Gillian scratched at the rough neckcloth as she sat back against the uncomfortable squabs of the hired hack and peered out the grimy, flyspecked window at the darkened house beyond. It was a modest sized house of red brick, situated in a conservative, pleasant neighborhood. She frowned at the staid front of the house and nibbled on her lip. This wasn’t the sort of domicile she had expected Noble to keep his mistress in. She took another look down the gently curved street. God’s knuckles, it was all wrong—this was not the sort of neighborhood she expected would tolerate a member of the demi-monde. Did all mistresses live so well?
“Well, there’s nothing for it but to knock,” she muttered, and pulling at the boots’ waistcoat, she straightened her shoulders and allowed Nick to help her out of the hack before turning back to the driver.
“Please remain here, sir. I will have need of you again in a few minutes.”
The driver nodded. Holding tight to what remained of her quickly evaporating confidence, Gillian strode up the stairs with her stepson in tow, and wielded the knocker briskly.
“Perhaps they are all abed,” she commented to Nick two minutes later. He raised one eyebrow in a youthful imitation of his father. Gillian bit back a smile and used the knocker again, rapping loudly against the white door.
The sound echoed through the house.
“No one appears to be home,” she said thoughtfully, and with a quick glance at her stepson, put her hand on the latch.
The door swung open. Gillian and Nick peered into the darkened hallway and listened. There was no sound but a muffled thumping from somewhere upstairs.
“Good evening?” Gillian was ashamed of the brief quiver in her voice. It was ridiculous to be afraid. This was her husband’s house, after all, and no matter whom he chose to install in it, she had a right to be here. A movement by her side made her realize she had taken Nick’s hand and was clutching it tightly. She made herself relax the grip, and with a smile she felt far from meaning, stepped over the threshold.
“Is anyone at home?”
Her voice echoed eerily around the small hallway illuminated faintly by the streetlights. To her right was a white staircase that presumably led upstairs, although all she could make out was a ghostly parade of steps dissolving into complete and utter blackness. She fought back a shiver, then froze as Nick suddenly dropped her hand and disappeared into the inky darkness.
“Nick, return to me this instant! You have no idea what sort of…oh, thank you!” The scrape of flint brought relief to Gillian as her brilliant and resourceful son lit a rack of candles found on a small ornate table at the foot of the stairs. The hall didn’t look nearly so menacing once it was lit by the soft glow of candles. Nick lit the tapers in another rack, then taking it in hand, he tipped his head toward the stairs and looked an obvious question to Gillian.
“I suppose,” she said softly, stepping into the hall, “that you would like us to investigate those mysterious noises coming from somewhere upstairs?”
Nick nodded and held out his hand. Gillian was touched by the gesture. She took a step forward and took his warm hand in hers.
“You are very brave, do you know that? Much braver than I, for ’tis the truth that although I am just as curious as you, my knees feel as if they were made of water. Well, come my valiant knight, shall we see what is making those thumping noises?”
Nick graced her with another of his rare smiles and the two mounted the stairs with much stealth.
“Bloody…ow…hell!” A cat’s outraged yowl curled up and around Gillian as she trod an intricate dance trying to avoid stepping on the small black animal as it wound around her ankle. Nick clutched her by the lapels of her coat and tugged her away from the stairs as she detached the cat’s claws from her ankle.
“I’m sorry, Puss, I did not see your tail there, although I must say the landing is not the best place to keep it.” The cat shot Gillian a belligerent look, and with a haughty flick of its abused tail, marched down the stairs voicing its opinion of people who didn’t watch where they were stepping.
Gillian and Nick smiled at one another, but their smiles faded as the thumping seemed to gain a new energy.
“The second floor, I believe” Gillian said thoughtfully after listening to the rhythmic noise for a moment. It was not, as she had hoped, a loose shutter banging in the wind. There was clearly someone or something upstairs making the noise.
“Perhaps it is only another cat, trapped in a closet,” she said hopefully, trying to calm her jangled nerves as they climbed the next flight of stairs. Nick didn’t look as if he believed her suggestion. ‘Twas the truth, she didn’t either. “Stay behind me, Nick.”
The pair looked down a dark hallway. The noise was definitely coming from a room to their right, assumedly a bedchamber. Gillian patted the pocket of the boots’ jacket nervously, then pushing Nick behind her, took a deep breath and started down the hallway.
