Clearing his throat, he tried a different topic. "Ainsley is in northern England, is it not? "
"Aye, "she agreed, turningto peer out over the bushes again.
"Iunderstandyour parents died when you were quiteyoung? "
"And your brother, Jeremy? "
Her head turned sharply, and Danielcouldalmost feel her eyes boring into him in the darkness. He continued.
"Whister mentionedthat he diedsome … fiveyearsago, was it? " He waited for her reaction. In truth, Whister hadn’t said anything about this girl’s brother; Daniel had known the fellow personally. Infact, Daniel had been looking forthe man forsome time now.
Though the man had been reputedly killed, someone was riding theoceanwavesand continuingto lootthe Spanishin his place.
And whoever that man – Back-from-the-Dead Red, he was called – might be, he owed the kingofEngland his percentageof five years’ worthof. piracy.IfJeremy Ainsley had thought to escape hiscontract with the Crownby fakinghis death, he was mistaken.
If it was someone else inhis stead, the king wantedhimbrought in.
Because hewas theonly one otherthan the king who hadever met Captain Red, Daniel had been commissioned by the king to bring Jeremy Ainsleyto task forhis crimes.
Of course, that had all ended a yearago whenDaniel’s father had died, leaving him Thurborneandallof itsproblems. It had beenratherhumiliating tohim to have to admit failure after four yearsof endeavoring, butDaniel hadhad littlechoice butto give up his hunt for JeremyAinsley or his impostor. He’dhad toreturn to take uphis responsibilities. But perhaps here wasa chance to rectify that. A little charm, a few compliments, and no doubt Lady Ainsley could be encouraged to give up the information Danielneeded toatleast discover if her brother still lived.
His thoughts interrupted by the curse, Daniel glanced downat the light oval of Lady Ainsley’s face, then followed her gaze toward the balcony. Lord Beecham was coming out of the ballroom.
Heglanced backtoValoreeAinsley, hoping to continue their discussion, butwhen he did, she was gone.He peeked around.
Thegirlhadducked behind a nearbytree.Itwas a poor hiding place, and herskirts were sticking out on either side of thetrunk.
Amusement filling him, Daniel took pity on the girl. She obviously did not wantto speak to Beecham. With a sigh, he started back toward the steps to waylay the man.
"Psst… Pssst! Hey!" A voicecame out of thedarkness.
Her headjerking around, Valoree squintedatthebushes and trees that Henry haddisappeared intoseveral moments earlier.
"Henry? Isthat you? " she said in ahiss, then glancednervously around the treeshe washiding behind. Thurborne had reached Beecham andthetwo men were now talking.
"Well, who the hellelsewould it behidin’ in the busheshissin’ at ye? "
Herquartermaster sounded cranky. Shesupposed she couldn’t blame him. It had been an awful evening. Casting a nervous glance toward the men on the balcony, Valoree took a deep breath, then skitteredacross thesmall open space. She dove into the bushes, crashing into Henry’sbarrel-like chest. "Oh, there you are."
"Aye, here Iam, " Henry answered dryly, steadying her.
"Did you find anotherway out? "
"Aye." Turning, he beganto pushhis way through the bushes.
Then he stopped. "Well, it’s not anidealexit, " he warned over his shoulder."But a stonewall surrounds the townhouse gardens, and one side of it facesonto a street. I thought I could boost ye over the wall, thengofetch the carriage and bring it around to pick ye up."
"That’lldo, " Valoree answered. Anything to escape.
The two set off.
"Here we are, " Henry announced a moment later, pausing under a tree and tipping his head back to consider the wall.
"Whatdo youthink? "
Valoree nodded asshe looked at it. It was only a couple of inches taller than she. Were she not in such a clumsy, heavy dress, she would have managed it onher own. "All right.Give me aboost."
Henry locked hisfingersand stooped to hold them at knee level. Rucking herskirts up, Valoree placed herbootedfoot in his hands, then reached out.Grasping thetop of the stonewall, she launched herself upward as she pulled with her arms. Henry straightened and boosted her atthe same time, and that lifted her high enough that she landed onthe wallon her stomach. Quickly she swung one leg up to the side, catching atthe wallwith her foot and scramblinginto a sitting position.Onceperched there, she squinteddown at him.
"I’ll go back through the party, fetchthe carriage, andbring it around, "he toldher.
"Why not just come this way? You canwalk around to fetch it rather than go back through the party."
