The Virtuous Viscount
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The Black Diamond stared at the pitiful Sir Archibald Bastian. He doubted the fool could deliver to him the virgin he demanded. The potential disappointment was worth the current pleasure of watching him squirm. If he failed, Diamond would own Bastian’s estate, located conveniently on an inlet with access to the ocean. Perfect for his purposes.
“I made an offer of marriage. Her father insists on giving her time,” Bastian whimpered. The man perspired and mangled the hat in his hand as he stood there, fidgeting.
“She is a virgin?” Diamond pounded his fist on the mahogany desk in front of him.
“Yes. Most certainly, my lord.”
“Then let this be done before the season is over. You will wed her and return her to me untouched.”
“Do you have a hearing problem, Bastian? That is my demand, and if you expect to have your gambling debts paid, you will deliver.”
The bumbling knight swallowed hard. “Yes, my lord. It shall be as you say.”
“Leave me.” The Black Diamond snapped his fingers. The door on the opposite end of the room swung open.
Bastian nodded his head and backed away, bowing as he did so. The Black Diamond grinned. Sometimes his minions were far too easy to intimidate. Foolish Englishmen. They were all doomed anyway. Once he had his sacrifice, the war would turn. Soon, quite soon, the Black Diamond would equal Napoleon Bonaparte for power and wealth.
Ah, but the virgin. She was the key. He would crush his English rose and enjoy every minute. After all, it was what his own dark lord required of him. He was only following orders.
The gray gelding reared as a flash of lightning struck the tree by the road. Lord Marcus Remington held on tight and brought his mount under control.
Weariness seeped into the marrow of his bones, much as the rain did his exposed trousers. Fatigue weighed on him. He was weary of the hunt—the balls and soirees and the pressure to dress ‘top of the trees.’ He longed for the one place he was most at ease. Rose Hill. Home. His three friends, following behind, were equally miserable in the spring storm. Should they have waited out the deluge at the pub in Didcot? It hadn’t seemed worth it when his estate was so close. They had agreed to ride on.
As he turned the bend, the Viscount’s heart sank at the vision illuminated by another flash of light. Through sheets of rain, Marcus spied a carriage teetering on its side. The top half of it hung over a ditch filled with running water from the storm. The horses were free of the carriage. They struggled against their traces as a young man tried to calm them. Their frantic neighs added to the cacophony of wind, thunder, and rain. Two figures huddled under a nearby tree. He sighed as he slowed his horse.
“What ho!” Marcus shouted. He pulled up to await an older man, most likely the groom, who limped forward. Marcus dismounted. “Is everyone out of the carriage?”
The man pointed off the road toward the trees. “I got me mistress and her daughter out before the second wheel broke. One more lady is inside.”
“Is she well?” Marcus implored as three other horses drew up close by and their riders descended. Blood pounded in his ears as he kept his eye on the carriage in its precarious position.
The man grimaced, and his hands rose in the air as he took in the four gentlemen in their many caped greatcoats. He backed away. “Ye not be here to rob us?”
Marcus shook his head, and raindrops danced off the brim of his hat. “Most certainly not. Lord Remington at your service. Excuse me.” He turned aside. “Phillip? Will you ride to Rose Hill and bring back a carriage? We have one passenger to rescue. She may be injured, so have Fenton send for the doctor, and inform Mrs. Hughes to expect more guests.”
“Right away.” The tall, blond aristocrat spun on his heel, remounted, and rode off into the stormy darkness.
Marcus headed toward the carriage as he called out to his friends. “Theo. Attend to the ladies, please.” Lord Theodore Harrow would charm the women and ease their anxieties. Marcus turned aside to a man of slighter build and lowered his voice. “Michael, a woman is trapped inside.”
“Then a rescue is in order.” The shorter, coffee-haired gentleman gave a cheeky grin to his friend even as rain dripped off his hat.
Marcus shook his head and struggled to master the corner of his lips that wanted to curl in response. Leave it to Sir Michael Tidley to see an adventure in what promised to be a challenging effort. He sobered. “Let’s not waste any time. I do not like the way the carriage is balanced.”
The two gentlemen drew closer to the equipage.
Marcus noticed the groom had gone back to removing the luggage from the boot. The horses had calmed. “I’ll go in.” Marcus pulled himself up to the side of the carriage. Once on top, he struggled to jerk the door open. It stuck. The carriage rocked over the culvert as Marcus balanced on the sky-borne side.
Michael grabbed hold of the underside of the carriage to add stability.
Marcus pulled at the door several times before it gave way and almost threw him off his elevated perch. He waited for the carriage to cease rocking. He knelt and peered into the darkness, barely able to see inside. The rain pelted him harder. Could this night get any worse, Lord?
A bolt of lightning illuminated the interior long enough to detect where the figure of the passenger rested. He ascertained an area he might stand without landing on her. After lowering himself in, he shut the door to keep out the deluge. His gloved hands moved around in the dark, searching. Oil had spilled from the lantern attached to its hook by the uppermost door. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness.
Outside, Michael called to tie the horses to the carriage to keep it from tipping into the ditch.
“There you are.” Sprawled out next to his feet, which were against the far wall of the carriage, lay a young woman. He knelt down beside her in the cramped quarters. Shadows from the skittering of lightning came in the windows. He removed his gloves and shoved them in the pocket of his greatcoat.
“Miss?” He moved lower to spy a crushed chip bonnet that at one time was probably quite pretty. “Miss? Can you hear me?” He untied the ribbons under the woman’s chin, removed the hat, and tossed it aside. Dark waves of hair tumbled down, and he brushed them away to get a look at her face as his eyes adjusted to the dark. She did not respond to his touch or voice. He imagined she was pretty and sweet, like his younger sister, and his heart ached for this woman’s suffering. He shook his head. This was neither the time nor the place for flights of fancy. His fingers touched something warm and sticky in her hair. Blood.
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