DISCREET YOUNG GENTLEMAN
A man is what he makes of himself, Dean Smith’s father had always insisted. The words mocked him tonight to the clop of the horses’ hooves as his ancient coach jolted over the pitted road back to Carwick. A man is what he makes of him-self, over and over in the gathering twilight.
A few hours earlier, Dean had decided that tonight he would make himself into a Fair-But-Stern-Landlord. He had carefully dressed the part, donning his most respectable long-tailed jacket, a somber black that had been new for his uncle’s memorial service in May, adding an embroidered grey-and-white waistcoat purchased for the same occasion. Tied his cravat neatly, if without flair. Even hunted through his things for an old diamond tie-pin that used to be his father’s, and setting it to glimmer demurely on the knot of his cravat.
As satisfied as he could be with his appearance, and borrowing confidence from his new position, he had tucked Uncle Parm’s account book under his arm and set out for the first of several farms which seemed not to have paid any rents for several years. Soon, Dean wouldn’t need the arrears, but the money would stand him in good stead for the wedding next month.
“Eh? What’s that? Rent?” Farmer Dickenson laughed in his face, emitting a cloud of onion and tobacco. The elderly man then shuffled over to a worn wooden box kept on a shelf by the fire, producing a two scraps of paper. The first, unarguably in the peculiar chicken-scratch distinctive to his uncle, stated that one Mr. William Dickenson, of Windy Farm in the county of Worcestershire, was exempt from the payment of rent for a term ending at Christmas Quarter Day in the Year of Our Lord Eighteen-Hundred and Twenty-One.
Dickenson poked at the date. “Got more than six years left, young man.” His rheumy eyes dared his visitor to insist on a more suitable form of address, and Dean feared if he tried, Dickenson would laugh at him again and bring up some nonsense of having dandled his new landlord upon his knee on some mythical past visit.
“But why?” Dean asked, handing the scrip back to the farmer.
“Adored my apple brandy, your uncle did. Few years back, I was hankering to move up to Yorkshire, to be near my daughter, see? Parm give me ten years free rent if I’d a stayed.”
“Ten years? But that’s—” Absurd. Eccentric. Indicative of no business sense at all. “Uncle Parm,” Dean finished, shaking his head.
The farmer’s second bit of paper sent Dean slinking off into the summer evening, tail firmly between his legs and any thought of visiting the other farms on his list in tatters. Not only was Mr. Dickenson to live rent-free for years to come, but shortly before his death Uncle Parmenius had promised to bear full responsibility for a brand new apple barn, to be completed before harvest. The work, the old man pointed out, had best be started soon if Dean was going to fulfill his obligation in time. Dickenson would hate to have to bring the matter to court.
A man is what he makes of himself. Dean had made a right fool of himself tonight. Hell and damnation. How was he to pay for the barn? He’d been too proud to ask his father-in-law for a loan thus far, and shrank from doing it now. Perhaps the workmen could be persuaded to extend him credit—after all, they wouldn’t have to wait very long. He and Minerva would wed at the end of September, and after that—
A harsh wordless cry echoed from the driver’s box, and Dean felt the carriage lurch as the horses crashed to a precipitate halt. “Erich,” he called, “Was ist das?”
The answering voice did not belong to his coachman, being lower and richer of tone, and the words English. “Stand and deliver!”
“Oh, Christ.” Dean took a brief second to bury his head in his hands. This, he was starting to think, was not going to rank among his favorite nights. Frustration welled up in him as he slowly opened the carriage door and unfolded the steps to the ground. He’d had reason to expect that he would end this day more prosperous than he’d begun it. Now, after losing ten years of rent and the price of a new barn, he was supposed to give up even his meager purse and his father’s tie-pin? Dean halted on the steps, tight-lipped with anger.
The highwayman stood in the shadows on the road, a black horse looming behind him. His shirt billowed whitely in the fading light, the black mask covering the lower half of his face a dramatic contrast. A wide-brimmed hat covered his hair and shaded his eyes. In one hand he held a pistol, and a second was tucked into the wide scarlet sash at his waist. Dean glanced up at Erich on the driving box, and his hands curled into fists at the frozen look of fear on his coachman’s face.
