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What A Hero Dares
March 2104 | HQN Books
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“Release me, you fool, I’m all right. Let me go!”
Zoé Charbonneau’s words were closely followed by a kick that landed in the most tender spot of her unnecessary rescuer’s pudgy anatomy. Her arm was freed at once and she was up and running, stumbling, only to fall to her knees on the sharp shingle beside Maximillien Redgrave.
Max. Her Max. But not any longer.
She spared only a moment to look into his well-remembered face, still misbelieving what she was seeing even after staring at him for hours, before she pushed him over onto his belly with all her might, and then straddled him.
“Breathe, damn you,” she commanded, bracing her arms against him, slamming the sides of her fists into his back over and over again. “Don’t you dare die again!”
“Like this, mademoiselle.”
Zoé felt herself being picked up and tossed aside like so much flotsam. “No, don’t, I have to —”
“Many apologies. I am called Tariq, and promise you I am harmless. If you would please to turn his head to one side? His nose in the sand aids nothing.”
She did as instructed, and then looked up to see the towering Arabic man from the smuggler’s sloop now straddling Max, pushing on his back with twice the strength she had been able to muster.
“Is he past saving?” she asked, her voice maddeningly tremulous, her hands clasped tightly together at her chest so that she wouldn’t give in to the urge to push his sodden hair back from his face.
“Only a fool would leave a young lady so eager to keep him here,” the man said, grinning, showing off a splendid set of strong white teeth. “Is your man a fool?”
Zoé shook her head, ordering herself to be calm. Hysteria aided nothing; she’d learned that long ago. Even if she were dying inside, she had trained herself to remain outwardly calm, even detached. Perhaps she’d succeeded too well, especially in these last months, and was no longer capable of feeling even what she should. But, then, how else to survive in this treacherous world she’d chosen to live in? “No, just stubborn.”
“Then he’ll live. Stubborn is good.”
As if to prove the man’s point, Max began to cough and choke, and then rise on his elbows and knees to begin vomiting up half the Channel.
Zoé immediately scrambled backwards, away from him, then stood up to assess her surroundings. It would be disastrous for Max to see her, even as it would kill her to walk away.
“Take care of him please, Tariq, and then trust him to take care of you. But you never saw me, did you?”
Max’s savior winked at her. “The pale-haired angel in the devil’s clothes? Who would believe me?”
“Shukran, Tariq. Thank you,” she responded, dredging up some of her limited Arabic.
“Alla ysallmak, Miss, may God keep you safe “Until I get my bearings, He’ll have to, won’t He?”
There was light enough to see where she was, thanks to the bright flames shooting up from the sails of the smuggling craft, its hull slowly listing to port as a dozen or more grappling hooks thrown from a nearby ship attempted to heave it to starboard, intent on keeping it afloat until it could be dragged closer to shore.
There was yelling somewhere in the distance, pistol-fire and the sound of clashing swords, but no one else was visible. Just the beach, some abandoned-looking cottages with a steep hill and darkness behind them. An impressibly high, clearly impassable rock jetty jutted out into the water to her left, another grassy hill rose to her right, beyond which she could see a distant outcropping of land, dim lights telling her it was clearly home to some sort of town. Anyone attempting escape from the beach would surely head toward the lights, and most certainly be easily captured.
Which was why she knew she had one way to go: up.
Climbing. Like all trapped, desperate animals.
No, she wouldn’t think about that.
With one more assessing look toward Max, barely resisting the urge to touch him just one last time, she headed for what was possibly a path that would lead her up the faintly visible hillside behind the cottages. He could take care of himself, the man who called himself Tariq could assist him, and if Boucher still breathed, he also would have no other choice but to navigate the steep hillside in order to escape in the current chaos.
Unless he was responsible for it. No, no, that was impossible. Anton would never willingly put himself in a position of danger by ordering someone to fire on a ship while he was still aboard.
For her own safety and now Max’s as well, she had to presume he’d survived the attack. More, she had to know.
It had taken her many weeks to ferret the Frenchman out, only to almost lose him earlier on the docks. If she lost track of him now, it might be years before she could locate him again, now that he was in England. Even worse if he had seen her; then he’d be the one in pursuit. Her entire future lay in finding him first. Only with him dead could she walk away, hope to begin her life anew.
