Read an Extract
was trying to commit murder, and apparently they were doing
it on her front step.
The sounds were unmistakable. The scrape of boot leather
on cobbles, the soft thud of wood on flesh, the clink of metal,
the desperate, panting breaths. Alessa sighed wearily, hefted
the wicker basket up on her hip and retraced her steps around
the corner to a spot where the shadows were deep and she could
hide her burden out of the way of prying eyes. At eleven o’clock
at night the familiar alleyways of Corfu Town were quiet,
and apparently deserted, but she did not make the mistake
of thinking that predators were not on the prowl.
One, at least, was in the tiny square formed by the back
of the church of Saint Stefanos, Spiro’s bakery and
two houses, their stories rising high so that daylight rarely
penetrated for more than a few hours a day. Alessa stooped
to slide the knife from its sheath in her short calfskin boot
and melted back into the shadows.
As she slid around the corner, through the narrow passage
that opened out into the courtyard, she instinctively checked
behind herself for light that might cast a shadow and betray
her presence. But she was coming from darkness, and the scene
before her was well lit by the lantern over Spiro’s
door, the dim glow from the church windows and the oil lamp
Kate had set by their shared entrance as dusk began to fall.
Her view, and much of the passage, was blocked by a pair
of heavy shoulders. Their owner was propped against the wall
picking his teeth. A thick aroma of fish, garlic and unwashed
man floated back to Alessa, so familiar that it provoked hardly
a wrinkle of her nose. Georgi the squid fisherman of course,
always to be found on the outskirts of anything in the neighbourhood
where he might profit with little risk or effort to himself.
Alessa crept soundlessly up behind him and pressed the point
of the knife into the unsavoury gap between his leather waistcoat
and his belt. He stiffened, jerked, then was still.
“Hérete, Georgi,” Alessa murmured
in Greek, forcing herself to stand close enough to whisper
in his ear. “I think you need to be somewhere else just
She winced at the coarseness of his hissed response, pressing
the flat of the blade just a fraction further into the roll
of fat. “Do you want the Lord High Commissioner’s
men to know exactly what you are doing when you take your
kaïki out on a moonless night, Georgi? I think
they would be very interested if someone was to tell them.”
With another muttered oath he turned and pushed past her,
back into the darkness. Alessa waited a moment for the sound
of his boots on the cobbles to fade, then took his place.
There were two men fighting in the tiny space. One she recognized.
Big Petro, a criminal bully who made no pretence of any other
occupation, was wielding a cudgel in one hand and a long bladed
knife in the other. Facing him, dodging the alternating crude
blows and vicious lunges, was a complete stranger.
For a moment Alessa thought he was armed with a rapier, then
she realized his only weapon was a slender cane that he was
using to parry the knife, while keeping it out of the way
of the cudgel that would surely shatter it.
He can certainly fence, she thought critically,
watching the flickering cane and the man’s rapidly shifting
feet, while part of her brain wrestled with the problem of
what to do now she had shortened the odds for him. This was
an elegant gentleman in suave evening dress. Only his discarded
hat and disordered hair betrayed any loss of poise. His focus
on his opponent was unwavering and, if it had been anyone
else but Petro, she might have thought he had a reasonable
chance of escape and could be left to his own devices. But
the stocky man was a killer, and some foppish English gentleman
new to the island would be no match for him.
Alessa edged round the wall towards her own front steps,
her irritation at this eruption of violence on her territory,
under her children’s window, growing. The stranger was
forcing Petro back now – or, more likely, the wily Corfiot
was tactically giving ground. Then she saw why: concealed
in the shadows at the foot of the central fountain the drain
gaped dark, like a trap waiting for an unwary foot. She bit
back her instinctive cry of warning; that was likely to trip
him as surely as anything. He was going to miss it –
no, she saw the edge of his foot turn wrenchingly on the stone
lip and he fell to one knee. Even as he did so he raised the
cane defensively, but Petro smashed down on it with the cudgel,
sweeping the weapon up again to catch the falling man on the
side of his head.
He went down with a thud, hard against the fountain base,
and Petro stepped forward with a mutter of satisfaction, the
long knife gleaming in his hand.