“That’s right,” the smooth voice said, amused, from beneath the black mask. “Your driver is being very sensible. I suggest you do the same.” The robber took a step toward the coach.
Sensible? Erich was terrified. Red dots of fury danced in front of Dean’s eyes, and without stopping for thought, he launched himself at the highwayman, hoping vaguely that the height advantage from the coach steps would work in his favor.
It did. With a cry of surprise, the robber folded backward onto the road, Dean atop him. There were taut muscles beneath the billowing shirt, strength in the wide shoulders, but the highwayman, apparently winded by the impact with the road, did not attempt to fight back. His gun flew from his grasp, skidding several feet down the roadway.
“Wait,” the highwayman gasped. “This wasn’t—”
“Shut up.” Dean grabbed the second pistol from the man’s sash, flinging it as far as he could into the bushes by the side of the road. A horse whinnied at the crash of gun into brush, and Dean looked up to see the highwayman’s mount wheeling and cantering off into the distance. He pulled himself onto his knees, staring down at the highwayman, who was still struggling for breath on his back. If a man is what he makes of himself, this man had failed to make himself a very effective criminal. Dean reached and pulled the black mask, which proved to be a length of heavy silk, from the robber’s face.
The highwayman was younger than he would have expected, perhaps in his mid-twenties, and dark of hair and eye. “Get in the coach,” Dean said. “I’ll be taking you to justice for this.”
The dark-haired man managed to draw a long breath, and incredibly, laughed. “Am I to assume,” he said, “that you weren’t expecting me?”
“Don’t be stupid. Of course not.” Dean herded the man into his carriage, calling a destination to his coachman. “Fräulein Minerva—zum Haus ihres Vaters, ja?”
“Honestly, I’m not a highwayman,” the dark-haired man continued, settling into one of the worn leather seats. In the late-summer twilight creeping into the carriage, he looked remarkably calm for the circumstances. “Would I have made such a botch of it if I were?”
Dean, on the seat opposite, folded his arms, his breathing returning to normal. Not a highwayman? How absurd. “One can, of course, understand my confusion. It’s not so much the mask.” He considered, tilting his head. “I’m not in with the dandy set, so I’d believe you if you said everyone’s wearing them this season. And the pistol? Just a sensible precaution in these troubled times.”
“It wasn’t loaded, you know,” said the other man, a hint of inappropriate amusement flickering in his dark eyes.
“More the fool you,” Dean said mildly. “Now, the part where you blocked the road with your horse and shouted ‘Stand and deliver!.’ That was…?”
The highwayman laughed. “Poor Nell! Our little set-to scared the liver and lights out of her. She was a hire—I hope she finds her way back to the stable in town.”
“A lesson learned: skittish horses are not an asset on the High Toby. Too bad you won’t live to profit from it.” It was a pity, in a way, that a man who faced his end with such apparent bravery had to die, and Dean couldn’t help but wonder how the robber had turned out as he did. Perhaps he was one of the thousands of soldiers left to their own devices since Boney’s defeat at Waterloo in June. Even so, becoming a highwayman was his own choice, and he had to suffer the consequences.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake.” Dean’s prisoner settled himself back against the coach cushions, raising a long-fingered hand to smooth his dark hair, disordered in their brief scuffle on the road. To Dean’s disgust, the sleek locks fell instantly into place. The miscreant’s mane was positively ruly, in sharp contrast to his own wiry hair, of an unfortunate shade of ginger.
The hair wasn’t the man’s only asset, either, Dean noted sourly. The highwayman’s legs, long and sculpted, displayed to advantage in skin-tight buckskins and knee-high Hessians. His fine linen shirt had been torn down the front, and the chest that gleamed through it was equally well-muscled, tapering to a trim waist. And although the light was too uncertain to see clearly, Dean was unaccountably sure that the smooth skin sported not even a single disfiguring freckle. Oh, women would weep when this one dangled on the gallows.
