A Tale of Romance and Revenge
Beaten and bloody, Nicholas Seaton sat on the straw-covered floor of the loose box, his legs drawn up against his chest and his forehead resting on his knees. There was no possibility of escape. The doors of the loose box had been bolted shut and the wooden walls were made strong and thick, built to hold the most powerful of Squire Honeywell’s blooded stallions. Even so, Nicholas had wasted the first fifteen minutes of his imprisonment trying to force his way out, slamming his shoulders against the doors and striking out at the walls with all of his remaining strength, earning nothing for his exertions but a fresh set of cuts and bruises.
He’d spent the next fifteen minutes pacing the confines of the loose box like a caged lion, clenching and unclenching his fists, grinding his teeth, and mentally cursing every member of the landed gentry and aristocracy.
“I’ll see you hang for this, Seaton,” Frederick Burton-Smythe had said after driving Nicholas into the loose box at the end of his whip.
And they would hang him. Nicholas was as certain of that fact as he’d ever been of anything in his whole life. Only two years ago a young man no older than himself had been hanged for the paltry crime of stealing chickens from Fred’s father, Sir Roderick Burton-Smythe. To have stolen three priceless pieces of heirloom jewelry from Squire Honeywell’s only daughter, Miss Margaret, was surely grounds for drawing and quartering.
It made no difference that Nicholas hadn’t stolen anything. What good were his protestations of innocence? He was nothing but a lowly groom in Squire Honeywell’s stables. A servant. Even worse than a servant, in fact, for he was the bastard son of Squire Honeywell’s scullery maid, Jenny Seaton.
Jolly Jenny, as she was known, who—before arriving at the kitchen door of Beasley Park eighteen years ago, big with child and begging for scraps of food—had plied her trade at a hedge tavern in Market Barrow. A hedge tavern that had once been a favored haunt of the notorious highwaymen Gentleman Jim.
“The mother a whore and the father a villain,” the vicar’s wife was fond of telling anyone who would listen. “Nicholas Seaton will come to no good, you mark my words.”
No. No one would believe he was innocent. Especially when his accuser was Frederick Burton-Smythe himself.
Nicholas and Fred had been enemies for as long as he could remember, but in the past year their dislike of each other had escalated to raw hatred. As usual, Maggie Honeywell was at the heart of the matter.
The thought of her caused Nicholas’s heart to wrench painfully. She was his best friend in the whole world. The one person he trusted. The only person he loved. A blood oath taken years ago had bound them together forever, when at Maggie’s request Nicholas had gamely cut his hand and pressed it firmly against the matching cut in hers, although he needed no ritual to bind himself to Maggie Honeywell. She was everything to him.
Unfortunately, she was also everything to her widowed father, and as the years went by and she began to bloom into a strikingly beautiful woman, she became everything to Fred Burton-Smythe as well.
Sir Roderick and Squire Honeywell had long ago agreed that one day their offspring would wed, thereby joining the two greatest estates in the district. Nothing had ever been formalized, as far as Nicholas was aware, but that didn’t prevent Fred from behaving as if Maggie were already his own personal property. So when he’d come upon her and Nicholas in Burton Wood earlier that day, laughing gaily as they whirled about the clearing in each other’s arms, Fred had seen red.
Maggie hadn’t helped matters. At the best of times she was an impudent minx, and at the worst, a veritable hellion. Raised by Squire Honeywell as if she were his son and heir instead of his gently bred only daughter, she could outride, outhunt, and outshoot most of the young men in the county. Her temper was legendary and she’d learned at her volatile sire’s knee that a profusion of oaths and various threats of violence were the means of solving most any problem.
“Nicholas is helping me practice my dancing,” she’d said in that imperious, toplofty way of hers. “So you can bloody well piss off, Fred!”
And then Nicholas sealed his fate.
He burst out laughing.
On any other occasion, Fred would have charged him, intent on thrashing him within an inch of his life. Maggie would have leapt between them as she always did, verbally eviscerating Fred for attacking someone that he knew very well wasn’t permitted to fight back.
Not that that had ever stopped Fred before.
