Lady Gone WickedBy: Elizabeth Bright
For my girls
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.”
—Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”
Hampshire, England, 1817
Nicholas Eastwood was a man who knew how to earn what he wanted. This, in his estimation, was what separated the wheat from the chaff, gold from the ore, and second sons from firstborns.
And he had earned this.
His fingers tightened on the letter. Outside the coaching inn, the night wind howled as it whipped across the Hampshire hillside. It sounded like trumpeters heralding a hero’s welcome after a hard-won battle.
Or a dying cat.
It did not matter.
All that mattered was the letter he now held in his hand. He read it again.
My dear sir,
A year has passed since our fateful meeting, but rest assured it has not been forgotten. I owe you my life, and my thanks. I want to repay my debt, but how does one put a value on a life? Gratitude is not enough.
My well-intentioned prying into your affairs leads me to believe you are not in want of funds. If I am in error, tell me, for my fortune is at your disposal.
Very few things in this world are beyond price. Life, as aforementioned. Love, which I give you as freely as a father gives a son. And a title of the peerage. I hope the latter would satisfy my debt quite nicely. It has come to my attention that our Prince Regent has been rather generous with granting marquessates of late, particularly to those who fought during our battle with Napoleon. You have served the Crown well, my friend, and I would be honored to request the Prince Regent name you the Marquess of Rain.
Send word when you return to London.
Arthur Pendleton, Duke of Montrose
And not just any title. He would be a marquess, only one rank lower than a duke. More important, he would be two ranks higher than his twin brother, Nathaniel Eastwood, Viscount Abingdon. His own father, the Earl of Wintham, would have to bow to him. The man who had banished him from the family estate at the tender age of twelve would have to go in second.
Yes, a marquessate would suit Nick very well, indeed.
And he deserved it, that was the important thing. The title hadn’t been bestowed upon him when he was still a squalling infant by virtue of being born twelve minutes before his brother. He had risked life and limb as an agent for the Crown, first during the wars with France, and then in India. He had earned that title with blood and sweat and snake bites.
By God, how he hated India.
But he was home now, in the idyllic Hampshire town of his childhood. His lodgings were only two miles from Haverly, the Wintham estate. What had begun as a spy hunt mere weeks ago had ended in a bruising fistfight with Nate. The fight had been a long time coming—more than fifteen years—but it was done now, and the sooner Nick returned to London and claimed his new title, the better.
There was just one small matter to attend to, one loose end that he could not leave dangling. It was not a matter of morals so much as practicality. Loose ends had a way of becoming weblike as they unraveled. He would not like to find himself entangled.
She was alive, despite all arguments to the contrary. He had seen her with his own eyes, standing at a distance the morning he fought his brother. The shock of it had been enough to give Nate the upper hand. Which had been a new experience for Nick. He’d never lost before. It had been quite unsettling.
And now he must see about the girl. She couldn’t continue to wander Hampshire like a ghost of sins past.
But first he would read the duke’s letter just one more time.
A knock on the door distracted him. He frowned. The clock had just struck ten, an unusual hour for visitors. Who else could it be but his infernal brother? He wrenched open the door.
It was not Nate.
Instead, there was his loose end, looking very much untied, given the pistol she pointed at him.
“Adelaide,” he said with far more calm than he felt. He reached for the pistol.
There was a bang and a moment of searing pain.
She did not finish her sentence.
But then, he supposed, she did not have to. The bullet made her point quite nicely.