Grooming seen to, the highwayman continued. “It was a simple mistake, sir. I thought you were someone else.”
Dean raised his brows, so pale as to be almost invisible. “Obviously. Someone who wouldn’t fight back.”
The other man threw back his head and laughed, a merry sound. “I’m not much of a fighter, but you were remarkably handy with your fists.” A tone of admiration crept into his voice as he assessed Dean’s physique. “But perhaps you box to keep fit? The speed with which you disarmed me was quite—”
“Excuse me,” Dean said. “But in this case, flattery will get you absolutely nowhere.”
Gazing at him sidelong through a thicket of black lashes, the highwayman murmured, “Pity, that.”
“Yes, I’m sure you would prefer not to face justice. But the laws are rather unambiguous on this one, I’m afraid.” Dean frowned, reminding himself that the man was a criminal, and deserved death. Of course he did. “And don’t think you can charm the magistrate, either. He’s my future father-in-law, and knows the sort of man I am. He’ll accept my story as the gospel truth.”
His captive leaned forward, placing a warm and conciliatory hand on Dean’s knee. “Listen. When I said I thought you were someone else, I meant it. Obviously you thought I was a highwayman—I was playing the part of one. It was a sort of prank.” He gave the knee a pat and withdrew.
“A sort of prank.” Dean’s hazel eyes narrowed. Was it possible?
“Honestly. If I were really a hardened criminal, wouldn’t I have loaded the pistol?” The dark-haired man’s smile was winsome.
The horses slowed, and the coachman rapped on the roof to signal that they were approaching the magistrate’s house.
“And if I had been this other person, I would somehow have been amused by this? Quickly now, you have about ten seconds before someone comes out to see why we’re here.”
“I swear to you. This was all arranged in advance, and the gentleman in question was expecting me. If you had been the Earl of Carwick—”
“Oh, you stupid fool,” Dean said softly, banging on the coach roof. In response, the coachman hallooed the house, and almost instantly a voice called a reply. “Allow me to introduce myself. Dean Smith, Earl of Carwick, and I most definitely was not expecting to be robbed tonight, in fun or in earnest. Magistrate Lewis will hang you for this.”
“Lewis? Oh, Christ. Please. Drive on.” The highwayman’s face was pale at last. “We must discuss this—”
There were voices outside, approaching the carriage, and among them Dean recognized the deep rumble of his fiancée’s father. “It is too late. You know the name, so Lewis knows you. He knows you’re a highwayman.”
“No,” the other man said. “He knows I’m a prostitute.”
And then the door to the coach opened.
The interview that followed in the magistrate’s office would stand among the most unpleasant experiences of Dean’s life. Mr. Lewis, portly and prosperous, was not at all happy to find his future son-in-law alone in a coach with a male strumpet, both of them showing signs of obvious disorder. Neither of Dean’s companions helped the issue. The highwayman rolled his eyes and fiddled with his torn shirt while Dean sputtered through his accusation. When pressed for his own story, the dark-haired man hesitated for a moment before confiding, “I feel somewhat at a disadvantage here. His lordship said you would accept whatever he told you as the gospel truth.”
“Did he now?” Mr. Lewis’s tones were icy. He beckoned to Dean’s coachman, standing several paces back by the office door. “You there—come forward. Your version now, and be quick about it. What happened? And don’t you carry a gun for protection against thieves?”
The coachman approached with reluctance, blinking worried brown eyes. “Mein Herr?”
“Erich doesn’t like guns, and he doesn’t speak English,” Dean said impatiently. “Just listen to me—”
“He’s a witness.” Lewis rose from his polished mahogany desk, its size designed to awe and intimidate. “Surely he can stumble through a basic explanation?”
“Oh, Christ. Erich, help me—er…” His German, though improving steadily over the past few months, had a tendency to fly from his head in times of stress. “Kannst du mir helfen? Erkläre dem…dem…magistrate—oh, hell, dem Mann auf Englisch—” Erich stared at him blankly. “Hell and damnation. Mr. Lewis, I can translate for him.”
