Kingston Court, Lancashire, 1799
Lord George Gordon Richard Augustus Audley, third and most worthless son of the Marquess of Kingston, snapped awake at the hissing voice outside his open bedroom window. Callie? She wasn’t supposed to be home from school for another week. He frowned; it had to be her. Only two people had ever called him Richard, and she was the only one who might be climbing up the thick vines below his window.
In the warm night he wore only his drawers. Though he and Callie had been best friends since they were in the nursery, they weren’t on terms of seminudity, so he grabbed his robe and tied the sash as he swung from the bed.
He leaned out the casement and looked down into the rustling vines. In the light of a full moon, the heart-shaped face and shining red-blond hair were unmistakable. But what the devil was the Honorable Catherine Callista Brooke doing scrambling up to his room in the middle of the night?
“Callie, you’re insane!” he said affectionately as he leaned out and extended a hand to help her up and over the sill. “If I’d known you were home from school, I could have called tomorrow in a perfectly civilized manner.”
Her hand clamped onto his and she scrambled over the sill and into his room. She was dressed as a boy, which was sensible for climbing vine-covered walls.
He was about to say more when the moonlight revealed shining streaks on her face. Callie was crying? She never cried. She had nerves of Damascus steel. “What’s wrong, Callie?” he asked sharply.
“Everything!” she replied in a raw voice.
She was shaking, so he instinctively wrapped comforting arms around her. He must have grown in the last months of school, because she seemed smaller as she buried her face against his shoulder. “Steady, Catkin,” he said quietly as he patted her back. “We’ve been in and out of enough trouble to know how to fix problems.”
“Not this kind of problem.” She took a deep breath and stepped back, though she kept hold of his arms as if not trusting her balance.
Moonlight touched her face, revealing a dark mark on her left cheek. Swearing, he skimmed a gentle fingertip over the bruise. “Damnation, your father has been beating you again!”
Callie shrugged. “I’m used to that, being the most disobedient, rebellious, devil-touched daughter in England, as he informs me regularly. But this time . . .” Her voice broke before she continued. “It’s much worse. He’s going to marry me to some horrible old planter from the West Indies!”
“Good God, how has that come about?” Gordon steered her to a chair, then retrieved his hidden flask of forbidden brandy. He poured a small measure into a glass and added an equal amount of water before handing it over. “How would a planter from the Indies even know you exist?”
“He’s some kind of distant connection of my father. A widower.” She sipped at the watered brandy, coughed, sipped some more. “He called at Rush Hall to discuss business, saw me, and offered marriage because I’m so beautiful!” She almost spat the words out.
“Beautiful?” Gordon blinked at the thought. She was . . . Callie. Pretty enough with that sunset red-gold hair, and she was athletic and graceful as well. An old man might consider the hair and Callie’s vibrant good spirits enough to be beauty. “You’re only sixteen, so surely that means a long betrothal.”
She shook her head violently. “He wants to marry immediately, before he returns to the Indies! He’s staying at the Hall now. As soon as my father said he could have me and good riddance, the fellow sent to London for a special license. It came today. My father told me this evening that I’ll be married the day after tomorrow.”
“He can’t force you to marry a stranger!” Gordon said, aghast. “Just keep saying no. It won’t be easy, but you’re practiced at disobedience.”
She shook her head, shaking again. “If I don’t obey, I’m afraid he’ll take his anger out on my sisters.”
Damnably, she was probably right. Callie’s sisters were vulnerable, and her father was quite capable of bullying or hurting them to insure Callie’s cooperation. Gordon wrapped an arm around her shoulders, murmuring soft, comforting words until she pulled away with a smile that almost worked. “You’re talking to me like I’m one of your horses.”
“It works with frightened fillies, so it seemed worth trying.” He smiled when she rolled her eyes with elaborate disdain, but sobered swiftly. “What do you want me to do, Callie?”
“I’m going to run away and I need money,” she said bluntly. “Can you lend me some?”
He frowned. “Run away to where?”
“My Aunt Beatrice. She’s my godmother and has said I’m welcome to visit anytime. I’ll be safe with her.”
“But for how long? If your father comes to drag you off to get married, she won’t be able to stand up to him.”
Callie bit her lip. “Then I’ll change my name and disappear into Manchester or Birmingham. I’ll find some sort of work.”
