Authors: Manda Collins
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For Stephen, Tiny, Toast, and Charlie, who keep me company and offer distraction when needed while I'm slaving over a hot keyboard.
As always a slew of people helped get this book from idea to finished product. Thanks to my kick-ass agent, Holly Root, for hand-holding and serving as the voice of reason when my author's mania gets out of control; my insightful and clever editor, Holly Ingraham, whose suggestions always make me look at my prose in a new way and in turn make for a better book; to all the folks at St. Martin's Press including my publicist, Amy Goppert, the art, production, and sales departments, and all the folks who work behind the scenes to make sure my books make it into the hands of readers.
Thanks also to my Kiss & Thrill sisters: Carey, Rachel, Lena, Gwen, Krista, Sharon, Sarah, and Diana. And to Eloisa, Sharlene, Janga, Julianne, Santa, Hope, PJ, Ruth, Thea, Chrissy, Crystal, Flora, Gannon, Andrea, Buffy, Kim, Thea, and all the Duchesses for laughter, support, and general good cheer when I needed it most. I could not have made it through this past year without all of your friendship and support.
And finally thanks to my sister Jessie, and my menagerie, Stephen, Tiny, Toast, and Charlie, for keeping things going at home when I was buried under a heavy deadline.
Jonathan Craven was accounted to be the most skillful driver in England, but it didn't take much skill to know when he was being followed.
For one thing, the driver behind him wasn't doing anything to hide his presence behind Jonathan's curricle as it raced down the road from Basildon to Dartford.
He'd accepted the challenge of Sir Gerard Fincher, the leader of the Lords of Anarchy, the most controversial driving club in Londonâor perhaps even all of Englandâbecause he wanted to prove to the other man that it was possible to win a race without resorting to dirty tricks or finding some way to sabotage the other driver's equipage.
Of course, Gerard wasn't the one behind him now. Jonathan had managed to get a considerable lead over the other man when one of the club leader's own matched bays had pulled up lame just outside of town. It could happen to anyone, but now that he could hear the other carriage coming up behind himâand it was a large one given the sound of four horses pulling itâhe wondered if Gerard hadn't sabotaged himself in order to give Jonathan the head start he thought he'd earned on his own.
A burst of nerves shot down his spine as he glanced back to see a plain black coach and four barreling down the macadamized road about a quarter of a mile behind. He could see no markings on the coach, and the driver was masked, something that was not customary except among highwaymen.
He might have suspected robbery was the object if not for the week leading up to this race. First he'd been set upon by thieves while he walked home from a club meeting. Thieves who had taken neither his expensive watch and fobs, nor his purse which was plump with his winnings at whist that evening.
Then, two nights later, he'd woken in the middle of the night to the sound of his casement window clicking shut. Since he himself had climbed down from said window using the trellis there many times in his misspent youth, he knew it was not inconceivable that someone had chosen the same route to break into his bedchamber. And when he threw off the covers to see if anything had been touched, he saw that his wardrobe was opened to reveal the safe he kept hidden there.
“Stand and deliver!” the masked man in the coach and four behind him shouted over the sound of their horses on the road.
“You must be a bold one to try this in broad daylight, man!” Jonathan shouted over his shoulder, but ignored the other driver's demand to stop. He knew instinctively that the moment he brought his curricle to a halt, he would regret it.
But despite his words, he knew that this stretch of the Dover Road was usually deserted at this time of day. Something he'd learned on the Anarchists' bimonthly treks from London to Dartford. Something any other member of the club would also have noticed, he thought with rising anger.
Despite the lightness and speed of the curricle, the four horses of the other man's coach boasted more power and, to Jonathan's alarm, the masked man was gaining on him.
“Pull over, Craven!” the man shouted as he maneuvered his vehicle to come alongside Jonathan's. “Pull over or there will be trouble.”
The fact that the man knew his identity only solidified Jonathan's determination not to let this man any closer. For he knew in his gut that as soon as he did, he'd be dead. The Lords of Anarchy had killed before and there was nothing to stop them from killing now. Especially if it meant escaping the consequences of the crimes they'd been committing under the noses of the very people who trusted them.
“There is already trouble,” he said, using the whip on his grays. Sorry, old fellows, he thought, disliking to hurt the horses, but it was literally a matter of life and death. And not just his. Many a horse was put down in the aftermath of a bad accident, and he was damned if he'd let these bastards slaughter his loyal team without a fight.
