Griffin Faraday squinted against the glare of the early morning sun, pleased his business in England had gone well and gratified at his contribution to the war effort.
One more day was all he needed.
Another twenty-four hours and he’d be on a boat, bound for a rendezvous with the French military officer and the guns. Then it was off to New York, his mission for General Washington well underway, and the English no wiser as to his involvement. Pray the pirate upheld his end of the bargain. If not, there would be lives lost and hell to pay.
His mount startled and shifted beneath him. The bay’s head jerked up from where it guzzled water at the stream. Its ears cocked forward at the growing rumble in the distance.
“Damn.” The urgent pounding of horse hooves signaled trouble. Had the English discovered his secret work? Shaken, he glanced about for a place to hide. The thin copse of trees alongside the brook would offer no cover. Breathing faster, he wanted to flee, but after a long night of travel, both he and his horse were tired. They’d never outrun them.
The pulsation rumbled louder. A rider burst out from a far-off wood and plunged down a grassy slope. “A woman,” he muttered, shocked at her perilous speed. The turquoise skirts of her riding costume billowed against her Arabian’s hindquarters. Black tresses fluttered in the wind behind her head. Glancing over her shoulder, a male rider breached the mound and gave chase.
Realizing he wasn’t their target, he expelled a tensed breath.
The two riders tore across the open field, kicking up clods of dirt, racing past a lone crofter’s cottage. As the woman hurtled recklessly forward, Griffin’s fingers tightened around the reins, convinced she would kill herself in a tumble if her pursuer didn’t murder her first. A warning voice in his head urged him to remain uninvolved, to ride off and forget what he’d seen. Yet it wasn’t in his nature to let a woman be harmed if he could do something to prevent it. He swung his horse toward her and galloped full-on, his thighs clasped tight as a manacle around the animal’s girth.
The thundering grew more insistent and clamored in his ears. The woman sped across his path, her face clenched with determination and alarm.
“Whoa! You there,” Griffin yelled, aimed at the man. “Stop!”
The assailant pressed onward at a dangerous pace, his head bent low over the stallion’s neck.
Swearing, Griffin angled into his path. The oncoming horse wheeled in fright, the whites of its eyes enlarged with terror. Snorting, the animal flung back its head. Its hooves dug into the soft earth. The rider pitched high into the air and slammed into the ground with a sickening grunt. Griffin winced, juddered to a stop, and swooped from the horse as the smell of dust and sweet grass rose in his nose.
The felled pursuer pushed up on hands and knees and swayed erratically. His auburn hair curled in a mess over his forehead and did nothing to diminish the fury which radiated from his flushed face. “What in blazes do you think you’re doing?”
“I might ask the same of you.” He offered the fellow a helping hand only to have it slapped away. “I meant to aid to the lady.” Despite his intention to control his emotions, the words resonated with derision. “From what I saw, you’re objectives were not so noble.”
The woman had doubled-back. Face drawn with concern, she watched as the fallen man, clad in expensive boots and fawn breeches, whisked the dirt from his coat sleeves. “Are you hurt?” she asked though why she cared when the man intended her harm made no sense to Griffin.
“Not enough to need a nursemaid,” he sneered.
She made no reply, but her eyes, so startling in color they appeared violet, narrowed with a rise of temper or pride.
There was something wild about her, as if she were the very wind itself, a gypsy spirit, free and uncontained. Hatless, her lustrous hair tumbled over her shoulders, while shorter wisps framed an exotic face. What an original, he concluded as a fist slammed into his jaw.
Pain exploded. Grunting, he stumbled aside then managed to duck as another jab sailed past his cheek. In a flash, he snatched his attacker’s forearm and whipped him around. Planting a knee behind his leg, the man dropped to the ground with Griffin after him. They thrashed around in the dirt. Raw fury drove his assailant’s actions, but his wild, in-experienced thrusts proved ineffective. Griffin managed to straddle him and pinned his shoulders to the ground.
“Stop it,” the woman shrieked. “Stop it this instant!”
“Can you be civilized?” Griffin hissed between clenched teeth.
“Get off me.”
“Gladly.” Griffin eased his grip. The maniac bucked his hips. Griffin was tossed aside, but not before a stinging blow clipped his chin.
Both men leapt to their feet. Faster of the two, Griffin snagged the man’s wrist. “Enough!” He twisted the limb behind the fellow’s back. The hothead squealed.
“Stop it,” the woman cried, frantic. “You’ll break his arm.”
“A just reward for his nasty behavior,” he grumbled.
“Let him go. Please. He means you no harm.”
“No harm? He’s already done so, madam.”