In Maggie’s absence, Fred had no qualms about cuffing Nicholas on the head and ears, brutally shoving him to the ground, or striking him on the back with his riding crop.
Nicholas was taller than Fred and broader of shoulder, but he was lanky and thin whereas Fred was as stocky and muscular as a bulldog. Nicholas liked to think that in a fair fight he could best his lifelong rival; however, the fights between him and Fred had never been fair, and as Fred was the heir to a baronetcy and Nicholas was a servant, he knew that they never would be.
“Master Fred’s your better, Nick,” Jenny said whenever he appeared with a bloody lip or a newly blackened eye. “You’d best stop provoking him.”
But this time, Fred hadn’t been provoked.
He simply pokered up, and in a fair imitation of his father, Sir Roderick, scolded Maggie for consorting with servants and conducting herself in a manner unbecoming to a young lady. “I shall inform your Aunt Daphne of your behavior,” he told her sternly. “And when your father returns from London, I’ve a mind to speak to him as well.”
And then he turned on his booted heel and strode away, pausing at the edge of the clearing only long enough to lock eyes with Nicholas.
There was murder in his gaze.
“How dared he threaten me?” Maggie seethed an hour later as the two of them lay stretched out on the grassy banks of the stream that ran through Beasley Park. “The jealous arse. Tell my father, indeed. As if Papa would ever hear a word against me.”
“Your aunt would,” Nicholas replied grimly.
Daphne Honeywell, the Squire’s widowed sister-in-law, had come to live at Beasley Park only two years before for the sole purpose of turning Maggie into a lady. Nicholas despised the woman. Because of her, Maggie’s days were taken up with needlework and dancing lessons, and her head had been filled with thoughts of balls, routs, and assemblies. Because of her, Maggie no longer wore breeches and rode astride or stripped down to her underclothes to go swimming with him in the lake.
Now she dressed in pretty gowns, made of fabric so fragile and fine that Nicholas feared to touch it, and her thick mink-colored hair, which had once cascaded in a luxurious tumble down her back, was bound up in soft curls and silken ribbons. Even her complexion had changed. Carefully shielded from the sun with parasols and hats, it no longer glowed with a golden tan but had reverted to its natural hue: a flawless, creamy porcelain.
Two years was hardly any time at all, and yet the difference between a fourteen-year-old Margaret Honeywell and a sixteen-year-old Margaret Honeywell was as vast as the ocean.
More and more often, Nicholas found himself staring at his lifelong friend with a peculiar ache of longing in his chest. He’d never liked to be away from her, but now, whenever they were apart, he brooded over her to the point of melancholy.
And that wasn’t the worst of it.
He’d been dreaming about her, too. Vivid dreams that surely no gentleman ever dared dream of a lady.
“Miss Margaret’s not for the likes of you,” Jenny had taken to warning him whenever she caught him sulking. “She’s for Master Fred or some other fine gentleman. Ain’t nothing going to change that.”
Nicholas had never believed it. He and Maggie were soulmates. And yet, as he watched her slow transformation, there were times when he was stricken with an awful pang of sadness, a nagging worry that the day was fast approaching when Margaret Honeywell would take her rightful place in society and be lost to him forever.
“I shan’t stop teaching you to dance merely because Fred and Aunt Daphne object,” Maggie said as they lay by the stream. “I’ve always shared my lessons with you, haven’t I? And dancing is really no different from reading or writing, I feel.”
Nicholas levered up on his elbow and looked down at her. “When you taught me to read, you were seven years old. And we weren’t required to touch each other.”
“Why shouldn’t we touch each other?”
He arched a brow at her.
She only laughed. “What hypocrisy. I’ll wager no one would think it unladylike if I had been dancing with Fred. And he wouldn’t have behaved half as gentlemanly as you do.”
“Wouldn’t he?” he asked, all of his senses instantly alert.
“You know he wouldn’t. He always holds me far too close, and he’s forever staring down at my bosom.”