No, this was too much. Murder, even of inconvenient and reckless
English tourists, could not be tolerated on her doorstep.
Alessa reversed the knife in her hand, stepped out from the
wall and brought the pommel down hard in the angle of Petro’s
neck and shoulder, just as she had been taught. The blow jarred
up her arm like a hammer blow, but the stocky figure collapsed
with a grunt, sprawled across his victim’s legs.
Which meant that she now had two unconscious men cluttering
up her courtyard. One of them was as likely as not to be in
a killing frenzy of rage when he came to. The other one would
probably yell for the Lord High Commissioner, the army, the
navy and his valet – all of whose presence would be
nothing but a thoroughgoing nuisance – or he would be
murdered before dawn by some passing thief before he regained
consciousness. And in common humanity, she could not leave
him there, however much work he made.
With a sigh that reached down to her aching soles, Alessa
climbed the steps, unlocked the battered wooden door and shouted
up the stairs. “Éla, Kate! Kate, are
There was the sound of footsteps high above and a woman leaned
over the banisters, her hair a tumbled red mop, her ample
bosom challenging her bodice to constrain it at this angle.
“Aye, I’m here, love. Do you need a hand with
“No, I need a hand with a man,” Alessa replied,
her head cricked back to look upwards. “Is Fred with
“He is that, just finishing his supper. Is someone
giving you trouble? I thought I heard a scuffle. Fred!”
“Yes, love?” A dark cropped head topping a white
shirt appeared next to Kate’s. “Evening, Alessa.”
They made their way down and joined her on the step. “Well,
what have you got here?” Sergeant Fred Court walked
warily out to eye the tangled heap of limbs with professional
detachment. Kate, the love of his life and Alessa’s
friend and neighbour, scratched her head, disturbing her coiffure
even more than usual.
“Who are they, Alessa? Are they dead?”
“One’s an English milord, some stupid tourist
who wandered in here and got set upon by Big Petro and his
friend Georgi. Goodness knows whether he is dead: Petro hit
him on the head hard enough. Petro will have nothing worse
than a stiff neck and a headache.”
“I’d better get the Englishman back to the Lord
High Commissioner’s residence.” Sergeant Court
scrubbed a hand over his stubbled chin. “Let me get
my jacket and I’ll carry him.”
“I don’t doubt you could,” Alessa said,
eying Fred’s well-displayed muscles, “but it’ll
take you half an hour and it won’t do him any good,
being dangled upside down. Best if we bring him in, I suppose.”
“Do you want me to take a message to His Nib’s
place anyway?” Fred rolled Petro’s limp body off
the Englishman’s legs with a shove from one booted foot
and stooped to lift the victim.
“No, don’t trouble, it will make you late. I
will send Demetri in the morning. I’ll just go and get
the laundry basket.”
Fred was already inside and mounting the stairs with his
burden slung over his shoulder by the time she got back with
the basket. Kate swung it out of her hands, then grimaced
at the weight. “I thought this was the fine stuff! Are
they wearing lace by the pound these days? Go and catch his
head, Alessa, Fred’s not being any too careful.”
Alessa climbed behind the trudging sergeant, fending the
lolling head off the whitewashed walls and grumbling under
her breath at the spots of blood disfiguring the wooden treads
that she and Kate kept scrubbed white. Fred was displaying
the silent contempt most soldiers felt for their lords and
masters in his handling of this one, and she could not say
she blamed him. What was the reckless idiot doing wandering
round the streets and alleyways at this time of night anyway?
Getting himself into trouble and causing a nuisance for hardworking
people, that’s what.
“You had better put him on the couch.” She darted
forward and swept an armful of mending and a rag doll off
the battered leather. “Are the children asleep, Kate?”
“Like logs, bless them. I looked in not ten minutes
ago, checked the fire’s safe under the cover.”
She nodded towards the dome of discoloured iron that protected
the embers on the brick hearth in one corner.
Alessa rummaged in a painted chest, found a pillow and a
rug and eyed the now prone stranger. His head had stopped
bleeding but he showed no sign of recovering consciousness.
“I suppose I had better check him over, he went down
with a wallop and twisted his ankle into the bargain. And
of course, Petro administered a light clubbing, just to put
him to sleep before he slipped the knife in.”
