First Chapter of THE MARSH HAWK PROLOGUE
Cornwall, England, Spring 1812
It was a perfect night for a robbery on the old Lamorna Road. Jenna waited just inside the copse, praying that her curves were well obscured by the long black cloak, slouch hat, and mask, which hid all but her eyes. The horse beneath her pranced, puffing visible breath from flared nostrils, but she was a skilled horsewoman and soon coaxed him toward a reluctant halt. There must be no sound. The highwayman had stopped the coach but a few yards distant. The acrid smell of gunpowder from his pistol shot still lingered on the cool night air. It mingled badly with the metallic taste of fear, like blood—like death—building at the back of her palate.
She swallowed dry. The coach’s passengers had spilled out on the roadway—a man and a woman, well dressed in the silks and frills of the aristocracy. The woman’s diamond earbobs sparkled in the half-light, and the gentleman’s silver shoe buckles and glittering stickpin gleamed irresistibly. The highwayman wouldn’t notice her now, not with the dazzle of their ornaments to distract him. She eased a pistol from beneath her cloak and cocked it.
Cold sweat beaded on her face beneath the black silk mask. It ran in rivulets between her breasts and triggered a chill that riddled her spine until she shuddered. How had it come to this? What was she, the daughter of a baronet, doing on that dark Cornish road in the dead of night straddling a horse with a pair of loaded pistols at the ready?
There was no time then for retrospection, no time for nursing regrets. Moved by a strange mix of terror and exhilaration that was shockingly sexual, she fired a shot in the air, jammed the spent pistol into her belt, and rode from the copse with the other drawn.
“Stand down and deliver, sir!” she cried out in a deliberately disguised voice already muffled behind the mask.
The highwayman wheeled his horse toward her. He was attired almost exactly as she, except that he wore a half-mask that clearly showed her his broad, clean-shaven chin, and mouth pursed irascibly in a thin, lipless line.
She reined her mount closer. The fleeting rays of a bashful sickle moon peeking through the dense cloud cover cast an eerie halo about him.
“Drop the pistol, sir,” she demanded, gesturing with her own, “and the spoils—the jewels, and that reticule there. Now!”
He hesitated, thrusting a jaw set like granite. “Who the devil are you?” he demanded.
“Someone you do not want to know, sir. Drop the pistol, and the rest, I say! My patience ebbs low.”
The coachman and postilion sat frozen slack-jawed in the driver’s seat, their arms in the air, too far from the outdated cannon-barreled blunderbuss that had fallen out of reach beneath their feet.
Jenna monitored them out of the corner of her eye, as well as the middle-aged couple trembling against each other alongside the wide-flung coach door. Their expressions spoke volumes. The last turn of events any of them expected was one highwayman holding up another. She almost laughed. If they only knew that one of them was a woman.
The highwayman threw his pistol down and dismounted, but he did not relinquish the spoils. Instead, he strolled boldly closer—rather stiffly, she thought—exhibiting them.
“I’m willing to share,” he said. His voice was resonant and cultured. “What say we join?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “There’s more than enough here for two.”
“Stand where you are,” she hurled at him.
He’d come dangerously close, close enough to agitate her mount, extracting a snort, close enough for her to inhale the jarring aroma of leather, tobacco, and wine drunk recently drifting toward her on the night breeze from his clothing and glistening moist skin. She took the measure of his tall, muscular shape beneath the multi-caped greatcoat that didn’t quite contain him. Yes, he was the one—the one they called the Marsh Hawk—there was no mistake. His arrogant demeanor damned him.
His eyes were blue fire in the moonlight blazing toward her through the holes in his mask. They triggered the wave of pulsating heat that surged through her body. She scarcely blinked. Her hatred of his ilk demanded satisfaction and she raised her weapon, motioning him to walk on ahead of her.
“Hold your hands high, where I can see them!” she commanded. “Your business is done here. You’re coming with me.”
“Afoot?” he blurted. “Where to?”
“You’ll see soon enough. March!”
He hesitated, his hands still lowered. Was that another pistol concealed beneath his cloak?