Nicholas suppressed the now familiar swell of jealousy and rage. The primitive urge to find Fred, and any other gentlemen who dared to look at Maggie, and beat them to a bloody pulp. “If anyone ever so much as lays a finger on you, I’ll—”
“You never do,” she interrupted, a hint of accusation in her eyes. “When we’re dancing, I mean.”
He was briefly diverted from his anger. “I never do what?”
“Stare at my bosom.”
Heat rose in his cheeks. He looked at her a moment, dumbstruck, before giving her a crooked smile. “What bosom?”
Maggie responded to his teasing with a rare blush of her own. At sixteen, she had the beginnings of a figure that promised to one day be as glorious as that of her late mother, a lady who had often been referred to as the Somerset Aphrodite. “Naturally you wouldn’t notice any of my endowments. You’re too busy paying court to Cornelia Peabody.”
“Jenny told me so.”
Nicholas scowled. “She wishes I would court one of the baker’s daughters. I daresay old Peabody’s offered to give her a discount on hot cross buns if I take one of them off his hands. Though how the devil either of them think I could keep a wife on less than five pounds a year is a mystery to me.”
“It’s not impossible,” Maggie said.
“No, not impossible.” He affected to give the matter a great deal of thought. “I suppose Miss Peabody could always find employment. Perhaps your father might even give her a job scrubbing out chamber pots up at the main house?” His smile reemerged. “Then there’s the issue of lodging her, of course, but I’m sure she wouldn’t mind living with me in that godforsaken little room of mine above the stable. Cornelia Peabody has always struck me as the sort of girl who longs to set up house in a small, rat-infested cupboard.”
Maggie wasn’t diverted by his teasing. “Then it’s not true?”
“Gad, Maggie, what in blazes would I want with Cornelia Peabody?”
“She’s very pretty.”
Nicholas plucked a dark blue wildflower from the grass and twisted the stem idly between his fingers. It was a forget-me-not. The hearty little flower ran rampant at Beasley Park, decorating the grounds in a wash of blue every spring. The same arresting shade of blue as Maggie Honeywell’s eyes. “So are lots of girls in the village. What does that signify?”
“And, by all accounts, a soft-spoken, well-behaved little lady, even if she is a baker’s daughter.”
He tickled her face with the forget-me-not, drawing its petals along the bridge of her nose, over the bow of her rosy-hued lips, and down to the delicate cleft in her stubborn little chin. “Do you mean she doesn’t go about telling people to ‘piss off’ and calling them ‘jealous arses’ and ‘confounded swine’?”
Maggie snatched the wildflower out of his hand. “I am sure she doesn’t.”
“Then more fool her,” Nicholas said, lying back down on the grass. “Everyone knows high-spirited termagants are the only sorts of ladies I fancy.”
“Such compliments. I believe I shall swoon.”
A foolish grin spread over Nicholas’s face, and as he gazed up at the clear blue sky, he reached out his hand halfway between their two bodies, turning it palm up in unspoken invitation. Almost immediately he felt Maggie’s small, slender hand sliding into his.
“Can you get away tonight after supper?” she asked softly.
He shook his head. “I’m already behind in my chores. I’ll have to catch up this evening if I’m to have any hope of meeting you tomorrow.”
Maggie twined her fingers through his. “Tomorrow, then.”
“Tomorrow, then,” he’d echoed.
Nicholas squeezed his eyes shut against the oppressive darkness of the loose box. His chest burned with the effort it took to stave off an onslaught of angry tears.
There would be no tomorrows.
He was never going to see Maggie Honeywell again.
Within the next hour, Fred would return with the magistrate. And then Nicholas would be hauled off to jail. From there, he imagined Fred would see that things proceeded with the utmost haste. The Burton-Smythes had a great deal of influence in the West Country. There would be no delays in judgment, no last-minute reprieves.
How soon would they hang him? A week? Ten days?
Nicholas covered his face with his hands, feeling as if he’d been cast into a black pit of despair.
And then, the sound of creaking wood rent the darkness.
He sprang to his feet, instinctively backing as far away from the doors of the loose box as he could get.
Fred had returned with the magistrate.