Or so she’d thought when she’d first boarded the smuggling vessel.
But Max was alive. Against all information, against all hope, Max was alive. Even disguised, she’d always known him; how he walked, the tilt of his head.
This changed everything.
Her own head felt ready to explode with questions.
She’d taken no more than a few steps before a grip very like iron closed around her arm and she was whirled about, going chest to chest with her unwanted rescuer, who apparently had more recovery power than she’d given him credit for. Again, she aimed a knee toward his crotch, but what had succeeded the first time was neatly countered this time.
“Now, lass, where do you thinking you’d be heading in such a hurry?” the man said, twisting her arm about to bring it up behind her. “Seems to me, tossing away your cloak and leaping in after the lad and me like you did? Smacks of concern, I’d say.”
“Someone was firing on us. I was saving myself, you fool. He means nothing to me.”
“Of course you were. Of course he doesn’t. He means nothing to either of us.”
Zoé stopped struggling, knowing she didn’t have the power needed to escape this grinning old man. She hadn’t slept in days, couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten. She’d expended nearly all of her energy making her way to shore; she simply had nothing left to fight with. She’d have to outthink him while formulating a better plan. There was always the knife in her boot, if she could only reach it, but she’d never killed for no reason, not if her wits could save her. “After you pushed him overboard, I would imagine he means something to you.”
“Ah, but only after one of those Frenchies nearly put him to sleep with that belaying pin, and just before the cannon shot whistled through the rigging. There’s all that to consider, don’t you think? So much going on. Now, let’s go see the lad, shall we?”
Zoé felt panic rising in her throat even as her knees, already wobbly, turned to mush. “I’ll pay you to let me go. Pay you well, in English coin.” “
And there’s a pity for you and a blessing for me, as I once would have welcomed the coin but no longer need it. Tell me now, miss, before you run off — do you know where you are, where you’re heading? I’d want to know that before I traveled too far. Let me enlighten you. Behind you, the Channel, so not really a choice at all. To your left, to your right, and for as far as you can see ahead of you and leagues beyond that, is Redgrave land. All of it, more than you could imagine. And with every man-jack on it loyal to the Redgraves. Exhausted, forced to travel on foot, and with only that fetching but rather singular rigout? Still so anxious to be off?
“Mon dieu.” Zoé’s entire body sagged at this devastating news. But she shouldn’t have been surprised, just as she shouldn’t have been so quick to believe him dead. It was inevitable. One way or another, Max Redgrave always won.
“He’ll more than likely turn me over to be hanged now that we’re on this side of the Channel,” she said quietly as she looked Max’s way, to see him now only as a shadow sitting on the beach, his forearms resting on his bent knees, still unaware of her presence. “And it will be on your head.”
“Truly? A gentleman like Max? You must have been a very naughty girl.”
“I’m certain he believes as much. Please, if you have any compassion...”
“Fresh out, I’m afraid. But a bit of advice, young lady. Never whimper. Men loathe whimpering. Face him head on.”
“Something to consider, I suppose.” She continued to watch as Max, with Tariq’s help, staggered to his feet, one hand held to the side of his head. Zoé wanted to turn away, not see the hate and hurt in his eyes when he at last recognized her, but she forced herself to raise her chin while praying neither that chin nor her voice would wobble. “Maximillien, my congratulations,” she dared as he drew nearer. “I thought never to see you again, but you seem to have more lives than a litter of cats.”
He halted where he was, still supported by Tariq. He looked at her for a long time, taking in her bedraggled mane of blond, seawater-stiff hair, her sodden clothing clinging tightly to her body, before holding his cold dark gaze with her own soft brown one. His answer came in a maddening drawl of disinterest. “My, my, will wonders never cease. It’s been months.”
“Has it?” she returned coolly, as if she hadn’t counted the days. There was such a hardness in his eyes as he looked at her, which was no real surprise to her. She felt naked standing in front of him, vulnerable, which was an unwelcome realization. Some fires clearly didn’t die, no matter how many tears you’d shed over them.
He merely shrugged, as if her words were of no matter to him. Down, but never out — that was Max. “I was told you were in prison.”
Anger, quick and hot, betrayed her. “I was told you were dead. But you’d simply walked away. As if we never existed, you and me, together.”