“Right. Let’s get on with it.” Kate rolled
up her sleeves, revealing brawny forearms. “What are
you looking at, Fred?”
Her lover ducked back from the window where he had been leaning
out. “Big Petro’s just staggered off rubbing his
head. I doubt he’ll have a clue what happened, come
tomorrow. Do you lasses need a hand? Only I need to be back
at the fort soon.”
“We’ll manage, thank you, love.” Kate followed
him out onto the landing to make her farewells, leaving Alessa
to study her involuntary guest. What made him so obviously
English? His skin for one thing: he was tanned, presumably
after weeks at sea, but the colour was the gold of a fair
skin, not the olive of the Mediterranean. His hair was brown,
which she presumed meant he was not a Scot, whom she understood
were all redheads, or Welsh who were all dark, if the regiment
stationed at the Old Fort were anything to go by.
His hair had streaked in the sun from its natural mid brown
to honey and toffee and autumn leaves. The tips of his improbably
long lashes were gilt as they lay on his cheeks.
“Good English suit,” Kate observed, coming back
into the room and fingering the cloth of the midnight blue
coat. “He’s a pretty lad.”
“Not such a lad.” Very late twenties she supposed,
probably thirty. Old enough to know better. And pretty
was not the word either. He was too masculine for that,
despite even features and an elegant frame that contrasted
sharply with Fred’s sturdy bulk.
“He is to me; don’t forget I can give you a few
years. Do you want to bandage his head or shall we get his
clothes off first? I’ve brought one of Fred’s
old shirts up, it’ll do as a nightshirt.”
“Thank you. Let’s see the damage.” Between
them the two women lifted and tugged and finally managed to
reduce the stranger to his shirt and a pair of short drawers.
Alessa tossed neck cloth and stockings to one side and hung
the fine swallowtail coat and satin knee breeches over a chair.
“He must have been at the Lord High Commissioner’s
tonight.” She gestured towards the splendour of evening
dress and patent leather pumps. “Just what you want
to be wearing for wandering around the back alleys.”
Kate was eyeing the long legs sprawled over the worn leather.
“I don’t like the look of that ankle, and is that
blood on his hip?”
“It is,” Alessa said grimly, eying the sinister
stain showing through the thicknesses of both shirt and drawers
on the man’s left side. “He went down against
the fountain base; I just hope he hasn’t broken anything.
I suppose we had better get the rest of his clothes off and
They eased off the drawers with more care than they had the
satin knee breeches and fine silk stockings. Alessa got the
shirt over his head and caught her breath at the ugly contusion
that discoloured his hip. There was a purpling bruise the
size of a dinner plate, a jagged cut in its centre oozing
“Hell.” Alessa went to kneel at the
foot of the couch and began to manipulate his leg. The ankle
was definitely sprained, it was darkening and swelling already,
but the bones felt safe as she ran the ball of her thumb up
the elegant length of them. There was nothing wrong with the
well-shaped calf, nor the muscular thigh. Alessa began to
move the leg, one hand pressed to the hip joint, feeling for
any clue that a bone might be damaged.
“Very pretty.” Kate sounded as though
she was contemplating a fine roast dinner. “I don’t
think I’ve seen the like since…”
“Kate! For Heavens sake! You are virtually a married
woman, I am bringing up a boy, neither of us should be carrying
on over the sight of a man in the nude…” Alessa
stopped focusing on his injuries and followed Kate’s
appreciative stare. Yes, well, perhaps a naked, fully grown
stranger was a different matter to a skinny eight year old
after all. Come to that, he was a very different matter to
the numerous marble statues of Classical male nudes which
littered the Lord High Commissioner’s residence.
This was not a pre-pubescent boy. This was not even chilly
white stone equipped with a fig leaf. This was a long-limbed,
well-muscled, completely adult male with curling dark hair
on his chest and –
“He’s certainly well –”
“Don’t you dare say it, Kate Street! You should
be ashamed of yourself. You are a respectable woman now and
I…I am attending to him purely in a medical capacity.”
Alessa snatched up the discarded neck cloth and dropped it
strategically over the focus of Kate’s admiring scrutiny.