Nicholas listened hard, ignoring the sound of his pulse pounding in his veins and the cold sweat that caused his torn linen shirt to cling to his back. Any moment now, the bolt would be thrown open and they’d try to take him.
Would he fight to his last breath?
Or would he go with them meekly and quietly, like a lamb to the slaughter?
He clenched his fists.
There was a soft rap at the wooden doors of the loose box. “Nick?” a voice whispered urgently.
Nicholas stood stock-still, not able to believe the evidence of his own ears. “Maggie?”
The bolts slid back and the doors to the loose box swung open.
Maggie Honeywell stood there, the dearest sight in the whole world.
She was wrapped in a red woolen cloak, and her dark hair, unpinned, tumbled about her shoulders in magnificent disarray. She held a lamp aloft in one hand, illuminating her pale, fiercely determined face.
He closed the short distance between them.
She set the lantern on the ground as he approached. And then her arms were around his neck, and Nicholas was embracing her so tightly that he feared he might crush her.
When he at last loosened his hold, she drew back just enough to bring her hands to his bloodied face. With excruciating care, she inspected him for injury, her hands moving lightly from his forehead, to his jaw, to his broad shoulders and chest.
“My God,” she breathed. “What has he done to you?”
Nicholas caught her busy hands and held them firmly in his, preventing her from delving beneath his torn shirt. To his mortification, he felt tears stinging at the backs of his eyes. No one, not even his mother, had ever shown him the tenderness and concern that Maggie Honeywell did. “How did you know where to find me?”
She gave his hands a reassuring squeeze. “Do you remember my telling you that the vicar’s wife was coming to dinner? Well, Aunt Daphne invited her to stay the night, and after I retired to bed, the two of them must have dipped into the sherry. I could hear them laughing and carrying on all the way upstairs. And thank heaven I did, for when I went down to the drawing room to see what all the noise was about, I overheard my aunt talking about what had happened with you, and Fred, and my jewelry. I came as fast as I could.”
“I swear I didn’t steal anything from you. Fred must have taken your jewelry and hidden it in my room. How else would he have known where to look for it? He wanted to catch me with it. To get me out of your life once and for all. I saw it in his eyes when he found us dancing in Burton Wood. He wants me to be hanged or transported for life, anything to—”
“There’s no time for that,” Maggie said. “I’ve come to set you free. To help you get away before the magistrate comes.”
Nicholas took a step toward her, his grasp on her small, slender hands tightening. “You have to believe me. I’d never steal anything of yours. Say you believe me!”
“Of course I do. And if I thought it would do any good, I’d proclaim your innocence to Aunt Daphne and the magistrate and anyone else who would listen. But they won’t listen to me. You know they won’t. They’ll say our friendship has blinded me to your true nature, or some such nonsense. And then they’ll accuse me of impugning Fred’s honor by doubting his word as a gentleman.”
Abruptly Nicholas let her go, not trusting himself to touch her any longer. “A gentleman. Your future husband, you mean.”
Maggie’s eyes blazed. “Why do you always bring that up? As if I want to marry Frederick Burton-Smythe.”
“Look at what he did to me tonight.” Nicholas drew aside the collar of his shirt, revealing the deep gash of blood running from the side of his neck down to the top of his chest. “I ask you, is this the work of a gentleman?”
Maggie’s eyes widened. “Good grief! Did Fred do that?”
“Do you think I’d just let him lock me up in here without a fight? He pulled me from my room after he found your jewelry. We were struggling with each other all the way down the stairs. I might have beaten him if he’d fought fair. Instead, when I drew back to hit him again, he lashed out at me with that blasted whip he’s always carrying. I should have expected it. After all these years, I should have known…” He raked a hand through his already disheveled hair. “But I wasn’t prepared, damn me. I fell backward into the loose box, and before I could regain my feet, he’d bolted the door.”
“The blackguard!” Maggie’s low voice trembled with fury. “The confounded coward! I shall show him what it feels like to be struck with a whip. When Papa returns from London, I’ll—” She broke off with a muttered oath. “Devil take it, there’s not even enough time for me to dress your wound. You must go, Nick. You must hide yourself from Fred and the magistrate until my father returns next week, and then, when you come back, we shall go to Papa together and explain—”
“Why should I come back?” Nicholas spat in a sudden burst of anger. “I hate this cursed place.”