“Become a mill worker?” he asked incredulously. “This is not a good plan, Callie!”
“Not a mill worker! You know how good I am at sewing. I’m sure I can find a job as a seamstress,” she said impatiently. “If you can lend me twenty or thirty pounds, it will be enough to get me away and support me until I’m established somewhere my father will never find me.”
He bit his lip, thinking how many disastrous things might happen to a pretty, inexperienced girl, even one who was intelligent, ingenious, and brave.
He caught his breath as a thought struck. Yet it made sense. “I have a better idea, Callie. Marry me. We can be in Scotland in two days and we’re old enough to marry there without permission.”
She gasped, her hazel eyes widening. “And you think I’m insane! We’re too young to get married, even if it is legal in Scotland. Marriage is forever.” She bit her lip. “I’ve always wanted to marry for love.”
“My parents did that and it didn’t work out particularly well,” he retorted. “I’ve always thought that in the unlikely event that I marry, it would be to a friend, and aren’t we best friends?”
She frowned as she considered his proposal. “I suppose marrying you would be better than a fat old planter with damp hands.”
He grinned. “I am so very flattered.”
“You know I didn’t mean it like that! It’s just that marriage seems so . . . so extreme.”
“It is, but so is being bullied into marriage to a man you can’t stand.” He shrugged. “If someday you meet someone you really want to marry, I won’t stand in your way. It’s easier to get a divorce in Scotland than in England. In the meantime, you’d be better off with me because I won’t try to force you to do anything you don’t want to.”
“There is that,” she admitted. “If we’re married, we’ll both be free of our fathers and able to look out for each other.”
“It would be a grand adventure,” he said, liking the idea more and more. “At twenty-one I’ll have control of half the money my godfather left me. It’s enough for us to live comfortably. Between now and then, we’ll discover what life is like for average people. We’ll find work with some decent country squire. You can be a lady’s maid and I’ll look after the horses.”
Callie’s face lit with laughter. “You’re right, it would be an adventure! Far better than marrying a dreadful stranger. We’ll make it work. We always do. No more adults telling us we’re too rebellious and ill behaved!”
“Too wild and fated to come to a bad end!” Exhilarated, Gordon swept Callie into his arms and kissed her. He started the kiss as a friend, and ended it as . . . something else. She was sweet and warm and strong in his arms, and for the first time ever he thought of her as a girl. No, not a girl, but a young woman ripe for marriage.
She also reacted to the kiss, leaning into him, her lips parting. Heat kicked through him. He’d admired his share of pretty girls and stolen a few kisses, but this was different. More. She would be his wife and they would have physical and emotional intimacy beyond anything he could imagine. The prospect was alarming, but also exhilarating.
Callie drew back, her eyes shining. “The adventure of a lifetime,” she breathed. “And the sooner we begin, Richard, the better!”
* * *
Within a quarter of an hour, they were on their way. Gordon had always been good at saving, and he had nearly a hundred pounds, a small fortune. He tucked it into a money belt around his waist, then dressed for the journey. He gave Callie a hat to stuff her hair under and a shapeless coat he’d outgrown. He grinned at the result. “You can pass as my little brother if no one looks too closely.”
“That should make us harder to follow.” She folded a light blanket into a canvas sack that could go into a saddlebag. “What route should we take?”
“There’s only one decent road toward Scotland from here, but once we get beyond Lancaster, we can cut east on some less traveled roads. Slower, but we’re less likely to be discovered.”
“Do you think we’ll be pursued?” She slung the canvas sack over one shoulder. “Even if they figure out that we’ve run off together, they might just think good riddance to both of us.”
Gordon shook his head. “My father won’t miss me. I’m just a third son and one he doesn’t like. Since your father has an advantageous marriage for you, he won’t shrug off your disappearance. But it will take them time to realize that we’ve eloped. If we travel fast, we should be in Scotland before they can catch us.”
Silently they left his bedroom. He wondered if he’d ever see it again. Callie’s father might not want to let her go, but his own father would be glad if he disappeared.
They left through the kitchen, adding bread and cheese to their bags. The wind was from the west and there was a faint, sulfurous smell of burning from the smoldering coal seam not far away. He wouldn’t miss that smell.
