The Moon Rider

The Moon Rider
Virginia Brown

October 2015 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-666-6

Her Revenge Will Make Him Even More Notorious . . .
 
Our PriceUS$14.95
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Rhianna knew he didn't remember her. She shouldn't be surprised, but she was gravely disappointed. He'd left her behind without a thought so long ago, yet she had never forgotten him . . .

Her revenge will make him even more notorious. 
 
No longer able to properly care for her ailing father, Rhianna disguises herself as the infamous Moon Rider and takes to the highways to secure the funds she so desperately needs. She intends to let the dangerous highwayman take the blame for the robberies.

Yet they share perilous secrets, and the discovery will shock them both.

Hardened by his past and the demands of his country, the sixth Earl of Wolverton waits in the dark for this reckless beauty who dares to impersonate the Moon Rider. She cannot be permitted to wreck his carefully orchestrated plans.

Rhianna's revenge will ignite a passion that burns out of control as their lives entwine in a deadly game of espionage and abduction. 


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Excerpt


Chapter 1

RAIN SWEPT IN heavy sheets across the moors, pelting the few remaining mourners in the Lancaster family cemetery. Most mourners had already fled to the sheltered warmth and comfort of their carriages, but one lone figure remained inside the marble crypt.

Youthful shoulders vibrated with intensity, and a blunt, shaking finger traced family names carved into the stone. The finger paused over the blank spaces that would soon bear two more names; a strangled sound escaped into the dank gloom of the crypt.

"No, no,” came the boy’s hoarse whisper, sounding as if torn from his very soul.

Fenster Goodbody winced at the anguished sound.

"Here, my son.” The vicar stepped inside, brushing fat, glistening raindrops from his greatcoat. He cleared his throat, focusing on the taut form standing so straight and stiff in front of the new entombment. "My lord... I know how you must feel upon losing both your parents so suddenly, and—”

The youth whirled around, fury and grief twisting his features so harshly that it sent the clergyman back a startled step. Hot, angry eyes, so brown they were almost as black as his shock of unruly hair, fixed on the vicar with a smoldering gaze, and his voice was low and taut.

"No, you do not know how I feel. Neither you nor anyone else has the least idea how I feel, so do not presume to offer unwanted condolences...” He paused, breathing harshly through his clenched teeth as he glared at the vicar.

"Well... I... I... never meant,” Goodbody began in a nervous stutter. The youth looked like a feral panther poised to spring, his muscles tense.

The bereaved boy took a step forward. "Go back to your little church and write a sermon for next Sunday,” he grated, his voice wavering between adolescent baritone and alto. "And make certain you abolish the notion that God has any mercy, Reverend Goodbody.”

Any rebuttal that Fenster Goodbody might have tendered remained unspo­ken as the youth brushed past him and stormed from the crypt into the driving rain. The vicar stepped to the door and watched as Edward John Chance Lancaster, only recently made Viscount Wolcott and now to be the new Earl of Wolverton, stalked across the cemetery like an avenging fury. He threaded his way through mossy, time-weathered markers jutting up from the drenched earth, shoulders hunched against the weather and any attempt at consolation from well-meaning friends or neighbors. Goodbody’s helpless sigh slid into the damp air. Chance—Lord Wolcott—such an odd Christian name for a boy of good birth, yet so fitting in this case.

"Chance,” his mother had said at the boy’s christening, "is a prophetic name and much better suited to such a beautiful child than John or Edward.” Her doting husband had agreed, willing to give his lovely young wife anything she asked of him. His devotion had lasted until their deaths just three days before.

"It’s a shame,” Reverend Goodbody’s wife had stated earlier in the day, "that such a young lad should be orphaned, but at least he inherits titles and estates.”

And what good, the vicar wondered wearily, would the titles and the es­tates do a sixteen-year-old boy? He needed his mother and father, not the title of earl nor the vast lands connected with Whiteash Manor. Ah, it was a pity that the earl and his beautiful wife had not survived the fever that had swept through the manor house, claiming the lives of some servants and lifelong family retainers as well.

"Fenster?”

The vicar started, his head jerking up to see his wife darting in from the rain. He hadn’t seen her approach the crypt but was suddenly glad she was there. He managed a smile.

"Yes, Lavinia? I was just... just...” His voice trailed into silence as Mrs. Goodbody shook rain from her cape and threw back the hood. Drops glistened in her graying hair. She stepped forward with an anxious frown.

"What happened, Fenster? You’re upset.”

"No, no, I’m quite all right, dear, really I am.”

Lavinia gave a disbelieving snort. "You are not. It was Lord Wolcott who upset you, wasn’t it? The wretched, cursed boy. He has behaved like a wild animal since the day he was out of leading strings, and now I’m afraid he will be worse than ever.”

"Lavinia. Have you no sympathy for the youth? Mercy’s sake, his father died in his arms three days ago. He has undergone a great shock, losing both his parents to a fever and his older brother in that dreadful massacre in Paris, and all within six weeks’ time. I cannot imagine why the earl allowed Anthony to go to Paris when the entire country is in an uproar over there, what with a revolution going on, but I suppose the boy was as determined as the rest of the Lancasters seem to be. It’s just that he was the heir—so foolish of them. Well, now it falls upon Lord Wolcott’s unprepared shoulders.”