“If there’s any trouble, I want you to fetch the hack driver,” she whispered over her shoulder to him. “Tell him to bring the watch.”
Nick nodded abruptly, then pointed to a closed door before them. The muffled thumping sounds were louder, clearly originating in the room beyond the door.
Gillian’s mouth went dry as she reached out to open the door. What was making the horrible thudding noise? A corpse, hanging from the rafters and swaying against the wall? A huge, unchained beast throwing itself around the room as it bit with slavering jaws at anything it sighted? A deformed and mutilated person too hideous to be let out of the room, forced to drag his legless torso around his chamber prison by walking on his twisted and grotesque arms?
Almost swooning at the thought of the horror to be found within the room, Gillian patted her pocket again, sent a quick glance at Nick standing several paces back, and holding the candle rack high, threw open the door.
“Oh my God!” Gillian screamed and stared at the atrocity before her. It was terrible! It was heinous! It made her skin crawl with the sheer, unadulterated abomination of it all!
It was her husband. Naked. Spread eagle. Shackled to the bedposts. And if the expression on his face was anything to go by, ready to kill the first person who came within reach.
“Noble! What on earth are you doing? Is this some sort of strange game you are playing? My aunt told me that some men enjoy such rough bed sport, but really husband, I had not thought it of you.”
He was also gagged, a fact for which she was briefly grateful since the look he gave her was enough peel paint.
Nick peered in the doorway, astonishment clearly writ on his young face. Gillian sidled up to the bed and tried to avoid her husband’s infuriated, icy gaze.
“I take it by your silence that your participation in this…uh…pose is not voluntary?”
Noble banged his head back against the headboard.
“I assume one thump means no, husband?’
His eyes narrowed at her. She let her gaze wander over his bared form, looking for signs of injury. There were none, except…
“Dear God! Noble, you’re…you’re broken! What happened? Oh, those villains! How could they do this to you? You poor, poor man, how you must have suffered!”
She reached out a hand to touch that portion of his anatomy that lay limp along his thigh, intending on cradling the beloved injured part, but Noble’s sudden agitated movements and head bangings stopped her. Of course, how cruel, how unthinking she was. He was obviously embarrassed and didn’t want her sympathy in this, his time of need—not when his son was standing by watching with bright, intelligent eyes. She fought back a tear and gave her husband a reassuring nod, then turned her attention to the shackles around his ankles.
God’s truth, although it looked to be an uncomfortable position, and her husband was clearly spitting mad, it did display his masculine attributes to advantage. If only the dastards hadn’t broken one of his more interesting bits. Gillian gave herself a moment or two to grieve the damage to that item, then turned her attention to admire his heavily muscled thighs and calves before another muffled protestation had her prodding the manacles.
“They are locked,” she said, looking up. Truly, she hadn’t realized the Lord of Masculinity’s chest was quite so broad, although perhaps having his arms stretched out had a broadening affect on it. She considered the manner, eyes narrowing with concentration as she let her gaze wander over his torso, imagining his arms to his side. No, ’twas the truth his chest was really that broad and not just an optical illusion. She wondered briefly how many hand spans wide his chest was, and was just reaching out with the intention of satisfying that curiosity when another gargled and furious noise stopped her in mid-stretch. Noble banged his head against the headboard twice, and rolled his eyes at her.
“Oh, of course, the gag. Why didn’t you say you wanted it off first? Here, lift your head and I will reach behind…”
The knot was tightly tied, and it took Gillian, draped across Noble’s heaving chest as she wrestled with the obstinate cloth, several minutes before she could pull the obnoxious item from his mouth.
The spate of profanities that followed confirmed her earlier thoughts. He was very angry. Casting periodic nervous glances at Nick, who gazed at his father with a placid expression that didn’t fool her for one moment, she finally interrupted what appeared to be a lengthy discussion of the tortures Noble was going to inflict upon whoever had placed him in this position.
“I think your plan with the iron maiden and saltpeter is a good one, my dearest, but first I would have you released from this bondage.”
Several minutes later, when Noble could speak without incorporating further plans for revenge in his comments, he replied hoarsely to Gillian’s earlier statement.
“The key is on the dressing table. I’ve been staring at it all bloody evening.”
Nick headed for the table while Gillian sat down on the bed next to her confined husband, and absently laid a hand on his bare chest. He was warm. Very warm. “Who did this horrible thing to you, Noble?”