Yes! In a blink, he drew it, aimed, and fired, but she was quicker, since her own was already drawn, and her pistol ball knocked him off his feet as it ripped through his shoulder, or was it his chest? It happened so fast, she couldn’t be certain.
The bullet from his gun whizzed past her as he fell. Their horses reared complaining, setting the coach horses in motion, and the coachman quickly grabbed the reins and pulled back hard to hold them. Before Jenna could bring her mount’s high-flying forefeet to the ground again, the flabbergasted aristocrats had scrambled back inside the carriage.
“Hyaaah!” the driver bellowed, snapping his whip. And the coach sped off in a cloud of thick, Cornish dust, the highwayman’s mount galloping crazily after it.
Jenna stared down at the man writhing at her prancing mount’s feet. For a moment their eyes met—his narrowed in pain, hers wide with a paralyzing mix of horror and triumph. A hot rush of blood surging like liquid flame coursed through her, ignited by the look in those riveting eyes that held her so relentlessly. Then finally, mercifully, they closed and he fell back in the dirt of the road. Was he dead? No, not quite.
Alerted by a rustling sound, Jenna glanced about. They weren’t alone. Was someone watching her? She dared not linger. Spurring her mount, she disappeared among the gnarled trees that faced the wind at the edge of the wood.
It was to be a gala three-day event at Moorhaven Manor, the rambling country estate of Lady Jenna Hollingsworth’s betrothed, Viscount Rupert Marner. Moorhaven was situated on the eastern fringes of Bodmin Moor, hence its name. Half the Cornish nobility, not to mention a host of peers from London, were to attend the festivities commencing with an elaborate masked ball at which Jenna’s engagement to the viscount would be formally announced that evening. A leisurely day of picnicking, riding, archery, and shooting would follow on Saturday culminating in a formal sit-down dinner. Then a hunt on Sunday was planned to bring the weekend to a spectacular close, weather permitting, of course. One could never plan such an event with any degree of confidence in Cornwall. Cornish flaws, as the locals called the unpredictable storms that plagued the coast, were notorious for upsetting the most carefully laid plans.
Jenna would have been much happier at Thistle Hollow, her own family estate near Launceston. That was certainly what should be according to the codes of etiquette, but when Lady Marner approached Jenna’s mother with the alternative of Moorhaven, the dowager jumped at the chance. Though the long year of mourning for her husband was over, Lady Hollingsworth welcomed yet another opportunity to prolong the sympathetic attention she’d so enjoyed—milked to the limit as Jenna viewed it—as long as she possibly could.
Truth to be told, she would have preferred not to have the celebration at all, or the wedding either, come to that. She had no desire to marry anyone—least of all Rupert of the vacant eyes, as she had dubbed him. Not that he wasn’t handsome, quite the contrary. But he was also affected and, as rumor had it, promiscuous. Nevertheless, to join their houses with the union was what her father had wanted, what she owed his memory. Besides, independence was impossible now. After what she’d done, she needed protection. Not the insipid protection of the twenty-nine-year-old tedious bore that was her husband-to-be, but of his house. The Marners were respected aristocrats. No one would dare accuse the viscount’s wife of anything, and sins did have a way of surfacing after all. Hadn’t Lord Fordenbridge’s scandalous alliance with wreckers along the coast come out two whole years after the fact? Albeit in self-defense, as it turned out, and not at all what she had intended, she had done murder.
Just what she would have done if the highwayman hadn’t attempted to draw that pistol, she feared to wonder; she hadn’t thought beyond her passion for vengeance at the time. Murder, however, was never a part of the plan. She was determined to do what the law would not—bring a guilty man to justice. Even if she hadn’t been recognized, she had been seen. It was like a nightmare, except that she was wide-awake, and the horror was real. Rupert was insurance, nothing more. The marriage was a smart move…only that. She’d almost convinced herself.