“And what good would that do? Am I to rely on your version of his words?”
“It’s the truth!” Dean shouted.
“The gospel truth?” Mr. Lewis glared, hands on his substantial hips.
“Why wouldn’t you believe me?” Dean was just able to stop himself from grabbing one of the heavy volumes of Blackstone’s Commentaries from the shelf and throwing it at someone. “Why on earth would I bring this man to you if he hadn’t tried to rob me?”
The accused highwayman lowered his eyes. “Bit of a misunderstanding, Magistrate, about—about certain…expectations. Um…how shall I put this?”
Lewis held up one hand, grimacing. “Spare me the details—please. Listen, Rob, I’ve warned you before to stay out of Worcester. If you ever appear before me again, I will deport you to Van Dieman’s land, is that clear?”
The prostitute nodded, his pose contrite.
“Good,” Lewis said. “You have until dawn to clear the county line.” He turned back to Dean. “And you, Carwick. We will keep this quiet, of course. If your filthy vices become known, it won’t be through me. But if you ever come near Minerva again, I swear I’ll denounce you to the world for the vile, unnatural creature you are.”
Dean’s face flamed as red as his hair. “You can’t—”
“Yes, I can.” The magistrate’s voice was cold, his face set. “Your engagement to my daughter is over. Now get out of my sight!”
“Sir.” Dean bowed stiffly. Through his tumult, he was vaguely aware of the dark-haired man—Rob, the magistrate had called him—holding the door for him and following him outside the house.
“I’m sorry,” Rob said. “But if he’d believed you, he would have hanged me for a highwayman, and I’m not. Your engagement wasn’t worth dying for.”
Dean shook himself. “Not in your opinion. I’m ruined. Jesus Christ,” he whispered as it sunk in. “It’s true. I’m ruined.”
“There are plenty of women in the world.” The prostitute reached to lay a hand on Dean’s arm, then dropped it as the other man stiffened. “You’re an earl, and a fine-looking man at that. You’ll find another.”
Dean dismissed the compliment as an empty courtesy. Fine looking? With his unfortunate hair, eyes of an indeterminate color, and damned freckles all over his face and body? He cast a glance of pure loathing at Rob, whose unmarked skin shone luminous in the light of the rising three-quarter moon. “There are no other women. I need Minerva.”
A wistful expression flitted across Rob’s face. “You care for her very much?”
Dean looked away. “Of course I do.”
“I’m sorry. Truly.” There was an awkward silence. “Look. Dawn comes early these days, and I doubt I’ll find my horse again. Good luck to you, my lord.” The man bowed and started down the road.
“Herr Graf?” Erich, never the most cheerful of souls, sounded more anxious than ever.
“What is it?” Dean replied in German, staring after the dark-haired stranger. None of this made any sense.
“That Straßenräuber—I didn’t think he would hurt you,” Erich said soberly in the same language.
In context, the unfamiliar word wasn’t that difficult to figure out. Straße, he knew, meant street, or road. Road-robber. Highwayman. Erich was apologizing, in his own way, for not coming to his defense. And maybe he had a point: the man didn’t seem like a violent criminal. There was so much he didn’t understand—he had to know more. “Das ist schon in Ordnung, Erich,” he said gently, taking a moment to search for the right words before continuing in the still-unfamiliar tongue. “But help me now. We have to catch him, all right?”
The coachman nodded, looking determined to make up for his earlier lapse. They took off in pursuit of the would-be robber, Erich skidding the horses to a stop just beyond him. Dean leapt from the coach. “Wait, damn you! Is there any truth to your story at all? Did someone hire you to play the highwayman with me?”
Rob met his gaze steadily. “Yes.”