The Black Earl closed his eyes. “I don’t know, although I have a good suspicion.”
“You didn’t see who stripped you naked and chained you to a bed in your mistress’s house?”
“No. I was struck on the head when I entered the house.” Noble groaned slightly as Gillian’s hand gently stroked his chest in a reassuring manner. Rather, Noble corrected grimly, it might have been meant to reassure him, but unfortunately his wife’s presence was having another effect that would be all too evident if she continued her present attentions.
His wife’s presence?
“What the devil are you doing here?” Noble roared, startling Gillian out of her reverie. She jumped, her fingers still entwined in the soft hairs on his chest. Noble gave another roar, this time of outraged pain. “You’re supposed to be at Nethercote! I do not recall giving you permission to leave!”
Gillian glanced over toward the dressing table. Nick held up a key and cocked a brow. Gillian shook her head slightly.
“I was not aware that I was a prisoner, to be held captive until you decided to set me free.”
“You’re not a prisoner, damn it, but I expect you to stay where you’re put. When I give an order, it is to be carried out without question.” Noble took a deep breath. Lord but she was pretty, even dressed in the ratty clothes of a boy. As a disguise, it was hopeless. Long tendrils of red hair fell out of a blue knit cap, and no man with eyes in his head could mistake the rounded feminine curves displayed by a tightly fitted black waistcoat and breeches. A movement beyond her recalled his son’s presence to mind. The wave of heat flushing his cheeks was immediately cooled as if he had been dowsed with a bucket of snow.
“I see,” Gillian replied to his statement stiffly, and disentangling her hand, stood and moved to the foot of the bed. “I was unaware that you had give me an order, my lord.”
“I did. And you have disobeyed that order.”
Gillian said nothing, but her expression told Noble she wasn’t pleased with that comment. Obviously, she needed instruction on how to order her own life so that she wasn’t always finding herself in situations out of her control. There was no time like the present to begin her training.
“Without order, wife, there is chaos, and chaos in our lives is not to be tolerated—it wastes our time, drains us of energies better spent at other endeavors, and creates worry and concern when the mind should be calm and peaceful. Would you agree with that statement?”
Gillian’s eyes widened and her lips trembled at his words. Clearly she was overcome by his masterful use of imagery. Still silent, she nodded her head abruptly, then crossed her arms over her chest, pulling the short jacket up and throwing the gentle curve of her hips into relief against the wall behind her. Noble cleared his throat and continued.
“I’m doing my best to make order out of the chaos that seems to follow you everywhere, but God knows it isn’t easy.” Had her legs been this long the night before? The breeches seemed to go on forever, stretching over lush, long thighs. Noble thought briefly of the way her legs had wrapped around his hips and decided they were the same length, then dragged his mind back to the task at hand. He wouldn’t think of her legs while his son was present. He wouldn’t think of how long they were, or the long line of her calf that made his mouth go dry, or the silken feeling of her leg as it rubbed down his own…God’s teeth, he’d be shaming himself in a minute. Grimly Noble envisioned scenes of war, pestilence, and mutilation.
“In order for your life to become the calm, enjoyable existence that I know you long for,” he continued in a gritty voice, his jaw tense and tight, “you must abide by my rules and not question them. Through me, you will gain control over your life and will no longer be subject to such unpleasant experiences as you have encountered since I have known you. You are undisciplined, wife, but not beyond hope of redemption.”
Nick went to stand beside Gillian. She turned and put an arm around his shoulders, pulling the jacket up even higher. The breeches did nothing to hide the sweet outline of her derriere. In fact, Noble realized with a rising sense of panic, they enhanced it. Not even the vision of his son clutched to her side could stop the memory of just how warm that backside had felt nestled against him intimately when he had woken that morning, nor how he had been possessed to waken his bride by means that would guarantee to keep a smile on her face all day. Two pairs of eyes leveled seriously upon him suddenly drove home the point that he was lecturing his wife while stretched out nude, manacled to a bed. “Gillian, the key.”
Gillian took the key from her stepson. “I have one or two questions, if you please, Noble.”
“Release me and I will be happy to answer all of them.” Gillian nodded and reached toward his feet, but instead of unlocking the shackle, she idly stroked the top of his foot instead.
“It’s about this concept of order you have.” Her brow wrinkled as she puzzled it out. “I do not think I understand it fully. When you say chaos, do you refer to those little surprises which make life so very interesting?”