"That’s no reason for the wretched boy to behave as if he hates every liv­ing soul, Fenster, you must admit.” Lavinia pursed her lips into a righteous pout. "God gives us all trials, and we must endure.”

"But God is not to blame for his troubles,” he said gently. "Any blame should be put upon the French rabble for murdering innocent English citi­zens or perhaps even on that careless serving girl from Hampstead who gave Wolverton’s head groom the fever that he brought back to Whiteash Manor. I am not certain God deserves all the blame we sometimes lay on His door­step.”

"There are times, Fenster, when you stray too far into the vicinity of blas­phemy. Consider your position.”

"My position is to offer succor to suffering souls, Lavinia, not heap blame upon our Lord.”

"Excuse me,” an unfamiliar voice interrupted, and Reverend Goodbody turned. A dark shape shadowed the doorway of the crypt, blocking the gray light and leaving the interior almost black.

"Excuse me, but are you the vicar?” the cloaked shape inquired. "I am Oliver Trentham, the solicitor down from London. I was told that I should meet with you to make arrangements until the new earl’s guardian arrives.”

Goodbody gave a sigh of relief. He hadn’t known quite what to do about leaving a young man alone in that great, rambling manor house without proper guidance.

"Yes, I’m Reverend Goodbody. Due to the fact that no family members are in residence, I suppose I’m the logical choice.” He hesitated, uncertain what he was supposed to say. A gust of wet wind spit rain down his open collar, and an idea occurred to him. "Shall we discuss this over tea, sir?”

"Indeed. Hot tea would be just the thing in this dreadful weather. I sug­gest you come to the manor, as I am going there to make arrangements.”

GOODBODY FELT ill at ease in the huge Whiteash Manor parlor with its lavish furnishings and thick Persian and Aubusson rugs. Lavinia had been put out that she was not invited up to the house for tea, and he knew she would pepper him with questions about the furnishings. It was amazing to him how females seemed to set store by the very things they often reviled the loudest, and Lavinia was no exception. Yes, she would demand a detailed description of the house and then talk about how wicked it was to have so much worldly affluence when there was so little for others. Reverend Goodbody sighed and studied the room more closely.

Over a carved sideboard set with three lit candelabras and ornate silver tea trays hung a painting as tall and wide as a church vestry. It depicted a dark-haired man astride a white horse. He was garbed in fourteenth century armor and held a broadsword. A rather grim subject for a parlor, in Goodbody’s opinion. Wind rattled the mullioned windows that stretched across one paneled wall. Dark, heavy draperies were drawn back to allow in gray light, and leaded glass blurred skeletal tree branches whipping in the driving rain. It was a gloomy day befitting such sad proceedings. A warm fire burned in the grate, and candles displaced some of the shadows.

Hobson, the retainer who had been with the family for years, supervised the pouring of tea from a heavy silver pot. Goodbody felt the burden of his grief like a thick pall over the room, and he murmured a sympathetic, "So sorry, Mister Hobson,” that drew the butler’s attention, and he inclined his head in acceptance of the comfort.

"Thank you, Reverend. More tea?”

"Yes.” Goodbody cleared his throat, feeling out of place and awkward. "Yes, please.” He held up his empty cup, and the footman poured more tea before he thought to ask for the milk to be poured in first. He liked it much better that way, but he had no intention of making a fuss over something so trivial.

"Not pensioned off yet, Hobson, old man?” Trentham asked from his place near the fire, and Goodbody gave the solicitor a shocked glance at his rudeness. Hobson, however, seemed to take it in stride. His voice was as smooth and calm as ever.

"Not at all, sir.”

"You’re long past your prime. I daresay it won’t be long.” Trentham held up his empty cup, but Hobson didn’t glance in his direction. Instead, he di­rected the footman to the plate of cakes set out on the long mahogany side­board. Heavy silver candlesticks illuminated the china and silver loaded with tea cakes and savory tarts. The footman brought a tray to the vicar, who chose two meat tarts, a scone, gooseberry jam, and clotted cream.

"Enjoy your tea, Reverend,” Hobson said politely and strode from the par­lor, his slight frame held stiffly erect.

Trentham muttered something under his breath and poured his own tea, then sat back, his spare frame looking oddly out of place in the parlor. He began to relate a stipulation in the late earl’s will, and Reverend Goodbody listened with growing alarm.

He took a hasty sip of his tea and gazed over the brim of the china cup at the London solicitor. The china clattered softly as he set his cup back on the fragile saucer and cleared his throat.

"You’re telling me, Mr. Trentham, that according to the late earl’s will, Lord Wolcott is considered dependent on his next of kin—in this case his uncle—until he reaches his majority?”

"That’s correct. Of course, there should be no problem with that. Funds are plentiful, and I am to keep a close eye on the expenses incurred by Montagu.”

