The Tower clock tolled three past midnight. Tentacles of coal smoke and river mist twined around gabled roofs and twisted chimneys, sidled between strange old buildings with deep-cut carvings and overshot windows, skittered past pale houses with majestic ghostly facades. Fog transformed the familiar into the fantastically strange, changed even so ordinary an object as a street lamp into some fanciful fabrication from a fabulous Arabian tale.
Into the streetlamp's feeble light stepped a man who himself might have emerged from some mythic romance. He was tall, swarthy, lean, an exotic Caliph in well-tailored British evening clothes. His face was a masterpiece of sharp masculine angles, his eyebrows a dark slash above eyes of a bright cold green, his mouth both sensual and austere. Sinbad, the gossip sheets had named him, as his desire for adventure led him to many far corners of the world, including Alexandria, where Cleopatra and Mark Antony had lived out their ill-fated romance, and Constantinople, with its Byzantine palaces and its mosques. Sinbad had traveled in Equatorial Africa, the Middle East and India, where rumor had him riding with Maratha horsemen and smoking hashish in a hookah before sitting back to watch a contest between fighting elephants that had been staged for his benefit by a member of the Rajput nobility. Rumor also claimed that he had visited the Raj's harem--or had the harem belonged to a Pasha or a Sultan? In any event, there was much speculation about what Sinbad might have learned from lithesome odalisques with melodious names like Shy Rose and Nightingale.
It was a sad thing, Benedict reflected, when a man became so intimidated by his own reputation that he toyed with the notion of becoming a monk.
True, he was a little wicked, but he was not so wicked as the world believed. An inconvenient conscience prevented him from wholly wallowing in sin. Not that sainthood beckoned. Benedict's conscience spent as much time snoozing as his grandaunt's cat.
The air was chill, but he was not. Those portions of his person that he could still feel, felt pleasantly flushed. At some point during this night's adventures--not all of which he recalled, or the places he had been--he had lost his jacket. He freed his long dark hair from the ornate clasp that confined it at his nape; loosened his cravat.
London stank of coal smoke and river effluvium and other even more noxious substances. Still, the city's stench was not as bad as other places that he had been. Benedict had not realized his great good fortune when he was wandering the world at whim, until like his namesake he had been shipwrecked, his voyaging cut short--permanently, he feared--by the carriage accident that had killed his elder brother Marcus and Marcus's pregnant wife. And so he drank, sometimes more than he should; gambled, both at the tables and on 'Change; wenched, because although he wasn't certain how he had gained his reputation, he felt obliged to live up to it; and strolled London's late-night streets thinking wistfully of giant snakes and man-eating apes and rivers filled with precious stones.
Even the coach-stand stood deserted at this hour. The cheesemonger had long since drawn in his canvas blind; the perambulating pie-man had departed with his warehouse on his arm, in company with the baked-potato vendor and the flower girl. Some time yet would pass before the milkmaid appeared with her buckets, and the produce carts rumbled toward the markets, and the spires of the churches and roofs of the tall buildings glowed pink in the sun's rising light.
Somewhere nearby, hooves clattered on cobblestone. The sound might have come from around the next corner or from several streets away. Impossible to say if it was the fog that caused this distortion of the senses or the copious amounts of brandy that Benedict had drunk.
The clip-clop grew louder, faster. A dappled horse loomed like a great ghost out of the fog. Astride its broad back, a slight figure was struggling with the reins. "Blast it, Molly!" the rider wailed. A fleeting glimpse of dappled horse and startled rider, a quick vivid impression of violet eyes and narrow nose and determined chin--
No apparition this, born of fog and brandy fumes. No lad, either, despite the gray frieze breeches and grubby once-white shirt.
The skittish horse wheeled, reared up on its back legs. The rider lost her seat. She would have smashed against the cobblestones, had not Benedict caught her in mid-fall. The horse galloped away into the night.
Narrow waist, shapely backside, breasts too generous to be successfully bound flat--Benedict was curious about this tempting morsel that Fate, or inept horsemanship, had placed in his pathway. "Blast you, I've lost Molly!" she wailed, and punched him. "Let me go!"
Benedict caught her hand before she could give his ear another cuff. "You're welcome. I could have stood by and watched your neck get broke."
Her lip curled scornfully. "I wouldn't have almost broke my neck if not for you popping up like some great looby! Oh, why did you have to interfere?"
Benedict had meant to satisfy his curiosity and send this young woman on her way. Now he decided he would not.
"Put me down!" she shrieked, and beat at him with her fists. "You have got me upside down, you block!"
So he had, and so he would keep her, firmly tucked beneath his arm. She wriggled and cursed and stated her opinion of him in tones loud enough to wake the dead. Benedict yanked off his cravat and stuffed it into her mouth, pulled her battered cap down over her eyes.
