"Not a bad disguise."
Evan inspected his reflection in the tavern window. The dark blue captainís uniform had been tailored for the figure of the man from whom he had stolen it, although the fawn colored suit underneath filled it out well enough. Measured to end above the backs of the knees, the coattail didnít reach as far on his tall frame. The fit was convincing enough if one didnít look too closely.
He tucked his hair beneath a black cocked hat and entered the tavern. The men searching for him wouldnít expect him to be wearing a British military uniform. On the other hand, if the British authorities discovered him masquerading as one of their own, he would be hanged.
Situated by the London docks, the smoke-filled tavern sat near a ship ready to sail for the Carolinas. Evan could dispense with his disguise once he and his uncle Joseph were safely aboard ship. If he never saw England again, it would be too soon. The six months following his motherís death had been filled with revelation. Everything he had believed to be true about his heritage and his life had faded like the ink on the pages of his motherís diary. Learning her secret had shattered his world.
The pub interior smelled like rancid fish and bilge water. It was still preferable to being outside. A torrential downpour had driven many to seek shelter in the pub. Conversation swelled around Evan as he chose one of the knotty maple tables near the entrance. He scanned a wall filled with posted notices while he waited for Joseph to arrive.
He glanced toward the entrance as a young woman in a dark, hooded cloak slipped inside the pub. Tall and slender, she carried herself with fluid grace, brushing rain from the garment as she crossed the room. She shook her head when the barkeep nodded toward the row of bottles and decanters behind him as he polished a tankard.
She drew back the hood of her cloak, yet didnít remove it, despite the clammy, crowded atmosphere. Was she among the many who sought temporary shelter from the storm? The murky light lent her an exotic appearance. Her long, inky hair shimmered with seductive blue highlights, the contrast rendering her creamy olive skin flawless. In daylight, she would either fulfill her promise of beauty, or be exposed as a maid whose features were softened by shadows.
Evan forced his gaze back to the doorway, but couldnít keep his attention from returning to the woman. A drunken sailor staggered toward her, dragging a well-worn chair. He placed the chair in front of her and made a sweeping gesture toward it.
"Rest yerself in me chair, bonnie."
He placed a dirty hand on her shoulder and shoved her into the chair. She frowned at the manís greasy, shoulder-length hair, his crumpled, filthy cotton shirt, threadbare breeches, and mud-caked boots.
The sailorís gaze sharpened, and he reached out and tugged at the collar of her cloak, revealing a necklace of gold coin. "Thass a Gyppie purse." He snagged the necklace from around her throat, swiftly levering it over her head.
She lunged for the necklace, but the sailor dangled the treasure out of her reach. The coins fluttered with a soft metallic jingle.
Evan bolted from his seat, then froze and looked on in astonishment when the woman shrieked in outrage and dropped her ladylike demeanor with the speed of a ship dropping anchor. She dove at the sailor, her gaze fixed on the coin-studded strands of gold in his hand.
"No, bonnie, it be mine." The sailor chuckled at her attempts to grab the treasure he held aloft.
He continued to make sport of her until she kicked him in the shin. He howled and stomped in outrage as the necklace fell to the floor with a noisy jangle. She launched herself after it and pocketed the gold within the folds of her cloak.
The sailor lunged at her, sucking in air and gasping as he grabbed her by the hair and hauled her up to face him. Evan kicked the chair aside and moved toward them.
"Yeíll pay fer thaí, Gyppie. Yeíll Ďang by a long rope," the sailor warned.
She paled and went still. The intensity of her wide green eyes stunned Evan, and his jaw clenched at the image of her hanging from a rope at Tyburn or caged in a gibbet along the roadside.
"No, bonnie, dinna be afrighted. I be yer friend." The sailor chuckled, and a number of the men in the room joined in, their laughter ugly, lewd, and tense.
She attempted to twist from the sailorís grasp, but he jerked her back. She bit down on her lower lip. Evan couldn't decide whether her eyes sparkled with fear or defiance. Most women of Evan's acquaintance would have succumbed to an acute case of the vapors by now.