Goodbody felt another stirring of disquiet. All the locals knew of the quar­rel between Perry Montagu and his half-brother Charles over the for­mer’s gambling habits. Why on earth had Lord Wolverton left his son and heir in the care of a man addicted to throwing away money? It didn’t make sense, and it certainly didn’t sound like the Lord Wolverton whom he had met and admired. How could it be true?

Oliver Trentham smiled, a faint wisp of a smile that did not go unno­ticed. "I take it, good Vicar, that you disagree with the late earl’s decision.”

Embarrassed, Goodbody cleared his throat. "Ah, I would not dare to pre­sume—”

"But of course you would. Most provincials do not understand all the intri­cacies and complications of the legal system and, therefore, are not qualified to make such decisions. Lord Wolverton, unfortunately, did not have time to make a new will after the death of his eldest son and heir in Paris. So the decision fell upon the courts to place someone who is a family member in charge of his estates until Lord Wolcott is of age. Naturally, I recom­mended Wolverton’s closest relation, his half-brother Perry. It seemed the wisest course of action, considering the circumstances. If Montagu is in charge—”

"Montagu can steal much more efficiently and swiftly than a stranger,” an angry youthful voice interrupted.

Both men turned to view the wrathful figure standing in the doorway and vibrating with emotion.

"My father would never have chosen Montagu,” Wolcott observed in the same caustic tone Goodbody had heard Lord Wolverton use on more than one occasion. "As you well know. Tell me, are you enjoying my tea, Trentham?”

Goodbody saw Trentham watch the boy through narrowed eyes when he stalked toward them. Wolcott was tall for his age, as his father had been as a youth, and had the same quick sparsity of movement. None of his actions were wasted and seemed fueled by a burning intensity. The new Earl of Wolverton would be a formidable adversary if he were of age, which he was not.

Trentham flashed a toothy smile. "I am enjoying your tea immensely, Wolverton, and—”

"Do not... call me that.”

Trentham lifted an iron-gray brow. "Upon your father’s death you be­came earl. You are Earl of Wolverton now, or Lord Wolverton, whichever you prefer.”

Goodbody watched the young lord’s face, and his heart wrenched at the deep furrows of pain in a previously unlined countenance. He decided to attempt intervention.

"My son,” he said gently, "as painful as it may be, you must accept what has happened.”

"I have accepted it.” The lad shot him a quick glance. "But that does not mean that I have to accept Perry or this so-called solicitor who preys on the weak and unfortunate like a bloody barracuda.”

Trentham jerked, and the fragile china cup quivered dangerously in his white-fingered grip. "You may have cause to retract that statement one day, my lord.”

"I doubt it. You have proven to be nothing else since I have known you.”

Goodbody quailed at the relentless hatred in him, a hatred so intense and adult that it was frightening. How could a mere youth be filled with such anger and animosity? And convey it with such ease? He watched, fascinated, as Wolcott gazed down on Trentham with ferocity.

Seeming unperturbed by that fierce glare, Trentham calmly set down his tea­cup and made a steeple of his hands, blunt-tipped fingers end to end under his clean-shaven chin.

"I suggest,” Trentham said mildly, "that you curb your impetuous tongue, young Wolcott. It would not do to make too many enemies at so young an age.”

"One should never be too young to recognize a viper—or vipers—in their midst, Trentham.” Black eyes gazed steadily at the solicitor. "I may be lacking in years, but not in knowledge.”

"I never thought otherwise.”

"Then we understand one another.”

Slowly, "Yes, my lord, perhaps we do.”

Pale eyes met dark ones, and a look that the good vicar did not under­stand at all passed between the two. It was as if two tigers had taken each other’s measure and established the battle lines. Goodbody shifted uncom­forta­bly in his deep, cushioned chair and cleared his throat again, the tension so thick it was like a fog in the elegant room with its thick rugs and cheerily crackling fire in the grate.

The vicar crossed his legs and uncrossed them, then rattled his teacup and saucer again and tried for a neutral topic of conversation.

"When are you due back at Eton, my lord?”

An innocent question, so trivial as to be almost ridiculous, but it eased the tension, as he’d hoped. Wolcott gave him a fraction of polite attention.

"I have a month’s excused absence, Reverend.” The boy’s gaze shifted to rest on the clergyman for an instant before darting back to the solicitor.

"You are not expected to stay any longer, Trentham. Hobson will see you out.”

The haughty dismissal brought a cynical smile to the solicitor’s lips.

"As you wish, my lord. I will return with your uncle and the necessary pa­pers within a fortnight.” Trentham rose, bowed politely at Goodbody, and crossed the room with as much dignity as possible. Hobson hovered near the parlor door, waiting for the solicitor.

"Bastard,” Wolcott said loudly and smiled when Trentham’s stride fal­tered. The solicitor paused, straightened his shoulders, then continued out the door. The parlor door slammed shut with a loud click. The young lord turned back to the vicar.

"I say,” Goodbody couldn’t help commenting, "is it wise to make an en­emy of Master Trentham? He could do you much harm.”

Wolcott’s gaze narrowed, surveying him and making him feel very much like a hapless insect impaled on a hatpin and placed in a collection. His dark, icy eyes raked the vicar as if trying to decide whether friend or foe, before thawing slightly.

