all.