She’s unconventional and independent. He’s managing and conventional. It would never work – would it?
Nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Awards 2007
Stranded on the island of Corfu at the end of the war, Alessa has no choice but to support herself the best way she can – after all, her aristocratic relatives have disowned her because of her father’s marriage to a French wife. So the arrival of Chance, Earl of Blakeney, set on reuniting her with them is unwelcome, although his kisses are not. Alessa finds him managing, conventional and regrettably desirable and it takes an encounter with pirates to make her realise that her suitor has hidden depths.
Someone 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 now.”
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 you there?”
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 the basket?”
“No, I need a hand with a man,” Alessa replied, her head cricked back to look upwards. “Is Fred with you?”
“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 see.”
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 blood.
“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.