"He will do me a lot of harm anyway, Vicar,” Wolcott finally replied, and once more Goodbody was struck by his mature words and tone.

"But why should he? Trentham was your father’s trusted solicitor. Shouldn’t he be your protector?”

After a moment’s hesitation, Wolcott stalked across the thick carpet to the marble-fronted grate and stared into the flames as if searching for an answer among the leaping orange and crimson tongues. His hands were shoved deep into the pockets of his frock coat. His shoulders slumped briefly, then straightened again.

"No, he is not my protector.”

The words had a peculiar vulnerability to them, a trace of childlike helpless­ness that immediately struck at the vicar’s heart. Yet the tense set of the boy’s shoulders and the rigid thrust of his jaw made Goodbody think better of offering any solace.

"Well—if there’s anything I can do for you, my lord, please send a serv­ant with a note, and I will come at once.”

Wolcott turned to nod coolly, his liquid eyes almost level with Goodbody’s.

"I will not forget your concern,” the new earl said, his voice once more a peculiar mixture of alto and baritone. "You have been kind. A Lancaster always repays his debts.”

With that ominous promise hanging in the air, Fenster Goodbody left the sprawling greystone hall of Whiteash Manor. It wasn’t until later, when he thought back to the exact tone Wolcott—no, Wolverton now—had used, that he was able to justify the following events.

Chapter 2

A COLD WIND blew harshly across the winter-bare moors, sweeping dry leaves and the smell of wood smoke with it. Chance paused, reining in the green-broke chestnut he rode. Smoke. No one was supposed to be lighting fires on Wolverton estates. Poachers was his first thought. Gamekeepers had obviously failed to prevent them. He drummed his booted heels into the chestnut’s sides, and it sprang forward with a snort.

Hoofbeats thundered over the furrowed fields as Chance rode toward the origin of the smoke. A thin wisp curled skyward. The Ridgeway was an ancient track said to be Britain’s oldest, and it ran near ninety miles, from Wiltshire along chalk ridges and over the Berkshire Downs to the River Thames and farther. He crossed the high ridge and down into the vale where trees grew thickly on lands his ancestors had hunted for near three hundred years. As he drew nearer he heard the sound of voices raised in laughter and song, and it raked across his tautly stretched nerves like the stinging stroke of a whip.

Not just poachers, after all—Gypsies. Gypsies, by God, camping on Wolverton lands, poaching his game, using his property as if it belonged to them. Interlopers. Intruders.

The rage that always seemed to simmer just beneath his surface these days erupted into action. Chance spurred his mount through the trees, heed­less of crashing branches and thick underbrush. He saw the clearing just ahead of him and urged the horse faster; it cleared a fallen log and landed in the clearing in a thud of hooves and geysers of dry leaves whirling up around them. He quickly reined in the animal. Snorting, the chestnut half-reared, hooves thrashing. Chance glimpsed startled faces as he brought the animal down with a firm hand. As his horse tossed its head in a jangle of bits, curb chains, and nerves, he estimated at least two dozen people stood staring at him.

"Who gave you permission to camp here?” he demanded of the nearest man, a dark-skinned Gypsy garbed in gaudy breeches and billowy red shirt.

For a moment the man didn’t reply, just regarded Chance with an ancient arrogance that he found insulting. The Gypsy gave a slight shrug finally, his voice dry as he responded.

"The land belongs to you, young master?”

It was obvious from his stance and tone he didn’t consider Chance to be a threat or a master of anything besides his own tongue. That skepticism lent him more resolve.

"It does,” he replied shortly. Three of the men separated from the group, walking casually toward him, and he tightened his hands on his mount’s reins and the short leather crop he held in one hand. His bloodline had been bound to ancient Plantagenet kings, and his ancestors had faced far more lethal threats; he would not retreat. He stared back at the Gypsy. "You are trespass­ing.”

The Gypsy looked amused. "Do you claim to own all the land under the sky? The air we breathe, too, young master?”

"No. But this is my land, and I do not tolerate trespassers...”

Someone snatched at his boot, and Chance lashed out with his riding crop, sending the man stumbling backward and cursing in a language he didn’t recognize. Clusters of frowning Gypsies glared at him from the tight circle of tents and roofed wagons, looking sullen and ominous. No one spoke, and Chance leaned forward to soothe his trembling mount with a calm hand on the chestnut’s lathered neck.

"Did you hear me?” he demanded when silence and motion remained still. "I insist that you leave at once.”

"We heard you,” a thickly accented voice replied at last, rumbling across the small clearing like the roar of a lion. "We could not help it. You scream like the peacock, young master.”

Laughter greeted his words, and Chance flushed. A man moved stealthily behind him, and he swung his mount around. A dog rushed forward, barking, and it unsettled the horse so that it danced nervously, eyes rolling and nostrils flaring at the unfamiliar sounds and smells. This was no time to be on a green mount, but he had little choice. Chance tightened his knees and kept a firm hand on the reins, impressing his will over that of his agitated horse until the chestnut finally stood quiet but alert. Then he lifted his head to stare at the tall Gypsy leaning against the thick trunk of a towering oak.