Her entreaty on behalf of the fool pricked at him. Had he not just saved her? Was this to be his appreciation of his good deed? A sickening awareness occurred as her horse stood docile at her side. She knew how to handle her animal, and without doubt, held a loyal familiarity with her fellow rider, too. Perhaps she was never in distress. When she graced her youthful pursuer with a fretful, sympathetic glance, Griffin couldn’t help but scowl and regret his hasty involvement.
Disgusted, he shoved the firebrand away wanting no further trouble. This wasn’t worth the risk of being thrown in jail or missing his departure for New York the next morning. Washington had placed his faith in him. The colonial army counted on getting those guns. Griffin would not disappoint.
The stranger gave a taut yank to his well-tailored, expensive lapels while his mouth curled with anger. “Are you mad, charging at me so?”
“As I mentioned, I took the woman to be in danger.”
“You thought I meant to harm Miss Fitzhugh?” He chortled. “If you thought that, you’re a bigger idiot than you look.”
A muscle jumped in Griffin’s jaw. If he weren’t sworn to his duty, he would gladly have pummeled the ass again.
“I assure you, the lady was in no danger. It was nothing more than a spirited race.”
Griffin sought confirmation from the woman. “Well?”
A stiff nod signaled her agreement.
Embarrassment heated his neck. To have misjudged a vigorous race as something more sinister suggested he was more tired than he realized. Maybe all the alcohol he drank with the pirate last night clouded his reason. What a fool to chase after a damsel who never needed rescue. An apology was in order, yet any words to that effect stuck in his throat.
It was all her fault. “Do you always ride like a crazed woman?”
She set her feet apart, hands on her hips. At her bold stare, his breath caught in his throat. Lord, she had pluck and beauty, too.
Unabashed, she held his gaze. “There’s no harm in a good race.”
A memory fluttered, dredging up a long-ago image of a similar wide-legged stance and the resolute set of shoulders and spine. The raven hair. The unusual eyes.
“Far be it for me to brag,” she continued. “But I’m an excellent rider though I do regret the misunderstanding.”
The recollection jolted him. Could it really be his old tutor’s smart-mouthed, bossy daughter? What was her name? Ivy? Rose? Yes, Lily. In his excitement, he almost blurted it out. Better to keep quiet and be on his way.
“Lily,” whined her companion. “Don’t indulge the man. He looks as though he spent the night in some hellish dive, and smells it, too.”
Griffin’s fingers clenched but he said nothing.
“David, please. This isn’t amusing.”
“Well, I ought to shoot him,” growled the young whelp, looking barely twenty years of age.
Griffin retrieved his hat from the ground and settled it on his head, weary of the harangue. “Yes, go ahead. Shoot me. And while you rot in jail, convince the judge you murdered a man for ...” He gazed at the sky, as if the heavens held his next words. “Ah, yes. You murdered a man for assisting a lady.” He flashed a most disagreeable smile.
“I’m Lord David Warwick. No one would dare put me in jail.”
“Ah, forgive me,” Griffin said without bothering to disguise his contempt. Yet this was England where class distinction, along with its many privileges, mattered above all else. He recognized Warwick’s glower for what it was. Arrogant. Injured. Unforgiving.
How he wanted to ride away and forget he had seen Lily Fitzhugh with this entitled prig. The girl he’d known in New York those years ago would not have tolerated such a condescending puss. But people change.
“David, give the man credit for coming to my defense,” she cajoled with a hand upon his arm. “After all, had I been in danger, you’d want someone to help me, wouldn’t you?”
“Of course,” Warwick blubbered, seeming unable to decide whether to kill him or lay at her feet like a whipped dog.
Griffin didn’t think the fellow was the sort to ever forgive. Knocked off his horse and thoroughly trounced, he knew Warwick wouldn’t forget his humiliation or the idiot who handed it to him.
He swept into the saddle, prepared to take his leave.
“Thank you for coming to my rescue, Mister…” She tilted her head, her expression curious.
“My pleasure, madam.” It would serve no purpose to reveal his name and only prolong this unfortunate incident. Perhaps it would even draw unwanted attention to his activities. Still, he was disappointed to see no light of recognition in her eyes. In another time and place, after the war was over, maybe their paths would cross again.
“Lily.” Warwick stood impatiently beside her horse, hands clasped together, offering her a hands-up mount. “Let the hero go and sleep off his drink.” To Griffin, he said, “Pray we never meet again.”
Griffin gave a curt nod, wishing he already stood on the boat’s deck, watching as the last dim image of England faded away. Only twenty-four hours more. Surely he could go another day without the misfortune of seeing the odious Lord Warwick again.
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