Carriages of every type had been arriving all afternoon—the high-perch and low-perch phaetons of close neighbors, two-seater broughams, coupes, curricles, cabriolets, with their leather hoods folded back to take advantage of the beaming sun, and chaises in every conceivable color and description. They congested the circular drive. She’d wondered how the carriage house would ever accommodate them all, until Emily, her lady’s maid, told her she’d overheard one of the footmen say that the overflow would go to the posting house in the village. How the posting house would ever manage such an influx, she couldn’t imagine, as still more vehicles flooded the drive.
“Jenna, come away from there!” Lady Holingsworth scolded, close in her ear. She lurched at the sound of her mother’s voice and spun to face her. The dowager gave a start herself and tottered backward. “You mustn’t gawk like a common scullion,” she said. “Someone might see you. What can you be thinking?”
“Isn’t that why they’ve all come,” Jenna asked tersely, “to size me up?”
“Don’t be impertinent. There’s never an occasion for it, dear. What ails you? I’ve never seen you in such a taking as you have been lately.”
Jenna couldn’t reply to that. She couldn’t very well tell her mother she’d killed a man on the old Lamorna Road one dark night on the cusp of spring. It had only been two months, but it seemed like a lifetime ago.
There was no question that her conscience was bothering her. Twenty-two-year-old young ladies of quality did not go around committing black murder in the dead of night. And she was regretting her betrothal to Rupert before it had even officially begun. She would never have bent to her mother’s will over that if there had been no murder and she were in her right mind. She would never have agreed to the match if her father were still living, even if it was his greatest wish. She could have charmed him out of it if the Marsh Hawk hadn’t killed him and robbed her of the chance to try.
“There! You see?” her mother said, jarring her back to the present. “You haven’t heard one word I’ve said.”
“I’ve heard you, Mother,” she replied, emptying her lungs on a gusty sigh. She turned back to the window and gestured toward the mullioned panes. “I’m looking for familiar faces. Thus far I’ve seen none.”
“You will, dear,” her mother soothed. Peering over her shoulder, she craned her neck for a closer look below. “There—the Markhams, and Lady Chester-White, and there—the Warrenfords and their two daughters. You remember? The oldest girl had her come-out last season. What is her name…Rowena…Regina?”
“There, beside the garden wall—the Eccleston’s brougham. See?” Lady Hollingsworth wagged a thick, wrinkled finger, encumbered by an enormous emerald, toward the drive. “Before the masque is over you’ll not only have been reunited with old friends, you’ll have made new ones—important ones for you and Rupert, dear.” She glanced around the room and craned her neck again, this time in the direction of Jenna’s open bedchamber door across the way. “Has Emily unpacked your costume?”
“Not yet,” she replied. She had elected to attend the masque costumed as a swan. The celebrated French modiste, Marie Flaubert, whose Bond Street salon in London was the talk of society—generally referred to as the ton—had designed her a silk gown completely covered in white feathers, with a graceful cape to match that attached to her arms on silk bands simulating wings. It featured a lifelike, feathered cowl complete with beak that covered her head like a second skin. Thinking of the costume crammed into her portmanteau with her dinner gowns, daytime and afternoon frocks, and riding habit, she could almost hear the modiste’s shrill “mon Dieu” after carefully stitching each one of those feathers in place by hand.
“I’ll fetch the bird-witted gel at once!” Lady Elizabeth shrilled. She sucked in a hasty breath. “She’ll have to steam those feathers, or whatever one does with feathers to put them into shape; I have no idea. Meanwhile, go down and eat something, Jenna. You’re nearly a married lady. I shouldn’t have to tell you these things. Where is your head, girl?”
An elaborate buffet had been set up in the dining hall downstairs: assorted cold meats and cheeses, and an endless assortment of hot entrees kept warm in chafing dishes, since the guests would be straggling in throughout the day. There were delectable desserts as well, an entire table devoted to them, along with bowls of champagne punch, and ratafia, as well as silver pots of tea for those so inclined, kept hot by liveried footmen decked out in green and gold, who also managed to keep the food in good supply. This would continue throughout the evening, so that the guests could slip in from the masque, held in the Grand Ballroom across the hall, and avail themselves of the fare whenever they wished.