Apparently willing to recognize good horsemanship as well as good horse­flesh, the Gypsy said, "You ride well.”

Chance lifted his brow, countering, "Are you a qualified judge of that?”

"Of course.” Muscular arms spread wide and a mocking grin slanted the Gypsy’s full, mobile mouth. "I am Romani,” he said as if that explained every­thing.

"And I,” Chance said, "am a Lancaster.”

The Gypsy laughed. "You are a gadjo—an Englishman.” His words were weighted with contempt, provoking the same response as if he’d thrown down the gauntlet.

Chance stiffened. "Care to make a wager on who’s the better horseman— Gypsy?”

The calculated insult produced the result he’d hoped for. The Gypsies, or Romnichal as they preferred being called, were notoriously proud. They trav­eled through England and Europe in their small bands with their brightly painted wagons, working at small jobs when they could and stealing their necessities when they couldn’t. Chance knew they had been hounded across half of Europe, yet had retained their fierce pride. That pride would demand that the Gypsy answer Chance’s challenge, and he did.

He spat on the ground, his mouth curled into a sneer. "What are your stakes, gorgio?”

"If I win, you will leave my lands now, paying me two pence a head for the last night’s lodging. If I lose, you will enjoy last night free.”

"And tonight? It is close to dark already.”

Chance recognized the Gypsy’s bartering attempt. "Tonight also, then, though I should not take advantage of such a gullible soul.”

"You will soon regret your foolishness, Englishman.”

The tall Gypsy strode away, returning a few minutes later with a long-legged mare. She appeared more gangly than well-formed, and though her winter coat was well brushed and shining, it did not have the same gleam as the chestnut’s. The Gypsy swung effortlessly atop the mare’s back and gazed at Chance.

"Name the course, Englishman.”

"Down the high road to the stone bridge just before the village, then left and over the rise to the edge of the Welshman’s property where the stone fence rises too high to jump, then back down the lower road to the millstream and back here. Agreed?”

"Agreed.”

Comrades crowded around the Gypsy, chattering in their strange tongue and obviously wishing him well, while Chance remained slightly apart and aloof, watching cynically. He was startled from his observations by the touch of a hand upon his boot, and glanced down.

A girl stood next to his horse, staring up at him with the bluest eyes he’d ever seen. A wild tangle of dark, red-streaked hair curled onto her forehead; soot smudged her cheeks and nose, and her wide, mobile mouth curved in a sweetly charming smile.

"Here,” she said and held up a length of crimson ribbon. "Wear this as a fa­vor. It will bring you luck against Nicolo.”

Chance didn’t move to take it. "I do not need luck to beat a Gypsy.”

Instead of being insulted, the girl laughed. It was a light, tinkly sound like the chime of silver bells in the wind.

"Maybe you don’t, but your horse does. Chakano is the fastest horse in the land. Take the ribbon. I give it to you willingly.”

To his surprise, Chance found himself reaching out for the ribbon. The girl looked close to his age, though it was difficult to tell with the coils of hair nearly obscuring her face. She was skinny, her flat chest barely showing any signs of becoming a woman, and angular hips only slightly swelled the bright blue skirt she wore. Her bare toes curled into the dirt and damp leaves of the ground despite the icy chill in the air. Her smooth skin was a peachy gold instead of the darker hue of the rest of her people.

"Do you like what you see?” she asked impudently, and he realized that he’d been staring.

He shrugged. "Yes. Though you are the most disheveled girl I’ve seen in some time, you’re also one of the prettiest.”

With that, he tucked the ribbon into his pocket and nudged his stallion for­ward, leaving the Gypsy girl staring after him. A glimpse of the smile on her face told him that his comment had pleased her.

The horses pranced and chomped at their bits, eager to be off but held by restraining hands. Someone held up a bright swatch of cloth to indicate that the competitors should be ready. It fluttered in the cold breeze, then dropped.

As the scarlet bit of material fluttered to the ground, the horses burst into action, surging forward neck to neck. Chestnut and bay streaked across the hard winter ground and up the far slope to the high road.

Chance leaned over his mount’s neck as they clattered from the softer ground onto the hard-packed dirt road. Fierce exultation replaced his usual cold rage. He needed this outlet for the anger and pain that had been his constant companions of late, and he welcomed the cold bite of the wind in his face and the rhythmic motion of the horse beneath him.

He intended to win this race. Not far behind him, the rasping breath of the Gypsy mare wove into the thunder of hooves against the ground, and he nodded in satisfaction. This would be too easy.

They raced for the bridge and thundered across it, the horses stretching out, manes and tails streaming out like banners. The land changed from forest to downs, flat and empty, mud ruts cutting across a broad vale. Trees, bushes, and small leaning huts whizzed past in a blur as they rode over the stubble of fallow fields. Cold wind stung his face and made his eyes blur with tears. When he dragged an arm over his face to wipe them away, he was chagrined to realize that he held only a slight lead against the scruffy Gypsy horse.