"Let her go." Evanís voice was loud, even in the din.
The sailor scoured him with a look of contempt. "Yer lordship," he sneered, spitting out the title as though it were a morsel of an inedible meal, "ye best leave."
Evanís gaze swept the room and settled upon a posted sign banning Gypsies, among others, from the establishment.
"Not without my prisoner," he said, flattening his tone to conceal his Southern drawl. To his own ears, his words still sounded like nah withouí mah prisíner.
"What law have I broken?" she asked.
Evan frowned at her. He couldnít rescue her if she wasnít going to cooperate.
"That one." He pointed to the curling yellowed parchment as he stepped forward and tugged her out of the sailorís slackened grip. He urged her toward the door when she looked askance at him, her expression wary.
"No. The gyppie will go wie me." The sailor drew a stiletto from beneath the sagging waistband of his filthy breeches.
Evan grunted in surprise and stumbled forward when the woman shoved him toward the sailor. The sailor lunged, slicing the air with the knife blade as other men joined in the fight, blocking the sailorís path to Evan. Knocked off balance, Evan staggered into the boisterous crowd, catching glimpses of the woman as she fought to avoid grasping hands on her way to the door.
Skirting the common room, he made his way toward the entrance. When he suddenly found himself face to face with her again, he seized her wrist and pulled her toward the exit as the skirmish deteriorated into a drunken brawl.
Her fingernails bit into his forearms as she struggled to be free of his grip.
"Iím trying to help you, foolish woman. I wonít hurt you."
"I know, but you wonít be helping me if they hang me, Gadjo."
If Iím caught wearing this uniform, itís likely Iíll hang beside you. He pulled her closer, locked an arm around her waist, and dragged her toward the door. Heíd see her safely outside, then the ungrateful chit could go her own way.
She gasped and stopped struggling. Evan followed her gaze to two men blocking their path. Dressed in vibrant shades of blue and green festooned with red and orange ribbons, the men stood out like peacocks in the coarse, drab pub. The gaze of the shorter, heavier man rested on the woman at Evanís side.
"You will come with us, Jade."
"I will not go back, uncle." The quaver in her voice undermined her show of defiance.
The manís eyes flickered. The Gypsyís callused hand swept toward her face, missing her cheek by inches when Evan caught the manís hand in his own. The hand he gripped shook as the man wrenched it from his grasp. The gold earring looped through the Gypsyís right ear swung in echo of the movement.
"Donít try that again," Evan growled.
"Who is this Gadjo?"
Jade glanced at Evan and bit her lower lip. Apprehension shafted through him when she grimaced, then stared at the rough plank floor.
"He is my lover. I ran away to be with him."
The Gypsyís gaze turned flinty, and his jaw tightened. His attention shifted to Evanís hand around her waist. He dragged her from Evanís grasp and pushed her toward his companion.
Evan nodded toward the posted notice banning Gypsies. "Leave now, or risk arrest," he said in the most authoritative, British accented voice he could manage.
When the Gypsy hesitated, eyeing the uniform Evan wore, the woman elbowed his companion in the stomach and bolted for the door.
Shouting and gesturing, the Gypsies abandoned Evan to chase after the woman. They split up to search for their quarry, and quickly disappeared from sight.
Evan stepped outside and gulped in the salty tang of the chill night air. She hadnít wanted his aid. He should not be concerned over her fate. Still, he couldnít abide a man who would hit a woman. He would not have abandoned her to those men.
Scanning the area, Evan saw his horse, Raven, tethered to a post nearby. His uncle Joseph had arrived. Evan drew a sigh of relief and forgot to exhale when he spotted the woman from the tavern slipping through the shadows in a crouch, creeping toward Raven. Sheíd refused his help, yet evidently intended to avail herself of his horse. Under different circumstances, he might have found her audacity amusing.
"So, youíre a horse thief as well as a liar?"