Jenna wasn’t particularly hungry. She wasn’t opposed to a tray in her room, but she certainly didn’t want to pick at food in the dining hall among fawning, gawking strangers. She wanted to preserve anonymity as long as was possible. That meant keeping to herself until the masque. But Lady Elizabeth was just as determined to display her as she was to hide, and with a firm grip on her arm, the dowager steered her into the hall and propelled her toward the landing.
Halfway down the carpeted stairs and still protesting, Jenna froze on the step. A gentleman was watching their descent from the terrazzo floor below. Others were milling around him, but he appeared to be alone, a striking figure of a man, whom she assessed to be in his mid-thirties, with the most astonishing eyes she had ever gazed into. Long, dark lashes wreathed them, lashes that any woman would have envied; they gave him a dreamy, suggestive look. He was standing beneath a candle sconce, and the flames ignited the deep-set eyes behind those sweeping lashes making them bluer than they had any right to be. His chestnut hair curled rakishly from a provocative widow’s peak. It was pulled back in a queue behind the standup collar on the dark gray cutaway coat of superfine that made him appear very tall. The embroidered white waistcoat, black pantaloons, Hessian boots, and meticulously tied neckcloth that completed him were no more than a blur in the shadow of those eyes. Everything else paled before the primal expression in them that almost caused her to lose her footing.
Something stirred inside her, something she wasn’t prepared for. Her mother was tugging at her arm, still carping about the importance of good eating habits and the danger of falling down in dead faints for lack of them. Jenna scarcely noticed; those eyes watching her seemed to have charged the air between them and paralyzed her where she stood.
“Who is that?” she breathed, aware now of the man’s broad jaw line and sideburns framing straight lips that almost seemed as if they wanted to smile, but didn’t.
As she spoke, a man and woman joined him. The woman, young and attractive, wearing blue organdie with a bonnet trimmed to match that complimented her blondeness, put herself between the two men, looping one of her arms through each of theirs, and all three turned away. The subject of Jenna’s attention walked with a slight limp that in no way diminished his stature.
“Who, dear? Where?” her mother said, her head oscillating ridiculously.
“There,” Jenna whispered, nodding. “The one with the long hair.” The new short men’s hairstyles that had come into fashion and were all the rage in Town had not entirely taken the coast by storm. Some men still wore their hair rather long, as he did, drawn back loosely at the nape of the neck and tied with a silk ribbon, but that was the exception not the rule, and an oddity among the aristocracy.
“Why, it’s Simon Rutherford, Earl of Kevernwood,” Lady Hollingsworth said. She narrowed her eyes and honed in on her target with all the aplomb of a ferret. “I didn’t know he’d returned.”
Jenna looked her confusion.
“He’s been abroad, dear, since the Navy invalided him out. He served under Nelson, you know. I heard he was wounded at Copenhagen. See there, he’s limping.”
“How is it that we’ve never received him?”
“Lord Kevernwood doesn’t spend much time on the coast, dear. He has a town- house that he prefers to Kevernwood Hall. I’m surprised to see him here actually. He usually keeps to himself. There’s some sort of scandal connected with that family…something to do with Simon’s older brother, who died in India. Their father disinherited him, money-wise, long before he was killed out there—cut him off without a cent of allowance. It was something indelicate, dear—very hush, hush.” She pointed. “Look, Simon’s valet. See there?”
Jenna followed her mother’s finger with her eyes to a tall, slender gray-haired man hurrying after the earl and his companions.
“Simon must be staying the weekend,” Lady Hollingsworth chattered on. “How odd. He so rarely socializes. I’m sure Lady Marner will have a good deal to say about that. You know how she does go on.”
The earl did not look back. The trio seemed to be heading for the dining hall, and Jenna dug in her heels.
“I’m not going down, Mother,” she said. “I’m going back to my room and unpack. By the time you locate Emily, my feathers will be beyond repair. She has an eye for one of the footmen. There’s something you might want to address, before we have to hear all about that from Lady Marner.”