Despite his determination, however, the coach had managed to edge up beside the curricle, and to Jonathan's surprise the door of the passenger compartment opened and a glance back showed the small man was intent upon jumping into the tiger's seat that graced the back of his curricle.
Though he encouraged the horses in a low voice and used the whip with more frequency, he knew the two were already going as fast as they could. And still the coach hovered alongside him.
When the curricle bucked under the thrust of the small man's weight as he landed in the seat, he cursed aloud. For a moment he spared a thought for his sisters and father. What they would think when he turned up dead. None of them had understood his addiction to speed. To them it was a desperate, dangerous pastime. One that endangered him every time he took to the reins. In vain had he explained that a carriage was only as safe as its driver. And as the best driver in town, the risk to him was minimal.
It had been, in the end, the men he drove with who proved to be the real danger. But he'd not been able to admit as much to Leonora or his father.
I'm sorry, Nora.
He felt the coach lurch as his unwanted passenger attempted to climb over the back of the curricle and into the seat beside him. Or, at least that's what he thought just before he felt the first blow.
He tried to hold the horses steady for their sake now as much as his own, but a second blow made it impossible for his hands to keep from clenching involuntarily. He was aware of the man landing on the cushion beside him and grabbing the reins, And he must have kept his other hand free, for Jonathan felt one more blow before he lost consciousness altogether.
A simple refrain flashed through his mind until he thought no more.
Sorry, Nora. Sorry, Nora. Sorry, Nora,
“I'd like to know what the deuce Craven was thinking to get himself killed like that,” Lord Frederick Lisle said from his favorite chair in the corner of Brooks's.
As was his custom, he had been the first of his friends to arrive, and therefore had his choice of seats. Freddy, as he was known to his friends, was a planner. It was rare that he came into a situation not already knowing every possible outcome. And social gatherings were no exception.
But he'd dashed well not planned on his friend Jonathan Craven dying unexpectedly. None of them had.
“âThe three horsemen' simply doesn't have the same ring to it,” the Earl of Mainwaring groused into his brandy from the other side of the table. “Damned inconvenient of Craven to force that on us.”
The third member of their party, the Duke of Trent, shrugged before taking a healthy drink. As a decorated soldier in the Napoleonic wars, Trent had become accustomed to friends dying. Or so Freddy surmised. Since Trent never said a damned thing about his time in the army, it was difficult to know either way.
It had been a month since Craven's death during a race between members of the driving club the Lords of Anarchy. And, since Trent had been away on business, this was their first gathering since losing their friend.
“I just wasn't expecting it,” Freddy said glumly, stretching his long legs out before him and crossing them at the ankle. “One doesn't expect someone one's own age to shuffle off this mortal coil. Or at least not someone like Jon. With the exception of his penchant for horses, he was the least reckless of all of us.”
“It was those bloody Anarchists,” Trent said, his green eyes narrow with anger. “Don't think I've had so much as a note from Jonny since he took up with them. I know you're a âlive and let live' sort of fellow, Freddy, but that lot is the very devil. The only reason the Home Office hasn't disbanded them for treason is because they're too bloody foolish to succeed at true anarchy.”
“Aye,” Mainwaring said, rubbing a hand over his chin where dark whiskers were already beginning to show despite it being only early evening. “The Lords of Anarchy are not nearly so well mannered as the Four Horse Club, that's for certain. A staid journey to Bedfont for supper twice a month isn't enough for Sir Gerard and his lot. If there's no risk in it for 'em, it's not worth doing.”
Unlike the FHC, which drove in an orderly procession to their twice-monthly suppers, the Lords of Anarchy raced to their meetings in Dartfordâa fourteen-mile drive from London. It was a dangerous prospect for anyone unlucky enough to venture onto the Dover Road on the first or fourteenth of the month.
“Live and let live, Trent,” Freddy protested, his fair skin turning ruddy with annoyance. “Not live and let die. I might be an easygoing sort of fellow but I don't hold with just letting anything go without any sort of protest. I believe in the law, for God's sake.”
“I'm glad to hear it,” Trent responded without any hint of apology. “For I've got a mind to look into the workings of that club and the circumstances behind Jon's death.”