“But there never was a you and me, was there? No, don’t bother to lie. On to more important matters, if you please. It was you on the ship. That business of bad pennies and all of that. I should have known,” he said, pulling himself more upright, showing he could stand on his own two feet even if he fainted in the process, the idiot. Brave, strong, stubborn … but not always smart.
“You should have known a lot of things.” No, no. I have to stop, now. To say anything else would only make things worse. I can’t let the shock of seeing him trick me into showing him he still has the power to hurt me. “But, yes, let’s move on.”
“I suppose I have you to thank for this blasted bump on my head.”
“Yes, of course. I already proved I’m the embodiment of all things evil.”
“I believe the lady considers herself insulted, and has good reason,” the man who still held tight to her arm interrupted. “It’s one of the frogs you have to thank for the bump. Oh, and I’m the one who pushed you over the rail, so you can thank me for that.”
“Richard?” Max leaned forward, squinting in the dying light from the burning rigging, clearly seeing the other man for the first time. “How…?”
“How else could I boost you out the back door more efficiently than by so clumsily coming in through the front door dressed in all my now thoroughly ruined finery? You may be quicker than this harmless old fat man, but I’ve been around longer than you, and know more tricks. You should look behind you more often, although I admit the rain was more a boon to me than it was to you. In any event, welcome home. This young lady you’ve been glaring daggers at thinks you’re going to have her hanged. Is that right?”
They were speaking of her as if she wasn’t there, listening to every word. Max looked like hell, maybe worse than hell, but was still the most handsome, compelling man she’d ever met. Her last and best lover. The man who’d held her in his arms and told her about Redgrave Manor and his own estate, about his family and how they would welcome her. The children they would have together. She’d loved him so much. She’d fallen into jagged, devastated bits on the floor of her cell when told he was dead.
“I hadn’t considered the matter, but, yes, she deserves at least that. Don’t you, Zoé? But the ladies might not approve. Perhaps we’ll put it to a vote tomorrow, over tea and cakes. Are they here, Richard, or scattered all over London and the countryside?”
“Every last one of them here, yes. As you’ve probably gathered, I was sent to fetch you, which wasn’t particularly easy. It took me two trips across the Channel to find you, as you were no longer in Ostend when I got there, and when I returned to London for more information it was to find out there’d been an attempt on — no, that can wait. What’s of first importance is that the Society is all but figuratively knocking on the manor gates and ready to smash them down. There’s trouble, lad, deadly serious trouble, and you’re just what Trixie thinks is needed. I didn’t know our destination tonight when I invited myself onboard, but sometimes a man get lucky, doesn’t he?”
Max looked again at Zoé, who couldn’t help but flinch under that intense gaze. “Does he?” Then he raised his head as if sniffing the air to locate the noise that still came to them on the breeze. “What in bloody hell is going on, Richard? There aren’t really pirates, are there? Somehow the family already knew about the smuggling runs? They would have saved me a mountain of trouble if someone had bothered to get a message to me.”
“If you’ll excuse me for pointing this out, I am the message.”
Zoé hadn’t been paying much heed to the noise still coming to them across the dark distance, or to anything but her own perilous position, and how every second that passed was taking Anton further from her reach. But Max had her attention now.
“There’s even more to this beyond a smuggling run? I should have known, with Anton aboard.”
Max looked at her rather curiously, as if she’d just spoken in Greek or some such thing. “Richard, since the women are here, may I assume my brothers are the cause of that commotion we’re hearing?”
“Currently occupied on the far side of that impressive pile of rocks, yes, by now undoubtedly just finishing up their business. Oh, and there may be a few, um, gentlemen of the skull and crossbones persuasion in attendance at the party as well, but we don’t ask questions, as it concerns a private arrangement between the marquis and his secretive friend.”
Max lifted a hand to his head once more and then took it away, looking curiously at the dark wet stain on his palm. “We’ll leave that for now, whatever in holy hell that meant, or who this marquis is. Tariq, what do you say we all make our way up the path. From there, we can look down on the beach on the other side of the jetty. It’s safest you remain with me, and I wouldn’t be averse to a helping hand.”
“No need for climbing,” Richard told him. “Follow me.”