Lady Hollingsworth bristled and sputtered, but Jenna paid no attention. She took advantage of her mother’s incredulity to escape and return to her chamber. The earl’s liquid sapphire eyes haunted her. Why had that look disarmed her so? And why should she be so distressed that he had witnessed her having a disagreement with her mother? She didn’t know, but her embarrassment was unshakable nonetheless, and deep.
That odd, unsettling thrill she’d experienced as those eyes impaled her came again, and a rush of heat sped to her cheeks as she unpacked her costume. She was prone to blushing. It had always been an embarrassment—the curse of her coloring. She wondered if she had done so earlier, and her heart leapt at the thought that she might have, and that he might have noticed.
“Thank God it’s a masked ball,” she thought out loud, slapping at a few bent feathers on the gown.
Moments later, one of the chamber maids appeared with a tray, and Emily followed on her heels wearing flushed cheeks herself. Jenna couldn’t tell if the girl’s color was result of an encounter with her footman, or an affray with her mother, since the latter seemed to be the order of the day.
Emily disappeared with the costume, and Jenna pulled a Chippendale chair up to the gateleg table, where the maid had set the tray, and lifted the silver cover from a well-rounded plate of rook pie, braised vegetables, and an assortment of bread tidbits and cheeses. She poured herself a cup of tea from the service that accompanied the meal, and nibbled at some of the bread and Stilton. The butterflies in her stomach would not abide rook pie.
The costume returned no worse for wear, and two footmen arrived with a hipbath, which they set up in the dressing room off her bedchamber. Once the chambermaids had filled it, they left her with Emily, who would assist with her toilette.
The water was heavenly, silkened with oil of lavender, and rosemary. She sponged it all over her body luxuriating in the fragrant warmth caressing her. She closed her eyes, but when she did the earl’s image popped into her mind, and a hot surge revived the thrill he’d caused earlier and drove it up a notch. There was something excruciatingly exciting, and not a little frightening, about experiencing such a sensation naked in a tub of steamy, perfumed water. That it was the earl’s liquid sapphire eyes that triggered it and not Rupert’s dull hazel ones was disturbing. So disturbing that she literally fled the tub.
Emily’s cheeks had returned to their normal color by the time she’d dried Jenna’s hair and helped her into the costume. Jenna was seated at the vanity trying to decide how to dress her long strawberry-blonde mane in order to make it fit beneath the cowl, when her mother, costumed as well, entered from the adjoining suite. Lady Hollingsworth was supposed to be Helen of Troy, but looked more like she had forgotten to put a dress on over her slip, Jenna decided. The dowager was much too short and heavyset to carry the costume well, and the formidable divorce corset underneath that divided her ample bosom radically only made matters worse, propelling the overflow sideways.
“Help us, Mother. We’re in a muddle,” Jenna said, suppressing a smile. “What shall we do with my hair? It’s too thick to put up, and too long to leave down; it will show below the cowl.”
First Emily tried to find a solution, and then Lady Hollingsworth tried her hand. The modiste had created the perfect headgear for a baldheaded woman, Jenna thought, before they finally settled on a soft, flat coil at the back of the head held in place snood-fashion by a bit of sarcenet.
“Long hair is so out of fashion, Jenna,” her mother said, fussing with the results. “You should have cut it long ago.” She threw up her hands. “There’s nothing for it. When you unmask, dear, just pull the tendrils out around your face. The center part is quite becoming, and the waves are falling naturally at least. It will have to do.”
Taking a full-length view in the cheval glass, Jenna had to agree that Madame Flaubert had outdone herself. The swan-head mask fit perfectly. The eyeholes were slanted at just the right angle to follow the natural curve of her silvery gray eyes, and her mouth and chin were visible beneath the beak. Decidedly, she was magnificent.
Soliciting dances beforehand was waived for the evening, since part of the fun was to be attempting to identify one’s dance partner, which really didn’t promise to be all that difficult in most cases, judging from the gathering. Would Rupert recognize her? Jenna hoped not. She wanted to enjoy herself, or at least to try. Being in costume allowed her to pretend that she wasn’t the Lady Jenna Hollingsworth, who had done murder and was about to ruin the rest of her life as result of it. She was a beautiful, graceful swan without a care in the world, and she longed to spread her lovely feathered wings and fly.