She stopped, turning to face him. Her chin lifted. "Iím not a thief," she said. She swiftly changed direction, moving away from the horse.
She walked for a short distance before rounding a corner leading into an alley. A sudden volley of voices raised in confrontation rang out. Evan cursed under his breath and slipped deeper into the shadows when he recognized the voice of the Gypsy man. He moved with stealth, edging closer to the woman and the two men.
"I will not go back!" she said, her voice breaking. "I have taken a lover. Not even Dimitri will accept me now."
"You will return to camp, even if we have to drag you."
"I will scream for the law, and then we shall see," she threatened.
If she made good on her threat, he did not want to be found impersonating a British officer. Evan stripped off the outer uniform, stashing it behind a wooden barrel.
He overheard a few muffled words followed by the sounds of a scuffle, then a loud, angry curse. Groping about in the dark for a weapon, his hand closed over a rock. Evan plunged the rock into his pocket and straightened just as she rounded the corner and crashed into him.
The force of the impact jarred him, and his arms came around her, muffling her yelp of surprise as he pulled her into the shadows and gathered her to him. Her heart pounded beneath his, and she trembled.
Evan made a soft, hushing noise, suspecting her behavior owed more to bravado than bravery. He felt an inexplicable need to comfort her. Warm and vital, her curves molded against him in a manner capable of distracting him from any peril. She clutched his forearms to steady herself as she glanced up at him. The precise moment she registered his change of clothing was evident when her expression darkened with suspicion.
"Me," Evan agreed.
"Let me go." When he didnít immediately release her, she brought her foot down on his instep.
Evan mumbled a curse and shifted his hands to her shoulders, hooking his thumbs into the folds of her cloak. He jerked her forward with such force she stumbled into him.
"What do those men want with you?"
As the Gypsies drew near, she tugged frantically to escape Evan's grip. She glanced in the direction of the voices, her face growing pinched with alarm.
"Please," she whispered. "I cannot stay here."
The plea in her luminous eyes made Evan swallow hard. Every gallant instinct within him fought common sense as he looked down at her. I am going to regret this.
"I'll take you some place safe." He started to guide her through the shadows.
"No, Gadjo, just let me go. This is not your fight. They will hurt you."
She hung back, and Evan squeezed her wrist. "Do you want to escape, or not? Iíd be just as happy to tie a ribbon around your neck and hand you over to them."
"Where are you going?"
"To get my horse." The Gypsies emerged from the alley. Evan sprinted into action, pulling the woman along with him. "Run!"
His gaze locked on the horse, Evan concentrated on the slap of shoe leather against stone, the shouts of the men chasing them, and the soft, warm hand tucked into his as they ran.
When they reached the horse, he tossed the reins free of the tether and hoisted the woman onto the beastís broad back. She made a noise, as if his touch had hurt her, and the men pursuing them spun in unison at the sound. Two men had joined the Gypsies. Evan's mouth felt stuffed with cotton. His pulse pounded in his temples.
He climbed onto Ravenís back, the musty smells of straw and leather filling his nostrils. The womanís arms settled around his waist, and he tensed when she plunged her hand into his pocket and withdrew the chunk of rock. He glanced back at her warily.
"It was the only weapon I could find."
She nodded, hefting the rock in her hand. "Clever Gadjo."
The horse suddenly reared as men ran toward them, shouting and gesturing as they approached. The woman clutched Evanís middle to keep from falling. As he fought to control the spooked animal, she used the rock to lash out at the short, heavy Gypsy who tried to drag her from the horseís back.
Startled by the sound of Josephís voice, Evan nearly tumbled from the horse. His uncle stared up at him and stumbled back in surprise. The woman hurled the rock at the Gypsy as he tried again to wrestle her from the horse.
"This man is stealing my niece," the Gypsy accused.
"Heís lying!" Evan cringed at the expression on his uncleís face, but before he could offer further explanation, the woman slapped Ravenís hindquarter.