Henry shook his head. "I’m too old to be scrambling over walls, " he told her, turning away. "I won’tbe a moment."
Valoree watched him disappear into the bushes again, then turnedto glance atwhat lay on the otherside of thewall. It was more an alley than astreet – dark, narrow, and not well traveled.
Unfortunately, though therewas no one to seeher, therewasalso nothing tosee. Shebegan toswing her legs on either sideof the wall in boredom. Glancing back theway Henry had disappeared, she tried to calculate how far he might have gotten. He had probably reachedthebalcony.
She had just decided that when, glancing idly down at the ground just inside the wall, she stiffened. Something metal was glinting in the moonlight. Tugging her skirts out of the way, Valoree felt alongthe top ofherbootfor theknife thatalways rested there, thencursed. It was gone, of course. Must havebeen bumped out of her boot top asshe had struggledto mountthe wall.
Straightening, shepeered down at it again.Short, sharp, and with ajeweled hilt, ithad been passed down through the family for generations. It was almost all she had left of the family that had once been hers.That and Ainsley Castle. But Ainsley wasn’t yet hers, and wouldn’tbe if she couldn’t findahusband and get with child.
She couldn’t leavethedagger behind. Cursing under her breath, she swungher right leg back overthe wall and launched herself offof it. She landed harder thanshe expected and stumbled to the side, rolling inthe dirt and underbrush, then stopped herself and crawledto herhandsand knees.Reaching out for the knife, she picked it up, then sat back on her haunchesto inspect it. She needed to besure all the jewels were still present.
The knife seemedfine. Deciding not to riskitsfalling outof her boot again, shestood and reachedup to lay it ontop of thewall.
Then, grasping thetop of the wall with onehand, Valoree tugged herskirts up with the other. Revealing onebootedfoot, she dug it into the wall, then attemptedto pull herself upwithboth arms. Of course, the moment she let go of her skirts, her second foot tangled in them. With a jerk both her feet slid out from under her, sending her smacking into the wall.
This hadbeena loteasier with Henry’s help.
Daniel hadmaneuvered Beecham around so thathis back was to the garden. He didn’t want the other man to spot Valoree sticking out from hertree. Unfortunately, once hehad completed themaneuver, as he peered into the gardens himselfhe found he couldnolongersee her either.His gaze slid over the shadowed area ashe nodded absentlyatBeecham’s conversation, but he could discern nothing.
Where the devil had she gone? he wondered; then he stilled, hiseyes narrowingas he spotted movement in thedarkness atthe periphery of the garden. Someone was sneaking toward the balcony, sticking carefully to the shadows. But it wasn’t Lady Ainsley, he wassure.There were no bell-shaped skirts hampering the figure.
Quickly, Daniel turnedhis head slightly away so that whoever it was would not know they had been spotted. Instead, he watched from the cornerof his eye.Thefigure drew nearer, then hesitated. Suddenly, straightening abruptly, it started forward at a fastclip thatsent itsailing by intotheballroom almosttoo fast for Danielto recognize the man.
"Who wasthat? " Beecham asked, turningsuddenly. Hemust have caughta glimpse, however, for with some shock he said, "That was Lady Ainsley’s uncle." Excusing himself, Beecham wentoff after the manatonce.
Daniel watchedhimgo, then turned topeer backdown atthe gardens. Moving to the steps, he walked down them, then paused to glance aroundbefore setting off towhere he had first noticed the man, attheedge of the gardens. Finding almost at once a rough sortof sidepath that had been trounced into the trees and bushes on theedge of the garden, he did not hesitate, but began to follow it. After several steps, he heardamuffledcursefrom ahead and picked up hispace.
The path ended quite suddenly, andThurborne stepped out of the bushes to find himself confrontingthe backend ofaskirt – Lady Ainsley’s – as the woman hungfromthewall andscrambled toclimb it.
Daniel blinked as the woman before him swore again, then briefly settled on the ground.She launched herself upwardonce more almost immediately, pulling with herarms and scrabblingat the wall with her feet.
"Might I be of some service? " he asked with amusement, chuckling when she released the wall abruptly, stumbled a step back, then tripped over her own skirt and plopped onto her behindin thedirt. Thecurseshe snapped thenwas nothing any lady he knew would have everuttered – and certainly notwith such believable vehemence.
Moving around in front of her, he reached out, offering assistance.Lady Ainsley hesitated briefly, then slappedher wrist into his hand, her own fingers closingaround hiswrist likea vise.