He leaned over the neck, urging his mount faster. Then the chestnut stum­bled, and he pulled up to keep from being thrown into the field. He muttered a curse as his lead shortened, and the Gypsy pony pulled ahead.

Somehow, that scruffy mare possessed more speed than style, and it was suddenly apparent that she would beat his high-bred stallion with very little effort. Chance mentally cursed again. Losing was something he did badly, but it looked as if he would certainly lose this race. He quickly assessed his choices.

The high stone fence encompassing the Welshman’s property loomed just ahead. He knew where the stones had tumbled to leave a gap low enough to jump. If he jumped it, he could cut across and save enough time to win the race. But he would also be cheating.

No. I’ll win fairly or not at all, by God....

He leaned over the horse’s neck, urging him faster, and in moments, had almost caught up to the fleet Gypsy pony. The Gypsy glanced backward, his grinning face a dark blur against the pale background of leafless trees and sullen gray skies. Curse him. He should have outdistanced that miserable nag long before this.

Still swearing, Chance redoubled his efforts, urging the stallion forward while trying to save the last of his strength for the finish. They were whistling down the lower road now, clods of dirt flying from beneath the hooves, with only the birds as spectators. Just ahead was the millstream, gurgling quietly through a marshy stretch of land. For the first time Chance lifted his riding crop. It slashed down in a whirring arc to land neatly on the chestnut’s rump.

Snorting, the stallion leaped ahead with renewed energy. Chance was acutely aware of the wind whipping at him, of the rhythmic pumping of the horse’s muscles stretching and striding, of the sharp scent of gorse and damp earth, of the thunder of hoofbeats that sounded like his own beating heart. For several moments it looked as if he had the winning edge, then slowly the Gypsy’s mare began to pull ahead of the stallion, her velvety nose inching past until she was head and neck ahead.

The contours of the ground changed slightly as the racing horses sped for­ward, from firm ridge to soft and marshy, so that it slowed their pace. It became a struggle to run with the clinging mud sucking at flying hooves, taxing already straining muscles. They were close now, within mere inches of one another on the narrow, beaten track that edged the marsh, so that Chance heard the Gypsy’s harsh breathing as well as the wheezes of the mare.

He lifted his crop again to give the stallion a much needed spur forward. In the process the leather bat accidentally struck the Gypsy’s mare.

The mare panicked. A high-pitched scream tore into the air, and she bucked wildly. Her startled rider sailed through the air to land in the middle of the shallow millstream with a loud splash. Chance saw this with astonishment and circled back to return to the unharmed but furiously raging Gypsy.

"You did that on purpose,” Nicolo snarled through a muddy shower of water. He struggled to rise, eyes darting to the mare cantering from their view.

Chance reined in on the millbank, unable to hide his amusement at the sight before him. Nicolo’s hair was plastered to his head like a black cap, and his clothes hung in dripping tangles.

"No,” Chance finally said, "I didn’t do it on purpose, but I can’t help appre­ciating the picture you make.” He nudged his horse into the stream and leaned down to offer his hand. "Come up behind me, and we’ll catch your horse.”

Nicolo grasped Chance’s hand firmly, then gave it a sharp tug. Unbal­anced, Chance tumbled from his saddle into the shockingly cold water. The Gypsy shouted with laughter as he landed on hands and knees in the shallows.

Choking and gasping at the chill, Chance staggered to his feet, hands clenched into tight fists. "Curse you—”

"Ah, now we will catch my mare,” Nicolo cut in, the slash of his brows lift­ing arrogantly.

Chance’s eyes were level with the Gypsy’s, and he was aware of Nicolo’s amused expression. Several heartbeats thudded past before Chance relaxed.

"Now we will catch your mare,” he agreed, and reached out for his horse’s dangling reins.

DISBELIEF SHOWED on the faces of those waiting when the two drenched horsemen rode into camp.

"Well?” one of the Gypsies asked. "Who won the race?”

"Neither one of us,” Nicolo said at the same moment as Chance replied, "Nicolo did.”

They exchanged glances and shrugged, falling silent.

"Eh?” an old woman demanded, coming forward to stand with both hands on her ample hips. "Which is it?”

Chance and Nicolo started to speak at the same time again, then paused.

"Actually,” Nicolo finally said, "I was winning when a small... uh... acci­dent occurred, Lucia.”

"Accident?”

"Yes, the stick flew from his hands and struck my mare. You all know how skittish Chakano is, and she bolted, leaving me sitting in the middle of a stream.”

"You are both wet,” someone in the crowd pointed out.

"But of course.” Nicolo’s brows rose. "You did not expect me to swim alone, did you?”

Laughter greeted that remark. Chance looked around at the uncertain ex­pressions and made a swift decision. He caught Nicolo’s right hand and held it up in a gesture of triumph.

"To the winner of the race.” A volley of ragged cheers rose, and when the noise began to fade, Chance added, "And for all—a feast should be given, using the fat plunder I saw when I rode in.”

Silence greeted his last words, and Chance’s brow lifted. "What? No appe­tites? Or is it that you’re wary of my knowing whose game you’ve been poaching?”