That delicious fantasy dissolved, however, the minute she entered the Grand Ballroom. The orchestra was playing as selection from Bach while the guests poured in through the archway, one costume more bizarre than the next. She spotted Rupert almost at once, dressed as a pharaoh, in keeping with the neoclassical movement that had become so popular among the ton. She hadn’t remembered until then that John Nash, who had perpetuated Robert Adam’s vision in decor, had begun redecorating Moorhaven in the Empire style incorporating concepts brought back by Englishmen who fought Napoleon during the Egyptian campaign. How could she not have noticed? There were evidences of the man’s revolutionary touch everywhere. Jenna wasn’t sure she approved.
She managed to avoid Rupert for the moment; he had become surrounded by several members of the House of Lords, who had just arrived from London for the event. The betrothal announcement was to be made at midnight. It would be signaled by the arrival of a troop of footmen bearing silver trays laden with champagne glasses already filled for toasting. That, however, was still more than two hours away, and it was going to be difficult to hide dressed in the most conspicuous costume in the hall.
The dancing began with a quadrille. A daring Viennese valse a deux temps followed by a gallop and then another quadrille would set the pattern for fourteen dances before a formal break for the announcement. Jenna danced the first quadrille with the Marquess of Roxbury. He was costumed as a magistrate, an older man, overweight and out of breath, who smelled of onions, and couldn’t keep his wig on straight. The experience was nauseating, and she was thankful that her stomach was practically empty.
She didn’t know her partner for the waltz. He was dressed simply in a voluminous domino and mask, though most of the masks framed by the customary white satin-lined black hoods were spectacular and very inventive. His resembled a hawk. Many of the other masks represented birds as well. There were owls, falcons, ravens—feathered creatures of every species were well accounted for, one more resplendent than the next, and all sporting formidable looking beaks. But birds were not the only species on display. Jenna particularly admired a lion mask worn by Lord Eccleston, whose deep, gravelly voice gave him away. It was designed as a cowl much like hers and covered his head completely. He was her partner for the gallop.
A duke, elaborately dressed as a potentate, was her partner for the second quadrille, during which she observed the ladies’ costumes, which ranged from pastoral milkmaids to fairy princesses in every color imaginable. The young, blonde woman, who had stolen the earl of Kevernwood away that afternoon, was costumed as a toddler in white organdie and lace, complete with ruffled baby bonnet and leading strings. It suited her. Watching her skip effortlessly over the floor with Sir Gerald Markham leading their set sent a disturbing pang of jealousy shooting through Jenna. The girl seemed so happy, so unencumbered by guilt. Not a care in the world.
How dare she, when this is my ball, and I am so miserable? And who was she anyway? Someone who knew Lord Kevernwood well enough to link arms with him, that’s who. Yes, that pang was jealousy. Unmistakably. She wouldn’t have minded a bit if Miss Blondeness had linked arms with her betrothed. Facing that fact was jarring at best.
Rupert was still engaged in conversation with the Londoners. Would she catch a glimpse of the earl? Would he dance, considering his limp? When the quadrille ended, she glanced around the ballroom trying to pick him out among the guests, but there were just too many people at the gathering. What would it be like to glide over that floor in his arms? She fantasized their bodies touching—the warm pressure of his hand at her waist, moving her effortlessly over the polished terrazzo; the illusion was brought on by the orchestra having struck up another waltz, and her eyes were closed as she indulged in it, when a deep, sensuous voice from behind assailed her ears.
“Will you honor me with this dance, my lady?”
At first, she thought that voice was a phantom of her fantasy. But when she turned to be sure, she froze in horror as she faced—not her delicious daydream, but her worst nightmare—a highwayman, in black from his tricorn hat to his polished Hessian boots, his blue eyes blazing through the holes in a glistening silk half-mask.
She gasped, swayed, and spiraled unconscious into the man’s strong arms.