Zoé didn’t resist as Richard let go of her arm and only took hold of her hand instead as he walked her toward the jetty, grateful for his assistance over the slippery mix of sand and shingle as she attempted yet again to marshal her thoughts. Max was in some sort of trouble? His beloved family was in some sort of trouble? If he wasn’t going to immediately turn her over to the authorities in Dover to be measured for her hanging chains, perhaps she could convince him to let her help, prove she could be trusted.
No. Thanks to Anton, it was too late for that.
“Give me a minute, if you please. It’s here somewhere,” Richard said, letting go of Zoé as he used his fingertips to probe at the edges of the solid rock wall now in front of them while Tariq took hold of her shoulders, anchoring her gently but firmly where she stood. “There’s one on either side. I don’t know how he discovered them, but I watched carefully as Simon showed me. Perhaps it’s too dark to — ah, there’s the handholds.”
He stepped back as Zoé heard the scrape of rock against rock and a section of the stone in front of her somehow turned into a door that swung open as the man called Richard held out one arm in a flourish and took a bow. “Metal hinges replacing brittle, ancient leather, and liberally greased. Repeated at the other end. Amazing, isn’t it, considering it’s probably old as Caesar’s war horse.”
“A passageway through the rocks? I’ll be damned,” Max said from behind her. “I’ve fished from these beaches all of my life…where does it lead?” “
There’s only one way to find out,” Zoé said, taking the initiative, pushing her fear of dark places behind her determination to save herself. After all, what did she have to lose? And once Max was surrounded by his family, she might find a way to gain a pistol and make her escape. She hadn’t precisely given her word she wouldn’t try.
As Tariq released his grip and she stepped through the narrow opening, she deftly gathered up her mane of betraying blond hair and twisted it into a knot, then slipped a black toque out of her trouser pocket and covered her head with it. There was a small torch burning against the wall to her right as she moved forward in what must be a cave hollowed out of the mass of jumbled rocks by the tides. The cave seemed to be heading uphill. If she just kept her head, became as inconspicuous as possible, and then slowly melted away from the others and back into the tunnel…
“Ah, I think not, Zoé,” Max growled, grabbing her arm. “For some strange reason, I’d prefer you alive for the moment, and the best way to accomplish that is for you to let me go first.”
“Perhaps I want to die, because you hate me so,” she said, shrugging her shoulders in a purely Gallic gesture she already knew would bounce off him like a dried pea dropped on a drumhead. She needed to keep him more angry than interested.
“While you love me so,” he bit out, proving her point, and then rudely shoved her behind him.
“You don’t know the meaning of love. And neither did I. Young and reckless, the pair of us, believing ourselves invincible. But no longer. Have you ever been in a Paris cell, Max? Have you ever been so cold and hungry you’d do most anything for a blanket and a crust of stale bread? Most anything.”
Max very nearly winced, but he’d never so betray himself, she knew that. “You knew what you were doing. That things didn’t work out the way you’d planned isn’t any concern of mine.”
“How very English of you.”
“Now’s not the time or place for this conversation.”
“Yet I’ll dare one thing more. Until I stepped on that blasted boat and saw you, I believed you dead.”
Now he was forced to look at her. “Boucher? You were following Anton? Why?”
She’d said enough to, hopefully, make him suspicious. Keep him alive. “That’s a question you might want to ask him, while you let me be on my way, which would probably bother your conscience less than turning me over to the Crown. Now, as it would seem whatever battle was raging is over, it’s time your family gets to welcome the prodigal home. Do you think they’ll all be there? Gideon, Valentine, and perhaps even your darling, daring Kate? Yes, I remember all their names. How delighted they will be. Or are we to stay here in this strange damp passageway until we all drown?”
Max looked down at his booted feet and the seawater sloshing around his ankles. “Damn. Tide’s coming in. The whole other side of the beach will be under water in an hour. Let’s go.”
“Brilliant suggestion. Do you perhaps have a white handkerchief hidden in that mass of rags you’re wearing? It would be highly embarrassing, wouldn’t it, if one of your own brothers mistook you for the enemy and shot you.”
“That won’t happen.” As if to prove his point, Max took a few more steps, and then put two fingers to his mouth and whistled. The sound seemed to bounce off the stone walls.
The same melancholy birdsong of a whistle he’d taught her, the one the two of them had employed many times in the past. She instantly remembered the lessons in whistling, and the kisses they’d shared as he showed her how to pucker her lips just so.
