Excerpt from The Hired Hero

     
     "And now, Miss..." Davenport drew out the pause like a duelist unsheathing a rapier. His voice, though low, was equally sharp. "Kindly put an end to the theatrics. If you wish to continue enacting a Cheltenham tragedy, join Mrs. Siddons on the boards—I will not tolerate it any longer under my roof. I mean to know who you are, and I mean to know it NOW."
     Naught but silence answered.
     "Well?" he demanded.
     "It is you, sir, who may stop the histrionics," replied Caroline. "I will not tell you my name. It is of no concern to you."
     Outrage flared in his voice. "When I am forced to drag some half-dead chit out of the mud, have her nursed back to health at an expense I can ill afford, only to have her try to steal my horse..."
     She had the grace to color.
     "...then it damn well is my concern. I mean to have your name, make no mistake about it."  His eyes narrowed. "Perhaps I should just haul you into the village—it seems there I should learn who you are soon enough."
     Caroline shot up from her chair. "The only mistake I have made is landing on the doorstep of a profligate wastrel who has squandered his last farthing on drinking and gaming and... and other pursuits, no doubt, instead of taking care of his responsibilities, like a true gentleman. Why, it seems you are insensible to even the most basic decencies of your class, like helping a lady in distress, you—you odious man!"
     Davenport flinched and slowly raked a hand through his hair. "What would you have me do?" he asked in a voice barely above a whisper. "I have a small sum..."
     She cleared her throat. "Ahh... actually sir, you do not." She took a leather purse out of her jacket pocket and laid it in front of him.
     For a brief moment, Davenport wondered if he was beginning to lose his sanity. He stared at it, speechless. Then he threw back his head and began to laugh.
     She was watching him. Warily. No doubt, he mused, wondering if he had taken leave of his senses.
     The sound of his laughter trailed off and his face took on an expression of bemused resignation. "Seeing as I am at my wit's end, perhaps you have some idea as to how to proceed." His glance traveled over her breeches and boots once more. "You seem to have no lack of imagination."
     "As a matter of fact, I do have a proposal."
     His mouth twitched at the corners. "I rather thought you might. Well, let's have it."
     She squared her shoulders. "You are obviously in dire need of funds. I am in dire need of reaching a certain destination without further delay. So I propose a partnership of sorts. If you will help me get there, I will pay you very well."
     "And just where are you going?"
     Caroline hesitated for a moment, as if deciding whether she could trust him. "London."
     "How much?" he asked.
     "A thousand pounds."
     Davenport gave a bark of laughter. "Good lord, are you truly intent on making a monkey of me this morning? Or have you received another knock on the head, one that has caused you take leave of your senses?" He shook his head. "A thousand pounds, indeed."
     "It is no joke, sir," said Caroline indignantly. "I promise you, when we reach London you shall have it."
     He merely chuckled. "Yes, I shall eat gooseberry tarts perched atop Parliament, too."
     "You doubt my word?"
     He stopped laughing.
     "Do you?" she persisted. "No doubt you would not think of insulting a man's honor by refusing to accept his word."
     The earl drew his brows together thoughtfully. "Hmmm." Once again his fingers began drumming on the desk as he mulled over her words. The fact of the matter was, he needed to pay a visit to his man of affairs in Town at some point soon. And even though the odds were her offer was merely a desperate ploy, in the event that her family would be grateful, he could sorely use a thousand pounds. But there was something else as well, something oddly touching about her pluck. . .
     "Let me make sure I understand you," he said very slowly. "You wish to hire me to escort you to London, for which service I will receive one thousand pounds?"
     "That is correct, milord."
     Perhaps it was madness, but after a long moment, Davenport gave a curt nod. "Very well, we have a deal, Miss..."
     "My name is Caroline."
     "Truly?"
     She nodded. "Yes, but other than that I shall not say."
     His lips pursed but he did not argue. He merely leaned back in his chair and leveled her with a piercing gaze. "Now that my role is little more than a hired lackey, have you given any thought as to how we may travel to London?  I take it you have inspected the stables well enough to know I wasn't telling you a hum when I said there is no carriage." He picked up the meager purse and let it drop again. "I doubt there is enough for two fares on the mail coach, even if we take outside passage."
     "But you have two horses. And they are already saddled."
     "You have no proper riding clothes and—you can't mean..."
     "That's exactly what I mean," she replied. "It is the simplest and quickest means. I shall be your groom. Trust me, I'm quite good at pulling it off. Luc—, that is, a male cousin has on occasion taken me to mills and a tavern with no one the wiser.
     He closed his eyes. "He should be birched." There was a slight pause. "You are serious, aren't you?"
     "Have you another idea?" challenged Caroline. When he didn't answer, her mouth set in a line of grim satisfaction. "Besides," she added. "No one will be looking for two men traveling east. Come, let's not waste any more time."
     Davenport pushed back from his desk. "Do you mind if I have my damn breakfast first?" he snapped irritably. "Then I intend to pack a valise. And shave." His eyes strayed once again to her garb. "I suppose we ought to take another look in the attic as well. You'll need... some other things if we are to carry on with this harebrained idea." He shook his head slowly. "I should be birched, though I fear I shall face far worse before this is all over."
     She smiled sweetly. "Of course, please see to anything you feel is necessary, my lord. As long as we are ready to leave in, say, forty five minutes?"
     He stalked from the room, muttering darkly under his breath.
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