“I still don’t quite— You’re a—”
“Whore. Yes, I am. It was playacting—a fantasy come true. I was supposed to stop your coach, and then decide it wasn’t your money I wanted. Undress you at gunpoint. Overcome your token resistance. Take you into the coach and—”
Dean winced. “I get the picture.” He ran a hand through his wiry curls. “Why the hell…? Oh, Christ, I’m slow tonight. Whoever it was knew that I wouldn’t—that I’d fight back. And the spot where you stopped us is so close to Lewis’s, it’s only logical I would have taken you there. So I have to assume the whole purpose was to disrupt my engagement.”
The other man shrugged. “He told me you just needed a good screw.”
Dean could feel his face burn. “Who? Who told you that? Who hired you?”
“I couldn’t say.”
“Couldn’t? Or wouldn’t?”
“My lord, let it go.” Rob looked down the road. “If you’ll excuse me?”
“No. I can’t. I have to know who did this to me.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t help you. Even if he mentioned his name, I couldn’t tell you what it is now.”
“What did he look like? Dress like? Smell like, for Christ’s sake?” Dean felt his hands ball into fists of helpless fury. “Give me a clue, here!”
“All right, all right. Give me a moment, I only met the man when he gave me the commission.” Rob’s brow furrowed. “Medium height. Brown eyes.”
“Well, perhaps not so…” Gorgeous, Dean thought in disgust. “…dark,” the prostitute continued. “I suppose they could have been hazel. Medium-brown hair. Well, brownish, anyway.”
“Brownish hair, brownish eyes, medium height. That could be Erich, or Lewis, or half of England!”
“I’m sorry. I’m bloody awful with descriptions, aren’t I? For what it’s worth, I’d know him if I saw him.” Rob paused. “He might have said something about Bath, if that helps.”
“Bath?” At last, a glimmer of light pierced through the clouds of confusion. “God damn it! Minerva’s there now, at her aunt’s.”
“There’s our motive, right there. Whoever he is, he’s after Minerva for himself, and now that he’s got me out of the way, he’ll be wooing her.”
The prostitute looked dubious. “I think you’re making too much of this. It might have just been a joke, not a devious plan to spoil your engagement.”
“A joke?” Dean stared. “Suppose I’d been carrying a pistol? You could be dead now. Suppose Lewis had been out, and I’d dragged you to another magistrate—one who did believe me? Suppose—” He couldn’t finish the thought out loud: suppose Rob had been a little luckier in their fight, and mistook his struggles for ‘token resistance.’ “Damned dangerous joke, if you ask me.”
“Excuse me, my lord. I don’t see how else I can help you, and I still have a long way to go. If you’ll permit…?”
Dean folded his arms. “No. I will not permit. All we have to do is go to Bath, and see for ourselves who’s hanging after Minerva.”
“Yes, damn it. I need you to identify the man who hired you to ruin me.”
Rob lifted an expressive hand. “So what? You’ll know your rival. What then? Pistols at dawn? Very romantic, Lord Carwick, at least in theory. I understand that getting shot is actually quite painful and messy, and I’d prefer not to have anything to do with it.”
“No, you idiot! A duel won’t get me Minerva back. But what might is some sort of proof that I was set up tonight. If I can convince Mr. Lewis that things weren’t as he imagined, then I have a chance.”
“Oh, blast.” The prostitute appeared to be considering it. “Would it kill you to say ‘please’?”
“Look, Rob, if I can’t get Minerva back— Oh, Christ, my life is over.” Dean closed his eyes in misery, and felt a warm hand on his shoulder.
“She must be very special.” Silence for a moment. “Listen. I’ll tell you right out: I don’t think you’re going to get Miss Lewis back, even if she wishes it. Her father’s taken against you, and he’s known to be a stubborn bastard. But I could use a lark, so I’ll come with you to Bath if you want me to. I’ll do what I can to help you plead your case to the lady.”
Dean rubbed his eyes. “Get in the coach, then. We’ll stop for the night at Carwick, and leave for Bath first thing in the morning.” He rapped on the door to get his coachman’s attention. “Nach Hause, Erich!”
“All right.” Rob climbed into the coach. “But I still think you should have said ‘please.’”
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