The woman Nicolo had called Lucia took a step forward. "You are an arro­gant rooster, young sir. Say what you mean.”

"I already have. I’m hungry, and I do not care where you got the main course.”

For a moment no one spoke, then Lucia smiled slightly in a motion that made her leathery face crinkle around the eyes and mouth. "As I said—you are most arrogant. But never let it be said that a Rom had to be asked twice to share his good fortune.”

She clapped her hands, and people began to scurry in all directions. Nicolo grinned and slapped Chance on his back, sending him staggering a few steps.

"You said just the right thing, my young friend,” Nicolo commented with a wink.

Chance narrowly avoided another hearty slap on the back by stepping to the side. "What was that?”

"Feast. Lucia almost laughed. She likes to eat.”

He didn’t doubt that. Her ample frame was evidence of a fondness for food. Purloined chickens and poached game were soon cooking at Lucia’s directions, while the women began to scrape vegetables into various pots.

When the men gathered around the fire with earthenware jugs, Nicolo mo­tioned for Chance to join them. He hesitated. He’d seen the jugs being hefted and knew what was in them. But to refuse could be an insult.

He reached out and took a heavy jug, lifting it as he’d seen the others do. Potent liquor burned a fiery path down his throat and made his eyes water, but he took several hearty swigs before lowering the jug and wiping his mouth with his sleeve. Each person in turn silently lifted his own jug. Only Nicolo gave him a nod of approval.

Dry clothes were found for him while his own were spread over bushes near the fire, and he hitched up patched breeches that were too large; a shirt and jacket fit too tight, his boots were set by the fire, and he wiggled his toes in bright red stockings that made him reflect that he must look like he belonged with the Gypsies.

Fiddles played, an old hand organ was brought out and wound up, and sev­eral guitars strummed a lively melody in accompaniment to the thump and jangle of tambourines. The music was loud and unfamiliar, nothing like the country reels he was used to hearing or the stately minuet that his dance mas­ters preferred.

Chance stood to one side, head buzzing from the strong drink, not really a part of the celebration, but somehow unable to leave. There was a gaiety and vibrancy in these people that he found intriguing. It had been a long time since he’d heard laughter that was genuine and not at someone else’s expense. Had he ever laughed as naturally? If so, he couldn’t remember it. Laughter was something in short supply at Whiteash Manor, and had been since before his parents died. His older brother Anthony’s death had been a devastating blow.

His throat tightened, and he levered himself away from the gnarled oak trunk where he’d been leaning. Nicolo was only a few feet away, pounding enthusiastically on a tambourine and making a general nuisance of himself.

"Where is the girl I saw earlier?” Chance asked, and Nicolo’s hand paused in midair over the stretched skin of the tambourine.

"Girl? What girl?”

Nicolo’s eyes slightly narrowed, centering on him with growing suspi­cion, and Chance wished he hadn’t asked. But he had, and he wouldn’t back down.

"The one with big blue eyes.”

Light sparked Nicolo’s eyes. "Ah—you must mean Rhianna.”

Rhianna. An unusual name for an unusual girl.

"Yes. Rhianna. Where is she?”

Nicolo shrugged and waved an expansive arm. "Here somewhere. In one of the wagons, perhaps.” He squinted at Chance. "Why do you seek her out?”

"I have something of hers that I should return.”

"Ah.” Nicolo’s gaze was speculative, but he finally nodded. "Very well. There’s a vurdon by itself at the far edge of the camp. Look there for her.”

The wagon had been built up high enough that it had a roof, with a small door that swung out over the back. Several tents had been erected nearby.

Rhianna opened the door a small crack when he knocked and looked slightly surprised at seeing him. Chance thought belatedly of his unfamiliar garments. He held out the wet ribbon, and it fluttered slightly in the wind.

"It did not help me beat Nicolo.”

She took the ribbon. A smile curved her mouth upward. "Ah, but per­haps it helped you lose gracefully.”

For the first time in several months, Chance felt a wave of anticipation and wondered why. There was nothing he could see in this scrap of a girl that would give him any reason to anticipate her company, yet he did.

"Come and sit by the fire with me, Rhianna.”

Her delicate brow rose. "I do not take orders from those I do not know.”

"Orders? It was an invitation.”

"It sounded more like an order, young sir.”

He shrugged. "It was not meant to.”

Rhianna leaned against the doorjamb. A dark skein of hair fell over one shoulder in a cluster of gleaming curls, and he fought the temptation to touch it. She was pretty, much prettier than any of the girls he knew, and free of pretense and that strict sense of propriety that made most females his age so infinitely boring.

He reached up and took her hand in his. "Come walk with me.”

She pulled away. "See? Another order. Do you not know how to ask for what you want?”

"I thought I did.” Annoyance swept through him. "Do not play with words. You are different from all the others. Do not disappoint me now.”

Her chin lifted, and Chance knew he had made a major error in judgment when she gave him a cold stare.

"If you mean that you think I’m a poor silly chey who will follow you into the woods for a game of touch and tickle, you’re right—I’m different from all the others you must know.”

"But that’s not—”

"Go back and play great lord among the men, sir. I do not need to hear an­ything else from you.” She stepped back, and the door began to swing shut.