The horse uttered a shrill scream and sprang forward, nearly unseating them both. The womanís shout of triumph rang out as distance separated them from their pursuers. Cursing, Evan fought to gain control of the panicked animal.
They sped past the docks with dizzying speed and sprinted onto the open road. The shadows of buildings gave way to tall trees until Raven slowed from an invigorated gallop into a trot, snorting as vapor rose from his flanks. Evan pulled on the reins and spoke in a low voice until the horse came to a rambling halt. He dismounted and glowered up at the woman still seated on the horse.
"Iíd offer to help you down, but Iím afraid if I touch you right now, Iíll wring your neck."
She stared at him for a moment before sliding to the ground. She straightened her cloak, tucked the edges of her blouse into the waistband of her skirt and tapped pebbles from her thin leather shoes. Sweeping her waist length hair over her shoulder with a flick of her wrist, she marched toward the road.
"Where do you think youíre going?" Evan demanded.
"Thank you for your help. I am sorry I frightened your horse." She glanced down the length of highway, then up at the canopy of stars above them.
Sheís lost, too. "I asked where youíre going."
"I will go on alone now."
"No, you wonít, lover." His tightly clenched jaw ached. "You have some unfinished business here. Iím owed something for my trouble."
Her eyes widened and she took a step back, away from him.
"An explanation was what I had in mind," Evan said, his tone softening.
"I do not understand you." She canted her head, frowning at him.
"I think you understand me well enough," Evan said.
"No, your speech is strange. You sound like music."
She means my accent. Evan sighed. "What are you running away from?"
"You cannot help me." She folded her arms across her chest. "Why do you want to know?"
"I canít go back to town because of you." Not with Gypsies and the authorities looking for me. "Youíre not safe alone."
"I did not ask for your help." Her chin lifted, as if in defense of her lie.
"As I recall, you did." His voice tightened with fury. "I have no idea what you sought to accomplish by claiming we are lovers." And what must be going through Joseph's mind, after the Gypsy claimed Evan had kidnapped the woman?
"I did not mean to cause you trouble, Gadjo. Truly. It was good of you to help me."
Although she sounded sincere, Evan continued to glare at her as he waited for an explanation. She looked down at the ground.
"Only two of those men were after me," she said. "My uncle, and my cousin. I do not know the others, I swear it."
Her chin lifted. Her expressive face revealed the workings of her mind. "You shed those clothes like a snake sheds its skin. The other men were after you."
Fear animated her expression. Did she believe he would hurt her? If she had come to expect abuse from men, he pitied her.
Evan pushed the hair back from his brow with the heel of his hand. There was no point in badgering her for an explanation. What did it matter anyway? He would find a way to rejoin Joseph and leave England.
"Yes, Iím trying to avoid certain people," Evan admitted. "We have that much in common. Iíll be leaving England as soon as possible. You neednít worry about enduring my company for long."
He extended his hand to her. "Evan Dark, of Charleston, South Carolina," he said, his drawl suddenly more pronounced.
"Jade." Her voice was almost a whisper. She stared at his offered hand, but did not take it.
"The light is poor for safe travel," he said. "We should rest and get a fresh start in the daylight."
"I can find my way at night by looking above me." She made a sweeping motion with her hand, inclusive of all the heavenly bodies scattered in the sky.
He wasnít certain whether she had challenged him, or was simply proud of her skill.
"My horse is tired. Weíll rest and consider our options in the morning. Weíll be safe enough here for the night."
As the heir to a plantation, Evan was used to giving orders. He opened the pack tethered to Ravenís side and tossed a blanket at her. She caught it with a grunt of surprise. Her expression changed from indecisive to mutinous.
He shrugged. "Stay or go, it makes no difference to me. You were the one who asked for my help, whether you will admit it or not. I havenít harmed you, nor do I intend to. Iím not sure you can say the same about your uncle. Where I come from, we donít abandon our women on the road."
She frowned at his tone and stood stiffly holding the blanket as he turned his back to her and bent to examine Ravenís hooves for stones.
"Good night, lover," he said over his shoulder.