Maggie shook her head, denying the truth of his words. “Don’t say that.”
“I hate everything about it. I hate Sir Roderick and I hate Fred Burton-Smythe. I hate the vicar’s wife and your Aunt Daphne. I despise working in this damned stable and—”
“What about me?” she asked.
He felt a spasm of deep anguish. “How can one good thing outweigh all of this misery?”
“Well, you can’t go away and never come back. As horrible as everything else is, Jenny’s here, and I’m here, and you have someplace to sleep, and a chance to earn your living—”
“Earn my living? As what? A groom in your father’s stable?” Nicholas laughed bitterly. “I’ll never be a gentleman if I remain here. No matter how much you teach me about books and music and dancing. Bastards and commoners can never be made into gentlefolk, by no miracle. I’ll never be anything more than a servant to you. And one day…” He looked at her, his chest constricting with torment. “One day you’ll marry Fred Burton-Smythe, and you’ll forget I ever meant anything to you.”
“I would never!”
“I can’t be here when that day comes, Maggie. I’d rather be dead. And if I remain here, I might as well be. There’s no future for me as a servant at Beasley Park. Can’t you understand that?”
“But where else can you go?”
“To Bristol. To the sea. I’ll go to find my father.”
“Your father?” Maggie repeated. “Do you mean…Gentleman Jim?”
“Jenny says that the last time she ever heard anything of him, he was on his way to Bristol. Perhaps if I can find him, if I can convince him I’m his son, he’ll allow me to stay with him. To ride with him on his travels.”
“But you don’t even know for certain that Gentleman Jim is your father! Jenny has never admitted—”
“She’s never denied it. And everyone who remembers what Gentleman Jim looked like says I’m the very image of him.”
“Yes, I know that, but no one has seen him in ages. What if you can’t find him?”
Nicholas’s jaw hardened. “I will find him.”
Maggie glared at him, her eyes shimmering with unshed tears. “Confound you, Nicholas Seaton, you know there’s no time to argue!” She stamped her foot. “Oh, very well.” She reached into the folds of her cloak and drew out a small, heavily filled sack. “If you insist upon going, then you must take this with you.”
Nicholas eyed the sack warily. “Is that what I think it is?”
“Yes. Most of my pin money and all of the little tokens Papa has given me in the last several years. A shilling here, a guinea there. I daresay it has added up to a tidy sum. I was going to give you a few coins to sustain you until Papa returns from London, but under the circumstances I think you must take it all.”
No.” Nicholas took a step back from her. “It’s a king’s ransom.”
“Good. Then I’ll never have to worry about you freezing to death or going hungry.” She thrust the sack of money at his chest. “Take it. And take Miss Belle, too. Ride her as far as the crossroads and then set her loose. She can find her way back to Beasley Park from anywhere in the county.”
Nicholas swallowed hard as he accepted the money. “Maggie Honeywell, you’re an angel.”
At his words, the first tears spilled over onto Maggie’s cheek. She dashed them away with her hand. “I know I will never see you again.”
Nicholas stepped closer, and reaching out, caught her little cleft chin in his hand. It was an old habit. Something he’d done since she was a little girl. But this time the gesture wasn’t playful or teasing. He didn’t, as a brother would, give her chin an affectionate pinch and then let her go. Instead he gently tipped up her face so that her large blue eyes were forced to meet his. His thumb brushed away a tear, and then, before Maggie could guess his intention, he lowered his mouth to hers and kissed her very softly on the lips.
It was a brief kiss, and considering her tears, not a particularly romantic one, but it was the first kiss they’d ever shared. And it was nothing at all like the kiss that a brother would give to his sister.
“Wait for me, Maggie,” Nicholas said. “I’ll find Gentleman Jim, and when I make my fortune, I’ll come back for you.”
He held her gaze for what seemed like an eternity.
“No matter how long it takes,” he vowed. “I will come back.”