Before Daniel could recover from his surprise at both the masculine actionand the strength inher fingers, she was pulling, and he had to brace himselfto preventbeingtuggedover on top of her. Gathering himself quickly, he pulled even as she did, bringing herto her feet before him.
"Attemptingto avoidleaving via the ballroom, I takeit, " he asked, watching with interestas shebusiedherselfin brushing off herhands onher once pristine skirts.
Sighing, the girl gave uptrying to remove the dirt on herhands, thenused them topush the dampmaneofhair off herface. She propped them on her hipsassheconsidered him."It seemed an easier alternative."
"Aye, "Daniel agreed. "If one can scalethisvast wall."
Hereyes flashed. "Do notmakefunofme. Icould climbthis damn thingifI just had mybreeches on and not these horrid skirts."
"Ah, but then you might bemistakenfor a man, " he teased.
When she merely glared at him, heturned to consider thewall, thenturned back."Whydid yourunclenot helpyouupthe wall ere leaving to" – hearched aneyebrow questioningly – "fetchthe carriage? "
"He did, " she snapped. At his doubtfulexpression, she rolled hereyes. "Well, do you think he expectedme tomanage it onmy own with all these bothersome skirts? "
"Then why, pray tell, are you down here instead of up there? "
Henoddedtowardthe topof the walland watchedwithsome interestas sheground her teethtogether.
"Iwas up therewhen he left."
"Then howdidyou get downhere? "
"How doyou think? " she askedscornfully."Ijumped down."
She rolled her eyes. "What isthis? An inquisition? "
When he merely archedhiseyebrows atherandleanedback against the wall, she sighed impatiently and returned to her task.
Grasping the top of the wall she leaped and strained to pull herselfupward. He watched in fascination forseveral moments, waiting for her to beg his assistance as most women would, before herealized quite suddenly that shewould not doit.
"Allyou needdo is ask, " he said atlast.She turned, asmall struggleon her face.Asking obviouslywasn’t easy for her, he realized withsome wonder.Amazing. In hisexperience, females werealwaysasking for help. They were thought weakerand used that to their advantage. Pray, my lord, the basketis soooo heavy, if you could but carry it. Oh, my Lord, prithee, I couldn’t possibly walk from here to there on myown, if you would but loanme your strong arm to lean on.
Butnot this one.She would most likely continue to struggle untildoomsdayereasking, Daniel realized. He felt himself soften.
Straightening, he caughther armand drew her away from the wall, then stepped in frontof her. Placinghis back to the wall, he droppedto his haunches, andheldout hisinterlocked hands."Up we go."
She considered his profferedhands suspiciously for a moment, then sighed. Positioningherself in front of him, Lady Ainsley reached over himto grasp the wall, then glanceddownto find his hands with her eyes.
"On three, " he murmured, considering the booted foot she placed in hishands. What odd dress, he thought. "One, two, three."
He pushed, butnottooeagerly. She pulled witha grunt, and she landed on her belly on the wall, her lower legs pressed against his face.Grinning, Thurborne slidout from between her andthe wall, then straightened and moved behind her, considering her voluminous skirts as she swung her right leg to the side and tried toheftit up onto the wallas well.
"Some more help perhaps? " he teased, watching her skirts swingbackand forth asshe struggled.
Hergrunt of rage wasmost entertaining. Stepping forward, he slidhis hands under her skirtsand caught her by her boots."Up or to the side? "
"Up, " shesnapped, and he slid his fingers lightlyup until he touched something other than leather, laughing at her abruptly cut-off yelp.
"To the side, to the side, " she roared, not sounding at all ladylike. Thurborne continued tochuckle as he graspedoneleg, lifting and swingingit totheside. A momentlater she had broken free from his hold and sat straddling thewall. Immediately, she pulled her other leg up beneath her as if not trusting him not to touch her again. Then she felt along the wall for something.
Whenshe didn’t findit, she released another curse and turned to glare down athim. Even in thedarkness he could see that she was furious.
"IfI had my blade with meI’d – "
He nevergot to hearthe end of that threat, for at thatmoment thejangleof a carriage and the clip-clop of horses reached them both. Glancing over her shoulder, Lady Ainsley muttered somethingunder her breath.Then suddenly, she droppedoffthe wall, disappearing ontheotherside.
"What took youso bloody long? " he heard her snap on the other side of the wall.
"Long? " a man cried. "Why, I nearly ranthrough that there house, then hustledSkullystraight onoverhere. I only left you buta moment ago."