Chance caught it with one hand. "Rhianna, wait. That’s not at all what I meant. I just... I just wanted to be with you and enjoy your company.”

Blue eyes had darkened, and she regarded him solemnly for a long mo­ment. It had suddenly become vital that she not think badly of him, and Chance cleared his throat.

"Please—come and walk with me. We can sit by the fire with the others if you like.”

She hesitated. He saw the indecision in her face, and then she nodded slowly.

"Very well. I will sit by the fire with you. But do not presume to order me about again.”

Chance had never met a girl quite like this Rhianna before. She behaved as if she were royalty. Royalty in bare feet and disheveled hair—it was discon­certing. And more intriguing than he’d thought it would be.

The others made room for them in the circle around the fire, and the smell of roasting meat mingled with the tantalizing fragrance of frying bread. As Rhianna laughed with one of the other girls sitting nearby, he watched in rapt fascination. Dark-fire hair curled freely, held only by a ribbon at the nape of her neck, and her garments fit loosely so that she had great freedom of movement. A full-sleeved blouse cinched by a green velvet girdle, full skirts that ended above her ankles, and defying the cold, no stockings or shoes. Banglesadorned her slender arms, ringing a tune at her every motion. Despite the garb of a peasant girl, she was exotic, appealing. As friendly and unselfcon­scious as a puppy.

She offered him a wood bowl filled with meat and bread. "Puyo?” He looked at it, recognized chicken as well as root vegetables in a thick broth. She smiled. "It is not often we invite others to join us. Eat, if you are hungry, young earl.”

He took the bowl of stew, frowning. "Do not call me that.”

"Do not call you what?”

"Earl.”

"Isn’t that what you are?”

He set the bowl on the ground, aware of her curious gaze and wishing sud­denly he was one of the boys from the village. The gulf between him and this Gypsy girl was unbridgeable. A fierce desire to be as free as these people nearly overwhelmed him, and he shook his head.

"You are an earl.” Rhianna’s voice lowered. "I heard Enrico say that you are the young earl everyone says is as wild and ferocious as a wolf. Are you?”

He was startled. He’d heard of the rumors, of course; people seemed to make it their good Christian duty to see that he was informed about his lamenta­ble shortcomings. He just hadn’t known he was supposed to be ferocious.

After a moment he asked, "Is that what they say about me?”

"Yes. Don’t you know?”

"What else do they say?”

Rhianna shifted to sit closer, curving her legs under her as she leaned to­ward him. Music and laughter surrounded them, flames leaped and danced high, and despite the cold chill in the air that made his breath frost he felt warm. Firelight sparkled in the exotic girl’s eyes, and he caught a faint whiff of a light, musky perfume. "They say, my lord, that you will not live to see your majority, that you will meet a bad end before then.”

"Ah. And do they also say that it will be of my own doing, or am I sup­posed to be done in by my charming uncle?”

Now Rhianna seemed startled. "I don’t know what you mean by that—”

"Of course you do. Every moonraker in Wiltshire has an opinion about it one way or the other.” His hand closed around her wrist, holding her when she would have pulled away, his voice harsher than he meant for it to be. "Which do you think it will be? Will I be done in by my uncle so that he inherits—or will I kill the devil before he can kill me?”

Fright shadowed her eyes for a moment, and he released her arm. Too much drink made him unwise, and he sucked in a quick breath before saying, "Forgive me for scaring you.”

"I never meant...” She swallowed hard, rubbing at her wrist. "I never meant to upset you. It was a jest, my lord.”

"Call me... call me Chance. Don’t call me my lord like that.”

"Like what?” She shook back a tangle of dark hair from her eyes, gazing at him with a mixture of caution and curiosity.

"Like... like I’m my father.” He turned to stare into the fire, fighting the familiar thrust of pain that came whenever he thought of his parents, of the life he’d once had and the life he had now. He sucked in another deep breath, and wood smoke stung his throat and lungs, so that his voice came out in a thick rasp. "I am not my father.”

Rhianna put a hand on his arm, and he turned to look at her. There was no pity in her eyes, which he would have hated, but somehow, a glimmer of understanding shone in the deep blue depths and eased him. Her voice was so soft he had to lean closer to hear.

"My mother died last year. I miss her. People say I’m like her, but I’m not. She was... she was beautiful and smart and always singing, while I am none of those things. I am not my dya, though wish I were. I wish... oh, I wish she were still here.”

Tears welled in her eyes but did not spill onto her cheeks, and sympathy led Chance to put his hand over hers. He couldn’t reply; there was nothing to say, and he knew that well enough. No mere words would soothe the pain she felt or the rage he felt. Nothing but time, Hobson always told him, nothing but time would ease the pain.

They sat there in silent understanding, while around them gay music swirled into the air, and sparks from the fire rose skyward. A full moon sil­vered the earth, hanging heavy and bright above the trees, making black lace of empty branches, and for the first time in months, Chance felt a sense of kinship with another human being.

It was, he thought, more his salvation than any of the words Reverend Goodbody had offered him.
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