Maybe she did want to die. Seeing him again, knowing what she’d gambled and lost, was so bloody hard.
There was a short silence, and then an answering whistle, closely followed by a shout. “Max? Max, you son of a hound! Where are you? Everyone — weapons down. My brother’s out here somewhere, damn him!”
“That’s big brother Gideon. This could prove interesting. He’ll either hug me or knock me down. Perhaps both. Richard, Tariq — you two watch her if you please, until I call the all clear. She’s rather anxious to leave us,” Max warned before running a hand through his wet, unkempt hair, and then sloshed off downhill against the rising tide, toward the end of the tunnel.
“Forgive me for overhearing, but it was rather impossible not to catch at least a few words. Echos, you understand. More than a lover’s spat between the two of you, clearly,” Richard said, stepping forward to pull Zoé’s arm through his.
“Nonsense, sir, we’re the best of good chums, as you English say it,” she responded dully.
Behind her, Tariq chuckled softly.
“Much more than that at one time, I would think. I’m an observant man. Part of him wanted to throttle you, while part of him wanted to pull you close to his heart and cover your face with kisses, if I might be so romantical. Men can be difficult, especially where their hearts are involved.”
“His head is the problem. It’s very hard. A pig’s head.”
“I think you mean he’s pigheaded, stubborn. But you love him. You nearly maimed me to get to him when you though he’d drowned, remember?”
“We should all forget that. It was but an aberration, my mind was temporarily muddled at the shock of seeing him again.”
“I won’t argue with you. Tell me, did he ever mention Trixie to you?”
Zoé turned to peer at the man inquisitively. She’d yet to attempt to place this Richard person with Max, let alone with the rest of the Redgraves. She could easily have looked at him and dismissed him; just another pudgy white-haired old man. Except for his physical strength. Except for his quick, incisive mind. That second look made it easier for her to believe this man had survived on his wits more than once. “His grandmother? Yes, he did. Several times. To hear him tell it, she’s quite extraordinary.”
“She’s considerably more than simply extraordinary. I do believe the two of you should have a small talk. In fact, I’m quite certain she’ll demand it.”
“Because even on such short acquaintance, I dare to say you two may be very much alike. Just don’t lie to her, because she’ll know.”
“I may be an exemplary liar,” Zoé said, one ear open to the sounds from beyond the cave, and hearing nothing more than muffled voices.
“The ability to lie convincingly is only a minor talent. Eleanor of Aquitaine could have taken lessons in family intrigue from the dowager countess. You’d have to live another forty years for even the hope of being a patch on Trixie Redgrave, young lady. Only remember this, as the dowager countess goes, so go the Redgraves.”
She turned back to face the man, studying his features in the flickering light from the small torch. “Why are you telling me this? For all you know, I could use such information against Max, against all of you.”
“I’m not quite certain why. Perhaps it was the way you reached out your hand as if to touch him and then turned away before he might see you. Or it might have been the tears in your eyes that blinded you to my approach. You’ve both been quite interesting to watch these past minutes. When you stand at a distance, see only the gestures, without hearing the words? Sometimes, young lady, that’s when the heart hears more clearly than the ears ever will.”
Zoé looked at Richard levelly. “Your heart and eyes deceive you, sir. Max has no heart, and neither do I. We’re cold, fairly terrible people, intent only on survival.”
“And the game,” Richard added, raising one eyebrow. “I lived by my wits at the card tables for the majority of my life, young lady, traveling all of England and the continent. Always in search of the next adventure. To win, yes, winning is always important, as one can become accustomed to regular meals and a dry bed. But it isn’t paramount for people like us. We’re different from most of the world, aren’t we? For people like us, it’s the thrill of the hunt, the chances you take. The risks that make your blood pump hot in your veins, always skating on the thin ice of detection and even death — and feeding off that danger. That’s what I see in you, in Max. Together, you must have been pure beauty to watch in action.”
A hundred memories came crashing unbidden into Zoé’s mind. “Yes, we were both quite good at what we did. Thank you, Richard, for reminding me,” she said simply before heading toward the end of the tunnel, eager to get out from beneath the crushing confinement of the boulders overhead. “I’d say it’s time to go meet the family.”