Pistols at Dawn
Book Four—Intrepid Heroines
Eliza Kirtland will do anything to see the man who cruelly assaulted her sister brought to justice—even point a pistol at the notorious Lord Killingworth, who has recently arrived in the area to take up residence at his vast estate.
But her mistaken accusations result in grave injury to the earl’s nephew. Now Eliza’s sister—a noted healer—feels obliged to nurse the young man back to health, and Eliza has no choice but to help. Killingworth is not pleased with the arrangement. Tensions swirl between the four of them, and yet a fragile friendship begins to form as they discover appearances are not always what they seem.
The new bonds are tested when evil strikes again and they must match wits with relentless enemy, who will stop at nothing to drive Killingworth away from his estate. In order for justice to prevail, he and Eliza will have to let down their guard and trust each other—and their own hearts.
A metallic click caused Marcus Fitzherbert Greeley, the seventh Earl of Killingworth to look up from his ledgers.
“Who’s there?” he called sharply.
No answer sounded in reply, but after a moment the draperies stirred and a dark shape emerged from the midnight shadows. As the cloaked figure approached his desk, candlelight glinted off the steel of an ancient pistol.
“Stand up,” came the curt command.
The case clock ticked off a second or two before the earl put down his pen and rose.
“Take off your coat.”
He didn’t move, save for a slight twitch of his raven brows.
“You think a mere female incapable of pulling the trigger? I assure you, I should like nothing better, if you give me the slightest provocation.” The young lady—for her speech, if not her actions, indicated that she was indeed a lady—stepped closer. “And in case you are wondering, I am accorded to be a decent shot.”
Marcus slowly shrugged out of the elegant navy superfine garment and let it drop to the Oriental carpet.
“Now your cravat and waistcoat.”
He frowned, but his fingers loosened the folds of starched linen, then worked free the buttons of the striped silk. The items joined the crumpled coat.
A wave of steel indicated for him to go on. “Your shirt as well.”
The earl looked for a moment as if to refuse. However, after a brief hesitation, he undid the fastenings and tugged it over his head. The flickering candles cast a ripple of light and dark over the muscled shoulders and the chiseled planes of his bare chest. A glint of what might have been grim humor flashed in his amber eyes.
“Do you wish for me to go on?” he asked coolly, his lithe fingers openly toying with the flap of his breeches. “I am not unused to females seeking out my attention, but this is a rather imaginative approach. Tell me, are you as creative in other techniques as well?“
On seeing his assailant’s eyes widen, he gave a curt laugh. “Or perchance you have been sent as some prank by Allenby—though I would not have given him credit for being quite so clever.” One button slipped out of its slot. “But whatever your game is, sweeting, don’t you think it’s time you joined in the spirit of things and removed something as well?
“Hold your tongue!” The sharp order, more shrill than sure, cut off his words. “I am not interested in any of your lecherous suggestions, sir.” The barrel of the gun wavered slightly as her gaze slid along the dusting of dark curls that ran from his breastbone to navel. “I’ve seen enough. You may put on your clothes—you are not the one.”
“How disappointing to hear it. Things were just getting interesting,” he murmured softly. “A good deal more interesting than the blasted ledgers I was wrestling with.”
She ignored the tone of mocking irony. “What other gentlemen are part of this household?”
“What? Having found my flesh wanting, you wish to disrobe someone else?” The earl’s lips curled in a sardonic smile. “With all due modesty, I doubt you will find the footmen—”
“I warn you, do not trifle with me!” Her face went rigid with fury as she raised her gaze. “I am quite capable of pulling the trigger, Lord Killingworth. And there is no doubt that you would deserve it just as much as the one I seek.”
His eyes narrowed. “Why?” he demanded. He usually had no trouble shrugging off slurs to his character, but somehow her note of scorn struck a raw nerve. “I imagine you do not threaten to put a period put to a man’s existence without a good reason.”
The young lady took a deliberate step forward and aimed the pistol at his heart. But the swagger did not quite reach her eyes. “It is I who will ask the questions! Now once again, what other gentlemen are in this house?”
Marcus regarded the weapon calmly. “Surely you do not think a shot will go unnoticed?”
“I have another pistol.”
“Ah—but I have considerably more than one servant.”
“I shall count to three, sir.” Her finger tightened on the trigger. “One.”
“If I am to shuffle off this mortal coil, may I at least be permitted to put my shirt back on? I should like to meet my Maker wearing a bit more than when I entered this world.” He gave a slight cough. “Besides, I believe you left the window open and it’s getting rather chilly in here.”
“I imagine it will be a good deal warmer where you are headed,” she snapped. However, a curt nod indicated that he might retrieve the cast off garment.
“Two,” she added, as he bent to pick it up.
The earl slowly straightened. Suddenly, with a flick of his wrist, the shirt snapped out like a whiplash, knocking the pistol from her hand. Just as quickly, he was at her side, clamping hold of her arm to prevent her from drawing the other weapon.
”Let go of me!” she cried, flailing wildly with her free hand. The fist caught him flush on the mouth, drawing blood.
“Sweet Jesus, you are a real spitfire, aren’t you?” he growled, trapping her in a bear hug. In contrast to the hard-edged fury of her limbs, the softness of her tumbled curls was . . . surprising. As was the subtle sweetness of lavender that scented her skin. It was oddly intriguing that such a fierce creature could possess such beguiling hints of femininity . . .
An unladylike kick slammed into his shin. Her knee aimed a vicious blow even higher.
“Hell and damnation,“ Marcus swore, a grimace adding to the lopsided cant of his mouth. He tightened his hold, drawing a grunt of pain. “Enough! Don’t force me into doing something we will both regret.”
Seeing no chance of freeing herself from his grip, his assailant ceased thrashing. “Go ahead and call the magistrate,” she said with a defiant tilt of her chin. “Let them throw me in jail or hang me for this! I shall find some way of seeing justice is done, even if I have to claw my way back from the bowels of Hell to do it.”
Marcus could feel the heat of her against his bare skin, but even more searing was the fire in her emerald eyes. Puzzled, he could not imagine what had sparked such an intense hostility. No female in her right mind would behave as she had done without good reason—and despite all absence of civilized behavior, she did not appear to be lacking in sanity.
Slowly releasing her, he brushed the back of his hand to his split lip. “Perhaps you would care to explain just what is going on here before any more blood is shed. Mine or yours.”
The young lady drew a ragged breath, though in truth she sounded more angry than fearful. “You fine London gentlemen think it a sport to force yourselves on country girls?” she demanded hotly. “And is the game, as you put it, more enjoyable when they are naught but innocents?”
The earl’s jaw tightened. “A gentleman does not force himself on any female, country or town, innocent or otherwise.”
“Ha!” Her look of patent disbelief expressed how much credence she gave to such a statement.
“What makes you think the man you seek is under my roof?” he demanded.
“Given your reputation, Lord Killingworth, it seemed a likely place to start.”