In the stables, he saddled two horses that he knew had excellent endurance, and they headed out. They made good speed along the moonlit roads for several hours, but rain blew in from the Irish Sea as dawn approached.
Callie was drooping with fatigue, though she’d never admit it, so he suggested, “Let’s stop for a few hours in that barn there. We and the horses need rest, and with the rain, it’s hard to see the road.”
Wordlessly Callie turned into the lane that led to the low barn. No farmhouse was near, so they should be safe for a few hours. In the barn, they tended to their horses, then curled up together in a pile of hay since the night was chilly. As Callie tucked the blanket around them, she murmured, “Thank you for saving me, Richard. We will do well together.”
He brushed a kiss on the top of her head, feeling a tenderness and protectiveness that were new to him. “We will. Sleep well, Catkin.”
He knew society would find their elopement outrageous, but they were both used to outraging people. It gave them so much in common. With a smile, he drifted off.
* * *
“They’re in here!” a voice bellowed as the barn doors swung open.
Sunlight flooded into the barn as Gordon fought his way free from the blanket and hay. He knew this was disaster even before the looming figure of Callie’s father, Lord Stanfield, appeared in the open doorway. Behind him—dear God, it was Gordon’s father, Lord Kingston! And two Stanfield grooms.
“Lord George Audley. You filthy bastard, you’ve ruined my daughter!” Stanfield carried a driving whip in his right hand, and he slashed it viciously at Gordon.
The lash knocked Gordon off balance, and before he could regain his footing, the two grooms had grabbed his arms. Stanfield closed in and began pummeling Gordon with his huge fists, smashing into his face and gut. Gordon had learned some fighting skills at the Westerfield Academy, but he couldn’t break free of the grooms.
Callie screamed and tried to wrench her father away. “Stop it! Stop it! You’re going to kill him!”
“Good!” Her father jammed a knee into Gordon’s genitals.
Gordon collapsed in agony as the world blackened. Callie dropped to her knees and covered him with her own body. “He hasn’t ruined me! He was helping me to escape that vile marriage you’re trying to force me into!”
Stanfield grabbed Callie’s arm and wrenched her to her feet. “You’re still a virgin?”
“Given the amount of ground they covered during the night, there hasn’t been time to do much else,” Gordon’s father drawled. “I’m not sure the boy is capable of anything more. I’ve wondered if he’s a molly boy. He certainly doesn’t look like a son of mine. He’s far too pretty. His mother was the worst mistake I ever made.”
The insult pulled Gordon to consciousness and he tried to struggle to his feet. “Shut your evil mouth!”
Stanfield kicked him back into the hay, then kicked him again. “Mind if I beat him to death, Kingston?”
“Feel free to kill him,” Gordon’s father said with exquisite malice. “I have better sons.” He turned and strolled from the barn.
Stanfield was winding up for another kick when Callie threw her full weight against him. “Stop this! You’ll have to kill us both because I’ll never let you get away with murdering him!”
When her father hesitated, Callie said frantically, “If you stop beating him, I promise that I’ll marry your horrible friend and act like a good and obedient wife! I’m a virgin—he’ll never know this happened. But you must promise to stop hurting Richard!”
Her father paused, frowning. “For all your wild behavior, you’ve never been a liar.” His eyes narrowed. “You swear that you’ll be a good, obedient daughter and go through with this marriage?”
“You have my word,” she said bitterly. “But tell me, how did you find out so quickly that we’d eloped?”
“One of your sisters has a better sense of duty than you’ve ever had,” her father replied. “She saw you sneaking out and guessed where you were going. After she woke me up, I drove over to Kingston Court. When Lord Kingston saw you were both gone, we set after you. Satisfied?”
Callie’s lips thinned. “I can guess which sister it was. May she rot in hell!”
Her father shook her. “Don’t forget your promise! You behave and I won’t touch your filthy lover again.”
She yanked free of his grip. “You can’t order your servants to hurt him, either.”
He frowned, then nodded. “But you’d better be a damned obedient bride!” He gestured to one of the grooms. “Take her outside.”
As Callie was escorted roughly from the barn, Stanfield stood over Gordon’s bleeding body, his hands on his hips. “I’m sorry that I can’t finish the job, Lord George, but she’s worth a pretty penny married off.” His lips twisted in a vicious smile. “I won’t kill you. But, by God, you’ll wish I had!”