Excerpt from Dukes Prefer Blondes
“Look out! Are you blind? Get out of the way!”
Clara hadn’t time to see what she was in the way of when an arm snaked about her waist and yanked her back from the curb. Then she saw the black and yellow gig hurtling toward her.
At the last minute, it swerved away, toward the watermen and boys clustered about the statue of King Charles I. Then once more it veered abruptly off course. It nicked a passing omnibus, struck a limping dog, and swung into St. Martin’s Lane, leaving pandemonium in its wake.
Some inches above her head—and plainly audible above the bystanders’ shouts and shrieks and the noise of carriages, horses, and dogs—a deep, cultivated voice uttered an oath. The muscular arm came away from her waist and the arm’s owner stepped back a pace. She looked up at him, more up than she was accustomed to.
His face seemed familiar, though her brain couldn’t find a name to attach to it. Under his hat brim, a single black curl fell against his right temple. Below the dark, sharply angled eyebrows, a pair of cool grey eyes regarded her. Her own gaze moved swiftly from his uncomfortably sharp scrutiny down his long nose and firmly chiseled mouth and chin.
The day was warm, but the warmth she felt started on the inside.
“I daresay you noticed nothing about him?” he said. “But why do I ask a pointless question? Everybody flies into a panic and nobody pays attention. The correct question is, Does it matter?” He shrugged. “Only to the dog, perhaps. And in that regard one may say that the driver simply put the wretched brute out of its misery. Let’s call it an act of mercy. Well, then. Not injured, my lady? No swooning? No tears? Excellent. Good day.”
He touched the brim of his hat and started away.
“A man and a boy in a black Stanhope gig trimmed in yellow,” she said to his back. Clara was aware of the tall, black-garbed figure pausing, but she was concentrating, to hold the fleeting image in her mind. “Carriage freshly painted. Blood bay mare. White stripe. White sock … off hind leg. No tiger. The boy … I’ve seen him before, near Covent Garden. Red hair. Square face. Spotty. Garish yellow coat. Cheap hat. The driver had a face like a whippet. His coat … a better one but not right. Not a gentleman.”
Her rescuer slowly turned back to her, one dark eyebrow upraised. “Face like a whippet?”
“A narrow, elongated face,” she said. With one gloved hand, whose tremor was barely noticeable, she made a lengthening gesture over her own face. “Sharp features. He drives to an inch. He might have spared the dog.”
Her rescuer looked her up and down, so briefly Clara wasn’t altogether sure he’d done it. But then his expression became acutely intent.
She kept her sigh to herself and her chin upraised, and waited for the wall to go up.
“You’re certain,” he said.
Why should I be certain? she thought. I’m only a woman and so of course I have no brain to speak of.
She said, more impatiently than she ought to, “I could see the dog was barely alive. No doubt boys would have tortured him or a horse would have kicked him or a cart would have rolled over him soon enough. But that driver knew what he was doing. He struck the animal on purpose.”
The stranger’s keen gaze shifted away from her to scan the square.
“What an idiot,” he said. “Making a spectacle of himself. Killing the dog was meant as a warning to me, obviously. A master of subtlety he is not.” When his gaze returned to her, he said, “A whippet, you say.”
“Well done,” he said.
For an instant Clara thought he’d pat her on the head, as one would a puppy who’d learned a new trick. But he only stood there, alternately looking at her then looking about him. His mouth twitched a little, as though he meant to smile, but he didn’t.
“That man, whoever he is, is a public menace,” she said. “I have an appointment or I should report the incident to the police.” She had no appointment. Her visit to the Milliners’ Society was a spur-of-the-moment decision. But a lady was not to have anything to do with the police. Even if she got murdered, she ought to do it discreetly. “I must leave the matter to you.”
“Firstly, nobody was injured but a dog it’s obvious nobody cared about,” the gentleman said. “Otherwise the creature would have been a degree more alive to begin with. Secondly, one doesn’t pester the police about the demise, violent or otherwise, of a mere canine unless its owner is an aristocrat. Thirdly, it’s now clear the fellow was aiming for me when you stepped in the way. I couldn’t see him clearly through the”—he gestured at her hat, his mouth twitching again—“the whatnot rising from your head. But Whippet Face …” Now he smiled. It wasn’t much of a smile, being small and quick, but it changed his face, and her heart gave a short, surprised thump. “He’s been trying to kill me this age. He’s not the only one. Hardly worth troubling the constabulary.”
He gave her the briefest nod, then turned and strode away.
Clara stood staring after him.
Tall, lean, and self-assured, he moved with swift purpose through the sea of people surging over the streets converging on Trafalgar Square. Even after he entered the Strand, he didn’t disappear from sight for a while. His hat and broad shoulders remained visible above the mass of humanity until he reached Clevedon House, when a passing coach blocked her view.
He never looked back.
He never looked back.
Moments later, after she’d calmed both her maid and her tiger, Colson, and was giving her horse leave to start, the gentleman’s face flashed into her mind, and his voice with its husky overtone seemed to sound again from somewhere above her head. Like a shadow cast by a guttering candle, an image flickered in her brain for a moment. But it was gone before she could make it out. She shrugged, trying to push the incident out of her thoughts, and went on her way, though now and again she did wonder how he’d known to address her as my lady … and why he hadn’t looked back.
Oliver “Raven” Radford, Esquire, didn’t need to look back. In the usual way of things, he would have sized up the tall, aristocratic blonde at the first glance. Fairfaxes being ubiquitous, their handsome features distinctive, even Society’s outsiders recognized them, and he calculated excellent odds of her being one of the many dubbed Lady This or Lady That.
Yet he’d given her second and third looks, for three reasons.
Firstly, his mind had refused to fully accept the evidence of his eyes. He was observant to a degree not usually associated with human beings—some said he wasn’t, quite—and his memory was equally inhuman. But yes, further examination proved milady’s attire to be as complicated and demented as his eyes had ascertained.
Secondly, upon that further examination, he felt certain he’d met her before. But he couldn’t dredge up from his prodigious memory the time and place.
Thirdly, he realized she’d surprised him.
He couldn’t remember the last time anybody had surprised him.
“Face like a whippet,” he murmured, and laughed—startling passersby as he strode along the Strand. “Wait until I tell him. He’ll want to kill me twice, and by inches.”