Her fingers ran from the top of his ankle down the slope to his toes. He doubted that she even knew she was touching him. Noble had never before thought of the foot as anything but a useful appendage, but suddenly a thousand nerves he did not know he possessed jumped to life and pulsated under Gillian’s magic fingers. He laid his head back and groaned. He heard his wife gasp as she suddenly clutched his foot.
“Noble—that part of you. The broken part. It’s moving!”
It took every bit of willpower, but he didn’t look, nor did he meet his son’s eyes. Instead he kept his voice calm and level and thought of the affects of the Bubonic Plague on the human body.
“Gillian, unlock the blasted shackles.” His voice sounded thick with strain.
“But—are you sure all is well? I believe the damage to your…part…is causing a delayed reaction. One moment you’re swelling, and the next you’re deflating. You cannot tell me that is right.”
He kept his eyes closed. He didn’t have the energy to explain the whys and wherefores of male anatomy to her. Not now, when his head was throbbing, his arms were aching, and his foot was on fire.
“The key, Gillian?”
She gave his nether regions one last wary look as if she wouldn’t be surprised to see that part of him suddenly stand up and dance. “I am trying to understand you, Noble, truly I am. If you could just answer my question about what you mean by chaos…”
His head snapped up as he shot her a blistering look. “Will you release me if I do?”
Her eyes widened in innocence. “Of course, my dearest.”
“Then the answer is yes, wife, those little surprises, as you erroneously call them, are what make your life so hectic and chaotic. No other lady of my acquaintance would leap off a moving phaeton in order to comfort a thieving street urchin.”
“Nor do I know anyone who has set fire to a house while they attended a ball.”
“That was the merest of accidents—”
“You startled my horses, injuring my tiger.”
“One of them was limping! I was just trying to show you the horse must have had a rock in its shoe.”
Noble grunted in disbelief. “And the day we became betrothed?”
Gillian’s expression took on a pouting appearance. “That was yet another accident.”
“You wanted me to kiss you. If you had acted with control and indicated such in a discrete manner, I would have been happy to oblige you. The trouble with you, Gillian, is that you indulge yourself in every ludicrous scheme and thought that passes through your head.”
“If you would learn to deal with things in a calm, organized manner, you would be well rewarded, wife, with serenity and tranquility.
“You are young yet, despite your years, so I will not make a point of your headstrong nature and heedless manner of flinging yourself through life. You do not know better. Your upbringing is to blame, of course. It will be my pleasure to instruct you in the joys of a well-ordered, temperate life.”
“What?” He was annoyed at her interruption. Didn’t she understand that he was trying to help her organize her life into something satisfactory?
“I am not the one chained naked to my mistress’s bed with a broken man part.”
“It’s not broken!” he bellowed, glaring at her. She returned his look with one of utter disbelief as she stared pointedly at the part of his body in question. Noble felt her heated gaze as if she were touching him.
“There, you see, that part of you is swelling again. I’m going to find some cold water. A compress is what you need now.” She started for the door but his bellow of outrage drew her back. As she unlocked the manacles he tried to reassure her that nothing was broken, and with a frown at his son, promised to explain the situation at a more appropriate time.
Five minutes later Noble was rubbing the feeling back into his wrists as Gillian and Nick examined the tall wardrobe. It was empty, as were the bureau drawers.
Ten minutes later he was storming naked up and down the long, darkened hallway with one branch of candles in his hand, scattering orders and expletives behind him as Gillian and Nick scurried from room to room in search of clothing.
Fifteen minutes later the hack driver got the surprise of his life when a furious man emerged from the house clad in nothing but a bed sheet draped around his massive frame, followed by the woman dressed in boy’s clothing, and the dark lad who looked as if he was trying hard not to laugh.
“You! Take us home! Now!” the sheet clad man ordered in a plummy voice that brooked no opposition. The driver considered voicing his admiration of the bed sheet knotted into a bow on the man’s left shoulder, but one glare from the man’s piercing gray eyes killed that idea. Despite his unusual apparel, the tight, grim line of the man’s mouth, not to mention the muscles that bulged and rippled across the bared portion of his broad chest, bespoke unwillingness on the gentleman’s part to engage in a little friendly ragging.
“Bloody queer toffs,” the driver huffed to himself, and touching the horse with his whip, set off through the warm night.