She tried all the harder to kick, pummel and bite. In response, he swatted her trim backside. She stiffened in outrage. Benedict clamped a hand across her ankles before she could recover sufficiently to try and damage him again, and set out through the streets. A pale sickle moon peered through the shredded mist, glittered in the upper windows of the tall buildings that they passed.
Benedict kept sharp watch on the shadows. The brisk night air, and his unexpected adventure, had cleared some of the cobwebs from his brain. Unmolested by cracksman, footpad, or other creature of the night, he arrived at a fashionable square off St. James's. On the far side of the common central garden stood a large brick mansion with balustraded roof, approached by forecourt and prominent portico.
He climbed the broad steps. The ornate front door was opened by a footman who goggled in sleepy astonishment at sight of his master clutching a squirming cursing armful--it was obvious the armful was cursing, though he couldn't make out the exact words. "I have a guest, Martin," Benedict said as he entered the spacious hall. "We don't want to be disturbed." His 'guest' struggled frantically as he carried her across the black and white marble chessboard floor, up the noble staircase with its ormolu balustrade and mahogany handrail, and into his study.
This household was accustomed to its master's erratic hours. A fire burned in the hearth. Benedict closed the door behind him, turned the key in the lock.
No sooner did he set the she-devil on her feet than she tried again to clout him. Benedict caught her wrists. "I mean you no harm, little one. If I let you go, will you promise to behave?" Eyes of a startling violet hue met his. She nodded vigorously.
Keeping her wrists clasped in one hand, Benedict pulled off the battered cap. Clouds of caramel hair tumbled down around her slender shoulders, framing a delicately oval face with skin as fine and pale as porcelain, save for the hectic color in her cheeks.
"Mmmph! Nommff!" His captive wrinkled her absurdly patrician little nose. Benedict caught her chin and pulled out the sodden gag. Ironically he said, "Welcome to my house."
She shot him an irritated glance. Benedict suspected she would have bolted for the furthest corner, had he not still clasped her wrists.
Fine mahogany furniture, marble chimneypiece, fire burning low in the hearth--Her curious gaze missed nothing, not the tapestry panels and silver sconces that hung upon the book-lined walls, nor the brilliantly hued Moorfield carpet that covered the polished wooden floor, nor the weary aspidistra languishing in its china pot. "This is a very nice room," she said politely, as she returned her attention to his face. "Thank you for showing it to me. Now, if you don't mind, I would like to leave."
That voice belonged to no street urchin. Benedict was even more intrigued. "Ah, but I do mind. You have put me to considerable inconvenience. Tell me how old you are."
His captive seemed as startled by Benedict's question as he was himself. "I am seventeen," she replied, with immense dignity. "Or almost! How old are you?"
What an impudent baggage she was. And how very young. "I am all of five-and-thirty. Tell me your name."
She lowered her thick lashes. "I'm sorry to disoblige you, but I don't think I should do that."
"I'll tell you my name. I am Baird. Benedict to you, brat."
Prettily, she pouted. "I am not a brat!" Benedict quirked an eyebrow, and she blew out a breath. "Oh, very well! My name is Miranda."
"Just Miranda?" Benedict leaned back against the great mahogany desk and drew her toward him. She dug her heels into the carpet and resisted with all her might. "Where were you going, Miranda, in the middle of the night? Surely you must be aware of the risks you took. Any number of unpleasant things might have befallen you. You might have come to the attention of an unscrupulous character like myself."
Miranda's violet gaze fixed on his face. "Are you unscrupulous?" she inquired.
"I am," Benedict responded gravely. Even her scowl was bewitching. He was more wicked than he had realized, to be tempted by a babe.
Those amazing eyes narrowed. "Are you going to ravish me, sir?" When he did not answer, she added, "Er, Benedict?"
Would that he might ravish her, but not even his accursed reputation had him that great a débauché, though the reaction of his body suggested it would be happy if he were.
Instead, he would teach her a little lesson. Benedict released one of her wrists and raised his hand to stroke her shining tumble of hair. "You have a choice, Miranda. Either allow me to escort you to your destination, or stay here with me." Her skin was soft and warm beneath his fingers. Her pulse beat frantically beneath his thumb. Benedict's own pulse was behaving so erratically that his conscience roused. A true gentleman, it pointed out, would escort this reckless young woman home to her no doubt long-suffering guardians straightaway.
Benedict might have heeded conscience, and he might not. Before he could decide just how wicked he was feeling, his captive produced a hatpin from somewhere on her person and jabbed it in his ribs.
"The devil!" he yelped as he released her. He cursed again as her boot connected with his shin. Caught off guard and off balance, he stumbled back against the desk.
Miranda darted toward the study door. It slammed shut behind her. The key turned in the lock.
Benedict sank down in a chair. The little hellion had wielded her bloody hatpin as effectively as if it had been a fencing foil. And then she had locked him in his own study and taken away the key.